'Django Unchained': Samuel L. Jackson on playing a 'hateful negro'
Psychopathic killer …? Here's your trophy, Javier Bardem.
Sadistic cannibalism …? No problem, Anthony Hopkins.
Chatty Nazi …? You're welcome, Christoph Waltz.
Oscar voters have a long history of recognizing actors who play unrepentant monsters, but Samuel L. Jackson's twisted house slave Stephen in Django Unchained may test their fortitude for putting pure evil on their ballots.
Here's what Jackson said to his Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown collaborator Quentin Tarantino after the filmmaker gave him the script for the bloody western: "You wrote this 15 years too late for me to be Django, but now you really want me to be the most hated negro in cinematic history?"
"He goes, 'Well… sort of,'" Jackson recalls. "And I said, 'Okay… let's do it.'"
The film stars Jamie Foxx as a freed slave who joins forces with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to kill bad guys as they follow the trail to his long-sold-off wife (Kerry Washington). The journey leads them to Candie Land, a particularly gruesome plantation where Leonardo DiCaprio plays Calvin Candie, a slave owner who uses his human chattel to stage fight-to-the-death gladiatorial contests. Jackson co-stars as Candie's mentor, the scowling house slave Stephen—who is even more twisted and wicked than his petulant master.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you just told Tarantino 'Let's do it.' No hesitation signing on as this collaborator slave?
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: I had no trepidation. I liked the fact that Stephen calculates, and he's interesting. And Quentin put a lot of great things in his mouth to say. He's the dialogue king. So I loved doing it. Inhabiting that space is kinda cool.
Stephen is a thoroughly contemptible villain, and—to me—even worse than DiCaprio's Candie because of the hypocrisy of his character. Do you feel that way?
Calvin is a reflection of Stephen. Stephen raised him. So Calvin is a total reflection of who he is. I like to think of him as the Dick Cheney of Candie Land. He's the power behind the throne. Calvin is not the brightest candle in the room.
When we first meet Stephen, he comes out all stooped, walking with a cane to greet DiCaprio and meet Foxx and Waltz's characters, who are undercover trying to infiltrate the plantation. Stephen is spouting these "yessah, nossah" kind of minstrel lines, very much a horrible stereotype. Then we see later—there's a lot more to him than we realize.
[Laughs] It's like Christoph tells Jamie in the movie: 'You're playing a character.' Quentin has that theme running through his movies. That's actually a similar thing I say to John [Travolta] in Pulp Fiction: 'Let's get into character,' before we knock on the door and kill those guys. Quentin has this thing about people putting on faces within faces. It's kind of great to be able to do that.
How does somebody like Stephen happen? He's a black man, and he's seeing his people not just enslaved but tortured and killed for sport. He's doing more than just collaborating to survive.
Stephen happens because he's the product of his environment. His father did that job, his grandfather did that job. And he inherits the job of taking care of the Candie family. He's never been in the field, never been touched. Nobody has ever laid a hand on him.
He's really the functioning boss.
Yeah, he essentially takes care of the house and all the property. Calvin's major concern is just to go out and stage Mandingo fights. Stephen, when you see him, he's sitting there writing checks. So he's the guy who makes that plantation run. Within those 75 miles that are Candieland, he understands he's king. He can do anything he wants to there. Even the white people obey him. But if he steps foot outside that 75 miles, he's just another slave in the South. He's smart enough to know he needs to keep up his own kingdom. The institution of slavery works for him.
What do you think the other slaves feel about him?
It's a whole kind of family vibe. Even the slave women in the house have a better life than the people working out in the field. Women who cook are the granddaughters or daughters of women who have been cooking there all their lives. The girls who serve the tables were taught the serving ceremony by their mothers or grandmothers. The only itinerant or transient people on that plantation are the people in the field. They come and go. They get whipped, they get beaten, and they die. And the Mandingos, who fight and die. But the life inside that house is an ongoing thing that always was and always will be.
This hypocrisy is just ingrained in him then?
He's been born into the idea that he's not property. He's not like the rest of those people around there. And he is smarter than everybody else around him. But he puts on this face to make them think he's stooped and bent and shaky and old—and he's none of those things.
There must be a self-hatred there too, isn't there?
Everybody keeps saying that, but I don't know why he would. Why would he hate himself?
Because when you get right down to it, he's not different from those people out in the field. Not really. He sees these slaves who are considered chattel, whose lives are worthless to their white owners, and maybe he goes a little further in his cruelty toward them because he resents that he is like them.
He might be an early instance of Stockholm Syndrome. He has bought into it all and just has to keep things status quo. That's why when Django rides up on a horse, with a gun, speaking out of turn, the first thing Stephen has to do is let those other negroes around there on the plantation who see Django know that they can't aspire to that. The first thing Stephen wants to do is pull him down off that pedestal: Y'all can't aspire to be that type of person.
Let's talk about the look of the character. Django calls you "Snowball." How did you and Quentin come up with Stephen's hair and makeup?
I worked on that for over a year and a half, from the time when I read the script. I tried a lot of different skin tones, ages, variations on hair.
The snow white hair, there's something deceptively genteel about that, too. He almost looks like the cotton in those fields.
Well, yeah! And you know that image we've always had of Uncle Ben. People look at him and immediately think of him as subservient. Stephen is the opposite of that, but we're turning that convention on its head.
If he's playing the role of an Uncle Tom, best to look the part.
Sure. That definitely helps him. We finally got to about four different looks and started to mix and match different elements. I just wanted him to be like a slave who has never been adulterate. There were no white people mixed into his blood or anything. So I wanted them to make me as dark as possible.
You put darker makeup on to make Stephen blacker?
Yeah, I was trying to be darker and darker. I actually thought I wasn't dark enough until I actually saw the film and realized it was photographed to be much darker than it looked when I looked in the mirror.
That may be one of the few instances of a black man wearing blackface in a mainstream film.
They did it in Bamboozled, didn't they?
True. But it's risky. You talked about playing a hateful character, "the most hated negro in cinematic history," as you put it. How did you avoid making a misstep that even you might later look back on as too far?
There is no too far. Slavery was an atrocious institution. And an extreme institution. There is no "too far" in that. If you go in there half-way, the black folks will know it. So go all the way, and go as far as you can go to show the institution for how it was. They would know if you're holding back.
How do you feel moviegoers will receive the violence in this movie?
One thing about Quentin that's great is, he makes these movies and we know they're violent, we know they're funny, we know they're all these other things. But he doesn't flinch from the atrocity. Slavery was horrible. Lots of bad things happen. I don't think we've ever seen people torn apart by dogs, or how people were thrown in and out of the hot box. It's in your face. And it's honest. America tends to sugarcoat slavery—you see negroes out in the field picking cotton, and they're singing a song. That never happens. People went out there, sun-up to sun-down, and were beaten for not getting up or left there to die.
In talking about the Academy Awards, I think a lot of people love your performance but I've heard some people say it's almost too discomforting to vote for. Maybe they feel guilty because Stephen is such an ultimate Uncle Tom, and just too twisted, too dangerous. What would you say to someone thinking like that?
Well, the point of that award is that you were an actor in a film who made a dynamic impact on the story with a memorable character. And would anyone else playing the part have been as impactful? That should be the question—did you do your job? Yes. Did I make you hate me? Yes. Did I inhabit the character full enough to make you believe that, and make you uncomfortable enough to make you hate me? Yes. And you feel guilty because then you want to see me die. I did what I was supposed to do for that film, which should be the criteria for voting or not voting.
Was it uncomfortable for you to inhabit someone as despicable as Stephen?
I did spend a lot of time being concerned about Kerry when we were doing the scene where Leo and I were jerking her around and ripping her clothes off. She's one of those actresses who kind of hangs on to stuff for a minute. So when Quentin says 'cut,' she's back in the kitchen crying, and I'm going in saying, 'All right, are we going too hard? Do I need to tell Leo not to grab you that hard? Is he spinning you around too much? … All right, come on—give me a hug. Smile!' But I don't hold on to stuff.
So Method Acting isn't part of your process?
I've done all the stuff I need to do to get where I need to get before I get to work every day. I don't need to walk around in my trailer breaking stuff or look in the mirror and make faces. I've done all that during rehearsals.
Then it must not have been hard for you to leave Stephen behind.
No, when you say 'cut,' I'm done. When you say 'action,' Stephen shows up. But when the director says 'cut,' I'm Sam.