His gruelling schedule would test the mettle of a man half his age, but Samuel L. Jackson – who sits atop the heap as the highest grossing film actor in history – is a maniacally driven kind of guy.
Last spring, while shooting the neo-noir thriller The Samaritan in Toronto, he proudly ticked off his jam-packed summer plans. “When I finish here, I fly to New York to do a day on the set of Captain America: The First Avenger,” said the veteran action star who has forged a career dodging villains, bombs and snakes on planes with equal ease.
“Then I fly to New Mexico to start The Avengers, and I’m there until August. In the middle of that, I go to Columbia for a week with another film, and then I start rehearsals for Broadway’s The Mountaintop, which I’m doing until January. That’ll be my resting point,” he boomed in a smoky baritone.
A well-deserved break might have been the Pulp Fiction star’s intention, but chances are it never happened. With more than 100 films to his credit, the word “rest” just doesn’t seem synonymous with Samuel L. Jackson.
Seated on a worn, black leather sofa in Toronto’s retro The Silver Dollar club last April while filming The Samaritan, Jackson admitted it’s not exactly in his DNA to be “still.” A former alcoholic and cocaine addict, the 63-year-old said movies – made at a punishing clip – are now his required “fix.”
And now 20 years sober, Jackson’s worked harder than anyone in Hollywood, earning the gold star status with films that have pulled in $7.42-billion (U.S.).
Asked why he works like a dog, Jackson simply shrugged his massive shoulders and harkened back to his days growing up in Atlanta.
“I grew up in a house where the adults went to work every day,” said Jackson, who was raised by a single mom and his grandparents. “The fact that I just happen to be an actor – with an interesting kind of job – doesn’t mean there’s any reason to ease off. I think I should be able to go and do it every day. I have stuff going on around me all the time. I feed off that.”
The screenplay for David Weaver’s The Samaritan, which opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal on Friday, May 18, landed in Jackson’s lap in a roundabout way. A golf fanatic (Jackson has a clause in all his movie contracts that ensures he gets to golf twice a week), the actor was on the fairway in Los Angeles with his buddy, Geoffrey Brandt – a guy who also just happens to be Weaver’s literary agent.
“Geoff never does this, but when we were on the fourth hole he told me he’d read this script that he wanted me to read. So he gave it to me. I read it, and I immediately sent it to my manager, telling him we needed to find a way to get this film done,” said Jackson, who plays Foley, a former grifter who spent 20 years in prison and tries to clean up his act when he gets out, only to land back in a heap of trouble.
The Oscar nominee said what drew him to this small-budget film was an unpredictable storyline about a tragic character who gets a chance to reclaim “a precious piece of himself” that he’s lost.
“I like film noir” explained Jackson, who co-stars alongside Canadian Luke Kirby and Britain’s Ruth Negga and Tom Wilkinson. “I read six or seven scripts a week, and usually by page 25, I know what’s going to happen on page 70. This wasn’t that kind of thing. I had to work my way through this story. Plus, I like dark.”
Weaver, who previously directed Siblings and Century Hotel, was both elated and terrified that an actor of Jackson’s stature was joining his $10-million indie film. “Who wouldn’t be intimidated by Samuel Jackson?” the Torontonian asked. “But what was really generous on his part was his excitement about the script, and that put me at ease.”
Still, he admitted it wasn’t always easy to stand up to Jackson, who had strong opinions about who his character was and how he should have behaved. At the start of every day, they’d “have a conversation” (read between the lines: sometimes heated) about the various scenes, eventually reaching a compromise they both could live with. “He’s made dozens of films and he has a knowledge of film acting and movie making that is sort of unparalleled,” said Weaver, clearly still pinching himself that he landed a star of Jackson’s calibre.
“This was a collaboration between actor/director on a broader level than I’ve ever done in the past,” he said, treading carefully. “But it’s fascinating to watch Sam because you see the weight of his experience, even the tilt of his head at certain moments, or when he blinks to take in what another character is saying. He just brings a level of movie mythology to the film that a star with less experience can’t.”
And Jackson, who never minces words, knows he can be a pain in the ass to work with. “I’m hard on directors because I’ve been around a long time,” he said with a slow, sly smile. “Sometimes I’m kind of rigid in where I am, and there are times I get frustrated with the process because that’s just me. If I think things are taking too long, I won’t hesitate to say, ‘We’ve got enough tape! We need to move on!’ ” he said, slamming a fist on the table.
“I’m just intense, what can I say?” added Jackson, clearly ideally cast as the commanding superspy Nick Fury in The Avengers.