The Hot Seat: Samuel L. Jackson
The world's highest-grossing actor tangles with Cormac McCarthy's The Sunset Limited---and the subway.
Tue Feb 8 2011
Illustration: Dan Park
RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews
Were you familiar with Cormac McCarthy before starring in a movie version of his play? Did you have a favorite of his works?
No. But I liked No Country for Old Men, because it had enough violence in it for me to go, "Yeah!"
Were you disappointed that there's no violence in this play? It's just two characters named Black and White, talking for two hours.
Well, there is—descriptive violence. Which is as good as physical. I try to paint a picture as vividly as I can.
At one point, Tommy Lee Jones's character, White, asks your character, Black, about the worst thing he ever did. What's the worst thing you've ever done?
Me? Why would I tell you that?
It's an interesting question!
Yeah, but those are the kind of questions that people don't answer, or they lie about it: "Uhhh, I dunno, I...robbed a bank," or "I took a coat hanger and aborted my dog," or some shit.
Well, do you know, personally, the worst thing you've ever done?
I might have a good idea, and that might not even be it. There are periods of my life I've blanked out on. [Laughs]
Black talks about the Bible a lot. Have you read the whole Bible?
Yeah. Grew up in church, read the whole thing. I have one on my Kindle, I just looked at it. A few years ago I did the New Testament on tape, I did the voice of God.
How does one do the voice of God?
You talk deep and ominous. Sometimes very angry.
You're certainly known for badass characters—
You know that! But you keep going back to movies like Star Wars and to playing Nick Fury. Are you secretly a big ol' nerd?
I'm secretly that kid that goes to movies on Saturday, and there were always things I wanted to see myself in—Westerns and science-fiction movies and monster movies, running away from big things with big teeth. When I have the chance to do 'em, I do 'em. I'm not that kind of actor that's looking for the role that's gonna get me an Academy Award. I will do Snakes on a Plane, and then I'll turn around and do The Sunset Limited. It's all acting. There's supposed to be a certain amount of fun in this job, a certain amount of fantasy fulfillment. Boys' toys and guns, that's what we grew up with. I still want to do a Western; Star Wars became my pirate movie, I got my lightsaber as opposed to a sword. I was happy with that. I ran from snakes, got eaten by a shark in Deep Blue Sea...
You have a checklist?
Oh yeah! Totally! Things I wanna do. I still wanna do a slasher movie. I just did a genre movie; you don't see me kill people, but I do leave a lot of destruction in my wake.
And yet your favorite pastime is golf.
I'm an only child. So team sports—I played 'em, but someone can always blame you, and you can blame someone else. In golf, I take all the blame. I'm responsible for all the good shit, I'm responsible for the bad.
What's your handicap?
Impressive. So back to Snakes on a Plane. We gonna see a sequel?
Oh, yeah. I'm not real sure, it could be Snakes on a Boat, they could be anywhere. Somewhere contained—Snakes on a Train. But you could stop a train...
The movie begins after Black saves White from his attempted suicide on the subway tracks. Have you ever seen anyone fall on the tracks?
I myself was dragged by a subway train. Years ago, in 1990. I was getting off the train, a lady dropped her bag, and I stopped to pick up her stuff. Had one foot on the platform, one foot on the train, and the door shut and the train took off. I got dragged the length of the platform! Luckily I was in the last car, I was a car and a half away from the tunnel before someone pulled the emergency cord.
Were you hurt?
It ripped my ACL to shreds. And I sued the shit out of the MTA! [Laughs]
That's one of the quintessential New York City nightmares.
I was one of 23 people dragged that year. That's a common accident.
Don't tell me that! Did you go back to riding the subway?
Sure! My lawyer wanted me to go down there and fall on the tracks and scream every time the train pulled in.
After all that, if someone else fell on the tracks, would you go save him?
And would you try to talk to him about God and life and redemption and prison, like your character does in the movie?
No, I'd probably check him into a facility.
The Sunset Limited premieres Sat 12 on HBO.