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Samuel L Jackson

Sunday Herald (January 2003)

Samuel L Jackson doesn’t know the exact date he had his last alcoholic drink. He thinks it was about twelve years ago, sometime in his forties when he was changing from the bad “old Sam” from New York to the chilled, Californian “new Sam”. He doesn’t count the days, he says, just watches over them, keeps a wary eye out for weakness and temptation. But he does remember the precise moment he hit rock bottom.

“The worst day I’ve ever had was the first time I had to stand up in rehab,” he remembers, relaxing in suite 118 in London’s Dorchester hotel, dressed in black from his Kangol cap down to his shiny, sensible shoes. “My wife and my daughter were there and I had to stand up and say ‘hi, my name is Sam and I am an addict’, and look at them and see them look at me. That was pretty difficult.”

Jackson revisits his hardest 24 hours in his new movie ‘Changing Lanes’, in which he plays a recovering alcoholic fighting for custody of his two young sons. On the morning of his hearing, a car crash with co-star Ben Affleck causes him to be twenty minutes late and the judge rules in favour of his ex wife. The rest of the day is a study in karma: Affleck’s selfishness at the crash scene rebounds upon him twentyfold while Jackson fights a battle with his urges to turn to drink and against Affleck, seeking revenge for those lost twenty minutes.

For Jackson, though, the pertinent scene is when his character, Doyle Gipson, attends an AA meeting. He gives a speech about his ongoing battle against alcohol dependency, admitting that he still craves a drink but can never let himself give in to it.

“I still hang out in bars. I get something that looks like a drink so people don’t know I’m not drinking, because I want to be accepted. So I have tonic with lime and it looks like a gin and tonic. People say things like ‘if you hang out in a barber shop for long enough, you’ll get a haircut.’ What? Shut up. People tell you stuff like that because they think you’re going to fail or sometimes they want you to, so they can say ‘I told you so’.”

Another scene that felt close to home for Jackson is where Doyle winds up in a bar and orders a bourbon. “I understood going into a bar and thinking ‘if I have one drink maybe I can calm this madness that’s going on around me’,” the actor says. “But I also understand him having the knowledge that he never went into a bar and had one drink. I know I didn’t and that was part of what the thing was for me. That every day you have to tell yourself, ‘you’re not well today’. To the point that I know I haven’t had a drink in twelve years but I can’t tell you exactly how many years, how many days, like some AA people. Because my whole thing is I know I didn’t have a drink yesterday and I hope I don’t have a drink today. As long as you have that understanding about yourself, you never get to that point where you say ‘I’m well, I’ve been for five years, I’m going to have a beer’. Because as soon as you have that one…I know that I never had a beer. When I bought a six pack of beer, I drank until all six beers were gone.”

While most of the impact of the scene for Jackson was emotional, there was one instance where it became very physical and very real. “The guy playing the bar tender poured the drink and sat it in front of me, and as I was sitting there, all of a sudden Jack Daniels wafted up into my nostrils and down my throat and I realised he poured me a real fucking drink. I hadn’t been that close to a drink in so long it made my eyes water and my throat clench, going like ‘damn!’. So leaving that was a whole another revelation.”

Doyle Gipson represents something of a step forwards for Jackson. While his characters in career-making movies like ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Shaft’, ‘51st State’ and recently “xXx’ were, as he admits, “always in control of what is around them or not affected by it”, Gipson is a lot more complex: vulnerable, angry, well-intended, given to moments of weakness, and driven seemingly by his own capacity for chaos. Are we to assume that Gipson is closer to the real Samuel L Jackson?

“Yeah, in a sense. The old Sam. New York can do that to you. It’s that kind of place. Sometimes you have to seek refuge somewhere and sometimes that refuge is just being oblivious to what’s going on.”

The “old Sam” is clearly an important asset for Jackson, one that he returns to again and again for his onscreen roles and hints at in interviews for the visceral delight of his public. He’s a good boy now, all cleaned up and righteous in the city of angels, and so there’s nothing for us to fear. But my, he was once bad. Very very bad.

“I’ve had my moments of letting the air out of people’s tyres and pouring stuff in their gas tank and burning people’s doorways out,” Jackson says, when asked if he’s ever exacted a revenge as severe as Doyle’s in the movie. “That was when I was younger, a bit more volatile. Drop bricks off buildings at people. Missed them.” Dramatic pause. “Some of them.” Is he joking? A smirk. “No.”

Jackson even relates how he once took a group of people hostage at college, including Martin Luther King’s father, although he does slightly spoil the story by admitting they let everyone go when MLK’s father had heart trouble. The point, perhaps, is that the Samuel L Jackson persona we buy into is a gangsta with compassion, the guy who’s done all that dark things we dream of but didn’t go too far.

“There are days when I’m on set when I’m able to put the faces of some people that aren’t there on some of the guys that I get to shoot,” smiles Jackson. “Which is kind of nice. Or the actor you get to shoot is an actor you really want to shoot. So when they fall over and they’re dead and they say ‘so and so’s wrapped’, you go ‘thank God’.” Which actors in particular? He’s not that badass. “I don’t know.”

Ultimately, Samuel L Jackson understands what it is to be a regular Joe. Yes, he earns millions by playing hard men with menacing stares and he talks up a rough and ready past, but his appeal also rests on the audience being able to relate to him as a person rather than a caricature. Hence his appearance in the Barclays TV ads, which he says he agreed to because they were “really unique”.
“Hopefully when [fans] encounter me, they can say ‘he is cool’ but not because I was being masterful, but because I took the time to say ‘how you doing?’ I didn’t have some bodyguard grab them by the throat and slam them against the wall because they were approaching me, because I don’t have one. I travel by myself. I still take the subway in New York. I’m still that same guy who was hustling jobs in New York and I don’t lose touch with that.”

He doesn’t lose touch with the language of the street either. One US critic worked out that if you take all of the swearing out of ‘51st State’ it would be ten minutes long.

“I guess it means I have a pretty good command of the language,” grins Jackson. “Swearing’s part of the culture and the language. And if you can do it and it sounds melodic and people understand what you’re saying, hey, more power to you. It’s not like you’re just cursing to be cursing. Some people do that and they just sound so bad. I met a gentlemen last night trying to curse. He couldn’t quite make it. He couldn’t get motherfucker out.”

And what riles the hard guy with a regular edge? What might nudge him towards the meltdown of his character in ‘Changing Lanes’?

j “What really gets my goat is when I go to a grocery store and I have two items and I get in the line that says ‘ten items or less cash only’ and there’s a person with fifteen items who wants to write a cheque. That burns my ass. I really want to shout, ‘Are you STUPID? Can you not read or what? This is our lane, get out of it!’”

Quentin Tarantino, your next hit script idea lies right here.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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