Samuel L. Jackson for “Rules of Engagement”

Samuel L. Jackson remains one of American cinema’s most charismatic actors, and off screen personalities. He talks to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles about Star Wars, Australians, his own influence on contemporary Black cinema, not to mention a movie or two, including Rules of Engagement and Shaft.

In the West LA hotel, Samuel L. Jackson seems at home in the trendy Le Meridien hotel in which he is courting select media. This laid back king of Hollywood cool is enjoying the best of times these days, having just returned from a 12-day shoot in Sydney at the beginning of his new Star Wars adventure. Though not prepared to reveal too much about Episode II, Jackson says that he preferred working at Sydney’s Fox studios, “because we got to work on real sound stages.” This time around, Episode II is being shot 100% digitally, making the experience “damn fast. There’s no more checking the gate, you’ve pretty much eliminated dailies because you can stand there and look at what you’ve got.” Jackson gets to do far more in this episode of the new trilogy, and says he has more scenes with Yoda. “This time we’re more or less on an equal footing”, he says. “I still call him Master, but we have casual conversations now; it’s not all business between us.”

One would imagine that by this stage, Jackson would become an honorary Aussie, having been there at least three times promoting films, filming there on Star Wars, not to mention having recently worked with three Australian actors (Jacqueline McKenzie, Guy Pearce and Toni Collette). “I guess I love the fact that you all speak my language”, he says laughingly. “I love Australia, man. The people are so easygoing and down to earth; for me, it’s important that people are grounded and such Everyman kind of people. I just enjoy being around ’em, laughing with them and enjoying their humour.”

Jackson is a workaholic, not because he needs the money, “but because I’m still excited by it all.” This year audiences will see Jackson as a marine in Rules of Engagement, the rule-breaking cop in the crowd-pleasing Shaft, and as a mysterious stranger opposite Bruce Willis in the highly anticipated Unbreakable. “I love my job. It’s not like I dig ditches.”

His first cinematic cab off the rank is Rules of Engagement, a film dogged with controversy , when released in the US, over scenes involving Arabs in violent anti-American demonstrations. Now, the Arab League continues to protest and has subsequently banned the film. Such controversy does not concern Sam Jackson. “They’ve got a right to do that, though I don’t know why they would. It’s basically a STORY and it happens to be a story about something that happens in Yemen. I mean we shot the film in Morocco and the people there didn’t seem to have a problem with them being murdered by me and my marines. It’s an isolated incident that doesn’t say that the whole Arab world is evil. It’s just something that happens in the midst of a general protest that kinds gets outta hand. It could have been set anywhere.”

As a result of this massacre, Jackson’s character, a career marine, is prosecuted for murder, and thus enlists the help of an alcoholic ex-Marine, and retired lawyer (Tommy Lee Jones), whose life he once saved in Vietnam. Rules of Engagement had been around for a while, the actor recalls, “and had been chasing me for about four or five years.” At one time or another, the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Richard Gere and Mel Gibson were attached to the film as the script went through various incarnations. “By the time Tommy Lee and director Bill Friedkin were attached, the story had changed drastically. “It evolved into this story about camaraderie and belief and commitment to another person; that’s a universal theme. “To have the elements that we had there and add Guy Pearce to the mix, had the potential to be exciting.” Jackson has high praise for Aussie Pearce, who gives a solid performance as a tenacious prosecutor. “He’s such a talented person; I even wanted to work with him on that cannibal movie he did, but it didn’t happen. He’s a truly fantastic talent and it was a great opportunity to work with him.”

Jackson went straight from Rules to Shaft, a reworking of the classic private eye thriller of the seventies. Initially reticent to take on the character made famous by Richard Roundtree, Jackson only agreed to do it if it was clear that this was not going to be a remake of the original. Jackson got his wish. Shaft, in the new version, has the actor portraying John Shaft’s nephew. He’s a New York cop who quits the force in disgust to track down a bail-jumping, racist, rich, white kid (played by American Psycho’s Christian Bale) charged with killing a black man.

In the new Shaft film, Shaft also has to locate the one woman who witnessed the murder, a fearing-for-her-life bartender played by Australia’s Toni Collette. Noting the differences between the two Shaft movies, Jackson insists that “the Shaft then was against the man and the system,” while my Shaft deals with race crime and drugs.” The one major similarity between the two films, beyond their coolness, is that memorable Isaac Hayes theme song. “It was the first pop song to wanna make white audiences go see a black movie,” Jackson says.

With Roundtree back as the original John Shaft, Jackson was able to create his own interpretation of the character. “I got an opportunity to do the things that I did in this movie, which means that my particular character is hopefully as cool and heroic as Richard was. He’s definitely a bit more volatile and more prone to initiate action than react to things that happen to him, the way Richard did.” Like many African-American actors of his generation, Jackson remembers Shaft as the first movie hero who looked and sounded like he did. Someone who he could emulate – “get a leather jacket and a turtleneck, comb my afro out, and get a girl,” as he puts it.

Jackson has come a long way since his days as a struggling actor relying on bit parts to scrape a living. Now recognised as one of the screen’s most dynamic personalities, the 52-year old star juggles his family life with the work, conceding “it’s not easy but the family remains a priority.” Jackson also admits that in some ways he and his contemporaries “were able to slightly open doors to a new generation of Black actors and filmmakers. That’s an exciting position to be in.”

Jackson will next turn up in Unbreakable, from Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan, whom the actor describes “as secretive as George Lucas” so on that movie, his lips were sealed “but I think it will be amazing”, the actor adds. Next he was off to Sydney again to shoot the action sequences on Episode II, admitting that he can “hardly wait to get my hands on a light sabre.” Regrettably he does not get to keep it, however. “Only Liam got to keep his from the first movie because his character is dead.” Sam will have to wait until after Episode III. Yes, he’ll be around for the third instalment.