Samuel L Jackson: ‘I was a drug addict, out of my mind, but I showed up on time and hit my marks’

Everyone thinks Samuel L Jackson is about 15 years younger than he really is. It’s the hair, probably, or the absence of it. I think we’ve all come to accept that Jackson keeps a rotating carousel of different movie wigs somewhere at home, and that none of his movie hair is ever real. No steady progression from dark to grey to white means the ageing process seems almost to have halted itself, and the man before me today, shaven-headed, tall, enviably lean and energetic, talkative and affable, could pass for a fit 45-year-old. Except he’s 67.

Jackson’s latest role, in The Legend of Tarzan, is a real-life figure inserted into a fictional universe, George Washington Willis, who achieved things in his lifetime that one is shocked and pleased to learn were achieved by any black American in the latter half of the 19th century. For a historically minded man such as Jackson, whose teenage years coincided with the optimistic height of the civil rights struggle, and who was a young Black Panther in the bleak and treacherousCOINTELPRO years, the role probes some unfamiliar backwaters of the African-American experience.

“At 14 years old he enlists in the civil war,” he says, “then he enlists in the Mexican revolution against the Emperor Maximilian. I don’t know if he was an actual Buffalo Soldier, but I know he fought in the Indian wars too, and he killed a bunch of Indians! He was a Congressman, a preacher, a historian – he did a lot of things, he had a whole life, short as it was. I actually visited his memorial, his grave, last year in Blackpool.”

Jackson with Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/AP

You heard that right: Blackpool. Lancashire. Willis died in Blackpool in 1891, of tuberculosis, on his way back to the US after making an important intervention in the Belgian-backed proto-holocaust against the people of the Congo. He documented the cruelties of the Belgian rubber-harvesting industry there – maimings, executions, atrocities without number, millions dead – and on his return pointed fingers at both King Leopold of Belgium (to his face, no less) and his local agent, the explorer/exploiter Henry Stanley, implicating them in what was not yet termed a “genocide”. It was an important milestone on the long road to ending the horrors of the rubber trade.


Thus is the nightmare of colonial Congo grafted on to the fantasy universe of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series. The villain of the piece, played by Christoph Waltz, is another real-life figure, colonial administrator and mass killer Captain Léon Rom, likely one of the inspirations for Conrad’s Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. This is something like the 200th Tarzan movie since 1918, but the first major reboot since the failure of Greystoke in 1984; The Legend of Tarzan seems prepared to situate itself amid some very dark and troubling history.

“Hopefully with this movie, we can persuade people to look into George Washington Willis’s story and, through him, find out about that first holocaust in the Congo,” says Jackson. “Willis is in the movie trying to convince Tarzan – who hasn’t been in Africa for 20 years – to go home and investigate King Leopold. He’s talked to some soldiers that were there doing bad things and he wants to find a way to stop these things. He wants to prevent the British and American governments from helping Leopold build his railroad. Because Leopold ran out of money – though how the fuck he ran out of money I don’t know, because he was pulling diamonds and rubber out of there, and rubber was like liquid gold at the time. Anyway, he ran out of money and that’s when he enlisted that army to go there. And that’s where we come in.”

Jackson as hitman Jules in Pulp Fiction (1994), the film that projected him into the mainstream. Photograph: Allstar/MIRAMAX

The Legend of Tarzan reunites Jackson with screenwriter Craig Brewer, who conjured up a magical role for Jackson in the steamy 2007 racial melodrama Black Snake Moan, and who is intent here, as in his movies as a writer-director (Moan,Hustle and Flow), on creating provocative black characters. This, of course, is meat and drink to the near-workaholic Jackson. When he read the script forDjango Unchained, in which he was offered the part of Leonardo Dicaprio’s obsequious “house-negro” Stephen, the most painstaking evisceration of the Stepin-Fetchit-“yass-massa” caricature ever, and a role requiring immense delicacy and good judgment, Jackson said to Quentin Tarantino: “‘So you really want me to play the most hateful black character in cinematic history, huh? OK, let’s do it!’”

We often forget that before exploding into the public consciousness in 1994, aged 45, as Pulp Fiction’s fire-and-brimstone-spewing hitman Jules, that Jackson was a well-regarded New York stage actor. Well-regarded, that is, except for his demons and appetites. He played important roles in the first runs of a couple of August Wilson plays, but was always replaced before they moved to Broadway. He had started boozing, smoking weed and doing LSD at college in the late 60s, and has said that until he got clean in 1991 – after a crack-induced meltdown that involved his eight-year-old daughter finding him zonked out in the kitchen among his dimebags and paraphernalia – he had never set foot on stage without some kind of substance in his body.

“‘Made it’ is all relative,” he says of his supposedly late start in the movies. “I had a very good theatre reputation. Granted, I was a fucking drug addict and I was out of my mind a lot of the time, but I had a good reputation. Showed up on time, knew my lines, hit my marks. I just wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was very satisfied artistically. I was doing Pulitzer prize-winning plays. I was working with people who made me better, who challenged me. So I was doing things the right way, it was just that one thing that was in the way – my addiction. And once that was out of the way, it was – boom! The door blew wide open.”

As Stephen in Django Unchained. Photograph: Allstar/THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

Getting clean freed up a hitherto closed-off dimension to his performances, he remembers. “I’ve always had my wife LaTanya, who’s my harshest critic. She’d say: ‘You’re so intelligent that the first time you read something, you think you understand it intellectually and emotionally, then you find the vocal inflections, and the facial expressions – and you can get there with that. But there’s no blood in it.’ And I’m like: ‘It’s all fuckin’ make-believe, what in the hell you talking about?’ And it wasn’t until I got sober that I knew fully what she meant. Before, I used to do stuff on stage and kinda look for the reaction from the audience – ‘Aha! I got ’em good that time!’ And once I was able to ignore that, and focus on the relationships with the people I was onstage with, I was finally able to blossom into whatever I might think I am now.”

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