Samuel L Jackson Interview
Black Snake Moan
What drew you to this script?
SJ: To me, it always starts with the story and the character. It is a story that I can read and visualize in my mind and know that I would like to see me in it. I don't know that I have played a guy as morally as strict as Lazaurus and I have never played a farmer. He was reminiscent of my father's brothers. They had very strict moral guidelines but then drank on the weekends. They told me stories about their life and I used that.
You had a very definite way of walking. How much did their lifestyle lend you that element of your character?
SJ: My grandfather's brothers were farmers and they didn't move very fast (laugh). They were doing back breaking work in the fields and drove tractors. As it is very hot and muggy in the south, you conserve your energy. The weight of all that work makes you walk a certain kind of way. You also have aches and pains at a certain age and so you have to find a way to walk so your body doesn't creak.
You grew up in the South so you must have been used to the humidity. Does weather help set a tone?
SJ: Being in a specific place can help you tell yourself something about it. As opposed to being in Toronto and pretending to be in the South, we were actually there and so we had the bugs, the mosquitoes, the flies and the heat. You can smell the food cooking around you and all of that puts you in the place. It is just something that flows the energy into you. To me, the energy of the South is something different than the energy of the East Coast. Everything kind of slows down in the South because of the heat. There is a familiarity to the people around you.
Looking at the poster, it does seem like one of those old black exploitation films of a strong black man standing over a seductive white woman.
SJ: I think a lot of people will see that. It is understandable. The poster is provocative in that way because it wants to pull you in and heighten your expectations into whatever you think might happen between this guy and this girl. She is in chains and he is standing over her. Now, I know what you want but Craig gave you what you got.
Were the two of you worried at all about setting the scenes in your house? There is humiliation and degradation. What type of choreography was needed to delicately walk that balance?
SJ: I do not think you have ever seen performances braver than what Christina did. She took risks. She is walking around in that state of undress and was willing to expose her emotions so raw that it really jumps out at you. It did take a particular amount of trust between the two actors in doing it to make it real. We actually know each other socially but still it was nice to know that you could let yourself go and the other actor would be there for you and protect you. There was a time when you couldn't show what we showed as graphically as we do here. You couldn't even mention the term nymphomaniac. That is why I feel Christina gives such a brave performance
How did you set out to inhabit Lazarus?
SJ: You inhabit them any way you can. We were fortunate in that we had a very good rehearsal period and we were able to establish our characters and how we would interact with each other. The most daunting task for me was learning to play guitar so I could be tactile enough that Craig could cut from me to my hands knowing that he was able to actually show me playing. I had some good guitar teachers who worked diligently and worked long hours and were patient.
Why did you have several teachers?
SJ: When I was in NY shooting FREEDOMLAND, I had Felicia Collins, who is the guitar player in the Letterman band, work with me. When I left to go to Vancouver for SNAKES ON A PLANE, I couldn't take her with me so I found a prop man on the set of that film who was an awesome guitarist and he worked with me.
So how natural was it to learn to play guitar and are you keeping it up?
SJ: Heck no. It was very daunting. I had to learn to do something that I was supposed to have been doing for a while and feels natural to me and not studied and practiced. I was lucky that my teachers let me find my own way to the music. I am lucky that I play other instruments so my ear is pretty good. By the time I learned my way to walk across the frets and play chords, I knew I could listen to a song and pick my way and find the groove. I learned to play the songs in this odd kind of way that was just mine. When I visited those guys in the Delta, I saw that most of them didn't start learning till they were past 30 and they taught themselves so they each have their own unique style. I created this thing that was mine and that was kind of cool. As for my guitars, I actually have seven guitars. I got to the point of looking forward to waking up each morning and picking up the guitar and learning the songs and making my own style. I never used a pick. I just used my fingers.
Can you talk about your own relationship to the blues? How much of that music really resonated with you?
SJ: That particular form of the blues was relatively new in terms of not being commercial. It was very localized to the Mississippi region but in regard to my relationship to the blues, mine is much more commercial. I listen to Robert Johnson and B.B. King and Big Momma Thornton. What I got to do in this film was learn to feel and appreciate a new kind of music that doesn't require that I need to have a velvet voice (laugh). I am not Luther Vandross. It was more important that I understood the emotion of what the song was about.
Because the blues of that region is so specific, did you immerse yourself in the local flavor?
SJ: We did a road trip through the area and went to some local juke joints and went to Fat Possum Records and saw guys that are famous in only a 30 mile radius. They all played in different ways. Some played with spoons and forks and I saw that everyone had their own style. When I sat down and played, they were actually very encouraging to me.
What was the first record you ever recall buying?
SJ: I bought Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fella."
I loved his relationship to swear words. How comfortable are you having that language in your own house?
SJ: Yeah he had a problem except when he said them (laugh).I never edited my speech with my daughter and I talked to her liked I talked to my friends but she could not answer me back the same way. I recall hearing when she was three talking to her friends and saying 'fuck you". She understood the context of different words. We took her to a wedding once and was asking her about some food and she replied, "What is that shit?"
Were you brought up in a religious environment?
SJ; I went to church every Sunday when I was growing up but by the time I got to high school my mom insisted I wear sunglasses because my eyes were so red from the night before. No matter how late I stayed out, I had to go to church the next day.
Is it hard to stay on that moral highway? It does seem that many people veer off of it as they grow older.
SJ: I don't know what that actually means. Our lives are all based in something. Some have faith based lives. I get up and pray everyday but I don't go to Church every Sunday because I am down at the golf course. I don't think I need to go into a room and pray with other people. I know I have a personal relationship with God. I just try and live by my own code.
Did you see the contradiction in Lazarus that he voices being so religious and yet he does things that seem a bit sinner like?
SJ: When he gave up after his juke life after he got married to commit to a particular woman and commit to the land, he cut part of himself off. It took the life out of him but he didn't realize that. It wasn't until he meets this girl who has this dysfunction that he doesn't understand; it is all of a sudden a woman he can control. He couldn't control the woman he just lost and he chains her. That is a literal thing that he would have liked to have done to his wife. What she does is lead him back to his music and revitalizes him and that is the whole biblical Lazarus connotation. By enabling her to hold onto this chain for a while till those bad feelings go away, it makes her alright and she makes him alright.
There is a very powerful line in the film when your character is talking to the preacher and responds as to why he didn't turn the girl in is because a black man would be presumed guilty to be near a distressed white woman.
SJ: It is true. There would be a lot more questions in a small town like that if you showed up with a beat up white girl dressed like that. That is why he goes into town and gets the medicine. Especially a girl with that reputation. She might wake up and say that he did it . He knew to take the safe road.
Do you think Craig really knew the language of the environment?
SJ: He grew up in the south. I grew up in the segregated south. She wouldn't know Tyron or have an open sexual relationship. Now they interact and so it is a different south and that is the south that Craig knows. It is fueled by music, food and sex.
Interview by Scott Orlin. Black Snake Moan is on cinemas across the UK May18th.
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