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Samuel L. Jackson – Learning from Reconciliation



By Brad Balfour

Few actors prompt the same kind of awe that Samuel L. Jackson does after having played a remarkable range of characters; from the tough gangster in Pulp Fiction to the heroic Mace Windu in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Through the eyes of a harsh American journalist, Langston Winfield, he tackles a painful subject, South Africa's history of apartheid and the efforts at reconciliation in director John Boorman's In My Country. Based on a book and true stories of the time, he presented a hardnosed view; also based on a true story, Jackson offered tough love in Coach Carter, a surprise hit earlier this year. Jackson keeps working; on these heels of these films will be XXX 2: State Of The Union, then Star Wars: Revenge Of The Sith and then The Man with Eugene Levy.

What inspired you to do In My Country?

I knew the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was going on and there were no real new stories about it. I had friends in South Africa and when I was in college, I had friends who were exiled because of apartheid. So I thought it would be interesting for an audience to find out what happened when Mr. [Nelson] Mandela got out of prison and why there wasn't this huge civil war that everybody was expecting, and to find out the process in healing that was going on in South Africa.

What difficulties did you encounter doing this role?

It's pretty simple to play a reporter [laughs]. In this instance I was not going about the technical business of reporting. Occasionally you see me sending in a story or dealing with the fact. I did a lot of note taking when I was watching the people testify. Essentially, my job was to be a westerner who comes with a sense of western justice to a situation where he's learning about African justice and finding a way to accept it and to accept a South African radio journalist as a human being and not the enemy that he had preconceived her to be.

How did you prepare for this role?

I didn't have a lot of time because I just finished SWAT and two days later had back surgery. Then, ten days later I was in South Africa. My preparation was knowing the people in South Africa reading up on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions... where they were, how long they took... and reading the novel while I was on my back. Talking to auntie about what had happened and how this guy was. "Was he a real guy or was he a combination of several guys?" Just being ready to be in the moment. Fortunately, we had all these South African extras that had unfortunately lived through apartheid and fortunately they were part of the truth and reconciliation commission. Naturally, they hadn't read the script. They didn't know what they were coming into. They just knew that they had a job. The first time they heard the stories, John [Boorman] told them to just react naturally to whatever you hear. And when they heard the stories, they gasped the same way. They spoke out or yelled out in Zulu to the things they heard. And we had no idea what was about to happen. All of a sudden, this one guy was yelling out in Zulu and there was a response. Then they all just broke into song. We were like “Oh my God.” It was incredible. The authenticity they brought to it lent a lot to the film. Being in those particular places puts you in a different mindset. It's incredibly to feel the energy of a place that's being reborn especially in a place like Capetown. Johannesburg has another kind of energy. It's like New York on crack. With all these newborn freedoms, it is one of the few places in the world where guidebooks tell you that if you’re driving a car at night don't stop for red lights. Run the light. If someone's approaching the car run the light. Capetown is totally different. You can walk the streets at night. There are restaurants, great seafood, great night life, a huge gay community in Capetown's a beach community. There's tourism, wine country and golf courses... all kinds of stuff.

Why is Johannesburg so different?

Johannesburg is a city. It's contained. It's a lot of people in a small place like Manhattan. A whole bunch of people. There are millions of people there. Capetown is not like that. It's a resort town. It's crowded during September and during January when it's really hot and people are escaping the winters that they live with in other places. When we shot it was a low season from March to June. So the beaches were kind of empty. The hotels were kind of empty. We had great hotel rooms. We were able to move around with a lot more freedom and drive to places we needed to without the crowds.

Would the movie have been seen differently if it had been seen through the eyes of an African who actually experienced apartheid?

Yeah, probably. But we're also dealing with the fact that she benefited from apartheid in a specific way. And didn't acknowledge what was going on in her name or to afford her the comforts that she had. So the revelations for her are the details like she says. Like she didn't know her family was involved. So we're finding out something. The story is essential about Langston and her and what they find out about each other and about themselves while they're doing it. so it wouldn't have been right to do it though someone else's eyes. Plus all those other people are there testifying and doing those stories and we're showing them through my eyes or her eyes and the reaction of us to what we see and how it affects us and brings us together.

How was it working with director John Boorman [Deliverance, Excalibur]?

I had a great time with John. During the rehearsal process we worked out a lot of things. We talked about a lot of different things. South Africans have their own rhythm and pace in doing things. John's a very patient man. And he allowed Juliette and I to create things on the inside of the rehearsal structure sometimes that were different from what we actually worked out in another kind of space. And it led itself to something for Juliette and my relationship. It evolved to another place that we didn't know it would evolve too. Just because we spent a lot of time together in these rooms and traveling from place to place and being together every day, things became a little more complicated for us sometimes and easier for us to do sometimes.

Boorman does lots of rehearsals. How does that contrast with other directors who have a very different approach that you've worked with?

Rehearsal is valuable to me because shooting a movie is controlled reality. People who like to go out there and do it spontaneously always crack me up because it's like, how are you going to know where to put the camera if we haven't rehearsed it? How do you know whets going to happen or what we're going to do if we're doing it spontaneously? It’s okay to be in an improvisational space like mike lee is or theoretically he is. So I don't know. I like to rehearse because I'm used to rehearsing because I come from the theatre. I think it's very valuable. I'll know what you're going to say, you know what I'm going to say. I know when you shut up and when ill shut up. You'll know if I'm going to pick something out and throw it at you or not. I don't want to surprise you. It has to be controlled in a way and sometimes you want the director to do that yet or go that high etc. so you learn a lot through rehearsal about what's going to happen and what needs to happen so the story can be rehearsed. So I don't mind it.

Is Quentin Tarantino's approach very different?

No. Quentin rehearses too. We rehearsed Pulp Fiction so thoroughly. It was incredibly... we had tape on the floor for the killing room. We knew how many steps it was from the truck of the car to the door of the apartment building. Front the front door to the apartment building to the elevator. How wide the elevator was. We knew how many steps it was from the elevator to the killing room door. To the other little space we went to talk too. Before we went back so that we never had to look down we could just do it. we did that for like a month. So when we got there. It was a piece of cake. We did that same thing with Jackie Brown. Quentin rehearses.

Did you find it difficult acting out such tough roles?

Acting is fun for me. I like the process of creating someone and being in another situation and suspending my own reality. I like being able to step into that space safely and letting go emotionally and coming back to myself. It’s one of the few places you can do that.

What would you like audiences to get from seeing this film?

Hopefully that principle of "Onobuntu" will strike people. They'll get it that what affects me affects you and affects everybody because when you look at the state of the world that's pretty much what's going on. We're in this war with Iraq and that's affects me and you. It affects the Iraqi people and a whole lot of people everywhere else and it's a ripple effect that goes out. When it was just the Arabs and the Israelis, it affected them, us, and a lot of other people [as well]. When the British and the Irish were fighting, little did we know it would affect us too. So the more we start to realize that there are principles out that embody understanding, forgiveness, and cleaning the slate and starting over [the better the world will be]. If only two or three people get it and they start to use it in their daily lives, then, in some way, is a good thing. At least having the information [will get people] to tell others to see this movie. It's thought provoking. It's got something and maybe they don't know what it is. Is it something that needs to be seen or heard and experienced in another kind of way?

What about racism in America these days?

America is okay on racism. There is a certain factor or faction of people that's always going to be racist because they're not striving in a particular way, so they think that everybody who does better or gets advancements no matter if they're not of their own particular ilk, they don't want people coming in the country. They don't like foreigners, blacks, Asians, or Hispanic Americans because these people are making progress and they're making strides. But the fact is that we are making those strides even in my business. People always say how is racism in the movie business but recently, we had five African Americans as Oscar nominees. There are Hispanic nominees, Asian nominees. The reflection of the world as we see it is now being reflected in our movie world in terms of the kind of people that are our movies stars, directors, behind the scenes creating and writing. The world is being reflected the way we see it as a multicultural pallet. The fact is that for the past six weeks the box office in the number one position is being dominated by African Americans starting with Coach Carter, Are We There Yet and Hitch. So people are embracing stories and entertainment and not the ethnic qualities of film. Things are better and people are starting to live their lives the way we want,

Were you surprised by the reaction to Coach Carter?

No. I actually think that when you give people something that speaks to a specific value system. And that it's presented in a way that they can share it with their kids and enjoy it. I've had a lot of people tell me that it’s amazing that they've watched this movie with our kids, and we talked about the movie, and they promised to do better in school, and they got the message, and we enjoyed it together. They want to go back and see it again. Take some other kids. The film beat the kids over the head with the message they were trying to get to them. And hopefully they will hold on to that and keep those promises. But they do have the information now that being a sports star is not the end or be all to who you can be. And parents are really glad about that. In fact the film opened pretty well in the UK last week. So the basketball metaphor is there but people are replacing it with soccer and cricket and everything else those kids play too.

Was it more difficult playing a real character?

Not really. Ken [Carter, the real coach] was there and I met him. It was important to me that I look at Ken and see his character, the strength of his determination, and the way he carried himself. He was very direct and dogmatic about his views and how I would portray that. Other than that, I wasn't going to try and do any of his physical characteristics or emulate him in any other way other than his ties. That's about it [laughs].

How do you decide what roles to do?

What happens is that scripts come across the desk. I read them. I find one that intrigues me. The story is interesting; the character on the inside is compelling. It's going to challenge me in specific ways as an actor and hopefully I'll learn something in a specific way or go in another direction people aren't expecting me to go. And I'll say I want to do it. And we'll set up the meetings and the process starts. In the meantime I'm still reading scripts. And things come. So the first one is ready to go the one I do. And if the next one is ready to go right after that I'll do that one. If not, then I'll do the one that's after that. It's just a matter of logistics on terms of who's ready to go and when I'm ready to do it. So it could be the studio film is ready and the independent is not. Or vice versa. So you just bounce around for what's ready. It's not a plan. I go with whatever is ready.

Is this your first love scene in a feature [with co-star Juliette Binoche] and is that important to you?

It's not a big deal but it's not my first love scene. I had one in Caveman's Valentine, so I've been naked in a room with another actress. It's not exciting either.

Have you ever had an interracial romance?

Yes. Believe me there's no difference as much as people would like to think so. Of course, she is French, though. There are points for that. It is Juliette Binoche!

Do you like being a part of the Star Wars veteran club?

Yeah, it's a really great family to be a part of. It's kind of freaky with people from the streets. There are so many Star Wars religious fanatics. In Brazil there were these people camped outside the hotel called the Jedi council of Rio. Yeah, I'm really proud that I'm finally in something that will be studied broken down revered and all kinds of things for the cinematic history of the world. And I sat in the theatre the first time it came out and I wished I could be in something like that and my wish has come true. It doesn't happen that often.

Is it more important to get an Oscar?

I don't think getting an Oscar is going to define my career. I think that at this point people respect what I do and are ok with the respect I have from the audience members and my peers. Getting an Oscar only means you were the best that year. It doesn't mean you're the best forever.

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: March 17, 2005.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2004 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2004 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2004 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2004 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2004 Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

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