Samuel L. Jackson for “Changing Lanes”

Samuel L. Jackson is not only Hollywood’s quintessential Mr Cool, but one of the most versatile actors in town. Within a month he’ll do battle with those pesky Clones in Episode II of the Star Wars saga, and an inconsiderate lawyer in the dramatic Changing Lanes. And as Paul Fischer discovered, Sam Jackson refuses to repeat himself.

In his latest movie, Changing Lanes, Samuel L. Jackson plays an ordinary guy who is angered by the deal life has bestowed on him. Jackson could have fallen in the trap of playing him in a stereotypical, one dimension manner, but don’t suggest that to the actor. “I’ve never done a one dimensional performance in my life, that I know of,” he retorts. Here he stars as a down-on-his-luck father of two, who loses custody of his children when he shows up late to work, all because insensitive lawyer Ben Affleck . Jackson has the knack of taking what could have been a very simplistic character and embellish him with credible humanity. “Generally when I approach a story or a character I’m always trying to find ways of humanizing them.”

Jackson adds that he doesn’t perceive Doyle as being angry all the time and “has a lot of different stuff going on. He’s desperately trying to hold onto his family, his job and he’s definitely trying to hold onto his sanity. He thinks there are a lot of forces acting on him. He’s very used to blaming all of his woes on someone else and that’s the easy way for him. So I was trying to find a way to balance all those things against the things that Ben was doing to me.” Given all of the offers at his disposal, Jackson was drawn to Changing Lanes, he says, because “this guy was so complex, was having, all these issues and he was a complete 360 degrees from Shaft and all those other kinds of bad ass characters that people try to associate me with all the time. I tend to think I have a facility for doing just about anything and I wanted to play a guy who was quietly raging in that way.”

Jackson insists that it’s important for him to take on a role that is the antithesis of those ‘bad ass roles’ of which he refers. “I mean, it’s kind of easy to put on great clothes, talk tough, do all that stuff; that’s fun and I enjoy doing it. But I’ve done drama all my life and I like exploring the human experience in a lot of different ways. Movies are great for entertainment and escapism and all that other stuff. I don’t make a point of doing movies that are slice of life, this is what we need to be doing with ourselves kind of thing. But this was a good story and the guy inside of it was a good challenge for me as an actor after having done all these other things for a while, so I kind of needed to just recharge my acting battery.”

Which is far different from his attraction to the Star Wars films, which serve to exercise his childhood fantasies. “I always wanted to be like a big swashbuckling hero and they don’t make pirate movies anymore. So the light saber seems to be the answer to the old sword,” he adds laughingly. But unlike a character-based drama such as Changing Lanes, the challenge for Jackson on a Star Wars movie, is being reactive to all its digital effects. And this actor loved that aspect. “I loved doing that because I did it as a kid. George just puts you in a big blue room and says: ‘Ok, fight. So you just kind of do that.’ ” He did more of that shooting Attack of the Clones. “When I was walking and talking with Yoda, there was somebody doing the voice, but, you I was just kind of walking along, talking and imagining him being there. In Clones it’s cool because Yoda is fighting in this movie, being about 100 years young and all.”

Sam Jackson has paid his dues big time. The former respected actor from New York has emerged as one of this country’s most arresting screen personalities, who can flip from a Shaft to a Doyle with an apparent effortlessness. He is a very different actor, now, to what he once was, and what fuels him these days, he says, is that he is “able to choose characters that are verbal, that talk about themselves and talk about how they feel about what’s going on around them. I can also look inside the majority of the film scripts that I do now and I can find a two page monologue that I had to do. That my characters talk. I used to miss that when I first started.”

He also loves to travel, and his work affords him a myriad of travel opportunities, such as his lengthy stint in Australia shooting Star Wars. “I’ve been to Australia but I’ve never spent any time there so it was great to be able to explore the country and go out and play all the golf courses that they had there, if people allowed me to play. Then this time last week I was in Czechoslovakia doing XXX and then flew into Jacksonville and to shoot Basic all last week. It’s a great life.”

As to whether we’ll see Jackson back as Shaft, the actor concedes that he’d love to do another one, but with more sex this time.” Jackson also predicts that “XXX is going to be huge” and as for the latest Star Wars, “I’m looking forward to it and I’m as excited as anyone else to see it.”