Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Samuel L. Jackson and his Journey through the Quentin Tarantino Universe


        It is not uncommon for certain directors to gather a group of actors around him or herself to be used again and again in their films.  Some of Hitchcock’s best films star either Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, for example.  Martin Scorsese used Robert DeNiro in several films before switching over to Leonardo DiCaprio in more recent years.  An Ingmar Bergman movie is bound to have either Max von Sydow or Liv Ullmann, or both, turn up in it.  It’s certainly no different with Quentin Tarantino, who has kept a number of people working with him over the years both in front of and behind the camera.
            It’s understandable, especially in cases where directors such as Quentin Tarantino guide the entire production and steer the scripting themselves.  They have a vision of how the film should look, and with that comes how they want the actors to perform and sound.  Anyone that can’t do that certainly would have little chance of returning, while those that do will have already established a working relationship with the director.  As for Tarantino, he and others have made clear over the years that he likes an actor who understand the rhythm of his writing, and who can propel that dialogue to another level with their performance.  Some can at least fake it well enough to pass his judgment, while a small handful seem to be in sync with what Tarantino has in his head.
          There have been performers that have been used here and there – in fact, the cast for The Hateful Eight has enough returning actors to Tarantino’s movie universe (Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, James Parks, a handful of actors that appeared in his previous movie, Django Unchained) that it’s almost a class reunion.  Yet one of the most prolific of these actors has been Samuel L. Jackson, with seven appearances in Tarantino-related movies.  Nearly eight, in fact.  And even a couple of times where the parts originally written for Jackson ended up not being the parts he ultimately played.      
          The Quentin Tarantino FAQ book goes into more details about the various movies the writer / director has been involved over the years, as well as other aspects of Tarantino’s career.  Such as exactly how Samuel Jackson has continued to thread his acting career through Tarantino’s films over the years.

Reservoir Dogs (1992) 
            Reservoir Dogs does not feature Jackson, although he did try out for the film.  The assumption for years by way too many people was that he must have tried out for the part of Holdaway, Mr. Orange’s police contact and played by Randy Brooks in the film.  Rumors also flew around that Jackson had tried out for the part of Mr. White – a part pretty much a done-deal for Harvey Keitel long before auditions began, as explained in the book.
          However, in 2013, Jackson stated at a special screening of Pulp Fiction that he had actually auditioned for the role of Mr. Orange (played by Tim Roth in the film), only to leave the audition not sure if he even wanted to be in the resulting film if he had won the part.  As he told Deadline: Hollywood after auditioning with Tarantino himself (“Samuel L. Jackson Lets Loose on Django, Tarantino, Slavery, Oscars and Gold Globes,” by Pete Hammon),  “I thought he was just a really bad actor. I was like ‘Damn, these dudes are horrible.’ I look like I was overacting or they have no judgment of what’s good and what’s not.” 
          After the film was released, Jackson congratulated Tarantino on the film’s success, which began the ball rolling for Tarantino to write a part in his next film specifically for the actor.  But one film connected to Tarantino would introduce Jackson to Tarantino’s realm before that could happen.

True Romance (1993) 
            To make a long story short (but covered in more details in the Quentin Tarantino FAQ book), in the very early 1990s Tarantino had two scripts floating around Hollywood that he spent quite some time to sell – one was Natural Born Killers (1994) and the other was True Romance.  It would be the money Tarantino made on the sale of the True Romance script that would help lead to the making of Reservoir Dogs, and the success of that film led straight to Pulp Fiction (1994).  In the meantime, however, Tony Scott took over the reins on True Romance and hired Samuel Jackson for the short, but memorable, role of Big Don.  Big Don is one of the criminals seen near the beginning of the film with Drexl (played by Gary Oldman) who argues in favor of a certain sex act before Drexl decides to end the party early by blowing Big Don and his associate away with a gun. 
            Jackson was already making a name for himself in Hollywood, thanks to roles in films by Spike Lee (a main reason why Jackson almost always gets interviewed by reporters when the feud between Lee and Tarantino is discussed), as well as co-star and smaller roles in movies like Jurassic Park and Patriot Games, so it’s no surprised he would turn up in a film like True Romance.  Ironically, his first Tarantino-related film is the one not directed by the man, but that would soon change.
Pulp Fiction (1994) 
            Tarantino has built himself a reputation for keeping promises to actors that he says he wants to work.  This was the case with the casting of Pam Grief and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997), after promising both that he had them in mind for roles in a movie.  It was also true of Jackson for Pulp Fiction.
          Or, at least that’s how the story goes.  According to Laurence Fishburne (“Fishburne Glad He Turned Down Pulp Fiction,” Contactmusic, November 11, 2009), he was given the script by Tarantino and told that the role had been written with him in mind.  After reading the script, he declined the part stating, “I decided not to do it, because I couldn’t respond to the part. …It didn’t feel like something I needed to do.”  Thus, Jackson was asked if he wanted to play the part and he readily accepted. 
            But there was a catch that Jackson was unaware - he was expected to audition for the role.  Thinking the part was his, he found out right before production was to start that actor Paul Calderon had the role because Jackson had never auditioned.  Tired and angry, Jackson traveled to Los Angeles in order to do a last-minute audition for Tarantino, Lawrence Binder and Miramax’s head of production, Richard Gladstein.  To put him into an even worse mood, he came into the audition with someone telling him, “I love your work, Mr. Fishburne.”
            Arriving with some carryout from a fast-food joint, Jackson seeped with anger that played perfectly into his audition for the trio.  As Lawrence Binder said to Vanity Fair, “He was the guy you see in the movie.  He said, ‘Do you think you’re going to give this part to somebody else? I’m going to blow you away.’”
            Convinced Jackson should play the role, Paul Calderon was given the smaller role of English Dave, the bartender at Marsellus’ strip bar.  Calderon would go on to play Norman, the guy about to lose a finger at the party in Tarantino’s segment of Four Rooms, as well as a variety of parts, big and small in movies and television. 
            Flash-forward:  In February 2014, Los Angeles KTLA reporter Sam Rubin interviewed Jackson about his role in the remake of RoboCop.  During the interview, Rubin asked Jackson about his recent Super Bowl ad.  Problem was, the Super Bowl ad featured not Jackson, but Laurence Fishburne.  It was obvious that the reporter had made an innocent mistake during a live interview, and for the most part Jackson took it with good humor, but no doubt he probably felt it was simply par for the course.

Jackie Brown (1997) 
            Tarantino’s venture into adapting a novel for the big screen came after the success of Pulp Fiction and with through a desire to make a movie based on a novel by one of his favorite author, Elmore Leonard.  The novel was Rum Punch, which was stated to go into production with Tarantino as the producer and a female director never named making the film.  Instead, Tarantino wrote the script and decided to direct it himself, leading to him hiring Jackson to play the world of Ordell, a ruthless arms-trader who thought himself smarter than he actually was. 

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004)
            When Tarantino began writing the Kill Bill script, he had one actor in mind, as he told Brian Helgeland in 2003 (“Screenwriters are (Obsessive, Creative, Neurotic) People, Too,” moderated by Lynn Hirschberg, The New York Times, November 9, 2003):  “I definitely often write for Sam Jackson. I know his rhythms. I feel like he can turn my lines into poetry.  In fact, the character of Bill in Kill Bill, when I first put pen to paper, was Sam Jackson.  And finally I had to stop it. I knew I didn’t want to cast Sam Jackson as Bill.” 
            Instead, Jackson would make a brief appearance near the beginning of the second Kill Bill movie as Rufus, the piano player at the Two Pines Wedding Chapel.  It was almost a family affair on the Kill Bill set, as Jackson’s wife, LaTanya Richardson, was originally hired to play the character L. F. O’Boyle in the second film.  You don’t remember a character called that in the second Kill Bill movie?  That’s because the scene to feature the character – which would have introduced the audience to Bill by showing him taunting Richardson’s character into trying to attack him so he could kill her.  When Tarantino saw how well the opening dialogue between Bill and Kiddo went before the wedding massacre scene, he decided that there was no need for the O’Boyle segment and cut it from the film.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
            Although uncredited, Jackson is the narrator briefly heard in Tarantino’s World War II epic.        
Django Unchained (2012) 
            As with Kill Bill, Tarantino wrote the title character with Samuel Jackson in mind for Django Unchained.  The problem was that Tarantino kept running up against the obstacle of everyone being older then when he first began working on the script.  To fit the part the way he wanted, he needed a younger man, and felt that Jackson was perfect in nearly every way except the difference in age between the actor and the part.  Tarantino attempted to fix that by re-writing the script in a manner that would have shown Django as a young man and then “fifteen years on” with Jackson playing him at his current age, but Tarantino never felt it worked as effectively as making Django a younger man throughout the film. 
          Thus, he needed to find another actor for the main role and instead offered Jackson the role of Stephen (who Tarantino refers to as a “Basil Rathbone” villain in his script).  Tarantino was wondering how Jackson would feel about the change from the lead to a secondary character, but Jackson took it well – after all it was a chance to play, as Tarantino remembered Jackson saying at the time, “the most despicable black motherfucker in the history of the world.”  Meanwhile, Tarantino had to find his Django, and after negotiations with Will Smith fell through, Tarantino went after Jamie Foxx.
Foxx was anxious for the role, but his rep was unsure and called Jackson for his thoughts on the project.  As Jackson remembered when talking to Jason Guerrasio at Vanity Fair (“Samuel L. Jackson on Find the Right Skin Tone for Django Unchained …” December 20, 2012): “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 ten or fifteen 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.”  With that, Foxx signed on.

The Hateful Eight (2015) 
            Jackson had taken part in a public read-through of the script when Tarantino was considering not actually making the film after the script was leaked.  Eventually, the director changed his mind, announcing the script was to be filmed with a number of the actors that took part in the read-through, including Jackson.  Thus, Samuel L. Jackson continue his partnership with Tarantino in a new film; one that will be released by the end of 2015.
            Will the trend continue?  Tarantino himself has said that he only plans to make a few more movies before he retires.  Yet, even if that is so, one can bet that he’ll probably be working on his subsequent scripts wondering how to get Jackson once again into his film.

QUENTIN TARANTINO FAQ - out March 11, 2015!