The first thing you’ll notice if you ever meet Samuel L. Jackson is how tall he is. At nearly 6’3″, the imposing actor manages to physically command attention and respect without being intimidating. And then he smiles and tells you to call him Sam and just like that you feel like you’ve known him your whole life.
It could be the fact that the prolific performer has starred in dozens of movies —somewhere around 140 give or take a few including Pulp Fiction, The Avengers, Star Wars and Django Unchained.
His latest movie, The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an action comedy which stars Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek and Gary Oldman. In time for the premiere, Jackson sat down with ESSENCE at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about the flick, his favorite curse words and how he stays true to himself and his craft.
ESSENCE: There are a lot of fun little details and touches in the movie, including your character’s tattoos, which help the audience get to know hitman Darius Kincaid. His wife Sonia (Selma Hayek) has matching tattoos. Was that your idea or was that in the script?
Samuel L. Jackson: That was me. I wanted the tattoos as part of my back story and all those crows are the souls of the people I killed. They run up my arms and on my head. It got written in when I started talking about it. I have a relationship with the writer. He’s the same guy who wrote The Revenant.
ESSENCE: Isn’t that a nod to be at the level you’ve reached in this industry that you can shape projects in your own image?
Samuel L. Jackson: I come with a lot of baggage. I do a lot of things and write a lot of stuff about my characters and make up things. If it’s not source material from a novel or something, then I have the freedom to create all these kinds of things about this guy that I want to and I can talk to the writer about it. He’ll say, “I can work with that” and that happens.
ESSENCE: Your character in A Hitman’s Bodyguard is not just running around shooting people and the chemistry between you and Ryan Reynolds is fun as a result. Can you talk about that?
Samuel L. Jackson: It’s very different humor. You know Ryan has this wry sense of humor. You can call it white-boy humor. A certain kind of frat boy kind of humor and I have this kind of street, profane thing that works for me. But there’s an honest understanding of what makes a relationship work and who these two people are. Even between me and my wife. It sounds crazy to some people that he can say, “Yeah, she cut off part of my ear with a machete. But she sewed it back on and it was all good.”
ESSENCE: There’s also an honest appreciation of the differences too. It’s not like you had to be like Ryan Reynolds and he had to be like you, right?
Samuel L. Jackson: His character makes plans and my character takes things as they come. Life surprises you everyday. You have to be ready for the surprise. He wants things to go like this and that but that’s not what life is. Life doesn’t adjust to you. People say you make plans, God decides something else.
ESSENCE: How much of what we see is ad libbed?
Samuel L. Jackson: I talk to my friends that way and I talk to myself that way so it kind of works out. I’m just trying to represent. That’s what happened in Kong: Skull Island. When Brie [Larson] comes in and stops me from killing Kong, it was written in the script as “Oh, please. Nobody talks like that.” They asked me what I wanted to say and I said, “b-tch please.” And they said, “Fine. We can get past that.”
ESSENCE: Overall how much fun was filming The Hitman’s Bodyguard?
Samuel L. Jackson: I had a great time. That’s what helps when you do films like this. You have to make sure when you’re doing things that you’re not icing something too much or doing something that creates another funny moment on top of a funny moment. Just let that funny moment be. You don’t have to help it. Everybody’s not going to laugh at it but there’s going to be a lot of people who do laugh.
ESSENCE: Do you ever have to push for authenticity?
Samuel L. Jackson: Yes. If I’m sitting in movie, I don’t want to watch me doing stupid sh-t on screen. I fight with directors about that from time to time. “It would be so funny if…” Nah. I’m not a caricature of myself. For a while, that whole King of Cool thing had more to do with a character that was on screen than me. I don’t consider myself as [Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction]. I’m pretty boring. I read books, I watch movies, I play golf. Those characters do things that I don’t do. Sometimes people get caught up in the Jules type moments. But it’s not Jules. This is somebody else. They get caught up and need me to be cool. But I need to be professional and I need to be real. I want to do things I can be proud of when I’m sitting in an audience watching. That’s important to me.
ESSENCE: The Hitman’s Bodyguard feels like it could be a sequel like The Whole Nine Yards or Get Shorty. Is that something you’d want to do?
Samuel L. Jackson: I want people to ask for things like that and not just decide we need to make Fast & Furious 8 because we made all this money. It’s got to be the kind of movie people want. I’m getting ready to do the sequel to Unbreakable and people have been asking for it for God-only-knows how many years. So I want to do something people want to see like Incredibles 2.
The Hitman’s Bodyguard opens in theaters nationwide today.