Samuel L. Jackson has presence to spare.
Whoever first said, “his reputation precedes him,” must have been thinking about Jackson when they were carving that idea out in their head. He’s at the origin of that tale. The minute he walked into the lower level comfort lounge of Old Harlem’s Red Rooster, the room no longer belonged to matter; it was suddenly in Sam’s possession.
Certain actors have it onscreen. The combination of style, charisma, and all-around cool energy to restore life to a room as you watch them in a theater or in your living room. Others have it both on and off the screen. Jackson belongs to the latter group, and confirmed it in a roundtable discussion last weekend in New York to promote his latest film, a sequel to 2000’s Shaft.
While Richard Roundtree personified the character in the 1970’s, it is Jackson who adapted him and all his suaveness 19 years ago in the late John Singleton’s sequel. When I asked him about making and releasing a follow-up without Singleton around, Jackson was quick to remind me that the late director was involved and saw what director Tim Story and the crew were doing before his untimely passing.
“He was alive when we made the movie. I had just met with John about doing a movie in the fall. We talked about it,” Jackson said. “He (John) knew Tim very well, so he knew the film was in good hands. Everybody kind of trusts me when stuff starts happening. We find ways of making things work.”
A script that people believe in and works is a principal part of a movie turning out right. Jackson noted that the first draft of the script for the sequel was overly comedic. He made sure to get it right. Once it got there, making the transition from page to set to screen fell right into place thanks to established methods.
Basically, being ready when the cameras were ready. “The lights can be on, the camera has to be in focus. The more you know about what they are doing, the better they feel about you doing it,” Jackson said. “I’m not that guy waiting for take #15. We can rehearse it twice or three times. We are going to get it done, because the day is long and time is money.”
Story took Jackson’s opinions on the character seriously before shooting and while on the set, because who knows the character better at this point? “I asked Sam if Shaft would do this, and he would let me know. He knows what you’re going for,” Story said. “That’s the thing about doing a movie where the actor is playing a character he has before: They know them better than you’re ever know them.”
For Jackson, it’s simple finding the right script to work with. First, it has to be a movie that he would watch. “I have an obligation to the audience. I am an audience member myself. I want to shoot a movie that I can sit at home and watch for a while,” Jackson said. “I’m not going to do something that feels stupid or make the audience (roll their eyes). We change things and make them make sense.”
While his onscreen persona was at odds with him in character, Usher didn’t pass up the chance to learn from the film veteran. “I learned how to take a script and mold a script to make it work for everybody. Everything goes as smoothly as possible due to the professionalism of Sam,” Usher said.
All of this falls heavily on Jackson’s shoulders due to the weight of the name the movie carries. “You have to know what it means to have the Shaft name. It means something in this community,” Jackson noted. Still, a little modern spice never hurts an old school legend.
One of the things the 2019 film does well is mix raunchy laughs within the generational gap that the script plays with, all the while without losing focus. Jackson’s Shaft and Usher’s younger, Millenial-flavored Shaft have a lot of differences. “We were trying to be careful with it, but you can only be so careful with PC. We have to approach what my (Shaft’s) feeling is about you (J.J.) and his sexuality, what he looks like and how he dresses like, even where he corrects me,” Jackson said. “Like you can’t say that anymore or you can’t hit a woman. We are talking generationally.”
Regina Hall, who plays Shaft’s estranged wife in the film, had to put aside the initial fear when working with Jackson, finding an easygoing comfort with him. “Sam is intimidating (at first). He was great. He’s very gracious as an artist. He does have a photographic memory though, and knew everyone’s lines. He could be a producer, actor, and director all in one,” Hall remembered.
The young Alexandra Shipp, who plays the love interest of J.J. in the film, took away the swagger of the actor. “You definitely see the way he carries himself. He is that powerful, strong presence. He is that 24/7. He’s very funny and larger than life. You better be on it,” Shipp said.
At the end of the day, though, it’s his way of making you believe after all these years that he can still wear the coat, walk the walk, and grab your attention. Watching him onscreen, you would think 19 days passed instead of years. The very first scene where he’s having an argument with Hall while being shot at by a couple hitmen, Jackson shoots a look at the camera. It’s a deafening one. Right there, the movie was in place.
It’s the same effect in person. Jackson enters a room and brings his resume with him, setting up a respectful reverence in the room with the radio hosts and crew. He laughs, speaks seriously about his craft, and knows what he is doing. For a 70 year old nearing 200 projects on his film and television resume, Jackson still makes it look easy.
This weekend, go check out Shaft in theaters, a movie that reminds you age is merely a number meant to keep your honest. Jackson is the epitome of that notion.