To keep up with Samuel L. Jackson’s 2019, you have to start in 2018. The first time I met the Hollywood icon in person was on the set of Captain Marvel, where he was reprising his role as special agent Nick Fury in the Avengers prequel of sorts. As the film was set in the 1990s, he was sporting a thick head of hair and sensors glued to his face that would assist in taking decades from his visage in post-production. We joked that he looked more like his Eve’s Bayou character than a S.H.I.E.L.D agent and he rebutted in Sam Jax fashion, “I had more hair than this in Eve’s Bayou.”
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In between takes he was debating music with the room full of journalists and subtly reminding you that, despite his Hollywood status, he’s a kid from D.C. anywhere he is in the Galaxy. “Nick Fury is not a Cross Colors guy. Phat Farm, maybe,” he jokes of the ’90s aesthetic for the bureaucratic, pre-eye patch Fury.
If it seems that Jackson is always working, it’s because he is. On this hot summer day in Baton Rouge, he casually mentions that he’ll be flying to London soon for the Incredibles 2 premier (he voices the hero Frozone) and leaves days later to work on Spider-Man Far From Home. “But my vacation is coming.”
However long that vacation was, it probably wasn’t long enough. The super hero world became Jackson’s playground in 2019 and his ability to embody so many characters while maintaining this unmistakable “don’t f*ck with me” aura is part of what makes him the most bankable actor in the business.
He started the year starring in GLASS, the unexpected conclusion to the Unbreakable trilogy, where he plays the villain, Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. It’s been 18 years since the comic book fiend sent hundreds to their death in a train crash trying to smoke out his opposite, David Dunn, played by Bruce Willis. When I asked Samuel Jackson how Elijah compares to other villains he’s played, he offered:
“Elijah’s great because he’s brilliant, and even in his brilliance there’s this fragility that he has and his outlook on what the world is, is very different from everybody else’s. As brilliant as he is, he can’t fix himself in ways that doesn’t allow the physical world to injure him. But he’s learned to live with pain and manage pain in a way that’s made him even stronger than those two guys that he’s manipulating.”
After GLASS came Captain Marvel, where Jackson reunited with his Kong: Skull Island co-star, Brie Larsen, who was the titular superhero. Like Elijah, Nick’s true power is of persuasion, convincing those around him with infinitely stronger abilities to work for his best interest. But in Captain Marvel we see him at his most vulnerable, a humble bureaucrat who is just learning that humans are not alone in the universe.
“Believing in aliens is not something we’re wired for until you see ‘em,” says Jackson. ‘Oh shit, they are out there.’ Now the job is convincing the people with the money that we need to figure out a way to fight something that doesn’t live here… He’s not the worldly, wise, cynical Nick Fury we’ve seen before. So now when they’ve asked me to be a little lighter I think, yeah, I guess I can have more of a sense of humor.”
As for the grand finale of Avengers: Endgame, Nick was not really present until the end of the film, appearing at Tony Stark’s funeral. However, Sam takes Nick’s absences in stride.
“I think there’s a point in Avengers 4, one day there were 60 Marvel heroes on the set at the same time,” he teased of the now famous grand finale to Endgame. “That’s more than all those people that showed up in Wakanda to start that fight. Why they had to go to Wakanda to fight? Of all the places they could have tore up they showed up in Wakanda.
“I tried to figure out how to get there. I asked. So, did Don (Cheadle), so did Anthony (Mackie). But they made it, I didn’t. I’m the only Black person in the Marvel Universe that has not been to Wakanda.”
Things come back down to Earth the next time I see Sam during interviews for Shaft, another unexpected sequel (no, it’s not a reboot) to the 2000 film he shot with the late John Singleton, this time helmed by Tim Story. What better place to sit and speak with the Private Dick who gets all the chicks but in the basement of Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem? Jackson is flanked by the OG Shaft, Richard Roundtree, and by Jesse T. Usher, who is the millennial Shaft Jr. trying to solve a friend’s murder with help from pops.
“It’s about cementing the Shaft name and letting him know there’s a specific way to carry yourself in here that has been established,” Sam says of the next generation of Shafts. “And you cannot tarnish the family name because you went to prep school and you didn’t spend enough time up here. So, let’s go, let me show you the sexy, dangerous, cool, Harlem.”
Shaft took on a special significance with the sudden passing of director John Singleton in April, leaving a creative hole in Hollywood. Jackson said that he did get to build with Singleton about their new film before his death.
“I was just about to do a film with John in the fall,” Jackson told me. “He was anxious to see what we had done to make an action comedy out of Shaft. He trusted the fact that I knew what I was doing and Tim knew what he was doing and that it was going to be something that wasn’t going to be an embarrassment to the mythology of John Shaft, which was very important to me when I started talking to them about doing what they call a comedy. An action-comedy, but the level of danger has to be as real as any other Shaft movie.”
For the follow-up to Endgame, Spider-Man Far From Home, Nick was considerably more present as he tried to guide a young Peter Parker in a post-Tony Stark world. When I meet Sam this time in London, I’m wearing the same Bruce Lee DJing T-shirt that Tony sported in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but Sam isn’t impressed. “What’s he playing?” he asks quizzically as I sit down. I counter that the iconic image is Photoshopped and that Bruce Lee never DJ’d a day in his life. Sam is undaunted, “You gotta know what he was one and two-in.”
Sam is serious about his music and probably remembered the GLASS interview where I asked him if he could finish a line from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” (Broken glass everywhere, people pissin on the stairs, you know they just don’t care….) and he didn’t miss a beat.
“The first time I heard that song I lived in Harlem. [Laughs]. I actually have a friend when we heard that song we changed his nickname from his normal name, he became Edge Man. Because he was that guy who was always on the edge. And he accepted that as his name. I see him even now, and I’ll say, ‘Hey Edge, what’s up!” And he’d say “Hey, Big Jack, what’s up. So, we good. His nickname went straight to that place.”
Samuel Jackson’s 2020 is already shaping up to be as busy as his 2019, with his movie The Banker slated for January release, a Nick Fury series on Disney Plus, voice work in the animated Blazing Samurai and the sequel to the Hitman’s Bodyguard, just to name a few.
So, as we say goodbye to this year, raise a glass to Hollywood’s hardest working man of 2019. No matter how you slice it, he’s still a bad motherf*cker.
Image Source: Universal Studios, Warner Bros Studios, Marvel Studios.