“That’s some bullshit!”
Want to get Samuel L. Jackson’s full attention? Tell him you think the best thing about Snakes on a Plane is its title.
Or mistake him for fellow actor Laurence Fishburne.
Or do what I did: Tell him that Harrison Ford has just overtaken him as the highest-grossing film star ever, thanks to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
“You’re telling me Star Wars made more than Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Kingsman, and two Iron Man films?” he yells, laying it on thick for the benefit of the room. “How much we need? $100 million? We’ll be back on top in no time!”
Or at least in as much time as it takes Jackson to write the check himself, something he could actually do.
For the past two decades, the top hasn’t been far from Jackson’s grasp.
Here’s how it looks near the top: He’s been in almost every film you can think of, playing roles like Coach Carter, Shaft, and Nick Fury. He’s starred in all those Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino movies, including Pulp Fiction. Add in, of course, the three Star Wars prequels, playing Mace Windu.
The New York Times Magazine notes that Jackson is “his own genre.” His films have grossed well over R10 billion, and his net worth is estimated at R2 billion. And more money is coming in all the time, thanks to the residuals.
Samuel L. Jackson makes above 80 grand a week just for waking up every day in his big Beverly Hills mansion—which he shares with his wife, the Tony-nominated actress LaTanya Richardson, and his daughter, Zoe, a TV producer—and driving past the guards of his gated community to play golf with guys like Donald Trump and Bill Clinton.
He’s done all this and more, despite the fact that he once had to say, out loud and on camera, “It’s my duty to please that booty.” Try it yourself and wait for the check.
Fame came late to Jackson; he was 45 before Tarantino came knocking and he uttered his first onscreen “motherfucker,” a word he says he sometimes uses to ease his occasional stuttering.
He spent the first half of his career acting in the theatre and getting killed off in small roles in Goodfellas and True Romance.
Now 67, with a long list of iconic films to his credit, Jackson is choosing scripts based less on their box-office prospects than on the potential fun to be had while filming them—or watching them later. For kicks, he sometimes watches his own movies sitting next to startled patrons.
Audiences still respond to Jackson’s trademark onscreen tirades because they seem so authentic. In fact, they are authentic, the result of growing up in America during a time of social upheaval. As a young man he was both angry and radical.
In 1969, then a marine biology student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, he and a group of friends decided it would be a good idea to explain their policy disagreements to the school’s administration by taking several of its trustees hostage.
“We petitioned them, but they didn’t have time to talk to us,” Jackson says, looking every bit as if he would do it again tomorrow. “We took these chains they had along the walkway to keep us off the grass, bought some padlocks, and chained ourselves inside.”
It was awkward. He’d been an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral the previous year, so it was more than slightly ironic that he found himself holding the Rev. King Sr. as one of the hostages.
“He was in there for a minute,” Jackson says, smiling. “He was complaining of chest pains and we didn’t want to go down for murder, so we called out the window for someone to bring a ladder and let him climb down.”
Jackson was eventually suspended, but not before becoming increasingly politicised, like many others of his generation, by the Vietnam War.
“I had a cousin who joined the army the day I went to college. Six months later he was dead in Vietnam. I didn’t even realise there was a war going on.”
He joined the antiwar movement; it was around this time, he told a reporter once, that he was even part of a group buying guns, preparing to take the fight to the streets.
That’s sort of the way it was. “Let’s get one thing straight,” Jackson says. “I was never a Black Panther! But the fact that you were alive during that period in America, you had to either be part of the problem or part of the solution. We chose to be part of the solution.”
For the FBI, that was the problem. Agents warned Jackson’s mother that if he didn’t get out of Atlanta he’d end up in prison.
So during a two-year exile in Los Angeles, Jackson became a social worker. He then returned to Morehouse, met his wife, and got his drama degree, after which he moved to New York City to begin his acting career.
Fast-forward 40 years: With Hollywood and the world both essentially conquered, Jackson is returning to social issues, this time men’s health and the cancer charity One for the Boys.
Established in 2012, its mission is to educate men about cancer risks and the need to start talking about and addressing men’s health.
Once again, he’s got a cause: “The world is definitely more pink than blue,” Jackson says, pointing to the much larger number of female-centric cancer charities.
“When it comes to men, we’re literally letting ourselves die. . .You only hear about guys being treated for cancer when it’s over. I play golf with guys who have skin cancer, but they didn’t tell me until I saw them on the golf course with a Band-Aid on their face.”
Jackson correctly points out that although prostate cancer kills about 26,000 U.S. men a year and testicular cancer kills nearly 400, we don’t talk about it. “Hey, how they hanging?” isn’t a sincere medical inquiry.
“There’s an embarrassment around testicular cancer and prostate cancer because of their locations on the body,” Jackson says. “You think if you need surgery they’ll take part of you away and people will think ‘Hmm, he’s not a whole man anymore.’ But no one thinks that about stomach cancer, breast cancer, even skin cancer.”
Men are brought up to not talk about their health. “We’re obsessed with the idea that we’re supposed to be tough,” Jackson says.
“It comes from your dad telling you not to whine, or your mom telling you to suck it up. ‘Put some spit on it; you’ll be fine.’ You’re not supposed to look at another guy and feel sorry for him. You’re not supposed to cry in front of people. You don’t expose yourself that way.”
He may be an amazing American success story, but America hasn’t kept up with Samuel L. Jackson. So while there may be no hostages at Morehouse College at the moment, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fight for.
“Young people are no longer able to pursue their dreams in a meaningful way,” Jackson says. “I look at America and we don’t make shit anymore. The jobs my mom had that bought the house are gone. The people who were destined to work in those factories, to sustain the place they came from, don’t feel like useful members of society anymore. People start to lose hope and question why they’re even here.”
The answer, he suggests, may be to look at the overall wellness of American society. “Health” in the Jackson vision is more than just feeling for a lump or sticking a thermometer under your tongue.
“We need to present an alternative,” he says, “but it’s not easy to say things are going to get better, because it seems like there’s more and more things to be afraid of and depressed about. We need to take control and make changes to protect all aspects of our health.”