Samuel L. Jackson Brings Tension to 'Freedomland'
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris. A new film opens this weekend called FREEDOMLAND, but the characters in this drama aren't exactly free. They're all entangled in a racially charged crime investigation. Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lorenzo Council, a housing authority cop working a carjacking case in a New Jersey Housing Project. The victim is a white woman and former drug addict named Brenda, played by Julianne Moore. She claims she's been carjacked by a young black man, but there's something else.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREEDOMLAND)
SAMUEL L: (As Lorenzo Council) Your son, what?
JULIANNE MOORE: (As Brenda) In the car.
The housing project goes into full lockdown as a largely white police force searches for the car with the missing boy in the backseat. Lorenzo Council is at the center of the tension, a black man who doesn't trust his fellow cops and is quickly losing the trust of the black tenants he's supposed to protect. This is just the latest in a long line of tough guy roles for Jackson. No one else does a killer scowl quite like his.
He's appeared in more than 70 films and he's now one of the top grossing actors in Hollywood, up there with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. What makes Jackson's career remarkable is not just the volume of his work, it's that voice and what he does with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "DO THE RIGHT THING")
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "JACKIE BROWN")
JACKSON: (As Ordell Robbie) AK-47, the very best there is. When you absolutely, positively have got to kill every (expletive) -
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE INCREDIBLES")
JACKSON: (As Frozone) Honey, where is my super suit? Where is my super suit?
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "PULP FICTION")
JACKSON: (As Jules) And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger, those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord, when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
JACKSON: There is hardly a day that passes if I'm on the street that somebody doesn't have a PULP FICTION reference for me, so people relate Jules to me in a very interesting sort of way, even though, you know, I don't have his hairstyle or facial hair anymore. So, it's hard for me to get away from that guy.
NORRIS: Do you mind that?
JACKSON: No, not at all. There are a lot of actors that if you ask a person that goes to the movies about that particular actor, they couldn't relate or name one character that that person had played. But I have a lot of characters like that, that are interesting to me, you know, because naturally I have all those STAR WARS fans that refer to me as Master Windu.
A lot of black people's minds, you know people always talk to me about A TIME TO KILL, because that's, you know, such a personal experience for the majority of African Americans that watched it and they relate to it in a very specific kind of way. So, I've been fortunate to have some characters that are iconic that will always be in the forefront of their minds when they think of me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FREEDOMLAND")
JACKSON: (as Lorenzo Council) Your kid, he's a boy, right? How old?
MOORE: (As Brenda) Four.
JACKSON: What's his name?
NORRIS: Had you read the book FREEDOMLAND before you were approached for a role in the film?
JACKSON: You know, FREEDOMLAND's one of those kind of films that has been kind of following me for a while. There are certain jobs that I've turned down at different points and they keep coming back. You know, FREEDOMLAND chased me for about six, seven years and the first time I read the script, I read the book. I kept waiting on a version of the script that gave me more to do than just follow the Brenda character around and ask her questions and lead her into flashback and they finally came up with one that was more of a, what we like to call a two-hander in the business.
NORRIS: A two-hander?
JACKSON: That I was interacting with her as much as she interacted with me, more so then one having an effect on the other and not having much to do. And the fact that Lorenzo had, you know, a better background story in terms of him being part of the Armstrong housing projects and having kind of grown up there and knowing everybody in it. His background in the police department which gave him the dilemma of having to black or blue in terms of solving this particular crime, and the fact that the relationship between he and Brenda became so involved and intricate.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREEDOMLAND)
JACKSON: (as Lorenzo Council) What's he wearing, your son? What is your son wearing?
MOORE: (as Brenda) He had, he had a, he had a white, white shirt on, a white, white shirt on.
JACKSON: Light or dark?
MOORE: Short in front and long in back, back.
JACKSON: Pants or jeans?
MOORE: Pajama bottoms, striped.
JACKSON: Pajama bottoms with stripes, okay. All right, hold on, hold on. This is investigator 15 to base. Child has black hair, white shirt --
NORRIS: There's a scene where Lorenzo Council is interrogating Brenda Martin, very early in the film and in the course of this, his asthma starts to kick up.
JACKSON: Mm hmm.
NORRIS: And you see sort of two sides of this man: someone who is very aggressive, but someone who is also very vulnerable, physically vulnerable in that moment.
NORRIS: What did you draw on in your own life in that scene so you could play both sides of that character?
JACKSON: Well, I stuttered very badly when I was younger. I was also like one of the smartest kids in my class, but I couldn't express it when I was called on because I stuttered. And I tend to look back at those things. Knowing that you have the strength to accomplish a particular task, but there's something that's in the way that prevents you from showing that you are capable of doing it, and those are the kinds of things that I can look at and remember and understand that particular feeling and be able to try and get that to an audience so I can communicate the vulnerability.
(SOUNDBITE OF FREEDOMLAND)
JACKSON: (as Lorenzo Council) Looks like your sister got jacked over in the Armstrong housing. She got a little roughed up and we think her son, Cody, is still in the backseat of the car.
Unidentified Man: Car, the guy's still out there?
JACKSON: We got a crash alert going. The guy's not going to get far.
Man: Where in Armstrong? High end or low?
JACKSON: Look, Danny, I know where you're coming from, but -
NORRIS: This film deals with some very thorny issues, thorny issues of race. As an actor, you have, sort of bicultural experiences --
JACKSON: Mm hmmm.
NORRIS: — and probably experiencing some degree of racial profiling yourself, that perhaps, you know, some of the other actors didn't experience, and I'm wondering if you all talked about that.
JACKSON: No, Julianne and I talked about a lot of different things, but never those kinds of things. Occasionally we could relate to a different kind of scene in another kind of way or sometimes you have to explain what a dynamic is going to be or what that dynamic is in terms of, a lot of times, because we're African Americans we're kind of taught to walk in different worlds. I actually speak a different way to my friends then I do when, you know, when I'm speaking on the radio like I am right now. I mean, I can, I know how to conjugate and I know how to do all those specific things that are good English kind of things that all my teachers taught me.
NORRIS: But you also know how to go home.
JACKSON: I also know how to, you know, step back in my community, and talk like the kids that I grew up around or the people that I tend to talk to everyday. There are things that I know a lot of black men have experienced that I haven't experienced. You know, I've been stopped by the police and I've been, you know, face down in the middle of the street with guns to my head, but I've never been handcuffed and put in the back of a car and taken to a police station and locked up.
I can kind of know what the dynamic is because I've had enough of it, or enough of the trepidation of knowing what would happen to me if I did end up, you know, going to jail, or the fear of them making a mistake and pulling the trigger, you know, by accident, or me being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know, there are all kinds of things that I can call upon, but not necessarily have had the total experience.
NORRIS: What was the circumstance of you being laid out spread-eagled with the gun to your head?
JACKSON: I was doing a play on Santa Monica Boulevard during the time I was doing PULP FICTION, and some friends of mine came to the show one night. After dinner we were, you know, about to part, but we stood on the corner across the street from the restaurant and talked. And I guess in the process of talking we ended up being out there 30, 40 minutes and somebody somewhere called the police and said there were five black men standing on the corner with guns and bats.
NORRIS: Guns and bats?
JACKSON: Yeah. And out of nowhere, you know, there were four or five Los Angeles Sheriff Department police cars pulled up and they had spotlights on, they shined them in our faces and all we could see were the guns pointed at us and them yelling at us, get down on the street, get down, get down. And they searched us, realized we didn't have any weapons, we had nothing, you know.
And then it was kind of like, all right, get off the street, go on about your business. We were like, wait a minute, why do we have to get off the street when you finally discerned that we don't have anything, we haven't done anything, but you know, it was to the point where it was like, go away.
And one of them said to me, you look very familiar, and I don't know why. And you don't want to say, well, I'm an actor, of course you know who I am, because then I wasn't that famous in my mind. But you never know if you fit the description of something they were told to look for before they went on patrol that night. So you're just trying to be as quiet and respectful as you can. You constantly say, you know, sir, and officer. And, you know, it's a tense situation.
NORRIS: You have noted many times that the interior lives of African-Americans are not portrayed as fully on screen as they are for white Americans. And I'm wondering how that informs the choices that you make as an actor, the roles you choose?
JACKSON: Well, I've always been of the mind that people are people. I don't want roles that are only specifically written for African-Americans, only because society has changed to the point where, you know, when I first started, okay, if I picked up a script, and there was a criminal or a bad guy in it, then that was going to be me. But now there's a way to make me, you know, the cop, the lawyer, the doctor, whatever the story calls for.
NORRIS: I'm looking into your future. You've got two films that are coming out soon that both involve snakes. What's up with the snakes?
JACKSON: Well, actually only one involves snakes. Yeah, BLACK SNAKE MOAN is a blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson that happens to be the title of this particular film. SNAKES ON A PLANE is pretty much what it sounds like. I want to do films sometimes that excited me when I was a kid, and I always liked horror and adventure movies. And when I opened the cover on that particular script and it said SNAKES ON A PLANE, I was immediately kind of viscerally struck with an, oh yeah.
It turned out to be exactly what I thought. Somebody turns loose a big crate load of poisonous snakes on an airplane, and we kind of fight the snakes until we get to our destination. And it's just one of those kind of popcorn kind of moments where you know you're going to a movie, you don't have to think about what's happening, you know what's going to happen.
There are going to be snakes loose on this plane. Some people are going to get bitten. There going to be some victims. And you hope you're a survivor. You just want to have that experience and excite people who are sitting there watching it. So people who have a fear of flying and people who have a fear of snakes are going to have like a double-whammy going with them. It's kind of going to be great.
NORRIS: Well, Samuel Jackson, it's been great talking to you. Do people call you Samuel or Sam?
JACKSON: Most people call me Sam. When I was called Samuel, it meant something was wrong in the house and I was about to be in trouble.
NORRIS: Well, let me call you Sam, then. Sam, thanks so much for talking to us.
JACKSON: Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: Sam Jackson's latest film is called FREEDOMLAND.
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