We often talk about Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Hanks having worked with the biggest directors in the business, but Samuel L Jackson is very much in that league.
After a minor role as an unfortunate thug in Scorsese’s classic Goodfellas, the 66 year old actor has breathed life into characters for Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Tony Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, George Lucas, Joss Whedon and William Friedkin.
But the filmmaker we equate him with more than any other is Quentin Tarantino. Since giving us hitman-in-midst-of-epiphany Jules in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Jackson has popped so many caps in motherfuckers at Tarantino’s behest the two seem made for each other.
And as he tells Paper, his latest role as Civil War hero Marquis Warren speaks volumes of unspoken subtext about violence, race and America.
The lines seem very precise in a Tarantino movie but a lot of actors like to wing it, do you and do you get the chance to in a Tarantino movie?
There’s not a lot that you need to change. Quentin and I have conversations about what I say, and I don’t just willy-nilly change things. If I want to say something else, I’ll go to him and discuss it with him and we’ll talk about it.
He’ll say ‘Well, let me hear what I wrote.’ And I’ll say what he wrote. ‘Well, let me hear what you want to say.’ And I’ll say what I want to say, which is very close to what he wrote. I just want to say it in another way because I think it comes out of that character’s mouth a different way. He’ll say ‘Okay’ or he’ll say ‘No, leave the way I wrote it.’ And that’s generally what happens. The rest of these motherfuckers needs to say what he says.
After all this time do you instinctively know what each other wants?
We’re kind of on the same wavelength. Generally when I get it, it’s exactly what it needs to be. As characterization starts and as we’re in rehearsal, there are times when I feel like I didn’t say enough or I didn’t have enough to say and I would say to him ‘could you add something here so that I can answer that or clarify this’, and Quentin will do that.
But by the time the rehearsal period is over and we get there and we’re ready to do it, nothing changes. The only big change we had from being around the studio table and being outdoors with the stagecoach was the cold. That was the one thing, that was the wildcard that we really didn’t know about, and all of a sudden it changed the urgency of everything of everything we wanted to do, especially outdoors. It was like ‘Okay, I want to get inside this stagecoach now. I don’t like the snow right now.’
What does The Hateful Eight say about race relations?
Well, it all comes out very genuinely. When we were having those conversations, the biggest one was about the Lincoln letter and with Kurt and how he felt when his heart got broken. We had to go through this. We had a really interesting conversation that day.
He’s trying to be a liberal in a time when there weren’t any. All of sudden he’s faced with ‘Oh, so it’s true what they say about you people.’ Now, I could fix that, but there was no need for me to fix that because I had to go with ‘the only time I can safe is when I disarm you’.
In the real world, that’s a very real thing that happens right now. We have to be these very nice kinds of Negroes so we feel safe walking around, because if you present yourself as any other thing then people call people on you. Even after the other day that you see something, say something. I feel sorry for everybody who looks Middle Eastern right now, because that’s going to happen. For a minute, it was us.
How does the character in that time period relate to race relations now?
Major Warren is a lot of things, and one of the things that he is a survivor, and he’s surviving in a very dangerous time. That speech was a lot longer about you don’t know what it means to be a black man in America right now. It was a longer speech. He cut it down to the right size. You don’t need to say a lot more about it than that. We all understand race relations in that time.
It’s like getting back to the whole nigger/not nigger conversations. When you’re talking about me, I can be in the room or out of the room, but you’re very seldom going to say ‘Yeah, you know, the black guy that’s with me.’ That’s not what people said. That’s just not how people talked. So whether I’m in the room or out of the room, when they say the nigger, I don’t have to look around and see who they’re talking about. They’re talking about me, or they’re talking around me, but I’m still there.
Is it just an American conversation or is it global?
We all understand society in another kind of way, or as [costars] Tim Roth knows British society, Demian Bechir knows Mexican society. We all know that everybody has these different stratas of living, and everybody’s got somebody that they particularly put their foot on or walk around on.
So we don’t have to talk about it, there are a whole bunch of people who are going to watch this movie who agree with him. There are going to be a whole lot of people who are going to watch the movie that agree with Bruce. There are going to be people that watch the movie that are on my side. Everybody’s going to have fans. Daisy’s going to have fans. There’s actually people who wish times were still like they used to be.
So when doing that we’re not just making a movie for Quentin’s fans. Because people that hate Quentin and what his movies stand for are still going to go watch this movie just because they like shoot-em-ups. They’re ain’t going to sit there and go “Shit, he hit on my … That’s my thing right there. Damn right. All them niggers lie.” There are going to be other people going “Oh, my God. I can’t believe they talked like that.” That’s just what movies do, and that’s why we make these things, so that we can start conversations or get people thinking. Hopefully, that will make a change.