by Jason Guerrasio, Vanity Fair
There have been few better movie collaborations in the last 20 years than the one between Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson. Whether he's playing a hit man who's grown a conscience or just the narrator to a blood-soaked World War II epic, Jackson's foul-mouthed baritone voice and sinister stare seem like they were created specifically for Tarantino's films. But with Django Unchained, the genre-melding director has handed the 63-year-old actor his most polarizing character yet. Described by Jackson as "the most hated Negro in cinematic history," he plays Stephen, the house slave of wealthy Southern landowner and "Mandingo"-fighting enthusiast Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who we quickly realize is the brains behind the operation of Candie's largest plantation, Candie Land.
Never one to mince words, Jackson tells VF Daily why this role was no different than the hundreds of others he's done in his career, why Leo had to put on his "professional pants" for the film, and that he's ready to appear in the next chapter of the Star Wars saga.
VF Daily: If Quentin Tarantino didn't bring this character to you, would you have done it with any other director?
Samuel L. Jackson: Depends on who the director was. It all depends. But there's a total trust factor with Quentin. If the role was written as well as it was written now, sure, I would have done it with someone else. I don't know if anybody else could have written the role the way it's written.
I know that Tarantino really fleshes out his characters, but were you able to bring your own input into the look and feel of Stephen?
Well, you don't put the look on the page, you just put the words on the page, so once you've established what's inside of him and how he feels about the people around him and what's going on and what he's saying and why he's saying it, then you start to figure out the exterior. I had almost a year and a half to figure out the look. I started working on it when I was doing The Avengers and testing skin tones and skin colors.
Is that an unusual amount a time for you to prep for a character?
The movie wasn't going to start until then, but I knew I was going to do it, so I just started to do stuff so I'd be ready when the time came. Also, to figure out how much time it would take to get into that space and put the appliances on. When we finally figured out the look, it was kind of easy to get into that space. I would look into the mirror and go, "Wow, O.K. that's not me. I'm good." And then I'd go with Stephen or the character he wants to show to people.
That's the thing. He is Candie Land, though Leo's character, Calvin, is the owner.
He's the man. The first time you see him, he's writing checks. He's taking care of whatever needs to be taken care of because Calvin is out Mandingo fighting. He's not running cotton. Or he's running that little whorehouse. So Stephen is the power. Everyone on the plantation knows that. And he has a character he presents to other people when Calvin is around that allows people to dismiss him and make people assume that Calvin is the master that's running stuff.
Was there a need for you and Leo to hang out before shooting so you had a familiarity with one another?
We knew each other socially. I watched his work. I know he's a professional. I will say, when we sat down at the table and started to read through it, he expressed some trepidation about what was on the page, and being that he and Christoph [Waltz] were the only white people other than Quentin in the room, we kind of looked at them and said, "Either you embrace it or let it go. There's no watering this down." He's like, "Do I have to say this this many times? And do I have to say 'nigger' like--" and I said, "Yeah, you do." And he'd say, "Well, is there a way--" "No you can't." Because this is how it is. This is the reality of how it goes. So once he realized you're either all in or all out, he went home, and the next day he was all in. He got his professional pants on and showed up in them.
How long was it to be in the makeup chair to become Stephen?
Forty-five minutes a day. A little longer to take it off than put it on.
Did it take a while to kick the character?
I don't live with them. I sort of figure out who they are, where they came from, their relationship with people on the script and outside the script, find out the physical, then go over the script a couple more times, find out what each scene is trying to accomplish from beginning to end, and when the director says "action," I'm ready to go. And when they say "cut," at that moment I can go and talk to some people and eat some food and have a good laugh. And then when they say "action," I go back into it.
And you've been like that your whole career? When a movie is finished, there's never been a character that's been hard to let go?
I'd say that's a gift.
I guess. I remember when I was doing Jackie Brown, I was doing Sphere at the same time, so I was going back and forth between these two guys. So you have to know where you're going and what you're doing and have the road map so you can turn the G.P.S. on and go.
I've read that Jamie Foxx's reps contacted you about your thoughts on the Django role.
Yeah, they called me before he took the role.
Is that a common occurrence that someone's rep calls you?
It depends on who the director is and the material, I guess. I guess they were apprehensive about something--I guess his brand or the subject matter or how other people were going to perceive it. Those are your people and that's what they do. Mine don't. We all read something at the same time and if they don't like it and I do, I can tell them why I do and they can give me their reasons for not wanting me to do something, which are more times economic than artistic, and then I say, I don't care about that. You find a way for this to work for me where it doesn't hurt me in that way or hurt the people coming down the line that you might want me to work with. Because they'll say, Well, he did that for nothing, why won't he blah, blah, blah. I make my decisions on what I do. So at the end of the day all I could tell them was it's Quentin Tarantino, first of all, and second of all, if it was 10 to 15 years ago we wouldn't be having this conversation because I'd be doing that role, and if you need to know anything more then you're calling the wrong person.
Do you know there's going to be a Jackie Brown prequel?
Yeah. I hope Mos Def makes a good me. That's all I can say. I like Mos. I've read about it--have they shot it? Are they shooting it?
They start shooting early next year.
And who's playing De Niro's character?
It's an interesting tandem.
And I've heard that you're interested in grabbing the light saber once more if called upon.
Yeah, for sure. They'll need to have some familiar characters to help introduce the new ones or make it O.K. for people to say, Yeah, this is Star Wars. At least, I think.
You've played so many characters in you're career. Is there a character you still want to play and haven't had the chance to?
I don't know. I mean movies aren't like theater where you say, I want to play Macbeth. Movies are a different animal. You read the script and say, Oh my God--look at this character! And you want to get in there and find out who he is and how he works with the other people. Quentin wants to make the movies he wants to see, and I make the movies I want to see, with me in them. So that's generally how I make a choice. I love a story and what's going on in it; I want to see it and I want to see me as that character in that story. And I'll make that choice because I guess I have that luxury. I don't have to worry about going to audition and taking any job that falls out. But it was the same back then. I read about the movie; I want to be in it.
So, is there a character in theater you want to play?
No. I was just using that as an example.
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