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Samuel L. Jackson: Merchant of Cool

Iron man
PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

Samuel L. Jackson, who is taller than me and probably taller than you, strides into an L.A. hotel room, smiles, shakes my hand, and says, "Hey. How ya doing?" Taking his seat, the actor takes a deep breath, then lets it out with a slight puff of his cheeks, like a businessman settling into his office chair on a Monday morning. Movie stars of Jackson's caliber are businessmen, of course, and in this case, the task at hand is promo work for Mother and Child, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's delicate family drama starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, and Jackson, whose performance as a high-powered lawyer having an affair with his icy-hearted protégée (Watts) may be the finest, most nuanced work of his career.

Jackson's Paul is rich and powerful, but he's also a contemplative family man. A widower, Paul begins a casual affair with Watts' Elizabeth, and then finds himself falling in love. "Paul is okay with talking about himself, about his feelings. I'm nothing like him," Jackson declares when asked to compare himself to the character. "I'm an only child. I'm used to handling my own stuff. My wife will say, 'What's wrong with you?' And I go, 'Nothing.' Sure, I'm thinking about stuff, but I don't talk about it. I'm closed about my emotions. I'm not open." The actor shrugs. "I'm 61 now. I can't change that one. That's why people have shrinks I guess, but I'm not paying anybody to tell them what's going on in my mind. I have a running dialogue with me that works. Have a problem? Work it out."

It's this kind of cocky self-assurance that has endeared Jackson to moviegoers of all ages and races. He's made more than 100 movies and as such has appeared in more than his share of Hollywood clunkers, but audiences appear to instantly forgive him. He delivers, even when the movie doesn't. Like his friend the equally revered Morgan Freeman, Jackson was late to stardom. He was 43 and newly sober when his performance as a crack addict in Jungle Fever riveted movie critics, and 46 when his virtuoso turn as a philosophy-spouting hit man in Pulp Fiction brought him an Oscar nomination and a cool-cat screen cred that he carries to this day. Next weekend, on the same day that Mother and Child opens in half a dozen theaters in New York and Los Angeles (with others to follow), Jackson will be strutting across thousands of multiplex screens as comic book hero Nick Fury in Iron Man 2, the first of a reported nine projects he's to make for Marvel Films.

If being cool is profitable, that's a well-earned and happy by-product of a work ethic instilled in Jackson by his mother and grandparents, who together raised him in then-segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jackson attended Atlanta's Morehouse College in the late 1960s, where he began studying theater before becoming a student activist and, later, a member of the Black Power movement. That stopped the day his mother abruptly put him on a plane to her brother's house in Los Angeles.

"I came to L.A. because the F.B.I. came to my mom's house and told us that if I stayed in Atlanta they were going to kill me." Jackson laughs heartily at the memory and then shakes his head while recalling the two years he spent working for the L.A. Bureau of Public Assistance. "I was knocking on people's doors, checking on their eligibility for public assistance. It was an education. So crazy. So bizarre. But it was all learning. It was all useful. To get through all that, then go back to Atlanta and then on to New York and the theater world, it was all learning."

In New York in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Jackson studied and trained and became a key player in a new generation of African-American actors, among them Freeman, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Laurence Fishburne. "We rode the train together, we walked from audition to audition, we went to each other's plays, we were an interactive community," Jackson says. "Every now and then, someone would leave. Denzel left to come out here and do St. Elsewhere on TV, but he always came back to do a play. I remember when Morgan left to do Street Smart while we were doing Mother Courage at the Public Theater. I thought, Okay, somebody else gone. He'd come back though, do a play, then go off to another movie. Fish and Wesley would do the same thing."

While practicing his craft in New York City, Jackson also discovered drugs, leading to a crack-cocaine habit that derailed his career and nearly killed him. Yet Jackson's memories of that terrible time circle back to acting. "No matter how fucked up or high or whatever, you went to work every day," he recalls. "You'd drink something, or do a line, or smoke a joint while they're setting the stage, then you'd go up there and you did it." Jackson smacks his hands together for emphasis, and then continues. "We were doing Pulitzer Prize plays and learning from great directors how to find a character in the midst of the larger puzzle. It was meaningful. When I finally got clean, and my time came, I held on to what I'd learned, and applied it to creating characters for the screen. That's still how I do it."

He's grateful now that major success didn't come early on. "The dream was so much smaller than the reality. There's no way to explain to a young actor what's going to happen when you go from a little dressing room to your own trailer. That first time you're on location, and someone comes and gives you a little brown envelope full of money that's your per diem, your spending money, and more than you made in a month when you did a play. Here's a car, here's a big hotel room. I'm fortunate it didn't happen to me until I got clean, until I'd been through all that other stuff." The coolest and hardest-working actor in town snaps his fingers and says, gratefully, "If you're lucky, you get plucked when it's your time."

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