Tell It on the Mountain

Photo: Marc Baptiste

No one says motherfucker quite like Samuel Leroy Jackson. He deployed that expletive in tones Shakespearean and streetwise throughout Pulp Fiction. And today, there are at least half a dozen places on the web where Jackson’s voice will “motherfucker” you up with a click; in real life, he uses the term with impunity. Especially when it comes to politics. Here, for instance, are his thoughts on Obama 2012: “Being president is one of those fucked-up jobs. You hope you can figure some shit out and deal with all these hardheaded mother­fuckers and get reelected. Then you can go in and tell motherfuckers to kiss your ass and do what the fuck I say, or I will fuck you up. That’s how you get shit done. That’s the audacity of hope.”

Jackson has been in more than 100 movies. “I’ve stopped counting,” he says, grinning, settled into a green semi-­circular booth in the garden of the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, sipping lemonade from a straw. Among his African-American actor peers, he is unique. Able to play both virtuous and villainous with the badass swagger of seventies blaxploitation heroes, he brings reliable cool—Samuel L. Jackson–ness—to every role, in the way that Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, and Walken have.

Having portrayed crackheads, cops, criminals, Shaft, a Jedi, and Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury onscreen and played God and the narrator of Go the Fuck to Sleep for audiobooks, Jackson is returning to the New York stage for the first time in two decades this fall, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, which won the 2010 Olivier Award (Britain’s Tony) for Best New Play.

The drama is set on April 3, 1968, the night before King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. “The King I am showing just came in from delivering the ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech,” says Jackson. The reverend is very tired, and the only other actor onstage is Jackson’s longtime friend Angela Bassett, who plays Camae, a hotel employee delivering room service who stays to talk. “He’s the guy alone in a hotel room talking to a woman. He’s the man as a man, not as a martyr or ideologue. He just happened to be the guy who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the right idea. But outside of that, he was as fragile and as flawed as anyone.”

Jackson, who turns 63 this year, grew up in segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I understand the attitudes of the time because I was part of it,” he says matter-of-factly, crunching a flatbread from a basket the waiter brings over. “There were certain things we could not do and places we could not go. And it was life-threatening to engage certain members of society about what was going on.” There was an early lesson when he was 5 and wolf-­whistled at a white girl: “My mom, aunt, and grandmother beat me for reckless eyeballing.” He remembers going to neighbors’ houses in those days and seeing three pictures on the wall: Kennedy, King, and Jesus. He frequented the two blacks-only movie houses, always puzzled about why Sidney Poitier died even when he had the jump on someone.

His father wasn’t around, but as a child, he’d accompany his grandfather to do maintenance work in office buildings. “You shuffled to the side when a white person came by. I’d stand there and look them in the eye, and they might say I was a little uppity,” says the actor. (Which is why he named his production company Uppity Films.) “People know about the Klan and the overt racism, but the killing of one’s soul little by little, day after day, is a lot worse than someone coming in your house and lynching you.”

His family was determined for him to move ahead. “My job was going to school and having a better life. And I had to make good grades to have any peace.” For every four comic books he read, he had to read a classic like Moby-Dick. At school, Jackson played several instruments in the band and ran track. Today he plays a lot of golf.

He enrolled at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta, avoiding the Vietnam War. There he was “a hippie militant” who listened to Jimi Hendrix, dropped acid, and got booted out for holding the board of trustees—including King’s father—locked in a campus building. “He complained of chest pains, so we let him out of there so we wouldn’t be accused of murder,” Jackson says, chuckling at the memory.

After reinstatement and graduation, he and his future wife, LaTanya Richardson, did repertory and children’s theater and toured with a company called Black Image. Jackson leans forward for this story, his resonant voice punctuating all the right beats. “We did guerrilla street hate-whitey theater. We had drummers, and we’d yell, ‘Die, niggers, so black folk can take over,’ and then we’d run through the audience and scream in white people’s faces. And they’d say”—he flips a vocal switch and becomes an aging Valley girl—“ ‘Oh my God, this is so great!’ ”

Jackson in Jungle Fever, 1991.Photo: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Jackson and Richardson moved to a friend’s Greenwich Village place in 1976. Back then, the theater scene was vibrant and work was abundant. So were alcohol and drugs on the “no-man’s-land part of Times Square, with transvestite hookers and kung fu movie theaters,” he says. “When I was doing a show, I would go to Times Square at eleven in the morning, buy a quart of beer, a nickel-bag of weed, and see three movies for a dollar until it was time to go to the theater,” he recalls. (That’s also how he got hooked on Asian films. He now owns nearly 3,000.)

The party came to a crashing halt in 1990. After originating the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Jackson saw the part go to Charles S. Dutton for the Broadway run. Jackson was the embittered understudy. “It’s kind of what put me in rehab. I was sitting on the back steps every night, smoking crack and drinking,” he recalls. “I never took just one hit of nothing. I always did it till it was gone, and then I got some more.” Two weeks after getting clean, he played a crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the role that made him a star. “It wasn’t until I let go of the idea of the brass ring that it showed up, and fortunately for me, it coincided with getting clean.” He pauses. After all these years, he still stops in to meetings. “As long as I am sober, I’ll be on top; if not, I’ll be on the bottom,” he says, slipping into the cadence of Jules Winn­field, his scripture-citing Pulp Fiction character. “Which,” he asks himself menacingly, “do you prefer?”

But back to King. Jackson remembers exactly where he was when he was killed. “It was campus movie night—John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, probably one of the worst movies ever made,” Jackson recalls. “In the middle of the movie, this guy came in and said, ‘Dr. King is dead.’ We all filed out to the middle of the street, and people were gathering, and sure enough, someone threw a brick through a store window, and I was standing there thinking, This is not what we should be doing.” The following day, he flew to Memphis and marched in protest. The day after that, he put on a black suit and volunteered to be an usher at the funeral.

Jackson believes that if King were alive today, he’d be an advocate of immigrant and gay rights and would bemoan the death of American manufacturing and the middle class. “We’ve come a long way in our thinking,” Jackson states, “but also in our moral decay. I can’t imagine Dr. King watching the Real Housewivesor Jersey Shore.” Watching TV, Jackson sometimes feels cultural despair. “I was watching the BET Awards, and I guess they’re saying how awesome it is that all these young men have this wonderful underwear they can show to the world because everybody’s jeans are hanging off their ass.” He stops himself short: “That’s a sign of getting old,” Jackson says, shaking his head ruefully. “Asking, ‘Why do they dress like that?’ ”

Jackson hopes that, even if their jeans are baggy, when young people see The Mountaintop they will “find out that King is more than just a speech. He made the ultimate sacrifice. Guys like him, like Gandhi and Jesus, they stood up for something and got killed for it. But hopefully the movement carries on. Like that guy who killed those kids in Norway. Hopefully all the kids that survived that will go out and recruit some more kids and show these people that you can’t kill us—and this movement—off. It’s greater than us and greater than you. It’s what’s right.”

Sometimes, however, Jackson believes that you have to do something that might seem wrong to show people what’s right. Next year, he will reunite with Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained, a mash-up of Western and slave drama. “I play Stephen, the quintessential faithful house nigger,” he says, laughing. “I will go from being the most revered black man in America to being the most hated cinematic Negro in the history of film.” Ain’t that a motherfucker?

The Mountaintop
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
Previews begin Sept. 22. Opens Oct. 13.

Tell It on the Mountain