Samuel L. Jackson Talks Slavery, Star Wars & His 'Sanitized' Character In 'Django Unchained'
A career of playing righteous bad-asses in Pulp Fiction, the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the Marvel superhero movies has made Samuel L. Jackson one of the highest grossing actors of all time. Which makes his decision to play Stephen, the calculating and merciless right-hand man of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Jackson's most daring acting choice yet.
Fans of the actor who see Tarantino's spaghetti southern, which opens Christmas day, in the hopes of seeing Jackson in a Jules Winnfield-style role are in for quite a surprise. The 64-year-old Jackson originally wanted the role of the film's titular hero, but when he learned he was too old for the part, he took the role of one of Django's main antagonists and set out to make him, as he says in the interview below, "the most reprehensible negro in cinema history."
Although it's hard to imagine, Jackson told Movieline that he was initially depicted as even more villainous in earlier cut of Django Unchained, but that Tarantino "sanitized" Stephen in the editing room. Jackson also talked about his desire to reprise Mace Windu in Disney's reboot of the Star Wars franchise and his frustration with America's refusal to confront its history with slavery.
Movieline: Stephen is such a complex character. He manages to be a villain, a slave and a father figure to Calvin Candie. There are also parallels between Stephen’s relationship to Calvin and Django’s relationship to Dr. King Schultz. Was all of this in the script?
Samuel Jackson: It's always been in the script. When Quentin and I were talking about it, he was saying that they were mirrored relationships and by the time Django and Schultz got to Candyland they would have developed the relationship that Calvin and I have always had. Theirs is more mentor/mentee. And ours is more father/son. But it’s still the same kind of relationship.
Your character turns out to be the power behind the throne at Candyland.
Yeah, I'm the brains at the plantation. I know what's going on and I've been around longer. And Calvin is not the brightest candle in the room. As I said earlier, I’m the Dick Cheney of Candyland.
Given what this movie has to say about slavery and how reprehensible your character is, did you have to think twice about taking this part?
Not at all. When I read the script, and realized I wasn't Django and then who Stephen was, I was like, okay, we've seen Uncle Toms, we've seen slaves, we've seen Stepin Fetchit, but we never seen this guy. And the potential for him to be the most reprehensible negro in cinema history is there.
I think you succeed there.
It’s in the film, but like Quentin says, we're also talking about things that you don't see. There are scenes we shot that aren't in the movie in which I do some things that are way more reprehensible than what you actually see on screen."
Well in that scene where Django’s hanging upside down, and I give that speech. There’s a whole other section of that speech that goes on where I torture him. "I burn his nipples off with a hot poker. I do all kinds of shit to him in that scene that would have just made people go, ‘Ahhhhh!”
Just for fun?
There’s another scene we shot where, when Django first gets to Candyland, he and Stephen have a physical altercation. I show him to his room, and I say something to him and he slaps me down. He actually puts his hands on me. I'm supposed to be old and weak, so I don't do anything. He puts his foot in my chest and he says all this shit to me about how fucked up I am and kicks me out of the room. He kicks me in the ass and kicks me out of the room. And from that point on, I'm on his ass trying to figure out what's up.
So there's that, and I do some other things to some other slaves that are in the house that you actually see me do on the screen. I say shit about them, I reprimand them and do shit to them. So, Stephen is a detestable character who could have been much more detestable. Quentin sanitized Stephen a bit.
What’s interesting about this movie is that it’s very entertaining and, yet, I had quite a visceral reaction to the scenes of brutality involving slaves.
Yeah, they’re horrific.
The guy sitting next to me walked out.
Oh did he? And didn’t come back?
No, he didn't come back. And I got the impression that Tarantino wants moviegoers to really feel the brutality of those scenes.
It's not an easy time. You know, every time people do a movie about slavery, you don't see that kind of shit. You might see a person get whipped, or you might see somebody get dressed down or shackled or whatever. But, you know, human life was cheap to those people. If you did something wrong, an example was made to make sure that whoever saw [the punishment] knew this is what could happen to you. We'll cut your foot off. We'll cut your hand off. You know, they used to take pregnant women — take one of them, cut her belly open, drop the baby out and just stomp it to death in front of all the slaves.
Just to let them know: I own you. I can do whatever I want with you. Like Leo says, "I can smash your brains out if I feel like it."
As a poorly informed white guy, by the end of the movie, I certainly felt like I had a greater understanding of why there's so much lingering anger over that period in American history.
Yeah, because we've been avoiding really talking about it. Okay, so you fucked over the Indians, and you gave them their land back and tax-free casinos. You fucked over the Japanese. You interred them during World War II and then you turned around and you gave all of them some money. Well, after you fucked us over, we didn't get the 40 acres and a mule. You look at us every day and go, "Fuck y'all." When the subject of reparations is raised, everybody goes: "Well, I didn't have slaves. Those were my ancestors. Get over it.” Well you didn't ask those other motherfuckers to get over it. Why do we got to get over it?
When I was in Liverpool doing Formula 51, that port was one of the first places slave ships stopped on the way over here. And there are huge shipping buildings that used to be shipping corporations and all of them have these slave faces painted on their facades. And people there told me, "Well, you know, there was a lot of slave trade here and this [city] was built on the blood of slaves. So we have their faces on the buildings." And then they had a big apology ceremony while I was there. They owned up to their responsibility and their part in the slave trade. America has never done any shit like that.
Do you think reparations would help or is it too little, too late at this point?
Fuck no. We're past all that shit.
There’s also been quite a bit of discussion in the media over the number of times that the word “nigger” is uttered in the movie.
There was no other term for who we were. They weren't talking about African-Americans and Negros. That was the name. That was it.
How do you feel about white people using the word, for example in a pop-culture context.
I'm kind of over it. I grew up hearing it. I grew up in Tennessee during segregation, so it was something that was screamed out, of course. When people ask me, ‘What’s the first time you were called nigger?’ I say, probably some time in my house when I was like one or two years old. So, I can look at a person and tell what their intent is, and I deal with it that way. I deal with it in context.
Your performance as Stephen is full of surprises beginning with the moment that you first appear onscreen. What is your favorite scene in the movie?
My favorite scene is not in the movie.
Seriously? What happens in it?
My favorite scene is the one in the barn where I explain to Django [who's been captured and suspended upside down] what the problem was between him and me: He put his hands on me, and nobody has ever touched me in my life. I explain that I’ve been on this plantation 70-odd years and I’ve seen all kinds of shit done to niggers: hanging, drowning —
Some of that does remain in the movie.
And after I run through this litany of all this horrific shit that gets done to slaves, I say, you know I ain’t never been touched, and your black ass shows up and slaps me down. I’m doing this because you put your hands on me.
Can you see any reason to empathize with the character you play?
He’s a product of his environment. His grandfather did that job. His father did that job. He'd never been in the fields. He was raised to be Calvin Candie's right-hand-man and because he’s in that position, not only can he read and write, he writes the checks. He runs the plantation. He makes sure the cotton gets picked. He is the king of a 75-mile radius world, and he knows that if he steps foot outside that, he’s just another slave in the South. So why wouldn't he want that? As far as he knows, that system has worked all his life. Plus the white people on the plantation take orders from him. What better world could he be in?
You’ve been pretty vocal about your desire to reprise the role of Mace Windu in one of the new Star Wars movies that Disney is making. Has the studio talked to you at all?
I'm campaigning. They haven't approached me yet. I've been putting my feelers out there, and I’ve got all my people on Twitter talking about it. So hopefully they'll hear it and whoever's writing the story will, you know, write me in as an Obi-wan Kenobi hologram ghost, or maybe even I can fuckin’ show back up with one hand. He is a Jedi.
Right, and Anakin lost his arm in Episode II.
Yeah. I'm down with that. I'm totally down with it. And I think they are going to need characters that audiences are familiar with to get [the franchise] going in a direction where people will feel comfortable and familiar with what’s going on. They just can't bring in a whole bunch of new Jedi — no way.
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