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For Samuel L. Jackson, Taking a Break Is Never in the Picture

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C01

LOS ANGELES -- Samuel L. Jackson is sprawled on a couch, looking as plush as a velvet rope, dressed in his leprechaun green and silky white sweat suit emblazoned with the word "Soul."

The athletic gear is logical. Jackson is the running man, "the hardest-working actor," they say, in Hollywood. Other stars may pick and choose their projects like anorexic models eating their baby arugula one leaf at a time. Jackson fills his plate.

By his count, Jackson has made some 90 films: "Look, I like my job. Actors act." (Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)

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"Always busy," he says. Heapin' helpings.

This is good for his many fans. He could have his own wall at Blockbuster. But this is also not good, because Jackson seems to find himself starring in film after film that the critics describe as half-baked, cookie-cutter. Like he's Lean Cuisine, when he could be three-star.

His latest is "In My Country," an independent feature about an African American journalist (a fictional Washington Post reporter) who travels to South Africa in 1996 to report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, established by then-President Nelson Mandela to bring peace to a troubled land after the fall of apartheid. The film, which co-stars Juliette Binoche, opens today in Washington.

Early word, from the reviews, is: another misfire. Earnest. Wooden. Convoluted. Contrived. Variety says, "The combo of cultural cringe and schematic didactic screenplay strangles the human emotion."

We ask Jackson why he never slows down. How he picks and chooses. The good, the bad. You work all the time?

"This is the longest period off in, like, 10 years," Jackson says, lying back.

Like you take a week?

"No, man, I haven't done anything since October," he says. "That's why my golf swing is so good."

October until March. Some actors might call that Christmas vacation. Jackson just began shooting "Freedomland," from Richard Price's gritty novel about a white baby allegedly abducted by a black carjacker as mom drove past the projects in New Jersey.

"I usually go from film to film to film," Jackson says. Maybe he should slow down?

"Look, I like my job. Actors act. When I was in the theater" -- that would be back in his New York City days -- "I was always doing a play, auditioning for a play or rehearsing a play. When I grew up" -- he was born in Washington, grew up in Chattanooga -- "everybody in my house went to work every day. That's what I understand. You got a job, you go and do it."

The work has made Jackson, and his studio employers, some serious money. According to The-numbers.com, which tracks box-office take, Jackson's 63 movies (by his count, he's made closer to 90) have garnered $3.4 billion in gross revenue. That's first place. Second? Harrison Ford with $3.3 billion (33 films), then Tom Hanks at $3.1 billion (33 movies) and that laggard, Tom Cruise, with $2.7 billion (29 films).

Jackson blasted off in 1991 with his turn as the crackhead Gator in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," a role he had done extensive research for in his younger personal life.

He hit it big in 1994 with an Oscar nomination for his role as the Bible-quoting hit man Jules in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

He has become a leading man. Since starring in the remake of "Shaft" in 2000, Jackson has made 15 more films, including "Unbreakable," "Changing Lanes" (with Ben Affleck) and the two most recent "Star Wars" movies (as Jedi knight Mace Windu). Along the way, he even supplied the voice for Frozone in "The Incredibles."

But remember the others. Or, more likely, not.

"Insipid," LA Weekly labeled "Twisted."

"By the numbers," Rolling Stone called "S.W.A.T."

"The worst role of his career," a Washington Post critic said of "The 51st State."

About the Vin Diesel movie "XXX," in which Jackson played a government agent, Newsday declared, "It's hard to tell with all the crashing and banging where the salesmanship ends and the movie begins."

" 'Basic,' " the Los Angeles Times said, "makes your head hurt."

What's his approach? Is there one? "I read for stories," he says. "If the story intrigues me, touches me, and a character inside that story gives me a challenge as an actor, and works for an audience, I do it. I don't make a choice to do three studio movies and one independent. I do the film that's ready to go, the one I got a deal to do."

These days, Jackson says, he is big enough at the box office that scripts are written with him in mind. "I'm sure there are now characters pitched as a Samuel L. Jackson type. This smoldering intense kind of character that at some point is going to explode. That might be a trademark."

Despite that, Jackson, 56, says that he still considers himself a character actor and that he reads scripts to find roles that push him. "Diversity," he says. He wants to take chances. The "Tom Cruise, the Harrison Ford thing. The John Wayne syndrome," where an actor gets trapped as a type. "I'm anti-that."

But he must have heard the critical buzz -- that he's got as many misses as hits. "I read the reviews, because I'm interested in what people say about what I do," Jackson says. "Sometimes they sting. But the one thing the critics never ask is, did you do what the director asks you to do, and if the answer is yes, then blame falls to him."

He blames bad studio marketing for the lack of success of some films. Jackson has also fought with directors. He doesn't want to do lots of takes that he knows will never end up on the screen. Some of his directors, he says, don't seem to know what they're doing.

"Understand that in an actor's career, especially one like mine, I've been on over 90 movie sets. The average director, what, in his whole career, a hardworking director, he does, what? Ten or twelve movies? And he's lucky if one or two of them are great."

Did you do a lot of research to play journalist Langston Whitfield in "In My Country"?

"Naaah," Jackson says.

He read the book that the movie is based on, "Country of My Skull," by the South African poet Antjie Krog, "and another one, what's its name, by the head of the death squads?" He can't remember. "I read his book," he says. But he had been to South Africa a couple of times before the movie was made, had worked with a group of artists to promote initiatives to combat AIDS.

In playing the journalist, Jackson says, "the important thing was to look like I was taking notes during the trials."

He explains: "It's not like I got the hardest job in the world. I go to work and go to my trailer and watch TV or read scripts or a book or go to sleep if I want to, until somebody calls me onto the set to work for 10 or 15 minutes. So out of a 12-hour day, what do I work? An hour and a half. So why would I not want to go to that job? Especially for the amounts of money they pay you."

They shot "In My Country" in Cape Town. There was golf, the mountains, the wine country, the restaurants. "It's like a vacation," says the hardest-working man in Hollywood.

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