Samuel L. Jackson on playing the real life Coach Carter
With his stern glare and authoritative delivery, it's easy to imagine Samuel Jackson as a tough-love basketball coach. In fact, it's hard to see anyone else playing the role. In his new film Coach Carter, Jackson stars as, well, Coach Carter, a real-life basketball coach who benched his undefeated team for the unlikeliest of reasons . . . getting bad grades. It's a feel good story of life-lessons, doing the right thing, and the importance of principle over peer pressure. In the middle of his busy schedule--which includes kicking ass and wielding light-sabers--Jackson sat down with the LatinoReview to discuss his latest role.
Can you talk about your love of basketball? Did you ever play the sport on a team?
Samuel L. Jackson: I played recreationally. I was never good enough to be on my high school team. They were good and it was just a game we could get together and play. It was something I did from when I was a small child up until I was out of college. I played in the streets of New York when I was here acting. So it's a game that I have always loved and enjoyed, played, watched, & cheered for. Basketball players are heroic for us. They fly
How about the love you have for NBA games? I assume you go to a lot of games.
Samuel L. Jackson: Not a lot. I tend not to get into traffic in LA and drive to the Staples Center unless I get in a car with someone who is going or I can go with neighbor who lives across the street and go the game. I go to more games when I'm here in NY than anywhere else because it's easier to get on trains, end up on Madison Square Garden, walk upstairs, and get back on the train and leave. It's like the easiest stadium to get to in America.
Do you get on the trains?
Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. Of course.
People leave you alone?
Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. They actually tell me that I look like somebody. (Laughs). "You know. You look like that guy". I would say "Who?" and I get "Fishburne".
What was it about the role that made you decide you wanted to do it?
Samuel L. Jackson: I believe in education and it's not often that I do something that has social significance and I think that this is an interesting message to put out there to kids. That playing basketball, football, soccer or whatever you do in school is an extracurricular activity. Getting an education is the one thing that can't be taken away from you. In doing the research for this project, it was interesting to find out that out of the thousands of kids that play basketball on the college level, there only about 300 something NBA jobs. So, are you good enough to get one of those jobs? If not, then you better get your education and then you look at the bigger picture, last year at the NCAA basketball tournament, out of the 72 teams that are there and some are supposed to be the best basketball players in the country, only two of those schools had positive graduation rates. There were a couple of schools in the tournament that never graduated a basketball player from their programs. So, you have to look at who you are handing your kids over to and what are they doing when they go to those schools and what are those people doing for them.
When you first met Coach Ken Carter, were you surprised that he lived up to what people thought of him?
Samuel L. Jackson: I actually met Ken at a high school basketball game. We hooked up at a high school basketball tournament in LA. With all these schools from around the country here, we hooked up and I was like, "You're him?" So we hung out, talked about basketball, watched the kids play, we commented on the games, and he had a Kangol hat on backwards, and I had a baseball hat on, and he was like, "So, you're really going to play me?" I said, "I got no choice now. I'm going to do it." I find out more or less that he was essentially the same kind of guy I was. He believes in education and he believes people should be accountable for things they say they are going to do. In this case, it was the kids signing the contract. It's not difficult to stand in that situation and look at the obstacles that you face and portray them honestly in a real sort of way. He was around a lot so if I felt he was questioning something, I would go over and ask him, "How do you feel about this?" or "How did you feel how the scene played out?" Hopefully he would honestly say, "Oh no, I thought it was fine. I was just looking and I'm still amazed that you are doing my life." I would say, "Ok, get over it and let's go to lunch."
Some of the younger actors had mentioned that they tried very hard to make you laugh, but you would crack a smile.
Samuel L. Jackson: They are easy guys to crack. All you have to do is stand next to the camera and cross you eyes and they laugh. They were easy and they tried a lot of stuff but I told them that I have been around in the theater with people who are very skillful actors and you have to learn how to ignore them and keep on going; and that's part of the game, being able to do stuff. Dustin Hoffman is a huge joker, and the whole time he's doing his off-camera lines, he's doing all sorts of stuff. He's saying the lines, but he's doing other things like picking his nose, messing with you, and picking something out of his teeth, and you just learn to do it. You gotta have fun doing it. It's sort of fun to see if it can happen but they are easy. They are so easy.
It seems like you are always working. Do you ever see yourself taking some time off?
Samuel L. Jackson: I'm taking time off now. Everybody talks about this job like it's a 9 to 5 ditch digging killer. It's 12 to 15 hours days but 14 ®ˆ hours of it is spent watching Judge Judy, Joe Brown, or People's Court, eating sandwiches, reading books, and all kinds of stuff. So it's kind of an easy job to go to. A lot of times you're in places that you will never get to or think of to go vacation or you are just there like when I was in South Africa in Capetown. You don't work everyday. Sometimes you get to explore the place that you are in and hang out and see what's it like. It's a vacation. Paid vacation.
How do you feel about the Navity display of you in front of Massade Toousade?
Samuel L. Jackson: I don't feel anything about it. I had nothing to do with it. The people at Madame Toousade decided to take the clothes I had on off and put a robe on me and make me shepherd in a family coming. I was like. "Okay the church has issues with people who don't things the way they think they should just. If Beckam, Posh Spice, and Derek Jeter are standing there, what's the big deal? Who cares? Nobody would even know if they didn't make a big deal out of it. They did it. How cute it is that. People that paid to go to see it at Madame Toosade and they are getting free publicity because everyone's upset about it. It's not going to change the course of world events.
Did you work out with any of the players?
Samuel L. Jackson: No. I don't play basketball. I play golf. They are young. They run. They jump. I can shoot free throws better than they can. We found that out. I can do that. They played ball all the time. They were going to basketball camp. Some of those kids were semi-pro basketball players and played in Europe and played in college. They have basketball skills. There were only a few of them that didn't have a lot of skills prior to playing in this movie, but I wouldn't get on the court with them.
How come you didn't have any scenes with Ashanti?
Samuel L. Jackson: No we didn't. I only saw her in the makeup trailer in the mornings. I would come in on the days she was working or I had a half a day or something and I would walk in and talk with her and we would laugh over something.
Did she ask you for any advice?
Samuel L. Jackson: No she didn't. She's quite good in the movie. Very natural. You don't see a false moment or "actory" moment the whole time you are watching her.
At one point you had mentioned that big rappers and singers would get roles that trained actors should be getting. How do you feel about that now you are working with Ashanti?
Samuel L. Jackson: It had nothing to do with that. I was actually taking about the fact that producers or Hollywood people tend to think that because one is successful in one aspect of the entertainment they can bring them into this particular world and make a success out of them; and when they do that, they ask people like me or some other established actor to be in a film with those particular people that they are kind of headlining and your name ends up behind them so to do that, it sanctions the fact that these people into this world and you think they are worthy of you sharing your time on screen with them. I don't particularly think that. I have worked with people from the other world that have spent some time in this world and have paid their dues. I just finished a movie with Ice Cube. I've worked with Todd "LL Cool J". I've worked with Queen Latifah and I've worked with Busta Rhymes and Method Man. I've been around a lot of people from the hip hop community that have come into this business through legitimate ways whether they spent time on television or did some other movies. It got to point where I said to myself, "Ok, I respect what they do and I can do that." But take for instance, a month or so ago, someone called me about the 50 Cents movie and I'm like, "What are you calling me for, to play 50 Cents? Be in the movie with 50 Cents?" I don't even need to read that because that's not something I want to do. I like listening to 50 Cents and I can groove to his music but I don't want to groove to him on screen, just yet. If he does 5 movies and he shows some talent, then I'll go, "That cool. Maybe I can do a movie with him." But come on, Jim Sheridan is going to direct the 50 Cents movie. How does he get to work with Jim Sheridan and I don't! Jim Sheridan, who did "In America", and what is it about 50 Cents that makes Jim Sheridan say, "I'd really like to make a movie with him." Somebody would do it but it won't be me.
Can you go over the films you have slated for next year?
Samuel L. Jackson: "In My Country" is the next film. I play a Washington Post reporter sent to South Africa to cover the truth and reconciliation trials and he meets and falls in love with a South African radio journalist played by Juliet Binoche. She's married and has kids, so the fallout from that and the trials in different places and seeing how that affects them and their relationship and how the country heals itself by doing that. After that, there "XXX: State of the Union" with Ice Cube cause Vin Diesel's dead. (laughs) That's what happens when you ask for too much money. They just kill you. The film is about a guy trying to usurp the presidency. So Ice Cube saves the nation. Then there's "Star Wars" where I play the same guy, Mace Windu. Spectacular death. Beautiful thing. And "The Man" is after that where I play an ATF agent who's trying to bust some gun runners who killed my partner and Eugene Levy shows up at this meeting place and the bad guys thinks he's me and I end using him as my go-between with the bad guys so it's an action comedy.
What's the difference when working on a film like "Star Wars" with experienced actors and working on a film like this with new and young actors?
Samuel L. Jackson: My responsibility becomes greater in a sense because I have to be an example to these kids so I do all the things that I am supposed to do such as show up on time, know your lines, your in place, help them as much as I can. Sometimes I'm a defender of them when too much is being asked of them because they don't they don't know how to say, "No, I can't do that now" and especially in a basketball situation where people can get hurt. Show them how you respect the crew like knowing their names and knowing what their jobs are. Treat them as important as the people on camera. And try and show them that status doesn't mean you don't remember who you are and where you came from and who the other people are around you, because that happens a lot. I enjoyed them. They hopefully learned a lot from me just by watching me on set and my demeanor on set. There are some things they probably don't need to emulate.