YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

MOVIES : The unlikely heroes of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' are Jules and Vincent, a pair of hit men played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta. For Jackson, Jules is the latest in a series of vivid characters he's played . . . : A Little Peace, A Little Menace

October 09, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Playwright August Wilson and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino haven't heretofore gotten lumped together in the same breath too often. But since we're asking, "actually, they compare quite favorably," says Samuel L. Jackson, who has as good a right to render judgment as anyone, having worked with each of them more than once.

One shoots, the other doesn't, but the trigger-happy Tarantino "tends to write quite theatrically too," Jackson enthuses. "They're both very literary and expository in getting ideas out there and eliciting a feeling and moving an audience in a certain way oratorically rather than visually."

"Oratorical" hardly begins to describe what Tarantino wrote for Jackson in "Pulp Fiction," giving him the showiest part in the most buzzed-about movie of the year. As the hit man Jules--given to unexpected bouts of introspection between mob rub-outs and chats with partner John Travolta about the finer points of fast food--Jackson gets to deliver a withering series of speeches that momentarily halt the movie's ensemble feel, fiery diatribes that invoke the wrath of the biblical prophet Ezekiel. Even though--this being a Tarantino picture--the speeches are delivered while Jackson is revving up to blast holes through someone, there's the rush of good theater as well as good cinema: These are honest-to-Godot monologues .

Says Tarantino: "If you think about what Sammy does in the last scene, he's doing this almost Richard III storm sequence kind of thing--except he's in a coffee shop, bent over, sitting in a booth." (Albeit wielding a gun, of course.) "He's dominating the entire room while never getting up from that booth. Sam's just really remarkable."

Jackson is as grateful for this writerly roughage as an actor who took the all-too-typical path from serious leads on the New York stage to bit-part bad guys in Hollywood blockbusters ought to be.

"Doing monologues is so rare in movies. Watching 'Jaws,' and seeing that shark story that Robert Shaw does, I always wanted to do that," he remembers. "It's really scary in a way. You don't have to depend on another actor being able to carry his emotional weight with yours. It's a great flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling. The great thing about film is they can bring the camera right into your face and people can see all that emotional stuff happening, whereas on stage you do it larger than life so you can hit that person in the back row who couldn't get that really good seat."


Ah, the actorly dignity of it all. Only . . .

"It was kind of funny," says Jackson, "because somebody told me Spike (Lee) had seen 'Pulp' and said, 'Sam was great in the movie--but what's up with that hair?' "

Spike's speaking, of course, of how Tarantino wrote Jackson a highly theatrical part that demands he be the most intensely violent and frightening figure in the film and the one who must convey an unlikely sense of redemption at the end, a balancing act that dare not be seen as ridiculous . . . and then, to top it off, stuck America's coolest black actor in the attention-flagging equivalent of a fright wig: a full, incongruous set of Jeri-curls.

It's, well, a look.

"I had to remind these people," continues Jackson, "to tell Spike that he was the first person to put that wig on me, in 'School Daze.' " Of course, in Lee's golden oldie, Jackson was supposed to be ridiculous, not just look it. So what is up? Just an odd balancing act that's right up Jackson's versatile alley.

Richard III, meet Superfly.

"The wig was Quentin's idea, because he likes these blaxploitation movies. He's thinking Jules is one of these guys that liked those movies too, so when he told me I was gonna wear the wig, I decided to grow the mustache and sideburns to go with it."

Says Tarantino: "I never would have had Sam wearing a Jeri-curl wig normally. But I had it in my mind that I wanted Sam to wear an Afro. I like Afros. If I was black, I'd wear an Afro. And Sam was up for it. But the makeup woman who was getting the wigs I don't think knew the difference between an Afro and a Jeri-curl. It was there by mistake, and he put it on, and he looked so great, I can't tell you. When you get it, you know you got it, you know what I mean?"

Jackson goes on to explain--in a reverie as close to self-psychoanalysis as he's likely to get in this setting--that as a boy at play, he loved the business of dressing up as the cowboy or Indian or pirate or soldier or spy, and hasn't since dispensed with the glee of hiding out in plain sight, as it were.

"I love changing the look. Like 'Menace II Society'--a lot of people don't even know I'm in that movie, because they don't read credits. But I like disguising myself in films; it keeps people from putting me in a certain category."

Not that the idea of pulling a Jim Brown or Fred Williamson didn't hold an especial nostalgic appeal.

Los Angeles Times Articles