Skip to main content

Samuel L. Jackson, Playing the 'Champ'

In his new film, Resurrecting the Champ, actor Samuel L. Jackson plays a homeless, broken-down former heavyweight contender. The movie is directed by Rob Lurie and set to open Aug. 24. Jackson's other films include Black Snake Moan, Pulp Fiction, Jungle Fever, Coach Carter, Freedomland and Unbreakable. He studied dramatic arts at Atlanta's Morehouse College, and after he graduated he originated two August Wilson roles — Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson and Wolf in Two Trains Running — at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

43:24

Other segments from the episode on August 14, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 14, 2007: Interview with Samuel L. Jackson; Commentary on Hector Lavoe.

Transcript

DATE August 14, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor Samuel Jackson on his role in "Resurrecting the
Champ" and his career
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross. Our guest, Samuel L. Jackson, is one of
Hollywood's most prolific and respected actors, known for a commanding voice,
a dedicated work ethic and a compelling screen presence. He perfected his
craft in theater and TV and didn't get a leading role in films until he was in
his 40s. Jackson's breakout role was as a friendly crack addict in "Jungle
Fever," one of four Spike Lee movies he's made. He's perhaps best known for
his performance in "Pulp Fiction," which earned him an Oscar nomination.
Among his many other movies are "Jurassic Park," "Jackie Brown," "Eve's
Bayou," "Shaft" and three "Star Wars" films.

His recent films include "1408," "Home of the Brave" and "Black Snake Moan,"
where he plays a religious Southern farmer who tries to reform the ways of a
young nymphomaniac woman by holding her captive in his house. Now he's
starring in the new film "Resurrecting the Champ," based on a true story.
Jackson plays a former boxer who's living on the street. He's discovered by a
young journalist, played by Josh Hartnett, who wants to write his story. In
this scene, Hartnett first comes upon the champ after he's been attacked by
young thugs who wanted the thrill of taking down a pro fighter.

(Soundbite of "Resurrecting the Champ")

Mr. JOSH HARTNETT: (As Erik) Old man, are you OK?

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As Champ) Yeah, yeah. Boys just having fun, you
know. It's fun to beat the champ.

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Erik) Well, you should--yeah, you should--you should get
home.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Champ) I am home.

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Erik) You--you say you're the champ? What are you talking
about?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Champ) Yeah, yeah. "Battling" Bob Satterfield, number
three in the world.

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Erik) Hey. How about--can I give you this?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Champ) Oh, yeah. Thanks. You done helped the champ when
he was down and halfway out. I won't forget this.

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Erik) You're sure you're OK?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Champ) Yeah, I'm about...

Mr. HARTNETT: (As Erik) OK.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Champ) I'm about 30 percent right now, but I'll be OK.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Well, Samuel Jackson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about your
new film "Resurrecting the Champ." You play the title character. Describe
your character to us, the champ.

Mr. JACKSON: Wow. He's homeless guy who's an ex-heavyweight contender who
lives by his wits and is pretty popular, I guess, or well known in his, you
know, homeless community as the champ, but he did have a lofty place in life
in his mind, or in the minds of some other people, and he's discovered by a
reporter who wants to write a story about him and how he fell from that
particular lofty place to that low place.

DAVIES: You know, one of your great assets as an actor is that voice. And I
don't know how much of that's God-given and how much of it is your theater
training, but it's missing in this role. I mean, it's a high, raspy voice you
adopt, and we should mention that your character is based on a real guy. This
was originally, you know, a story written by J.R. Moehringer in The LA Times
Magazine...

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...a wonderful magazine piece about this guy, former boxer who was on
the streets of LA...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: Tell us how you developed this character.

Mr. JACKSON: Wow. I read the script. Usually when I read a script I read
it first and kind of see the character in my head or see some, you know, kind
of skeletal outline who I think he is physically. Then I give the script to
my makeup artist and my hairdresser and ask them to do the same thing and then
we get together and kind of start talking about what we think he looks like.
And my makeup artist, Al, has this computer program that he's put my face on,
and as we talk about things we can put different things on my face and kind of
have a look at it and go, `no, not this' and do this and do certain things
with it.

So the physical creation is partly mine, partly Al Apone, partly Robert Louis
Stevenson, who did the hair, and once we get the physicality down and called
my dentist, Dr. Grecco, and got those teeth made and I saw him for the first
time, it was kind of like, `OK, now let me hear what he sounds like.' Because
oftentimes I never hear what a character sounds like until I speak as that
character the first time in a rehearsal...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: ...or I'm on camera, because I don't do lines out loud at home.
I just kind of read them, learn them, and go about my business. I don't know
how that works, but it just kind of works for me. And once I looked at myself
in the mirror and I started to move, I adopted that little shuffle that Champ
has, which is my kind of tribute to him constantly being in shape and doing
roadwork.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

Mr. JACKSON: Even though he's an old guy, he has this little jog thing that
he does.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: And the voice that came out of me just happened to be--I guess
my grandfather's voice. Toward the end of his life he suffered from a form of
Alzheimer's, and when he talked to me, he had that high-pitched kind of raspy
whisper that always made me lean very close to him and listen very carefully
or ask him to repeat himself. And it just kind of became the thing that I
used.

DAVIES: Did you learn boxing moves for this movie?

Mr. JACKSON: No, I did some boxing when I was a younger man and I still
remember it, and I watch boxing a lot so I can mimic some things and still
look pretty good.

DAVIES: I missed that in your bio. When did you box?

Mr. JACKSON: It's not in my bio. It's not part of, you know, it's not, you
know, experienced boxer. Wow, when was that? I guess between college and New
York...

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. JACKSON: ...you know, coming up--YMCA stuff...

DAVIES: So you trained a little and got into the ring some, right?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know what's fascinating hearing you describe developing
this is that, after I'd seen the movie and read some of the production notes,
I went back and looked at the original article written in 1997 about this real
guy, the champ, and I looked at the actual description of the champ that J.R.
Moehringer provides...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...in his readings, and it's really you. I mean, it's that guy on
the screen. His voice is described as raspy. It looks like you.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, but it's not that voice. I've heard his, you know, tapes
of that particular guy, and his voice is raspy like that...

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JACKSON: ...more so than like mine is more like that.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. OK. Are there any stereotypes or cliches about homeless
people that you wanted to avoid?

Mr. JACKSON: Not necessarily. You know, interestingly enough, I've actually
played another homeless guy in "Caveman's Valentine," a guy named Romulus, but
Romulus was a paranoid schizophrenic and, you know, Champ is not paranoid
schizophrenic. He's just a guy on the streets. So as he says, `I'm not a
bum. I'm just homeless.'

Interestingly enough, most of us have never actually met or had a conversation
with a homeless person. I have. I lived in New York for a lot of years and
you know, we had a homeless person who lived in our neighborhood and there
were homeless people around the theater where I worked, and there were
homeless people that I encountered on the trains or on the streets, and I
ended up having conversations with more than my share of them. There are a
lot of interesting stories about how those people got there, why they're
there, and why they want to be there. And we've all, you know, read those
strange stories about people who were very successful who ended up out there
and like, I don't know, maybe 19 years ago when I was in New York, they found
this homeless woman dead in the subway one night, and then when they went
through her stuff, they discovered, you know, she had like $75,000 in cash
and...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: ...and she had deeds to properties in Florida and, you know,
Colorado and all these other places--and bank accounts. And they found out
she'd been a successful ad exec just, you know, two or three years before and
just dropped out. So we never know.

DAVIES: Well, the homeless guy that you're playing carries with him, you
know, a proud boxing career, although it's many years in the past by the time
we meet him and...

Mr. JACKSON: Right. Boxing history.

DAVIES: Right. In one of the early scenes, some, you know, tough guys, young
punks, decide they're going to go up and mess with him, and what's interesting
to about the way you as the champ react to these guys approaching him is that
at times the champ is sort of this sort of weak and helpless guy who wants to
be left alone, and then there are moments where he is sort of stirred to life
and is willing to both show off his moves and, I don't know, he finds some
pride in resisting these guys.

Mr. JACKSON: Well, yeah. Well, like, not not necessarily resisting them but
showing them that he did have those skills and he's not making up this story
about who he is and he does it with some proficiency. And it's not the first
time these kids have kind of come up on him kind of bum fight him, and he sort
of knows what's going to happen. You can see it on his face the first time
they speak that he kind of knows, `look, you know, I'm trying eat right here
but now, all right, now I'm going to be beaten up, and I'm not really going to
fight back, because the less resistance I give, probably the quicker this will
be over.' And that's his thought, but he still has to do something that shows
them he is the champ, so he does some really prodigious kind of boxing moves.
He shows them a great jab. He shows them some good head movement, and he
accidentally hits this kid too hard, and somebody's got to grab him, and the
kid, you know, takes advantage of him.

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, we're speaking with actor Samuel L.
Jackson. He's in a new film, "Resurrecting the Champ."

Well, I wanted to talk about another film, relatively recent one that you
starred in...

Mr. JACKSON: Oh?

DAVIES: "Black Snake Moan." Yeah. Craig Brewer film, who did "Hustle &
Flow," and I thought we'd listen to a cut here. I mean, in this you play this
rural Southern guy Lazarus who encounters this young I guess nymphomaniac
white girl, Rae...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm...

DAVIES: ...played by Christina Ricci. You find her after a bad night out.
She's injured. You nurse her to health and then chain her in your house to
try and reform her ways...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm...

DAVIES: And in this scene we're going to hear here, your character Lazarus is
tending to her physical wounds but also talking to her about how--actually
farmers rotate crops...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm...

DAVIES: ...because change and renewal is important. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Black Snake Moan")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACKSON: (As Lazarus) Now, I done seen it in nature and I done seen it
in me. You gots to change and rotate the crop. Got to have change, or else
that seed won't take. Hell, girl, you got to cut that ...(word censored by
station)...out, laying up under all them fools rutting on you like your some
bitch in heat, like you somebody's some dog. A man or a woman that enters
into union with almighty God in the sanctity of marriage should not demean
theyselves by bending to another's will. Hell, girl, is you crazy?

You see, I ain't no saint. I ain't saying I ain't weak. I mean, playing
guitar in them blood bucket jukes all your life, a nigger learn how to sin,
and I do got sin in me. I ain't going to lie about that. But I got respect,
and all you got in you is bile. Just bile running 'round...

(End of soundbite)

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And that is Samuel L. Jackson from the film "Black Snake Moan." Boy,
that's a guy I'd listen to. You could get me to change my ways.

Mr. JACKSON: That's an interesting kind of place to start this conversation.
Yeah.

DAVIES: Well, you know, and I know that you grew up around Chattanooga, or in
Chattanooga.

Mr. JACKSON: Yes.

DAVIES: Did you know people like this guy Lazarus, when you were younger?

Mr. JACKSON: Sure, yeah. I spent my summers on a farm in Rome, Georgia, and
my cousins and my uncles were very much like that, and all the guys that they
knew were very much like that, that ran their farms and went to church on
Sunday. They were hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-partying guys but, you
know, very righteous.

DAVIES: Right. And was it fun to be working in the South on this piece?

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, yeah. I totally loved being in Memphis at that time of
year. It was so hot and sticky and muggy, and you can smell the food in the
air and the people, you know, just kind of re-invent, you know, who I'd been,
you know, growing up and invigorate me in another kind of way. I just kind of
love being in the South a lot, you know, and I hadn't spent a lot of time
there in a pretty good while. Maybe since--I hadn't shot a movie down there
since "Eve's Bayou" pretty much.

DAVIES: Right, which is another great one that goes back a few years.

Mr. JACKSON: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, everybody who looked at this movie talks about how
kind of rich and atmospheric it is and how strong the performances are.
They're a little puzzled--or at least, let me say I was a little puzzled...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...we talked about this earlier about how Christina Ricci's
characters, Rae, is transformed by this experience of being held captive.
What is the power that this guy Lazarus brings to this relationship?

Mr. JACKSON: I don't know. It's probably the first time she's been treated
as something other than an object by someone who didn't want anything from
her, who really was trying to help her, who spoke to her like a human being,
didn't touch her in a carnal way, that made her understand that she was a
worthwhile person without that, that there was a way to live and to not give
in to every urge that you have. Sometimes part of being grown is not giving
in. And I don't think she'd ever been given that opportunity to have that
kind of experience.

DAVIES: Talk a little bit about working with Christina Ricci on this
relationship, was so kind of intimate and scary in some ways.

Mr. JACKSON: Wow. Well, she and I know each other very well because we have
the same agent, so we see each other socially a lot. And she's such a
dedicated actress. I mean, she gave so much to this part. I mean, that chain
she was wearing was a very real chain. She had an opportunity to wear
plastic, rubber, all kinds of things that would not affect her in that way or
be that heavy, but she chose to wear a real chain so she could feel the weight
of it, you know, the whole time we worked. She learned the vernacular. She
ate fried bologna sandwiches. She immersed herself in this whole, you know,
Southern Gothic kind of thing. And to perform and give yourself in, you know,
just a small pair of white cotton panties and a cut-off T-shirt three-quarters
of a movie and not be self-conscious about it is a feat of bravery that I
don't think a lot of young actresses could have pulled off. And thank
goodness she trusted me enough to be in that particular space and let herself
go, and I was able to get to all the places I needed to go because she was so
willing to give of herself.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned earlier that you have, I guess, a makeup
person and a wardrobe person that kind of helps you...

Mr. JACKSON: A makeup person and a hairdresser that help me make decisions
about how I want to look.

DAVIES: Right. And were they also involved in this? How did you decide...

Mr. JACKSON: Yes, they were.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: So talk about giving us the physical, you know, the look of Lazarus.

Mr. JACKSON: Craig also had something to do with this because he actually
wanted me to look like a legendary blues man that--we use several of his
songs. R.L...

DAVIES: R.L...

Mr. JACKSON: ...Burnside. Craig...

DAVIES: R.L. Burnside Craig.

Mr. JACKSON: Lazarus looks a lot like R.L. Burnside. And the muttonchops
and the hair was something that, you know, Craig kind of wanted, and we
created the look and kept it. And then we, you know, had the gold teeth made,
did that whole thing, and Al did the aging, you know, of the character, so he
would look older than I normally play. And, once again, I'm walking like some
guys that I knew, being a farmer, a guy who was part of the earth and very
earthy in his speech, his carriage, his understanding of people and their
relationships.

DAVIES: Samuel L. Jackson's new film is "Resurrecting the Champ." More after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: My guest is Samuel L. Jackson. His new film is "Resurrecting the
Champ." When we left off we were talking about his film "Black Snake Moan."

Now, the other thing that's great about this movie is we hear you sing the
blues. Was that you?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, you hear Lazarus sing the blues.

DAVIES: OK, right. Your character...

Mr. JACKSON: It's very different from me singing the blues.

DAVIES: It is?

Mr. JACKSON: I can't sing.

DAVIES: Yeah?

Mr. JACKSON: I can't sing. I kind of gave myself to that particular
character and let it happen. You know, it's kind of like--you know, there are
a lot of things--strange things happen sometimes. I read this script and I
liked it, and once again the script was--I think Craig was considering
somebody else, and John Singleton sent it to me by mistake. But I read the
script and then Craig saw me on television talking about my life and realized,
`Oh, wow, maybe he is the guy.' And then he came and met me and we talked.

I went to the Academy Awards, and one of the gifts in a gift basket that year
was a Les Paul studio model Gibson guitar. And I got the job so I had the
guitar made. I was in New York promoting another film and I went to the Rock
'n' Roll of Fame, and I was standing backstage, and this voice came up behind
me and said, `You should play a blues musician in the movie and let me teach
you to play guitar.' And I turned around and it was this woman, Felicia
Collins, who plays guitar in David Letterman's band, and I laughed at her and
said, `Yeah right.' And she gave me her number and everything, and I said,
`OK, if that ever happens, I'll call you.' Boom, it happens. I call her, she
becomes my guitar teacher while I'm in New York shooting "Freedomland." She
teaches me all the rudimentary blues kind of chords, notes and how to fret and
finger and do stuff.

And then that movie's over and I go to do "Snakes on a Plane," and the prop
master on "Snakes on a Plane" happens to be a master guitarist, so he becomes
my next guitar teacher. All day long when I'm on set, when I'm not doing
anything, he's in the trailer, you know, showing me stuff and teaching me the
songs so by the time I got out...

DAVIES: You're not making this up? You're not making any of this up, are
you?

Mr. JACKSON: No, no, not at all.

DAVIES: This is amazing.

Mr. JACKSON: So by the time I got to Memphis I could actually play and I
could actually play the songs, which kind of freaked out Scott Bomar, the
musical director, and Craig too, so I was pretty much ready to go.

DAVIES: Wow, that is an amazing kind of set of fortuitous happenings. But
you said...

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: You said Samuel Jackson didn't sing, but Lazarus could sing?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. That character.

DAVIES: Yeah. So what happens if Samuel Jackson tries to sing?

Mr. JACKSON: It's not a good thing. You know, I have to be in a bathroom
and there has to be some echo from some shower walls and probably some steam.

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. JACKSON: I never think of myself as a singer. I've done musicals when I
was in college. I never had to do any when I was out of college, but I did
musicals in college. I was always like a--I always called myself, I guess,
like an Ethel Merman singer. I get the lyrics out there and I'm always on
key.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. But..

Mr. JACKSON: But that's the best I can do. I wouldn't call it singing.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: More like song-styling.

DAVIES: Can you--you know, I'm not even sure how to ask this question, but I
mean, I assume that you had to get in studios to record this music...

Mr. JACKSON: Yes I did. Yeah.

DAVIES: And so what happens--how do you get in a studio and become Lazarus
and transform yourself into a blues singer? I mean, are you wearing all the
costume stuff? Are you...

Mr. JACKSON: No, no. I actually recorded like--I had a Tennessee jersey on.

DAVIES: OK.

Mr. JACKSON: And I was in there kind of with, you know, "Big" Jack Johnson
and all these guys. I would like talk to them and hang out and learn a new
lick, and they would look at me and go, `wow, how'd you get to that place?'
And I'd kind of show them how I did it and they would be kind of, `wow, I
never would have done it that way. And, OK, that's good.' You know, so I was
learning my own style and I never thought of it as me. I always thought of it
as something that Lazarus was doing or something he had to do, and I would
pretend or act possessed and not consider, you know, Samuel L. Jackson in
there doing it but Lazarus.

DAVIES: All right, well, having said that, we have to hear some of Lazarus
singing from "Black Snake Moan." Do you want to pick the cut?

Mr. JACKSON: Mm. I'd go with--mm--either Alice May" or (singing) "If I Was
a Catfish, mm-mm the deep blue sea." Mm. "If I Was a Catfish," yeah.

DAVIES: All right. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of "If I Was a Catfish")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing)

If I, I was a catfish
Swimming along the deep blue sea
I'd have all these big-legged women
Fishing after me
Fishing after me

Well, there's two...

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Samuel L. Jackson will be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with actor Samuel L. Jackson. He stars in the new film
"Resurrecting the Champ," which opens next week. He plays a former boxer
who's living on the street. He's discovered by a young journalist, played by
Josh Hartnett, who wants to write his story. Jackson earned an Oscar
nomination for his role in "Pulp Fiction." His other films include "Jackie
Brown," "Jurassic Park," "Eve's Bayou" and "Shaft."

Well, everybody knows your famous lines from "Pulp Fiction." I mean, they're
icons in cinema. But, you know, I really love, you know, the other--one of
the other Quentin Tarantino films you did, "Jackie Brown," which is just...

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...has such a terrific cast and a great...

Mr. JACKSON: Awesome movie.

DAVIES: Yeah. And a great role for you. Do you want to describe your
character, Ordell Robbie.

Mr. JACKSON: Ordell Robbie.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: Ordell is a hustler of sorts. You know, he would call himself
a gun dealer when you meet him in this particular film, but he's, you know,
more or less a hustler who's lived on the streets. Lived by his wits his
whole life. Done some time in prison. Who is very affable and funny kind of
guy, but extremely dangerous.

DAVIES: Well, let's listen to a scene. This is early in the film, and you
are Ordell Robbie.

Mr. JACKSON: Mm.

DAVIES: And one of your guys has gotten arrested and you're talking to the
bail bondsman, Max Cherry, who's played by Robert Forster.

(Soundbite of "Jackie Brown")

Mr. ROBERT FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) All right. You want a $10,000 bond.
What have you got to put up for collateral?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Going to have to use cash.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Do you have it with you?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Got it right here in my rap bag.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) You have cash. What do you need me for?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Come on, man. You know how they do. Black
man show up with 10,000 cash, first thing they want to know is where I got it.
Then they going to want to keep a big chunk of it, start talking that
court...(censored by station)...Jack, I go through you.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Cost you 1,000 for the bond.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) I can do that.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Who's it for? Relative?

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) Fellow named Beaumont. They got him down at
county. Started out drunk driving but they wrote it up as possession of a
concealed weapon. Dumb monkey...(word censored by station)...got a pistol on
him.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) Ten thousand sounds high.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) They run his name, got a hit. He's been
inside. Plus, he's from Kentucky, and I think they kind of prejudiced against
brothers from down South out here.

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) If he runs and I have to go to Kentucky to
bring him back, you pay the expenses.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) You think you can do that?

Mr. FORSTER: (As Max Cherry) I've done it.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Robert Forster and my guest, Samuel L. Jackson, from
"Jackie Brown."

DAVIES: Fun to hear that stuff? It's been a few years.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Well, I was actually thinking about the first part of
that scene, where the first thing I say to him is `Ah ah ah, I didn't hear you
wash your hands' because he's in the bathroom.

DAVIES: He's coming out of the bathroom, right.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: And of course he ignores this and says, `What can I do for you, my
friend?' Right?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: You know, that dialogue, and a lot of the memorable stuff from "Pulp
Fiction," you know, I hear you in these roles and quite a few others. I
think, you know, you're one of these actors--and I mean this as a
compliment...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...doesn't look like he's acting. I mean, you just make it look so
easy. How hard do you have to work on scripts and scenes to get it the way
you want it?

Mr. JACKSON: There are a lot of things that you'll go into characterization,
hearing the words, hearing the relationship between that character and the
character that he's talking to and the kind of impression that he wants to
make on him. I guess I was fortunate because I had a lot of good directors in
the theater that posed the right questions that made me seek the answers in a
specific kind of way. `Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What
are you trying to accomplish in this particular moment? What do you want to
accomplish, you know, 20 pages from now by doing something here, or does this
relate to that at all?' And those kind of things help me decide how I want to
be any particular moment. And one of the people I used to watch a lot when I
was a young actor in the theater was Morgan. You know, I actually was
fortunate enough to be friends...

DAVIES: Morgan Freeman.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. To be in a couple of plays that he was in and then to
actually go and watch him work on stage and watch the ease with which he did
things in cinema, so wow. Now, I know this guy really well, but I'm sitting
here watching this play, and that's definitely not the guy I know. And I
always wanted it to be that easy for me or to be that convincing for people
that watch me or that see me in something else. So I'm constantly striving
from film to film to help people forget it's that guy who was in "Pulp
Fiction" or that guy who was in "SWAT" or the guy from "Negotiator," but it's
that particular character who's in that particular story that's captivating
them for that moment.

DAVIES: There's a rhythm to a lot of this dialogue. Do you mark up your
script at all and kind of help you decide what you're going to punch, how
you're going to deliver?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, I don't underline words. No, I don't do that.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: I do mark my script up and I write things in the margins
sometimes about where I was coming from, like I said, or what I'm trying to
accomplish in this particular scene or do I want the character to trust me,
not trust me here or to be afraid, to be intimidated, not be intimidated, to
help me, not help me. To understand me or, you know, just little things for
myself.

DAVIES: How did your partnership with Quentin Tarantino develop?

Mr. JACKSON: I don't know. You know, that's kind of strange. I do remember
auditioning for "Reservoir Dogs" in New York on a Sunday, and I was supposed
to read with Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth and I got there and neither one of
those guys was there, and I ended up reading with Quentin and Lawrence Bender,
not really knowing who those guys were. But I did know that they were awful,
when I was doing the audition. I was like, damn, there's no way I can get
this job because these guys are horrible.

So I was kind of bummed out, and and I went on to do something. And I went to
Sundance that year with another film, and they were screening "Reservoir Dogs"
and I went to the first screening and I watched people run out of the theater
and run up the aisle, and when the movie was over I went up to Quentin and
said, `Hey man, you know, this was a really good movie,' and he looked at me
and said, `Oh, wow, how'd you like the guy who got your part?' And I was like,
`Oh, you remember me. Well, it would have been a better movie with me in it.'
And he said, `No, no, no, no! I'm actually writing something for you right
now!' I was like, `You remember me?' He was like, `Yeah!' And I just figured
it was another, you know, typical Hollywood line to get me out of his face and
go on about your business. And I went off to do a film about some cadets at
West Point, where I played a lawyer, defending a cadet at West Point. And
while I was there, the script for "Pulp Fiction" came. Yeah.

DAVIES: So he was writing that character Jules Winnfield for you?

Mr. JACKSON: That's what he said.

DAVIES: Right. But then I heard you were having to audition for it. Is that
right?

Mr. JACKSON: That happened later. I was doing "Fresh," and right before I
left to go to New York to do "Fresh," they called me in so that they could
hear what Jules sounded like and I got there, they gave me a script, and I
just kind of went through it, you know, read the lines. I hadn't had time to
do any of the things that I would normally do, but I, you know, sat down, read
it kind of cold, went through it with them and they were like, `Great! Oh.
Out of sight,' and I went off to do "Fresh."

So while I'm there, they started to audition the actors for the movie and this
one actor came in and said, you know, the part they wanted him to audition for
didn't really have a lot of lines so he said, `Do you mind if I read some of
these lines from Jules?' and they were like, `Yeah, cool.' And he did, and all
of a sudden, they're like, `Oh my god! The guy's fantastic! He's amazing!'
So I start hearing rumbles about `Well, maybe you won't be doing this part.'
And I'm like, `Wait, wait, wait, wait. Wait now. Nobody told me when I came
in there to read that day that I was auditioning. They just said they wanted
to hear.' So my agents got involved and they started, you know, fussing at
people, and they jumped on Harvey and Bob, and Harvey said to them, `OK, you
have to give Sam a chance as an audition. You can't just give this other guy
the role.'

So here we are once again. I'm in New York. I've got to get on a plane after
I finish shooting on a Saturday, you know, go through the script, break it
down, do all the stuff that I normally do on the plane on my way to LA, and I
get there Sunday morning and nobody's there. Everybody's gone. They've gone
to lunch or whatever, and they come back in and go, `Hey Sam, good to see you.
Dah-dah-dah-dah-dah.' And this one guy who was working on the film, they were
about to introduce me to him, and he goes, `Oh no no no no. You don't need to
introduce me to this man. I love your work, Mr. Fishburne.'

DAVIES: No! Really?

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. So it was kind of like, `oh, here we go.' All right, so
we get in the room. They got this kid. They even hired this kid to read with
me. I'm not reading with Quentin or Lawrence this time. They hired an actor
to read with me. I started doing the scenes with him. The first scene that
John and I have when we're in the car. I started doing the scene with him,
and this kid gets lost in the script. I mean, I'm like, `Dude, read the
script. Just look at the page. You don't have to look at me.' And then I
realize, I'm like rocking it so hard, you know, he's like fascinated by what
I'm doing, and everybody's quiet, you know, they're in the room, just tripping
and we kind of go through the rest of the script and we do the killing room
and then we get to the diner. By the time...

DAVIES: Now this is just--for the audience that may be--this is the last
scene in "Pulp Fiction," where you have that confrontation at the diner.
You're having this moment of revelation--right.

Mr. JACKSON: Right. So by the time...

DAVIES: ...moment of revelation.

Mr. JACKSON: Right. So by the time I do the last speech in the diner, it
was crazy. So there was just totally--I mean, a pin dropped there in the room
and everybody would have--you know, it would have sounded like an explosion,
and that was kind of it. And you know, Lawrence Bender looked at me and was
like, `Wow, man, we never really knew how this movie was supposed to end until
we heard you read this speech.' I'm like, `OK, does that mean I had a job?'
And he went, `Oh, yeah.'

DAVIES: Well, I mean, I think that final scene is--it's, boy--talk about a
memorable moment in American cinema.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, it's great too because, interestingly enough, that's the
first stuff we shot in the movie.

DAVIES: The final scene in the diner? Huh.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, the diner was the first thing we shot. And then I didn't
work again for like two months because they had to shoot Bruce out because he
had to go and do "12 Monkeys," and they had to shoot Uma out because she was
doing something...

DAVIES: Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis.

Mr. JACKSON: ...and then they got back to me and John.

DAVIES: Right, right, right. All right.

Mr. JACKSON: Anyway, and then they got back to me and John.

DAVIES: All right. Well, maybe we should hear a little bit of that final
scene from "Pulp Fiction."

(Soundbite of "Pulp Fiction")

Mr. JACKSON: (As Jules Winnfield) You read the Bible, Ringo?

Mr. TIM ROTH: (As Ringo) Not lately, no.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Jules Winnfield) Well, there this passage I got memorized.
Ezekiel 25:17. `The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the
iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in
the name of charity and goodwill, shepherds the weak through the valley of
darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost
children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious
anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers, and you will know I
am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.'

I been saying that...(word censored by station)...for years, and if you heard
it, that meant you're...(word censored by station). I never gave much thought
to what it mean. I just thought it was some cold-blooded...(word censored by
station)...to say to...(word censored by station)...before I pop the cap in
his...(word censored by station). I saw some...(word censored by
station)...this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it
means, you're the evil man and I'm the righteous man and Mr. 9 mm here, he's
the shepherd protecting my righteous...(word censored by station)...in the
valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the
shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I mean, I'd like that,
but that...(word censored by station)...ain't the truth. The truth is, you're
the weak and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo, I'm trying
real hard to be the shepherd.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That's Samuel L. Jackson with Tim Roth in a scene from "Pulp
Fiction." Jackson's new film is called "Resurrecting the Champ." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Samuel L. Jackson.
His new film is "Resurrecting the Champ."

Well, I thought we couldn't go through this interview without reliving this
important moment in your character.

(Soundbite of "Snakes on a Plane")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actress: (In character) We've got to clear the space out of the
cockpit.

Mr. JACKSON: (As Neville Flynn) Yeah, yeah. Clear the space out of the
cockpit yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JACKSON: Enough is enough! I have had it with these mother...(word
censored by station)...snakes on this...(word censored by station)...plane!
Everybody strap in! We're about to open some...(word censored by
station)...windows.

(Soundbite of music)

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Now, what movie was that?

Mr. JACKSON: "Snakes on a Plane," maybe?

DAVIES: Yeah, that was it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Unintelligible).

DAVIES: You know, I'd heard that that line, that, you know, `I'm tired of
these blankety-blank snakes on the plane'...

Mr. JACKSON: Mm.

DAVIES: ...was added afterwards because there was so much Internet buzz about
the movie in production that people wanted you to hear that line.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, that's true.

DAVIES: Yeah?

Mr. JACKSON: But I wanted to say it while we were shooting, but nobody would
listen to me. I was like, `Well, just shoot it anyway.' And they're all, `no,
no.' It's like, you know. And I'm a hardcore believer in it's better to
having something and not need it than need it and not have it. Because then
you've got to spend more money to come back and we were standing right there.
All you had to do was just shoot it.

DAVIES: And people were aware that this line had sort of popped up on the
Internet, and so you said, `Hey, what have we got to lose?...

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Of course.

DAVIES: `Let's do it.' And then they decided they wanted it.

Mr. JACKSON: All I could say was, `I told you so.'

DAVIES: That, and `I'm going to open some windows.'

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: So, did you work with real snakes in this thing?

Mr. JACKSON: There were about 300 real snakes on set, and by the time we
finished there were five.

DAVIES: What happened to the other 295?

Mr. JACKSON: No, no. Five hundred.

DAVIES: Oh, oh. Five hundred.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. They were interacting at night while we were, you know,
at home.

DAVIES: Oh, I see. I see.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. So they were doing some mating around there. There was
a bunch of snakes.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. JACKSON: But we very seldom had to come in contact with real snakes. My
agents were not so happy about the fact that they had that many real snakes
around, so they had this little clause where snakes had to be like 25 feet
away from me. But we didn't have any poisonous snakes on our set. We had
poisonous snakes on the second unit, but not with us.

DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Samuel L. Jackson. His new film is
"Resurrecting the Champ."

You know, I know long ago, early in your career, you struggled with alcohol
and drugs and then you did that very memorable role as the crack addict in
"Jungle Fever."

Mr. JACKSON: Gator.

DAVIES: Right. Were you drawing on that experience when you were doing that?
I mean, had you actually done crack yourself?

Mr. JACKSON: Um. Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. I was out of rehab, I think, what, maybe two weeks. I
really didn't even need makeup when we were doing "Jungle Fever." I was still
detoxing.

DAVIES: Wow.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. I was kind of fresh out of rehab when we did it, and the
people in rehab swore I was going to be back. Said, `Yeah, you do that movie
and you're going to be handling pipes and lighters, and all your triggers are
going to kick in. You're going to be using. You'll be right back here.' I
was like, you know, if for no other reason than I don't want to see any of you
mother...(censored by station)...in life again, I won't be back.

DAVIES: OK. Well...

Mr. JACKSON: So I survived that, you know, but, yeah. Interestingly enough,
you know, there's a lot of stuff that happens when you use, and generally when
people play addicts on screen, they're so busy playing the effects of being
addicted or high or whatever that they forget the fact that it's about people
and relationships. And that's what I wanted to play.

DAVIES: The part? Gator.

Mr. JACKSON: Gator...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. JACKSON: Gator's manipulation. The likability of a crackhead, not the
danger and the `Ooh ooh, he looks like he stinks.' But you know, he was a
funny guy. He was very affable and people, you know, saw him, they laughed at
his jokes. He had that little dance that he did for his mom. He was a master
manipulator, and I kind of did a lot of that when I was using. I used people.
I got money from them. I owed everybody by the time I went to rehab. And it
was just one of those kind of things that allowed me to get rid of a whole
bunch of demons, and by the time they actually killed him on screen, I was
kind of cured of my, you know, need of wanting to do all the stuff and getting
rid of that particular phase of my life and moving on.

DAVIES: Well--yeah--why do you think you did succeed in staying clean when so
many people have relapses?

Mr. JACKSON: Because I had this very palpable difference between who I was
and who I became. When I got clean and I did "Jungle Fever," all of a sudden
I was going to lunch in Hollywood, and before that I wasn't. So it was a very
real kind of difference to me that when I was using and I was doing that stuff
in New York, I wasn't getting the jobs that I wanted. As soon as I stopped, I
started getting all these opportunities and creating spaces for myself that I
wasn't able to create before. So I knew that if I was doing this, I was doing
the right thing. That I'd finally found the secret: Get out of my own way.
And that's what I did. And I figured that if I picked up a drug or a drink, I
would end up back in that place where I was before where I owed everybody
money and all my, you know, bill collectors were chasing me, and all of a
sudden I wasn't in that place anymore, so I was kind of like, `Oh, this is not
so bad.'

DAVIES: Right. I mean, and...

Mr. JACKSON: OK.

DAVIES: Before and after...

Mr. JACKSON: I can go with this for a while. I can try this.

DAVIES: Before and after picture was real clear.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah. And yet, I mean, a lot of people then...

Mr. JACKSON: For a lot of people it's not because people are already there.
They're already in this lofty place...

DAVIES: Oh, uh-huh.

Mr. JACKSON: ...which allows them to, you know, go to clubs and have access
to drugs and have access to cars and do all this stuff. I didn't have that
before. I was just using drugs. I didn't have access to clubs. I didn't
have access to hot chicks. I didn't have access to hot cars and, you know,
people buying me clothes or telling me how great I was. I was just, you know,
a guy doing plays, getting high.

DAVIES: OK. Well, Samuel L. Jackson, I wish we had more time, but I want to
thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Samuel L. Jackson. His new film, "Resurrecting the Champ," will be
in theaters next week.

DAVIES: Coming up, Milo Miles on legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe. This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Milo Miles on Hector Lavoe's life, music, and the film
based on him, "El Cantante"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

The new film "El Cantante" tells the story of Hector Lavoe, the most
celebrated salsa singer of his generation. He came to New York from Puerto
Rico when he was 17 and four years later in 1967 began singing with Willie
Colon's orchestra and immediately scored hits. But Lavoe was constantly
troubled. He was tormented by heroin addiction, the death of his son, and
bouts of depression. A suicide attempt in 1988 all but ended his career, and
he died a pauper in 1993. Music critic Milo Miles has these thoughts on the
man, the music and the movie.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

MILO MILES reporting:

If you have to ask whether you should see "El Cantante," you probably
shouldn't. For those not already committed to the music or the stars of the
film, it's a very unsurprising rehash of the cliched
brilliant-musician-destroyed-by-stupid-drug tricks. And it's careless. The
flavors of the '60s, '70s and '80s are glossed over. Most of the characters
are stick figures. People appear 20 years earlier or later and look the same
age.

"El Cantante" does accomplish the basic requirement. The music hits hard and
vibrant, conveying the reeling excitement of the good times of Fania Records
and salsa.

A lot of the credit goes to Marc Anthony as Hector Lavoe. He's at least as
strong a vocalist as Lavoe was and, of course, excels as a dynamic stage
performer. It's his night job, after all. And he channels Lavoe, doing an
admirable recreation of the venerated singer's Latin soul style. You have to
be a huge fan of Anthony's real life and in the movie wife, Jennifer Lopez, to
fully enjoy the tale, however. It seems like she's on scene every 10 seconds,
and who's going to tell a producer to limit her role. You get the impression
that Lavoe's wife, Nilda Rosado, known as "Puchi," was as important and famous
as he was. But until "El Cantante," I'd barely heard of her. Here Lavoe
sings about his many sorrows.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HECTOR LAVOE: (Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

MILES: If you avoid the film, try to pick up on its buzz about salsa, which
mixed Cuba and Puerto Rico, rock and soul, boogaloo and Latin pride. In the
late '60s until the middle '80s, Fania Records was the Motown of salsa, and
Lavoe, singing with trombonist and band leader Willie Colon was as key to the
image and success of their record label as Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye
were to theirs.

For Colon, the bad boy persona was more or less an act. For Lavoe, sadly, it
was not. You sense in both "El Cantante" and his semi-autobiographical songs
roller that keeping his life a roller coaster of terror, tragedy and
exultation was good for the material. Here is Marc Anthony's version of the
tormented title song.

(Soundbite of "El Cantante")

Mr. MARC ANTHONY: (Singing in Spanish)

(End of soundbite)

MILES: The best tribute to Hector Lavoe is to get more familiar with the
music and the players featured in "El Cantante." Lavoe has a superb double
disc best-of called "Lavoe's." Marc Anthony's greatest hits package is called
"From the Beginning." Those who want only a single disc overview of Lavoe's
can try the well-chosen "El Cantante," the original. And salsa fans in
general may want to do a compare and contrast with that album and the Marc
Anthony "El Cantante" soundtrack. But why does the soundtrack end with a
previously-unreleased J-Lo song?

DAVIES: Music critic Milo Miles lives in Boston.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue