During the pandemic, Charlotte-based, New York Times-bestselling author Gavin Edwards watched every single movie Samuel L. Jackson has ever been in. And, he lived to tell the tale … in fact, lots of tales.
It wasn’t (just) an obsession. He was writing a book called BAD MOTHERF***: The Life and Movies of Samuel L. Jackson, the Coolest Man in Hollywood (Hatchette Books, $29 in hardback).
We talked to Edwards recently to learn more about Hollywood’s most lovable bada**. The conversation has been lightly edited.
There are many actors who have let forth with strings of curse words on screen. Why do we all think of Samuel L. Jackson as the master of the motherf***ing expletive?
Good question. There are plenty of actors who curse on screen. Cinema is a G-rated endeavor very rarely these days. But Samuel Jackson is the icon of the “MF.” He says it with sheer verve. If you think of Pulp Fiction, there’s this great moment where he says, “I’m a mushroom cloud-laying motherf***, motherf***” with such passion. You feel like there would be no better word that he could use at that point. And he says it with this percussive quality …
And I think part of the reason for that is that when he was growing up, Samuel Jackson had a stutter. He spent most of fourth grade barely talking. His teachers knew he was bright, and so they had mercy on him and didn’t call on him in class.
Around the time he was like 17 or 18, he had taken voice classes and had seen a speech therapist. But he figured out something which was that one word he could always say without stuttering was motherf***. This one word lets him communicate with the world. It unlocks things for him. And so, when I spoke with him about it, he’s like, that is my all-purpose word, my noun, adjective, expletive, everything.
So, are some of his “motherf***s” onscreen ad-libs?
Jackson will go with what the director needs. But if you’re making a movie and he thinks you’re being wrongheaded about it, he will let you know.
If he’s in a Quentin Tarantino movie, he’s very much doing Tarantino’s lines … but then there are other movies, like Soul Men, where it’s him and another guy who’s really good at saying motherf***, which was Bernie Mac, and every other word was motherf***. The director had no problem with it, but he said after a while, it lost its effectiveness. You became numb to it.
Is he a badass motherf*** in real life?
He is a very cool guy. But he said if someone had a gun pointed at him, he wouldn’t react the way he does on the screen. There would be screaming.
One of the things I write about in the book is that playing these cool characters unlocked the coolness. The Samuel L.Jackson that you know was a working character actor. And then, he starts making movies like Pulp Fiction like Menace to Society, where he’s called upon to be intimidating and menacing and cool. And I think once he does that, well, cool is a mask you wear, but if you wear it often enough, it starts to fit your face. It took some time for him to become the person we love.
And we do love him no matter how bad he is. His character in Pulp Fiction is atrocious.
His character in Jackie Brown is much worse.
We absolutely love it. I mean, Samuel Jackson is the top-grossing actor of all time.
Think of Snakes on a Plane. It’s not a great movie, but it’s an entertaining movie. Samuel Jackson shows up on screen and you’re like: He’s got this. As moviegoers, we know it’s going to be cool. Sam Jackson’s here. This movie is under control. You know, we can relax and be confident he’s going to keep things cool, and we’re going to be entertained.
That was such a surprise to me that he’s the top-grossing actor of all time. I would have guessed De Niro, maybe.
Or Brad Pitt. Part of this is because he’s a workaholic. He loves acting. He wants to take every chance he can to do it. So, some years, he makes five or six movies. Samuel Jackson has been in 140-plus movies. And I watched 140-plus movies when I was writing Bad Motherf***. And some of them, he’s got the starring role, but there are all these huge movies where he shows up for a minute or two.
He’s in a dozen Marvel Comics movies, and some of them, he’s in it for literally 30 seconds. But you know, you’re always glad when he’s there. He’s in the Star Wars prequels. He is in Jurassic Park, which is funny to think about now. He’s this chain-smoking park administrator.
He has never had a huge ego about ‘I’ve got to be the star.’ It’s: Can I find an interesting character? Can I do something good with it? Does it give me a chance to do something I haven’t done before?
Was watching 140-plus Samuel L. Jackson movies a delight? Or drudgery? Or something in between?
I’m not going to say every single one was a delight. I think the worst one was a movie called Hail Caesar, which was directed by the former Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall. It’s this terrible comedy based on a Mark Twain story – although nobody can figure out which Mark Twain story. I called the Mark Twain House in Connecticut, and the scholars there were dumbfounded. So, that wasn’t a good night.
So, he doesn’t ever just phone it in the way some well-respected actors do? Robert De Niro has been accused of occasionally phoning it in at this stage in his career.
Obviously, some performances are better than others and, and sometimes, he’s great in a terrible movie. Sometimes, he has a small part and is not the number one thing you remember about that movie, but he just shows up and he brings it.
You can see that he’s always trying to find a way to not just do the same thing over and over even though he’s often called upon to be the badass motherf***, right? Watching these 140 movies could be a joy because I found the gems that are totally unlike that. He’s playing a homeless concert pianist. Or he’s playing the family doctor for a small town or he’s playing a stately lawyer. When these things happen, you’re like: Oh, this guy can really act. It’s just that most of the time people want to see him do one very specific thing.
Does he talk that way in real life, that sort of rapid-fire staccato, laced with a lot of curse words?
Absolutely … It’s one of the interesting reasons that he and Tarantino make such a good pair. Tarantino … is a very verbal writer; he writes monologues in a way that you don’t usually see in movies.
And Jackson has actually compared Tarantino to the playwright August Wilson, who did Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Two Trains Running. They’re very similar in terms of just giving you big chunks of text to sink your teeth into. And he feels like those are the writers who really let you grow as an actor.
Interesting. I’ve always compared Tarantino to the playwright David Mamet, because of the rapid-fire verbal assaults, and how terrible people are to each other in both of their plays.
I don’t know if Jackson’s ever been in a Mamet play; I believe the answer is no, although it’s possible. One of the interesting things about his career is that he really only became successful around the age of 40. That’s when he had his breakthrough. He’s in Jungle Fever and wins a special prize at Cannes and then a year or two later, he has the breakthrough in Pulp Fiction and then everything explodes for him.
He was in Atlanta, first at Morehouse College and then doing regional theater and then he comes to New York and he was just doing play after play after play. And, scrabbling around on the fringes of the industry. He actually worked on The Cosby Show, not as an actor, but as a stand-in for Cosby, sort of wearing Bill Cosby sweaters and doing the blocking with the camera crew. And that was his job for a couple of years. I think that made him a more well-rounded person because he experienced a lot of life before he started making movie-star bank and getting the red-carpet treatment. But I think that also really informed him as an actor …
What does he say about Bill Cosby? Was he aware of what was going on?
Well, it was just a job to him. He did not try to insinuate himself into Cosby’s circle. He didn’t schmooze him. He didn’t ask for a walk-on role on the show. He treated it as a class in how to do three-camera sitcom acting. The only other encounter they had was some years later. Cosby spotted him at a basketball game and remembered who he was. At this point, Jackson is famous. Cosby says, “I still need a stand-in!”
That’s funny. Do you have a favorite Samuel L. Jackson movie, and do you have a favorite moment of his on screen?
There are so many, but my favorite will always remain Pulp Fiction. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and the reason there’s a lot of greatness in that movie is that, at the center of it, is Samuel Jackson. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars that year.
There are a lot of people doing a lot of things in that movie, but he’s the one who changes and has an arc in the movie. The movie ends with (SPOILER ALERT!) him reaching this moment where he is able to walk away from this life. For me, the greatest moment is when he’s seated across the table from Tim Roth’s character and he has this moment of clarity and he’s explaining why he is not going to shoot him, but he’s going to give him the money from his wallet instead. And I think that’s just beautiful.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Samuel Jackson? I mean, Samuel L. Jackson. It doesn’t sound right without the “L.”
His friends call him Sam. My favorite way to refer to him was “Mr. L. Jackson.” I recognize it’s not correct, so I only did it once in the book. I didn’t know a lot about his life before he was famous.
He was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was raised under segregation. And, it wasn’t until he was about 10 and went to Los Angeles that he saw black people and white people drinking from the same water fountain. He grew up with this everyday, systemic racism.
He says he had a happy childhood because his family loved him and he was surrounded by love, but he also was very aware of the walls he was up against, and I think you can see some of that sublimated rage comes through in his performances.
Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you think is important for readers to know?
We commissioned two dozen illustrators, including a bunch from people from here in Charlotte, like Dammit Wesley. And they all did new versions of posters from Samuel Jackson’s movies, and that’s the art of the book. They just knocked it out of the park. So, it is not just a book. It’s also a gallery show between covers.
Gavin Edwards is the author and editor of 12 books, including The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment and Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever. He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Rolling Stone and more. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Jen Sudul Edwards, and their two children.
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