Samuel L. Jackson didn't follow a traditional path to Hollywood stardom, although he stayed close to it throughout his early days as an actor. From Ragtime to Goodfellas, he's there in the background of some of the most notable films of the '80s and early '90s. But in 1991, Jackson came into his own: His breakout role in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever snowballed first into a star-making turn in Pulp Fiction, then into leading-man status in dramatic films and action movies. Jackson can currently be seen in the Internet-fueled sensation Snakes On A Plane. From a sunny terrace at the San Diego Convention Center, shortly before he greeted fans at the Comic Con, Jackson spoke to The A.V. Club about his career, his options, and how he really came onboard Snakes On A Plane.
The A.V. Club: Your role in Jungle Fever indicated a kind of talent that could make you a huge star someday. But it seemed to take a few years for that to happen. Why?
Samuel L. Jackson: [Laughs.] I don't know. I don't know how it particularly works, or whatever… I just kinda walked into Hollywood, I kinda crept in there, didn't do a bunch of stuff where my name was above the title. I think the first movie I did where my name was above the title after that was Amos & Andrew. The film was moderately successful, for what it was, and then I did some other stuff [Patriot Games] with Harrison Ford. It takes a minute, I guess, to submit yourself either as a leading man or as a credible supporting actor who goes around and makes films better, or makes stories better, or enhances the other characters when they're there. I always considered myself more of an actor than a movie star, so I always think of myself as a leading character more so than a leading man. I wasn't actively seeking roles where I was the guy on top, or the biggest name in the movie, or anything else. Just kind of let the career work out the way it worked out.
AVC: Did your evolution into leading-man status surprise you?
SLJ: No. It just kind of happened. Things happen for different reasons, and people have their different opinions about who's a leading man and who's not. That whole controversy surrounding Pulp Fiction that year was very interesting, in terms of people saying, why did John [Travolta] get nominated for Best Actor, and I got nominated for Best Supporting Actor? In some people's mind, I was the leading actor. Whatever, you know? It's a bookending performance. People put you in the place where they think you'll fit, and for me, I never choose a job because I'm looking to be the most important character in a particular story or a particular movie. Sometimes I've been offered a lead in a movie and there's another character in the movie that interested me more, and I preferred to play that character.
AVC: You've mixed up your career between action films and more traditional dramatic roles. Why did you decide that this would be your action film for this year?
SLJ: [Pauses.] I didn't think of it that way. It's just one of those movies that, when I was a kid, I would have gone to the movies and stayed all day watching it, me and my friends. I tend to choose films because they're that kind of film for me, because I always wanted to see myself in that kind of movie when I was a kid. I wanted to be the guy who was running away from the big scary thing, or I wanted to be the guy that's chasing the bad guy down the street, the guy that's still standing when the smoke clears. And those were the kind of things I went to the movies to watch on Saturdays. There's a place for them in my heart, and I think still in the moviegoing public. And it's okay for me to do that, because I don't take myself as seriously.
AVC: What do you mean?
SLJ: I mean, there are some people who would never dare to even pick up a script that said Snakes On A Plane. The same people that are criticizing or vilifying me because I've done it. "How could you? A piece of slop film that's caught hold on the Internet—keep feeding into America's lowest common denominator." It's like, the dumbing-down of America is because of the making of films like Snakes On A Plane? Come on. Moviemaking is entertainment. It's not math. Every movie that you make doesn't have to change the social fabric of the world or America or whatever. Some people want to go to the movies so they don't have to think about what's going on around them, or how much gas costs when they have to drive to the movie theater. They just do it.
AVC: So you don't feel the need to compensate by making something that people are going to take more seriously?
SLJ: There's no plan there. I read the script, and—I guess the Internet rumor is that I took the job without reading the script. It's sort of true, but not in the way they said. I didn't receive the script, see the title, and go "Snakes On A Plane, wow, I'll do it," and throw it away. I was reading the trades, and it said "Ronny Yu to direct Snakes," and I was like, "What is that?" Ronny and I had done a film together [The 51st State], so I emailed him and said "What is it?" And he said, "Poisonous snakes get loose on an airplane." And I'm like, "Wow, think I can be in that?" And he was like, "You really want to be in it?" And I said "Yes, I really want to be in it." So, here I am. He's not, but here I am, so it's cool. [Yu left the project and was replaced by Cellular director David R. Ellis. —ed.]
AVC: What do you consider your most underrated film?
AVC: Why is that?
SLJ: It was a film about something that was going on then, and is still very prevalent now. About students abusing teachers in school every day, and kids being intimidated when they go to school, or being scared to go to school. Then a teacher got killed by a student in New York City, and the guy running the studio didn't want it to feel like they were glorifying that incident by advertising the film. Unfortunate. A lot of people have seen it on video, and they wonder, "What happened where, and how did this film slip through the cracks?" And it's still a fact that teachers are being assaulted at an alarming rate every day in schools. They get intimidated in that situation, or lose their zest for teaching.
AVC: You're doing the voice of God for an audiobook version of the Bible. How does the voice of God differ from the voice of Samuel L. Jackson?
SLJ: Not very much.
AVC: How do you get into character for that?
SLJ: I don't. I just kind of read it and hope it sounds omnipotent. There's no formula for that. [I don't] say "I'm going to be God now, how do I need to sound?" I don't know. Nobody knows. The good thing about that is that God's not talking to people as much as he used to in the Old Testament, so nobody really knows if he sounds like me or not. So I can get away with it.
AVC: The singer for Cobra Starship, which did the song "Snakes On A Plane (Bring It)" for the film's soundtrack, has talked about how he's using "snakes on a plane" as a metaphor, not just taking it literally. Do you think it works as a metaphor?
SLJ: Pretty much, yeah.
AVC: For what?
SLJ: [Pauses.] Um… wow… Going to hell in a handbasket. Anything that's unfathomable and impossible to escape is pretty much snakes on a plane.
AVC: If you had to do either films like this or dramas for the rest of your career, which would you choose?
SLJ: Hm… a steady diet of… These.
SLJ: Because I'd rather be entertaining than poignant. People have enough drama in their lives already. They don't have enough things to make them smile.
AVC: What's on your mind these days apart from making movies?
SLJ: Not a lot. Trying to find more space to play golf and work on my game.
AVC: How long have you been golfing?
SLJ: About nine years now. And, uh… figuring out my time in London to do this film, 1408. When that's done, I go straight to Toronto to start another film, Jumper, so I'm busy working with my makeup artists and my hairdresser and the director and other people to create my look for that film. I get the chance to do something different again, and not necessarily look like myself.
AVC: Your look is kind of hard to disguise.
SLJ: Yeah, but I want to be different.
[For a conversation with Snakes On A Plane director David R. Ellis, including his explanation of why Snakes On A Plane wasn't screened for critics, click here.]