The actor plays an angry police officer with a dislike for his new neighbors in the latest Neil LaBute thriller
We were recently on the set of Neil LaBute's latest thriller Lakeview Terrace in Walnut, California. In the film, Samuel L. Jackson stars as an LAPD officer who'll stop at nothing to force out the interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) who've moved in next door. Some are calling it a return to form for LaBute, who is known for making dark, controversial films. And Lakeview Terrace looks to be one hell of a ride.
The first stop we made on our tour of the Lakeview Terrace set was the home of Officer Abel Turner, the angry policeman played by Jackson. The actor came traipsing across the sidewalk of this, his latest screenside domicile, and he looked less than pleased. On this particular night, Jackson was set to film an intense verbal fight across a fence with costar Patrick Wilson. Attempting to stay somewhat in character, the versatile actor frowned when he saw our small barrage of journalists, hurrying away from our group to gain some distance. It almost looked as though we wouldn't get to speak with him at all.
As luck would have it, the crew began experiencing technical difficulties and shooting had to be halted for a short while. The climax of the film takes place during a roaring mountainside fire. The effects needed to pull this bit of magic off during the scene between Jackson and Wilson were causing major problems for the set technicians on hand. Thus, instead of trading heavy racial slurs with Wilson across his backyard fence, Sam was forced to spend time with us in the mess hall. The man walked into the room, rubbing his eyes. He looked sleepy, like a grumpy old grandpa. It really had nothing to do with us, he was just trying to keep his head in the right mind space. When asked, "How are you." He could only respond with an, "Ugh." Still, he didn't seem to mind taking on a few questions in regards to his latest project. Here is what Samuel L. Jackson had to say about Lakeview Terrace:
Can you tell us about the movie?
Samuel L. Jackson: What? The other two people didn't tell you about it?
We want to hear your take on the material.
Samuel L. Jackson: It's a treaty on racism, I guess. As far as I can tell. Whatever. One guy is of a peaceful, beautiful, loving little relationship. I guess. They want to start out their life.
Did you have to do any research into the LAPD?
Samuel L. Jackson: (Sneering) This is not a police procedural movie. It's about relationships. So, no. I didn't have to do that at all.
Did you attempt to create your own back-story for this character?
Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. I did. Do I have to share it with you? No. I am not going to do that. I pretty much do the same thing every time. I try to make a reality base for the character and give him an educated background. He has a military background. I sit and think about what his marriage was like. What happened. How it all went down. There have been several scenarios as to what happened with this officer and his wife. There was a time when this guy had a wife. Their relationship wasn't so good. Now he doesn't have a wife, but interesting things about their relationship still come up. We have created a distinction for his attitude. There were things that were written that didn't play out very well. For me, explaining racism is not something you can necessarily do. Having grown up in the segregated South, a lot of the time you don't need a reason. Someone doesn't like you. You don't like them. You can be taught not to like a specific group. Maybe something will happen to you. They say kids aren't born to hate. Well, I don't know that. Maybe they are. Some people have different theories about what you are born with and what you are not born with. There comes a time in your life when you have to make a decision. Only you know what is right and what is wrong. Only you can decide about what you've been told concerning a specific group of people. Maybe you know those things aren't true. Human beings are human beings. But maybe you are an ignorant human being. Then you will believe whatever you think you want to believe. But in life, you can't not like a person just because you don't like them. In this, I didn't think it was important to describe the specific things going on inside Abel's head. Or how he got to that point in his life. Cops work with other cops. At a certain point you stop being black, white, brown, whatever. You become blue. But on a certain line, I don't believe that either. Inside the police department, there are separate fraternal orders. At a certain point, they are blue. But also at a certain point, you will see how police officers respond to different sects or races of people. At some point, the film will describe Abel's reasoning behind his actions. But that might not exactly account for why he's been like this, because he hasn't been like this all his life. There was one specific incident that made him the way he is now.
How essential is his job as a cop? Could he have had another profession and still been the same character?
Samuel L. Jackson: Sure, he could have had another profession and been the same character. But being a cop brings a specific element. He is above the law. There are certain things that I can get away with that ordinary neighbors couldn't get away with. If I am playing my music too loud, and they call the cops, they are going to have to figure something else out. Because I am the one that gets to sleep. A cop has to do something really bad to have other cops on him. They really get the benefit of the doubt. Being a cop gives him a lot of leeway.
Is you character jealous that your neighbors have a pool?
Samuel L. Jackson: (Laughs) No! I haven't thought about that. A lot of my neighbors have pools. The Asian family across the street has a pool that I can use. Or my kids can use. Everybody in my neighborhood likes me. I patrol the neighborhood at night. I keep it friendly. I am a friendly cop. I can use anybody's pool that is there. Pools are expensive, surprisingly enough.
Do cops make you nervous? Or do they make you feel safe?
Samuel L. Jackson: Me? (Laughs) Okay, lets see. The evolution of me and the police. I am a product of the Sixties. So, you know. If you weren't down with what I was down with, you were a nark. Like I said, I grew up in the segregated South. There were two black policemen in Chattanooga, Tennessee when I was growing up. And they were dangerous for most black men. They had to prove to the white cops that they were good cops. All my friends that were really bad kids got jacked up by those cops a lot. So, no, I didn't trust those cops. Hmm? When I got kicked out of college, I moved to Los Angeles to be an actor. Los Angeles Police Department? Whew! A whole new breed of cop there. They were very different. I remember getting snatched out of my car because I had a "Free Ashland Davis" T-Shirt on. I got harassed about that. The guy that was in the car with me got taken to jail because he had an outstanding jaywalking ticket. We were told it was okay for them to be that way. If you had a big afro, you had to watch out. But then I got to New York. And there was a different type of cop in New York. You'd walk up to a cop and ask him for a light for your joint, and they would light it for you. Because they didn't want to be bothered. If you weren't bothering them, they didn't want to bother you. That is the kind of New York I moved to in the 70s. With a level of fame, and doing a certain kind of movie, where I play a cop in a certain type of way, the respect I get from police officers is very interesting. They watch S.W.A.T., and they felt that I brought an honest portrayal to that type of officer. They felt that audiences could better understand them. When you treat people with a level of respect, they treat you that way. I don't do things against other people. I don't break the law. I have gotten jaywalking tickets in Los Angeles. Then the cop will say something weird to you like, "I need your autograph." But they are just wanting you to sign the ticket. I respect policemen. I understand what they have to do on a daily basis, especially in a city like Los Angeles. It is a dangerous job.
How does Neil LaBute measure up to some of the other great directors that you have worked with?
Samuel L. Jackson: I've worked with some great directors? Really? Like who?
I am afraid to name them, in case you don't like them.
Samuel L. Jackson: No. I always have these kinds of conversations. Who do you think is great? I think Neil is very cool. He is an awesome writer. He is open every day to suggestions. We are always showing up and changing stuff. The rehearsal is very interesting. I am always tweaking words. He asks very interesting questions. Why am I trying to get to a certain place. And things change very erratically on this set some days. He's just that open to how we want to play it. He is very giving with us actors, and it is awesome.
Do you like the process of rehearsing?
Samuel L. Jackson: Yeah. I do. It is controlled spontaneity. A lot of people don't like to rehearse. They think, "How am I going to be fresh?" Me? I don't want to be fresh. I want to know what I am doing. I like to have everybody on the same page, so that they all know what they are doing. The camera is in the right place. They catch all of the action. If they don't rehearse it, they miss some of it. And you have to do it over and over again. So why not get it right? Let them see how it is going to go? Put the camera in the place where it is going to get everything that is needed.
Now, does your character have a problem with the relationship because the guy is white? What if Kerry Washington's character was married to an Asian guy? Or someone else? Would that still matter?
Samuel L. Jackson: It is a black and white issue in this film. Right now.
Neil LaBute said that he was debating on using the N word. That if you don't use it, the film might be more powerful. What is your take on that?
Samuel L. Jackson: In what way? How would that be more powerful?
He never explained it. He just said, he felt that if that word never came up, it would be more powerful. In the context of the movie.
Samuel L. Jackson: Ugh. Maybe. Maybe for him, but not for me. To me, that's not real. There are things that happen in movies and I sit there, and I am taken out of it because it's not real. I will sit there and say, "Damn! That was going on so well, too. And then they went and did that." There are various different schools of thought on set about this. I have said it. I have said 'nigger' several times while we've been shooting. And everybody gasps. That just happens. I say it because I want to say it. I am emphasizing a point. There is a scene where I walk out of the police station and everyone is laughing. When I walk over to them, they stop. In my mind, if that happens, its like they were talking about me. To kill all that, I say, "Look, I've heard nigger jokes before." And they all go, "Oh, no, no, no!" That puts people on the defensive, or it fixes it. Or I will say it to carry the scene in a specific way. I say it to Kerry, but it comes from the scene we are in. And it is just between us. I don't know. People? Ugh. It's like Imus started something, and suddenly everyone wants to bury the N word. You can't. You really can't. It is going to be said forever. Someone is going to say it's not politically correct. Someone is going to say that it's not cool. You can't tell people what to say. That word is out there, and words are words. You understand them, or you don't. You need to use them in a context. It's like people telling you to say "N Word". Come on. I know you meant nigger. Saying "The N Word" is just as bad. When I grew up in the South, white people who were trying to be okay said, "Well, the negroes." Come on. That sounds just as bad. Or "The Colored People". That, too, is just as bad. You say it, and you either mean it, or you don't mean it, or you are just being descriptive. Whatever it means. In Jackie Brown, I said nigger sixteen times in one sentence. Spike ran out of the theater, but that was okay.
Besides words, what other types of things will take you out of a movie?
Samuel L. Jackson: Well, for instance, there is a big scene in this movie that is really great. It is a bachelor party, and we have three strippers at the party. But it is a PG movie, so there aren't any titties. We have three strippers at the party, and none of them have their top off. How does that work? They go, "Well, it is a PG rated movie. Maybe later, when he leaves the party, you guys get to see some nudity." I'm like, come on! You could show the girl from the back, with her back bare. At least it gives a sense that she was naked. You can't just show them in their bras and panties. You have forty drunken cops in a house with three strippers? And nobody is naked? I don't fucking think so!
Neil said that he didn't know if you were making a PG or R rated movie.
Samuel L. Jackson: He knows. Because you can't say fuck. Its two fucks, and that's it. They have to be dolled out, and they can't be sexual. Just like Snakes on a Plane.
Lakeview Terrace will be making its arrests in theaters nationwide on October 19th, 2008.