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MOVIES : The unlikely heroes of Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ are Jules and Vincent, a pair of hit men played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. For Jackson, Jules is the latest in a series of vivid characters he’s played . . . : A Little Peace, A Little Menace

<i> Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Playwright August Wilson and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino haven’t heretofore gotten lumped together in the same breath too often. But since we’re asking, “actually, they compare quite favorably,” says Samuel L. Jackson, who has as good a right to render judgment as anyone, having worked with each of them more than once.

One shoots, the other doesn’t, but the trigger-happy Tarantino “tends to write quite theatrically too,” Jackson enthuses. “They’re both very literary and expository in getting ideas out there and eliciting a feeling and moving an audience in a certain way oratorically rather than visually.”

“Oratorical” hardly begins to describe what Tarantino wrote for Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” giving him the showiest part in the most buzzed-about movie of the year. As the hit man Jules--given to unexpected bouts of introspection between mob rub-outs and chats with partner John Travolta about the finer points of fast food--Jackson gets to deliver a withering series of speeches that momentarily halt the movie’s ensemble feel, fiery diatribes that invoke the wrath of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Even though--this being a Tarantino picture--the speeches are delivered while Jackson is revving up to blast holes through someone, there’s the rush of good theater as well as good cinema: These are honest-to-Godot monologues .

Says Tarantino: “If you think about what Sammy does in the last scene, he’s doing this almost Richard III storm sequence kind of thing--except he’s in a coffee shop, bent over, sitting in a booth.” (Albeit wielding a gun, of course.) “He’s dominating the entire room while never getting up from that booth. Sam’s just really remarkable.”

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Jackson is as grateful for this writerly roughage as an actor who took the all-too-typical path from serious leads on the New York stage to bit-part bad guys in Hollywood blockbusters ought to be.

“Doing monologues is so rare in movies. Watching ‘Jaws,’ and seeing that shark story that Robert Shaw does, I always wanted to do that,” he remembers. “It’s really scary in a way. You don’t have to depend on another actor being able to carry his emotional weight with yours. It’s a great flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling. The great thing about film is they can bring the camera right into your face and people can see all that emotional stuff happening, whereas on stage you do it larger than life so you can hit that person in the back row who couldn’t get that really good seat.”

*

Ah, the actorly dignity of it all. Only . . .

“It was kind of funny,” says Jackson, “because somebody told me Spike (Lee) had seen ‘Pulp’ and said, ‘Sam was great in the movie--but what’s up with that hair?’ ”

Spike’s speaking, of course, of how Tarantino wrote Jackson a highly theatrical part that demands he be the most intensely violent and frightening figure in the film and the one who must convey an unlikely sense of redemption at the end, a balancing act that dare not be seen as ridiculous . . . and then, to top it off, stuck America’s coolest black actor in the attention-flagging equivalent of a fright wig: a full, incongruous set of Jeri-curls.

It’s, well, a look.

“I had to remind these people,” continues Jackson, “to tell Spike that he was the first person to put that wig on me, in ‘School Daze.’ ” Of course, in Lee’s golden oldie, Jackson was supposed to be ridiculous, not just look it. So what is up? Just an odd balancing act that’s right up Jackson’s versatile alley.

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Richard III, meet Superfly.

“The wig was Quentin’s idea, because he likes these blaxploitation movies. He’s thinking Jules is one of these guys that liked those movies too, so when he told me I was gonna wear the wig, I decided to grow the mustache and sideburns to go with it.”

Says Tarantino: “I never would have had Sam wearing a Jeri-curl wig normally. But I had it in my mind that I wanted Sam to wear an Afro. I like Afros. If I was black, I’d wear an Afro. And Sam was up for it. But the makeup woman who was getting the wigs I don’t think knew the difference between an Afro and a Jeri-curl. It was there by mistake, and he put it on, and he looked so great, I can’t tell you. When you get it, you know you got it, you know what I mean?”

Jackson goes on to explain--in a reverie as close to self-psychoanalysis as he’s likely to get in this setting--that as a boy at play, he loved the business of dressing up as the cowboy or Indian or pirate or soldier or spy, and hasn’t since dispensed with the glee of hiding out in plain sight, as it were.

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“I love changing the look. Like ‘Menace II Society'--a lot of people don’t even know I’m in that movie, because they don’t read credits. But I like disguising myself in films; it keeps people from putting me in a certain category.”

Not that the idea of pulling a Jim Brown or Fred Williamson didn’t hold an especial nostalgic appeal.

“I mean, I watched ‘Shaft’ and all those movies too. In fact, I bought Quentin a ‘Truck Turner’ poster for a wrap gift. That’s one of the things he couldn’t find, and"--a pleased, conspiratorial chuckle--"I have a source, so I hooked him up.”

Jackson, clearly, had he come along a generation earlier, could have had a great career in blaxploitation. As it is, he’s simply having a great career.

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If Tommy Lee Jones was the Gene Hackman of this past sum mer--as ubiquitous actors go--then Sam Jackson may be the Tommy Lee Jones of the fall.

By a combination of coincidence and workaholism, the 45-year-old Jackson can claim four movies out within a few months of each other. Two are still in theaters--"Fresh” and “The New Age” both feature him in small but vivid parts--and two more are on the way: Besides “Pulp Fiction,” touted as a phenomenon for months and opening Friday, there’s the adoption drama “Losing Isaiah,” with Jessica Lange, tentatively set for late winter.

Yet it won’t surprise him, or particularly displease him, he claims, if this spate of exposure doesn’t significantly boost his public profile: “In these four pictures that they’re gonna see this fall,” Jackson points out, as something of a matter of pride, “they’re going to see four different people. They’re not going to see the same guy that has a different name but he’s doing the same things with each character.

“That’s OK. I’m still not a movie star. I’m an actor.”

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Till now, although he’s done a few leading roles in inconsequential movies, Jackson has been most famously revered by his peers as the guy who comes in, kicks ass for 15 minutes and disappears. Think of his dangerously manipulative, ill-fated addict, Gator, in “Jungle Fever"--for which the jury at the Cannes Film Festival voted him a supporting-performance award (even though there was no precedent at Cannes to give out honors for anything short of a leading role)--and think of how the movie softened whenever he slipped off to some offscreen crack den.

But soon actor and movie star will likely intersect. He has as much screen time as anyone in the uniformly stunning “Pulp Fiction” ensemble, and the showiest scenes. Jeri-curls or no, if the picture takes off the way just about everyone expects, Jackson’s status as the most frequently seen anonymous face in the movies may be history.

Even precluding that, he’s in the middle of filming the behemoth that’s the surest thing for a commercial breakthrough, “Die Hard III: Simon Says,” where he’s the secondary lead and first real sidekick Bruce Willis has had.

The luxury car that has just deposited Jackson at his publicist’s office in Westwood on an early September morning is waiting outside to whisk him back to LAX, where his flight from New York arrived just the night before. He’s grateful to have had even a few hours at home to enjoy L.A.'s Indian summer; back in Manhattan, where “Die Hard III” is in the middle of four months of location filming, it’s starting to get brisk. There, much of the summer-set action has him sprinting from Wall Street to Central Park in thin clothes made more coolish by the faux sweat the continuity checkers spray on between takes.

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On top of that, the natives aren’t friendly.

“During the week (New Yorkers) are real upset when they see those orange cones, because we disrupt traffic quite a bit,” says Jackson, chowing down on a cinnamon roll that will suffice as his pre-flight breakfast. “And really, they’re not happy on the weekends, either. This past week we were in Tompkins Square Park, so the homeless people and the squatters and the punk kids that live there have pretty much been angry with us all week.

“In fact, they even had out a flyer talking about ‘Bruce Willis fighting communism while he’s disrupting our lives and displacing us from our homes. And this time he has a black Tonto.’ I thought, ‘Who? You’re talking about me? Me? I’m Tonto? Oh, no!’ ”

He raises his eyebrows and makes a mock-nervous face, but Jackson doesn’t seem overly distressed by the flyer’s taunt.

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“It’s that same buddy kind of formula thing,” he says of “Die Hard III,” with an acknowledging snicker, “where I don’t want to be there but I’m there, and he doesn’t really want me there but I’m there.” (The plot has a mad bomber, Jeremy Irons, forcing Willis and Jackson to team up as a defense against his schemes to make smithereens of Manhattan.) “But,” he adds, smiling, “we don’t have one of those buddy-bonding fistfights where we gain respect for each other through our physical prowess.”

“Die Hard III” director John McTiernan is requiring “Action” Jackson’s reluctant hero to leap out of speeding cars and off of exploding boats, jump turnstiles to dodge flying subway cars that have jumped their blown-up tracks, et al. And even--subsidiary as it may be--to act. “He still has things to do--not just reacting,” Jackson says. “He’s not a superman. He gets afraid. He admits that he can’t do certain things. He’s not looking death in the face with a smile.”

Looking anything in the face with a smile is the last thing anyone who has attentively followed Jackson through his screen disguises would expect. He grins easily and relaxedly enough off-screen, seeming the relatively uncomplicated Valley family man (his wife is actress LaTonya Richardson, and they have one daughter, Zoe) to all who might look in and wonder where the reel rage comes from, but most of his on-camera career until recently was spent as a menace II screen society. Twenty years or so he toiled, less than unsung, as a chief denizen of Glower Gulch, staring down SAG’s more virtuous citizenry. The roles were small, and smaller, but rarely ever remotely subservient, given his inescapable indomitability. Tonto? . . . With a hatchet, maybe.

In person, Jackson is conservative-looking, garrulous and not at all likely to make anyone nervous about a hint of something scary seething under.

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“I know there’s a rage that exists in me sometimes, and sometimes it’s very frustrating trying to find or tap into something that can hurt that much,” he allows, acknowledging that the intensity isn’t usually too close to the surface.

Says Tarantino, not exactly resolving the enigma: “Sam’s a bunch of different guys.” (At least one of them is a guy with tastes similar to Tarantino’s; the director says he often dropped in to Jackson’s trailer between scenes to find him watching obscure Hong Kong sock-'em flicks from the ‘70s, proving this a match made in some kind of kung fu heaven.)

“He’s a really terrific father, and he’s been married forever to a wonderful woman, and he’s been working in theater forever,” Tarantino adds. “But he’s also had a real rough-and-tumble life. He grew up in the South and everything. Now that he’s old enough, he has this little Valley household.”

Born in Atlanta in 1949, Jackson majored in drama at Morehouse College, where, as a black-power activist in the late ‘60s, he was suspended after taking part in a sit-in that involved locking up the board of trustees.

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Jackson went on to originate August Wilson-scribed roles at Yale Rep and the Seattle Repertory Theatre (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Two Trains Running”), and worked in a number of New York Shakespeare Festival productions. But as he made the move into movies and TV, his theatrically honed gifts were used mainly to breathe quick life into bit brutes.

This was partially, of course, because that’s what African American actors were (and are, it can be argued) offered, but also--to be fair--because Jackson’s wide-set eyes are uniquely capable of a scary, hair-trigger glare that might bore through you into the next borough.

He worried about being typed as a TV villain, but his wife reassured him that Bogart and Cagney got their start doing hoodlums by the cinematic dozen, too. Being a workhorse, he accepted this, not stopping to dwell on the fact that hundreds of forgotten character actors had heard this very speech from their spouses.

“Anything I had an opportunity to do, I just went in and did it. It’s a tired old cliche that they tell you when you enter the theater: There are no small parts, only small actors. And that’s a very true thing. You’re actually building little blocks of a life in the business. You can’t take anything for granted. You don’t go in there and just half-do something because, ‘Hey, I’m not the co-star, I’m not the third lead.’

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“It’s easy to just go in and play the result. ‘You have a criminal who’s got a gun, he’s gonna rob somebody, and that’s what we want you to do, Sam.’ But you have to sit at home and say to yourself, ‘OK, this guy’s gonna rob somebody, but why? Is he an addict? Is he a veteran who couldn’t get a job? Is his rent due? Is his kid sick? Why does he need this money so bad?’

“You have to have had a life before they saw you on screen, and a life that’s going to go on when you leave the screen. And hopefully you’ll have an audience see you show up, boom , you’re there, you do your thing and leave, and they’ll say to themselves, ‘Damn, I wonder what happened to that guy?’ ”

After doing a lot of stock hand gun-wielders, he at least got to be menacing in a higher class of movie. In his third picture for Spike Lee, “Mo’ Better Blues,” he was a thug who memorably beat the hell out of Denzel Washington in a jazz club’s back alley. But he topped that ugly turn by a mile with his harrowing turn in “Jungle Fever,” and the honors he picked up for it started getting him the right meetings.

His two real leads in theatrical features to date, in “Amos & Andrew” and “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1,” have both been comedies in which he played it straight, dignity under assault. Otherwise he’s not the slightest bit known for comedy, but begs to claim it’s really been a part of a lot of his dramatic roles, even the toughs.

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“Well, you know, Gator in ‘Jungle Fever’ is an immensely funny guy. But underneath all that, there’s this whole sense of menace and deceit. Because he’s actually trying to find a way to get something out of everybody that he sees, and he uses comedy to disarm ‘em, to take their minds away from whatever his real purpose is.”

Jackson’s non-villainous turns tended to be a bit less riveting, as with his computer whiz in “Jurassic Park”; there, his disembodied arm had a bigger effect on the audience than he was able to.

But Jackson may be at his bracing best combining vice and virtue--something he’s had a chance to do lately in “Fresh,” where he did a small but moving turn as the 12-year-old protagonist’s chess-playing deadbeat dad, and “Pulp Fiction,” where he’s the only character allowed a significant moral transformation in an essentially amoral jigsaw puzzle. In these tricky roles, he is able to suggest a warmth made all the more intriguingly palpable by how antisocially the characters begin.

Even though Tarantino wrote the “Pulp” part with Jackson in mind, they both admit he almost lost out on it. Not until the final audition did the actor get a handle on his climactic monologue, where he again quotes Ezekiel, but in the service of amity, not murder.

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“That was the hardest part of the film,” says Jackson, “to be able to take a speech that you used to create mayhem to discover a sense of peace, and still have that menace in it. Because he’s still at a crossroads. Even though he’s made up his mind to not do this anymore, there are little things that could trigger him right back into that space he was trying to escape.”

Tarantino, for one, was sorry to see Jules consider retirement; he harbors fantasies of a rapprochement between Jules and John Travolta’s Vincent, such was the chemistry: “It’s rare to actually see this natural comedy team--and that’s what they are. I mean, I’m almost tempted to do a series of Jules & Vincent movies--'Jules & Vincent Meet Frankenstein,’ ‘Jules & Vincent Meet the Mummy’ . . . . “

Which may be Tarantino’s way of saying about Jackson, too: Damn, I wonder what happened to that guy?


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