how Samuel L. Jackson became his own genre

Before “The Mountaintop” opened on Broadway last fall, there were rumors that this fictional account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night before his assassination would present him as a flawed man, one who drinks and flirts with a motel maid. Kenny Leon, the director, told me recently, however, that he never would have had anything to do with something “that destroyed the iconic nature of Dr. King.” In fact, he said, when he first read the play, he realized that its innocently childlike King could be played only by “a sensitive actor bigger than life” — his friend Sam Jackson.

Samuel L. Jackson, who is 63, has appeared in more than 100 films since 1972, and moviegoers would be hard-pressed to find in any of his roles someone who was innocently childlike. For the first part of his film career, his characters tended to appear in scripts as Gang Member, Drug Addict, Hold-Up Man. Even after his work in “Jungle Fever” earned Jackson a best supporting actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991 (an honor created for that performance) and his work as Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction” three years later made him world-famous, at 46, Jackson’s roles, no matter how fleshed-out or nuanced, have been far from innocent. Still, even as Jules tossed off vulgarities and obscenities as offhandedly as he shot people, like so many benign terms of endearment, he displayed the greater part of Jackson’s success as an actor — his ability to imbue even his vilest characters, spouting the vilest words, with a touch of humor, intelligence and humanity.

Jules was the moral center of “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson told me recently, “because he carried himself like a professional.” The same can be said of Jackson as an actor. “Before Jules,” he went on, “my characters were just ‘The Negro’ who died on Page 30. Every script I read, ‘The Negro’ died on Page 30.” He thundered in character as Jules for a moment, repeating his point in saltier language, then returned to himself and said: “After Jules, I became the coolest [expletive] on the planet. Why? I have no clue. I’m not like Jules. It’s called being an actor.”

Since “Pulp Fiction,” it seems safe to argue, Jackson has been the busiest actor on the planet too. This year he has four movies — his annual average since 1994 — coming out, including “The Avengers” next month, based on the Marvel comic book. (Jackson has a nine-picture deal with Marvel Studios.) He’s been in big-budget films like “Jurassic Park”; low-budget movies like “Black Snake Moan”; blockbusters like “Star Wars” and bombs like “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” He’s been the star, played the sidekick, filled bit parts (“A Time to Kill,” “Patriot Games” and “Iron Man,” respectively). His acting has been critically acclaimed (“Jungle Fever,” “Pulp Fiction”) and panned as “lackluster” (“Twisted”). But one thing remains constant: Samuel L. Jackson works. It’s all but impossible to turn on a TV set any night of the week without happening on one of his movies (and sometimes two or three). Hence his anointment by Guinness World Records as “the highest-grossing film actor” of all time. His movies have taken in more than $7.4 billion, most of which, he pointed out, “didn’t end up in my pocket.” Maybe not, but the residuals alone earn him about $300,000 a year. “I get paid all day, every day,” he said — “which is almost too much for a sensitive artist.”

Renny Harlin, the director of “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” told me that the secret to Jackson’s success is simple: “He’s the ultimate pro. He’s on time, knows his lines, hits his mark with no drama. He makes the other actors want to rise to his professional level.” And not only do other actors love Jackson, Harlin noted, but so do moviegoers. When Jackson’s character was killed off in a version of “The Long Kiss Goodnight” that was previewed before a test audience, at least one member in the audience yelled out, “You can’t kill Sam Jackson!” Harlin said he learned his lesson. In the released version of the movie, Jackson’s character survives.

William Friedkin, who directed Jackson in “Rules of Engagement,” told me: “Sam is a director’s dream. Some actors hope to find their character during shooting. He knows his character before shooting. Sam’s old-school. I just got out of his way. I never did more than two takes with Sam.” Friedkin said that some people say Jackson works too much, but he dismissed actors who wait around for “Hamlet.” “You take what you can get,” he said, “to keep your engine tuned. An artist doesn’t burn out with age because he works too much. Working hones his craft.”

Earlier this year, before “The Mountaintop” closed, I spent several evenings at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. One night, I spoke to Angela Bassett, who played the motel maid. Bassett has known Jackson since she was a young intern out of Yale and he was an established theater actor on bus-and-truck tours. He called her “rack queen,” because she was always sleeping, or in the “rack.” “Yes,” she confirmed, “because he made me do all these errands for him.” Bassett didn’t think Jackson was particularly cool then — her expression suggested he was a pain instead, a demanding teacher more than the laid-back dude of popular perception — and she doesn’t think he’s particularly cool now. But then she conceded: “I suppose he might be a little cool. He does listen to that gangsta rap.” She looked up toward the ceiling. “There’s always a party going on up there.”

The secret to his Guinness record, Jackson said when we first met in his cramped third-floor dressing room at the theater, is “longevity.” But there are other reasons, too. He can cross the color line (“Twisted,” “The Red Violin” and “White Sands,” for example, were written for white characters, according to Jackson). Actors and directors like to work with him. “When I yell, ‘Cut!’ Sam becomes Sam,” Harlin told me. “He jokes around, makes a relaxing atmosphere. There’s no weirdness with Sam.” He’s known too for being an actor who’s better than his material. John Lahr of The New Yorker said “The Mountaintop” was “a mess” but described Jackson as “admirable, compelling.” He invests the bittiest of bit parts with something electric to rivet an audience’s attention. And he’ll work cheaply if the role has some personal meaning for him.

As an only child, he went to movies alone, he said, “to be taken out of my place and transported to another world.” Years later, when people questioned why he appeared in one turkey or another, he would answer, “Because it was a movie I’d seen as a kid.” One such dud, a remake of “Shaft,” was so horrible that Jackson was said to have refused to recite his lines because they were written by a white man. “Not true,” he said, when I asked about the incident. “I changed his lines so they’d sound like a black man,” he said. When the author countered that those were the words he had written, according to Jackson, “I said: ‘Yes, and you got paid for them. Now let me make you sound brilliant.’ ” Jackson had to say “the corniest line I ever heard in my life and make it believable,” he told me, and then laughed before delivering it again: “It’s my duty to please that booty.”

Why would he make a movie like that to begin with? “Because I grew up watching those blaxploitation movies. Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, Pam Grier. For the first time, I saw ‘The Negro’ get one over on ‘The Man.’ ” He assumed the dignified voice-over of a biblical narrator: “Once upon a time, there were these Negroes, and these Negroes could do anything they wanted to.” He went on: “But those movies were not what I was aspiring to. I wanted to be in the highest-quality films.” When quality films weren’t offered to him, he took parts in movies whose characters he had wanted to be as a boy. He is Nick Fury in “The Avengers” because “who wouldn’t want to be a superhero?” He saw John Wayne in war movies, so he signed on with Friedkin to make “Rules of Engagement.” He saw Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling buccaneer, so he took a small (albeit key) role in the last three “Star Wars” movies as a Jedi warrior with a light saber. He always wanted to be chased “by a big monster with jagged teeth,” so he did “Deep Blue Sea” with a shark and “Jurassic Park” with a dinosaur (he is eaten). When Jackson heard about a movie called “Snakes on a Plane,” he called the director, David R. Ellis, and said, “You doing a movie about snakes on a plane?” Yeah. “A plane full of poisonous snakes?” Yeah. “I’m down.” Some movies he picked because they appealed to his adult fascination with costumes or his passion for golf, which he once said allowed him to dress like a pimp and still be respectable at a country club. “I did ‘Formula 51,’ ” he said, “because I got to run around Liverpool in a kilt, with golf clubs.”

Jackson has never been ashamed of his work — “I entertained an enormous amount of people,” he said; “besides, everyone wants to be a movie star” — nor of the money that has afforded him a mansion in a gated and guarded community on a hilltop in Beverly Hills and the free time to play golf with celebrities like his buddy Donald Trump. One day, Jackson told me, Trump said to him, “My friend Bill might play with us next week, Sam.” Jackson said, “Bill who?” Trump said, “Clinton.” Jackson said, “Oh, yeah, I played with Bill last week in the Bahamas.”

He is on location as much as nine months a year — “I love being on the road,” he said — and the first thing he does in a new town is look for the black community. Sometimes people say, “You’re it.” Sometimes they direct him to black restaurants, music bars or, most important, public golf courses. He plays alone or with strangers. One day in Memphis, he joined a group of 12 black policemen who were about to tee off. One cop said: “Hey, man, you’re Samuel L. Jackson. I like your movies. Now here’s the game. We play for a little something.” Jackson smiled, recalling that game. “Before I know it, I got 16 bets with 12 guys,” he said. “I can’t be thinking, Hey, I’m Samuel L. Jackson. I gotta be thinking of those 16 bets.” (He won 10 of them.)

Jackson told me he has never had an unpleasant experience in public like a lot of actors have who go out in public with bodyguards. “I walk the streets, take the train, it’s real simple. Some actors create their own mythology.” He assumed a self-pitying voice: “Oh, I’m so famous I can’t go places, because I created this mythology that I’m so famous I can’t go places.”

Once, while working in Dublin, he had a driver who said to him, “Oh, today I now have the whole set.” Jackson said, “Whole set of what?”

“I had Mr. Freeman in my car and Mr. Washington and now the great Mr. Samuel L. Jackson,” the driver said.

Jackson likes that story because he likes being recognized. Sometimes, “to feed my ego,” he said, he’ll walk around cities looking to be recognized, sign autographs, pose for photographs. He goes to theaters where his movies are playing and sits among the audience “to see myself up there.” His “Pulp Fiction” co-star, John Travolta, told me: “Actors go see themselves be someone else because being yourself in real life is not that interesting. I don’t think I’m entertaining.” But Jackson disagreed. “John’s a genuine gentle soul. I love John to death.” Then, speaking in a falsetto, he mocked actors who say, “Oh, I can’t watch myself on screen, it’s too personal.” He dropped the falsetto and began to fulminate like Jules, in ways that can’t be reprinted here. How could anyone expect someone else to pay $12.50 to watch him on screen if he couldn’t watch himself?

What Jackson loves most about acting, though, is the process, the satisfaction of taking the job seriously. “I was raised by my grandfather, a janitor,” he said. “As a boy, I went with him to clean offices. I learned a man gets up in the morning, he goes to work.” Before shooting, Jackson reads his script a dozen times, sometimes memorizing all the other characters’ lines as well as his own. Jackson is almost pathologically meticulous about hitting his mark, picking up a prop, say, on the same word, take after take. “That’s called playing the movie game,” he said.

And he expects the same level of professionalism from his colleagues. Scarlett Johansson, who worked with Jackson on “Iron Man II” and “The Avengers,” told me he can get angry “if someone doesn’t do his job correctly — he does not suffer fools.”

When Jackson was making a filmed version of the play “The Sunset Limited,” with Tommy Lee Jones, the play’s author, Cormac McCarthy, complained about his line readings. Jackson said: “It sounds better my way. I’m not trying to make this [expletive] worse!”

Before visiting with Jackson one night, I called his wife, LaTanya Richardson, who is also an actor. I told her I had a fascinating conversation with her husband. “Of course you did,” she said. “Sam loves to talk about himself.” Richardson met Jackson in Atlanta in the ’60s when he was a student at Morehouse and she was a student at Spelman. “Sam was not part of my circle,” she said. “I was a theater snob; he loved movies.” But she said they did get him to do plays at Spelman.

She described Atlanta of those days as a mecca for African-Americans demanding racial justice. Jackson would eventually become one of those angry revolutionaries, but when Richardson first met him, she said, “I never saw anger in Sam.” After a long courtship during which they dated others, Richardson decided it was time to marry either a rich boy or a smart boy. “I married the smart boy,” she said, and they’ve been together ever since. But it hasn’t been easy. She’s passionate and outspoken, and Jackson is, in her description, “emotionally disconnected.” When she would call him on a movie set and ask him if he missed her, he’d say no. “But he’s changing,” Richardson said. “The other day I cut my hand, and he took me to the hospital. Years ago, I’d have to go by myself.” There were long absences during which “I felt abandoned,” she said. “It was easier in the earlier years when we sometimes acted together onstage.” But when their daughter, Zoe, a freelance film and TV producer, was born 30 years ago, Richardson stopped working regularly, because, she said: “We’d vowed to be an intact revolutionary black family. But it was very, very hard.” After Richardson stopped traveling a lot, she served as her husband’s acting critic. She once told him that his acting was “bloodless,” that his meticulous preparation hid the fact that “he didn’t infuse his acting with anything that grabbed you.” She told me: “I was trying to help. He said I had no filter in me.” When I asked her the secret to their 40-year relationship, she said, “Amnesia.”

Jackson was born in Washington. He saw his father twice in his lifetime. Before he turned 1, his mother took him to Chattanooga, Tenn., where his grandparents and aunt lived, and returned by herself to Washington. For the next nine years, he saw his mother sporadically. His aunt, a performing-arts teacher, put him in her school plays beginning when he was a toddler. “She was the reason I became an actor,” Jackson said. She also helped cure his debilitating stutter by taking him to a speech therapist. “It manifests itself more when I read than when I talk,” he said. “I have no idea why. Denzel stuttered. James Earl Jones stuttered. There are still days when I have my n-n-n days or r-r-r days. I try to find another word.”

He grew up in a poor black neighborhood, “but everyone had shoes and food,” he said. There were “two white houses of prostitution” in the neighborhood, and three other houses sold moonshine, and a fourth belonged to a “P.W.T. family. Poor White Trash. Their house had no running water, so they only took baths when it rained. They called me nigger boy and my grandmother Miss Nigger. It was always ‘Miss,’ as if a term of respect. When my grandfather took me to work with him, the whites there would rub my head, affectionately. I’d [expletive] look ’em in the eye to make them uncomfortable. But it was nothing to be angry about. Segregation was just a way of life.”

Jackson relates the details of his childhood without inflection, emotion, affection or resentment, as if reading from a grocery list. The black movie theater played the same movies the white theater did — except when a black actor slapped a white actress, he said, that slap “was cut out of our version.” One day he asked his mother, “Why does the black man always die in movies?” Her response: “Because the black man can’t win, he always gets killed.”

Throughout his childhood, Jackson said, he never really had to interact with white people. He went to black schools, black fairs, black theaters, black churches. “I still do,” he said. “A black church in L.A., maybe once a year. I’m solid with God.”

He grew up with the attitude that it was “me against the world,” he said. “Oh, and I was a selfish kid. When my mother made me share a piece of candy, I threw my half away. If I couldn’t eat the whole thing, I didn’t get any satisfaction out of it.”
His pleasures were solitary. He listened to “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” “The Shadow,” “Amos ’n’ Andy” on the radio, which taught him how to tell stories in his head. Later, in his 20s, TV and movies made the biggest impact. “Shaft” and “The Mod Squad,” big Afros, cool shades and an attitude that “blacks could be black, proud and beautiful. That wasn’t what I’d been taught in school.”

Left to his own devices, Jackson learned to be content with himself, “to sit alone for hours doing nothing and not to have separation anxiety. I would see my mother maybe two times a year. She’d leave, and there was nothing I could do about it. I learned to accept it. If a person leaves me, I immediately forget them. I don’t dwell on people who leave.”

Jackson describes his college-freshman self as a “straight arrow” who was on the cheer squad and swim team and aspired to be a marine biologist. Like many students in the ’60s, he spent his time drinking, playing cards, dabbling in drugs. Then he noticed a group of older black students, who didn’t look like any other students. They had big Afros, wore black twisted braids of rope around their necks and had an aura of genuine menace about them, unlike the make-believe movie menace of his later blaxploitation heroes. At first Jackson didn’t know what they were about. “I only knew they were pretty much angry all the time,” he said. “They took studying seriously.” When Jackson and his classmates cut up in the dorms, these scary guys snapped at them: “You wanna flunk out and go to war and get killed?” Jackson asked them, “What war?” It was 1967. They said, “The war in Vietnam.” Hard as it is to believe, Jackson’s response, he said, was, “Where’s that?” They said, “Get a map and find it yourself.”

“These were serious guys, returning war vets going to school on the G.I. Bill,” he said. “They were articulate about war, racism, the C.I.A.” Jackson began to realize that once he left Morehouse, he would leave the last vestiges of that black cocoon that had protected him all his life. After Morehouse, he’d be thrown into that bigger world dominated by whites. He remembered how blacks were treated on those rare occasions when he’d stepped into the white world as a boy. He decided he, too, would get involved in the racial struggle. “I wasn’t gonna let people spit on me and go to jail,” he said. He started hanging out with those former G.I.’s, which led him to H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. “It was my ‘kill whitey’ period,” he said. “I really thought there’d be an armed struggle between blacks and whites. So we began to collect guns.”

Then one day the F.B.I. appeared at his mother’s door. They told her that if her son didn’t quit his radical lifestyle, he’d be dead within a year. So, in the summer of his junior year, he said, “she shipped me off to L.A.” He worked there as a social worker for two years, then returned to Morehouse, joined a theater program, forged a relationship with Richardson, got his degree in arts drama in 1972 and “put my politics away.” On Halloween night, in 1976, he and Richardson arrived in New York City.

During the next 15 years, Jackson performed in plays at the Public Theater, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, the Yale Repertory and on traveling tours, while waiting for the call to Hollywood. “I acted, made costumes, worked the lights, built the sets, everything I could do in a theater. I was making a decent living. I had a good reputation. If Hollywood never called, I could still work in the theater.”

It wasn’t a bad life with his fellow actors Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman and Wesley Snipes. They went to auditions together, and if one didn’t get a part, he recommended his friends. They went to the unemployment office together, partied together, pooled their money, fed one another, spent Christmases together, appeared in plays together. Jackson did “A Soldier’s Story” with Washington and was Freeman’s understudy in “Mother Courage” at the Public. Freeman, 10 years older and wiser, told him once: “I don’t know why you’re working so hard, boy. You got it. Just don’t quit.” When I called Freeman to ask why Jackson got his call to Hollywood so late in his career, Freeman said: “He got it earlier than me. Others went to Hollywood on their own. My agent told me, ‘If they want you, they’ll call you.’ ” The Jackson he knew, Freeman said, “was not cool like Jules — Sam was earnest.”

Washington was the first of his friends to be called to Hollywood. Then Fishburne, then Snipes. Jackson “wouldn’t go unless they called me,” he said. He stayed in New York and asked his agent every day, “Did Hollywood call?” No. So he continued doing what he always did — work, try to take care of his family but also drink and do drugs — until 1990.

For years, Jackson insisted, “I was a great alcoholic and drug addict like actors of old.” He could come offstage between acts, have a drink, go back on and perform well. “That’s how we learned to do it.” In 1990 he got a part in “The Piano Lesson” at the Yale Rep that had been earmarked for Charles Dutton, who was on location filming a movie. When Dutton was available and the play moved to Broadway, he would assume the role, and Jackson would become his understudy. “I was O.K. with it,” Jackson said, “until it was time to do it.” When Dutton took over on Broadway, Jackson didn’t like it. “I rocked that play,” he said. “Charles was great, but I was better. I began smoking coke and getting crazy, then smoking crack to level out.” One night, he passed out on the kitchen floor, and the next day Richardson checked him into a rehab facility. “I threatened to leave him if he didn’t see the rehab through,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t leave this boy I admired so much. But I resented him too. I hated it when he slurred his words. A wife hates to see her husband be weak.”

“I did the 12 steps, yada, yada, yada,” Jackson said. He went through rehab, grudgingly, because “I was tired of the way I felt on drugs. My worry was, ‘Would I still be fun?’ ” He was also worried how being sober would affect his acting. He felt he was smarter, more charming, more talented when he was high. He remembered what his wife said about his acting being “bloodless.” As an addict, “I said all my lines with the right inflections, but there was nothing here,” he said, tapping his heart. “I was always watching people react to me rather than my being inside the character.”

Just before he left rehab, Jackson called his agent as he always did and asked, “Did Hollywood call?” His agent said, “As a matter of fact, they did.” Spike Lee wanted him to play the addict Gator Purify in “Jungle Fever.” Jackson said: “Why not? I already researched the part.”

It was after “Jungle Fever” that Jackson began to see scripts that no longer had him wondering “which page I was killed on.” Most of those scripts “had Denzel’s fingerprints on them, but I had no issue with that.” Some (“White Sands,” “Amos & Andrew”) led to feature roles, but most ended up with him playing Sancho Panza to a host of white stars like Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis and Geena Davis. The secret to playing these sidekicks, he said, was to approach the part “as if I was the audience member hanging out” with the star — a selfless job, but he didn’t mind. Sometimes the sidekick role was written for a white character, and Jackson played it without color; other times he played the white role as a black man. And sometimes those sidekicks were black characters, like Zeus Carver in “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” which he was able to embellish with his electric flourishes. “Zeus Carver was the most like me of any character I ever played,” Jackson said. In an early scene, Willis is forced to stand on a street corner in Harlem wearing a racist sandwich board. A group of black men see him and approach in anger. Across the street, Zeus Carver emerges from his small shop, sees what’s about to happen and comes between the men and Willis. After he saves Willis, he berates him for being such a crazy white racist. It’s obvious that Zeus Carver is a racist, too, but it’s persona for show, worn on the outside like the pimp suits on Jackson’s blaxploitation heroes. And it’s a pose that the fundamentally fair and humane Zeus Carver is unable to sustain.

When Jackson had starring roles in two Tarantino movies, Jules in “Pulp Fiction” and Ordell Robbie in “Jackie Brown,” it did not play well with some black directors like Spike Lee and the Hughes brothers. According to Jackson, Lee told him he used too many “niggers” in “Jackie Brown.” “Spike thinks he’s got the pulse of the whole race,” Jackson said. “I think he was having this thing with Quentin.” When the Hughes brothers, who cast Jackson in “Menace II Society,” complained that white directors didn’t have the right to use black street talk in their movies, Jackson said, he asked them, “How many times I say ‘nigger’ in your film?” In Jackson’s view, “You can’t censor another artist because you say he’s the wrong race.”

Jackson also has no patience with those who put down early black actors like Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen and Stepin Fetchit, whose work reinforced demeaning racial stereotypes. “If you wanted to work in film in those days,” he said, “that’s what you did. They were proud of who they were, which gave them a nice life in the black community of Beverly Hills.” Then he told me a story he heard years ago from a gaffer about Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, a k a Stepin Fetchit, the first millionaire black film star, whose roles as “the laziest man in the world” have been so reviled by African-Americans that they seldom appear on TV anymore. Perry, who made 54 films between 1925 and 1976, presented certain problems on a set. The light used to illuminate the faces of white actors didn’t fare as well with black faces. So a new, smaller and more intense light was developed to illuminate black skin. One day, Perry took his place for a scene, and the director called for “the nigger light.” Perry walked off the set and refused to return until the name of that light was changed. It has been known ever since as the inky. (Until he heard this story, Jackson said, he always thought “inky” was short for “incandescent.”)

Jackson went on to ask me if I knew that at the ceremony at which Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for “Gone With the Wind” she was seated by the door to the kitchen. “We had people who were pioneers, and I appreciate what they did for me,” he said. “They paved the way for guys like Sidney Poitier to let his dignity show through. I’m not some guy who doesn’t know who Jackie Robinson was.”

After “Pulp Fiction” made him “the coolest [expletive] on the planet,” Jackson said, “it was no burden to be cool. I just present myself as I am.” When I asked him if Tarantino was cool, he laughed. “Quentin’s a movie geek. He sucks the air out of a room until Bobby De Niro mumbles something to upstage him. Now that’s cool.” I said that a friend of mine who worked for the Coen brothers told me Jackson was cool mostly to suburban white boys. Jackson shrieked: “Then why don’t those [expletive] white-boy Coen brothers give me a job?”

Jackson went on to talk about people he considers cool. Tommy Lee Jones, because he’s authentic and smart. Scarlett Johansson, because she’s haltingly honest, always struggling to express her thoughts precisely. (“I love Sam Jackson,” Johansson told me. “We’re the Bogart and Bacall for a new age.”)
Guys who don’t get ruffled in life-or-death situations, like James Bond, are cool. “Me? I’m not like that,” Jackson said. “I shoot first, then say” — he assumed a shrill, panicky voice and added an expletive — “ ‘It looked like he had a gun!’ ”

Clint Eastwood is “emphatically cool,” because he plays characters whose moral code is outside the mainstream of conventional society. Sometimes it’s cool to laugh at yourself, as John Wayne did when he got old and parodied his younger cowboy self in “True Grit.” Jackson can laugh at himself, too. When I asked him whose idea it was to dye his hair red in the film “The Negotiator,” he said: “Mine. I was feeling Aboriginal!”

When I left the theater after our last visit, it was raining outside, and I had forgotten my umbrella. I went back up to his dressing room. Jackson was still on the sofa, now thumbing his BlackBerry. I said, “Forgot my umbrella, Sam.” He did not look up. “A senior moment,” I said. Nothing. I shrugged and departed a second time, realizing that Jackson cut me out of his consciousness the moment I left him. His “emotional disconnect.” Jackson has an inability, or maybe a refusal, to show emotion easily in his life, which is curious, since he invests so much passion in the characters he plays. Maybe it’s as Travolta told me: Actors like himself and Jackson go see their own movies to see themselves invested onscreen with all those human qualities they fear they don’t possess themselves.

source super long read but there's a lot of really interesting stuff in there, especially about black celebrities in hollywood and his life experiences. i love his brutal honesty. SLJ tag please??