If you want to soak in a moment of pure joy — and who doesn’t these days? — watching Samuel L. Jackson receive an honorary Oscar from Denzel Washington at this year’s Governors Awards should do the trick.
Jackson and Washington go way back to early New York theater days when Washington was an understudy on a play called “The Mighty Gents” that Jackson was doing for the Public Theater under Joseph Papp. Washington ended up going on stage opening night after the actor he was backing up was fired. And, of course, Washington killed it.
“He just showed me the review of that show not long ago,” Jackson says. He kept the review? “Of course, he did!” Jackson says, bursting out in laughter.
“People see Denzel and think he’s this serious actor and family man ... and some people think he’s a little grumpy,” Jackson tells me. “But he’s one of the funniest people on the planet. And it was so great to have somebody present my award who’s been on my journey, to look at him and know he was there — he’s still there!”
Jackson and I are hanging out, the 73-year-old actor impeccably dressed with matching burgundy Kangol cap and suede Stan Smiths. We’re talking about that Oscar weekend, his career choices and his latest project, the well-reviewed Apple TV+ series “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” in which he plays a 91-year-old coping with Alzheimer’s ... until he takes a miracle drug, which turns him into the Samuel L. Jackson persona we know and love.
“I kept telling people not to get triggered by Episode 1,” Jackson says, “because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, you’ll cry. But you’ll laugh too.” There was a fair amount of the latter in our conversation.
My favorite moment seeing you win an Oscar came when you started to speak, then looked at Denzel and ran over to give him another bear hug. Did the emotion of that evening surprise you?
Maybe a little bit. As jaded as I wanted to be about it, you know thinking, “Well, I should have won an Oscar for this or should have won for that and it didn’t happen,” once I got over it many years ago, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I always have fun going to the Oscars. I always look forward to getting a gift basket for being a presenter. [Laughs] I give stuff to my relatives; my daughter and my wife would take stuff out. It’s cool.
But otherwise, I was past it. I was never going to let the Oscars be a measure of my success or failure as an actor. My yardstick of success is my happiness: Am I satisfied with what I’m doing? I’m not doing statue-chasing movies. You know [whispers]: “If you do this movie, you’ll win an Oscar.” No, thanks. I’d rather be Nick Fury. Or having fun being Mace Windu with a lightsaber in my hand.
Any of those “statue-chasing movies” that you regret passing on?
No. I want to do the stuff that made me want to go to the movies when I was a kid. I want to do that movie that people just want to see so they can get out of themselves. That’s the guy I chose to be and I’m fine with it. I’m satisfied because that’s who I am. I’m the guy who does the lines that people see on T-shirts. There’s actors who go their whole careers and no one can quote a line they’ve said in a movie. People go to watch my movies to see how crazy I’m going to be or see how many times I say motherf—. [Laughs] Whatever gets them in the seats.
I was struck that when Denzel introduced you for that lifetime achievement Oscar, he didn’t list your movies. He named the charities you and your wife support. You seemed a little taken aback.
I was shocked. We don’t advertise the fact that we’re philanthropists, because you shouldn’t. That’s not why we do it. You don’t take a film crew with you. You just do it.
Two days later, you’re at the Oscars and you and Uma Thurman and John Travolta have the “Pulp Fiction” reunion and you end up giving the Oscar to Will Smith. What do you remember about that surreal evening?
When the big incident happened, I was like, “Whoa!” My wife asked me, “Is this a bit?” And I said, “No, Will just slapped the s— out of Chris.” My wife and I were sitting next to Liv Ullman and her husband. and Liv’s asking my wife, “What’s happening?” My wife said, “Nothing. Don’t worry about it. It’s all fine.”
So that happened, and they came and got me. I kind of saw Quest[love]’s speech, which nobody was listening to because everybody was trying to figure out what the f— just happened. And I went backstage and saw Chris against the wall. “You OK?” “Yeah.” And so I get to Uma and John, and John says, “So ... can we rehearse?” I’m like, “You know what just happened?” He’s like, “What?” He was backstage not looking at the monitor, looking at his lines because that’s who John is. So we rehearsed, Uma and John danced, and we were kind of oblivious to what was going on.
There were so many accounts of what happened backstage. But it doesn’t sound like you can add anything to the historical record.
I didn’t really care about that, so much as I’m still a little ticked that the greatest actor we had in Hollywood died and they gave him, what, 10 f— seconds. No. It should have been a whole Sidney Poitier section. The reason Will Packer is producing this show is because of this guy. The reason Will Smith won an Oscar is because of this guy. The reason for Denzel, the reason for me, the reason for Danny [Glover], the reason for everybody is that guy, and he deserves more than 10 f— seconds of your time, especially for what he meant, not just to us, but to Hollywood period. He gave dignity to Hollywood. He was Hollywood f— royalty. And he did not get what he deserved out of that f— show.
Remember when he won his honorary Oscar and Denzel presented it to him during the live telecast?
Of course. It was a great moment.
It’d have been nice to see a little bit of your moment during the show instead of ... I don’t know ... the Twitter fan favorite movie.
I’m not saying it’s wrong for skateboarders and snowboarders to be presenting Academy Awards. But god— it, no! They have their show. They have the ESPYs. Go do that. This is the night Hollywood celebrates f— Hollywood. That thing that we used to have when I was young, watching it and wondering, “What am I going to say when I get mine” was the glamor of it all, the extravagance, the mystique that is Hollywood. Some of that’s gone. You’ve got movie stars who are influencers or people who live out loud, so you know way more about them than you used to know. But it should still be a celebration that you did something that’s great. Like I still say, there should be an award for the movie that made the most money.
A popular film Oscar was floated a few years ago ...
Well, they need to do it! That’s what we’re here for!
Some would argue that the box office is reward enough and the Oscars should be celebrating cinema.
That is cinema! That’s what we go into the big, dark room to do — to be entertained. That’s what we’re celebrating, the big s— that happened in Hollywood. Best actor, best actress ... that’s some bull—. That’s a popularity contest. Or so I heard way back when when Martin Landau got the award [for “Ed Wood”] and I didn’t. [Whispers] “C’mon, Sam. Martin’s been nominated so many times. Don’t worry. Your time is coming.” Excuse me? I didn’t know that’s how it worked. I thought it was the acting performance that made the most impact.
Looking back, I’m still a little surprised that out of all those great roles in Tarantino movies, you were nominated only for “Pulp Fiction.”
Everything I’ve done for Quentin has a moment that’s given me an opportunity, from “Jackie Brown” to “The Hateful Eight” to “Django [Unchained].” “Django” was probably my best shot because it’s the most evil character I’ve ever played and they generally reward Black people for playing horrendous s—. [Laughs]
Are you going to be in his next movie, which he says will be his last?
I don’t know. He’ll tell me or he won’t tell me. I didn’t hear from him at all when he did the Hollywood movie [“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”]. Usually, he’ll call me and say he’s doing something and ask how I feel about it. Like when he did the Nazi movie [“Inglourious Basterds”], he was like, “There’s nothing for you in this.” “I can learn how to speak French.” “No, I’m having a French guy.” So I did the voice-over about celluloid and the movies.
How are you feeling about going back to Broadway in September to star in [the August Wilson play] “The Piano Lesson”?
We were supposed to do it last year and then COVID happened. So I’ve been reading this play for a year and a half. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I’ll be laying in bed and the first thing I do is go to one of the speeches. Just to see. “Oh, yeah. I got it together.”
Are you nervous?
Nah. Right now, I don’t know the other actors’ voices yet. I only know me doing the play for myself. You know, this play changed my life because it’s the play that made me crazy enough that I got sober when I understudied it on Broadway. [Jackson originated the role of Boy Willie at Yale but was replaced by Charles S. Dutton, who had been shooting a movie during the Yale run. Wilson and director Lloyd Richards had promised Dutton the role.]
How did it make you crazy?
Well, I was crazy, and that made me crazy listening to it every night backstage as opposed to hearing myself doing it. The difference in the performances ... [Jackson makes a screaming sound]. Then he won a Tony and then he got the Pulitzer. [Jackson lets out a louder scream.] It got me to that place where I made myself crazy enough that I got drunk enough and passed out enough that my wife put me in rehab. Which fixed my life. And here I am again ... threeeee-sixty. Life can be funny that way.
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
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