Jackson finds resonance in the way Tarantino’s post-Civil War Western deals with race
A version of this story originally appeared in the Nominations/SAG/Golden Globes issue of TheWrap magazine.
“The Hateful Eight” is the sixth movie Samuel L. Jackson has made with Quentin Tarantino, starting with his Oscar-nominated role in “Pulp Fiction” and continuing through “Jackie Brown,” “Kill Bill: Vol. 2,” “Django Unchained” and a voiceover role in “Inglourious Basterds.”
The 67-year-old actor is essentially Tarantino’s comrade-in-arms, with his role as a mysterious bounty hunter giving him another opportunity to spew fast-paced dialogue and take part in bloodshed (Warning: Slight spoiler below.)
You’re at the top of the list of Tarantino’s most significant actors, even more than others like Tim Roth and Christoph Waltz. What does it take to be the right guy for Tarantino movies?
Don’t know! We all have very good linguistic skills. We all create characters that are individual and unique to every story he’s written — they’re not the same guy. And we also bring a level of professionalism and confidence to what’s going on that kind of makes the other people want to step their game up a little bit when they’re new to the Tarantino world. We are the constant — we’re the base flavor for that bouillabaisse he makes, we’re the tomato consommé or whatever.
How does the process work when he has something new?
He says, “I wrote a new script. I’m gonna send it to you. Read it. The part for you is …” But when he sent me this one, he’d already told me that he wasn’t going to make the movie. Somebody had leaked the script and people were reading it online. He was planning on not making it, but he just wanted me to see what he had written. I read it and thought, “You’re really not gonna make this?”
Did you believe he wasn’t going to make it?
Of course. I had no reason not to. But during the rehearsal process for the reading that we did downtown, it was kinda evident that we really needed to be making this movie. And at the end of that reading it was like, “OK, let’s change the last act and we can do this.”
Did the last act change a lot?
Yeah. It was the same people, they just ended up in different circumstances. My character died earlier on [in the previous draft].
So you must like the new ending better.
Of course. I always want to be there when the final word is spoken.
What’s the difference between a Tarantino movie and one by somebody else?
The majority of films we do are one-third dialogue and two-thirds “go here, go there, jump over that.” Quentin’s films are two-thirds dialogue and one-third that other stuff. And in other films, we don’t have the luxury of rehearsal like we do here. We rehearse Quentin’s films three, four weeks ahead of time.
How extensive were these rehearsals?
We were around a table for three or four days reading, and before we knew it they’d set up Minnie’s Haberdashery in the studio. All the props were in there, the table, the chairs, everything was there. So we got to rehearse that stuff and experiment with how we feel about it.
Did shooting in 70mm change what you were doing at all?
The scope of the room was so big, and the scope of the camera. You know that even when you think you’re not on camera, you have to figure out things to do in this room, because they can still see you and somebody in the movie theater might be watching you over here. You have to start finding a life in that room. So that’s what we did.
When you read the script and there’s a line like, “The only time black folks are safe is when white folks are disarmed,” are you making connections with today?
Yeah, of course. I have no other reference. I don’t have a reference to then, but I have a reference to now.
So yeah, I get that. And what that statement means is about the safety of a white person thinking, “You’re an OK person, you’re not gonna rob me.” So therefore they let their guards down, because they’re disarmed. Now, I could very well change my mind and pull a gun out and rob you. But as long as I don’t pose a threat to you, I don’t have to worry about you calling other people or calling the cops or doing any of those things that would make me feel not safe.
Or when Kurt [Russell’s character] says, “I guess all those things people say about you folks is true,” he was trying, in a time of racial unrest, to give me the benefit of the doubt. And all of a sudden something happens that makes him say, “Oh damn, what they said was true.” It’s kinda like us here in America wanting to believe, “OK, radical Islam is radical Islam, and not every person who’s a Muslim is a terrorist.” That’s a fine thought until what happened the other day in San Bernardino makes people say, “I guess it’s true what they say about those Muslim people.”
Everybody’s looking at everybody in a different way now, just because of one particular thing. And the other thing is probably still true, but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of people’s attitudes got changed because of one incident.