Samuel L. Jackson has no regrets. Except maybe for the Oscars

Samuel L. Jackson in a burgundy sweater and burgundy hat.

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

When you want to enjoy a moment of pure joy – and who doesn’t want that these days? – To see Samuel L. Jackson receive an honorary Oscar from Denzel Washington at this year’s Governors Awards should do the trick.

Jackson and Washington go way back to the early New York theater days when Washington was an understudy in a play called “The Mighty Gents” which Jackson staged for the Public Theater under Joseph Papp. Washington took to the stage on opening night after the actor he was supporting was fired. And of course Washington killed it.

“He showed me the review of this show not long ago,” says Jackson. He kept the rating? “Of course he did!” says Jackson, bursting into laughter.

“People see Denzel and think he’s this serious actor and family man … and some people think he’s a little grumpy,” Jackson tells me. “But he’s one of the funniest people on the planet. And it was so great to have someone present my award, who was on my journey, to look at it and know it was there – it’s still there!”

Jackson and I hang out together, the 73-year-old actor immaculately dressed in matching burgundy Kangol hat and suede Stan Smiths. We talk about this Oscars weekend, his career choice, and his latest venture, the well-reviewed Apple TV+ series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, in which he plays a 91-year-old coping with Alzheimer’s … until he takes one Wonder drug that turns him into the Samuel L. Jackson person we know and love.

“I kept telling people not to get triggered by Episode 1,” says Jackson, “because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Sure you will cry. But you will laugh too.” There was plenty of the latter in our conversation.

My favorite moment of watching you win an Oscar was when you started talking, then looked at Denzel and ran over to give him another hug. Did the emotion of that evening surprise you?

Maybe a little bit. As jaded as I wanted to be about it, you know I thought, “Well, I should have won an Oscar for this, or I should have won for this, and it didn’t happen,” when I was over it many years ago, it was so no big deal for me. I always enjoy going to the Oscars. I’m always happy to receive a gift basket as a presenter. [Laughs] I give things to my relatives; My daughter and my wife would take things with them. It’s cool.

But otherwise I was over it. I would never take the Oscars as a measure of my success or failure as an actor. My measure of success is my happiness: Am I happy with what I’m doing? I don’t do statue hunting films. You know [whispers]: “If you make this film, you’ll win an Oscar.” No thanks. I’d rather be Nick Fury. Or have fun being Mace Windu with a lightsaber in hand.

A man and a woman hold each other "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

Dominique Fishback, left, and Samuel L. Jackson in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.


Any of those “statue hunting movies” you regret sharing?

no I want to do the things that made me go to the movies as a kid. I want to make this film that people just want to see to get out of themselves. This is the type I chose and I’m fine with that. I’m happy because that’s me. I’m the guy who draws the lines that people see on shirts. There are actors who go through their entire careers and no one can quote a line they said in a film. People look at my movies to see how crazy I’m going to be or to see how many times I say motherf-. [Laughs] Whatever gets them on the pitches.

I was amazed that when Denzel introduced you for this lifetime achievement Oscar, he didn’t list your films. He named the charities you and your wife support. You seemed a little surprised.

I was shocked. We don’t advertise that we’re philanthropists because you shouldn’t be. That’s not why we do it. They’re not taking a film crew with them. you make it easy

Two days later you’re at the Oscars and you and Uma Thurman and John Travolta have the Pulp Fiction reunion and at the end you present Will Smith with the Oscar. How do you remember that surreal evening?

When the big incident happened, I was like, “Whoa!” My wife asked me, “Is that a bit?” And I said, “No, Will just drove Chris crazy.” My wife and I sat next to Liv Ullman and her husband. and Liv asks my wife, “What’s wrong?” My wife said, “Nothing. Don’t worry. It’s all right.”

So that’s what happened, and they came and got me. I kind of saw Quest[love]’s speech, which no one was listening to because everyone was trying to figure out what the hell just happened. And I went backstage and I saw Chris on the wall. “You are OK?” “Yes.” And so I get to Uma and John and John says, “So… can we rehearse?” I say, “You know what just happened?” He’s like, “What?” He was backstage and he wasn’t looking at the monitor, he was looking at his line because that’s John. So we rehearsed, Uma and John danced and somehow we didn’t get what was going on.

There were so many accounts of what was happening backstage. But it doesn’t sound like there’s anything to add to the historical record.

I didn’t really care that much, I’m still a bit upset that the greatest actor we had in Hollywood died and they gave him, what, 10 f-seconds. no It should have been an entire Sidney Poitier section. The reason Will Packer is producing this show is because of this guy. The reason Will Smith won an Oscar is because of this guy. The reason for Denzel, the reason for me, the reason for Danny [Glover], the reason for everyone is this guy and he deserves more than 10 seconds of your time especially for what he meant not only to us but to Hollywood time. He gave dignity to Hollywood. He was a Hollywood king. And he didn’t get what he deserved from that damn show.

A man in a burgundy sweater leans back against a balcony railing

“People look at my movies to see how crazy I’m going to be or to see how many times I say motherf… Whatever gets them on the pitches,” Jackson says.

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

Remember when he won his honorary Oscar and Denzel presented it to him during the live broadcast?

Of course. It was a great moment.

It would have been nice to catch a bit of your moment during the show instead of…I don’t know…the Twitter fan favorite movie.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for skateboarders and snowboarders to present Oscars. But God – it, no! They have their show. You have the ESPYs. Do this. This is the night that Hollywood celebrates f— Hollywood. The thing we had when I was young, when I looked at it and wondered, “What will I say when I get mine,” was the glamor of it all, the extravagance, the mystique that is Hollywood. Some of it is gone. You have movie stars who are influencers or people who live loud so you know a lot more about them than you used to. But it should still be a celebration that you did something great. As I say, there should be an award for the film that made the most money.

A popular movie Oscar was circulated a few years ago…

Well they have to do it! That is why we are here!

Some would argue that the box office is reward enough and the Oscars should celebrate cinema.

This is cinema! For this we go into the big, dark room – to be entertained. That’s what we’re celebrating, the big s— that happened in Hollywood. Best actor, best actress… that’s a cop -. This is a popularity contest. At least that’s what I heard when Martin Landau received the award [for “Ed Wood”] and I didn’t. [Whispers] “Come on Sam. Martin has been nominated so many times. Don’t worry. Your time is coming.” Sorry? I didn’t know it worked like that. I thought it was the acting that had the biggest impact.

Looking back, I’m still a little surprised that out of all the great Tarantino movies, you only got nominated for Pulp Fiction.

Everything I’ve done for Quentin has a moment that gave me a chance, from Jackie Brown to The Hateful Eight to Django. [Unchained]”Django” was probably my best shot because it’s the meanest character I’ve ever played, and they generally reward black people for playing horrible S—. [Laughs]

Will you be in his next film, which he says will be his last?

I do not know. He tells me or he doesn’t tell me. I didn’t hear from him at all when he was shooting the Hollywood movie [“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”]. He usually calls me and says he’s doing something and asks how I feel about it. Like when he was shooting the Nazi film [“Inglourious Basterds”], he said, “There’s nothing in it for you.” “I can learn to speak French.” “No, I have a French.” So I did the voiceover on celluloid and the films.

A man in a burgundy sweater sits on a couch with his hands clasped.

(Michael Tyrone Delaney / For the Times)

How does it feel to be returning to Broadway in September to be in this [the August Wilson play] “The Piano Lesson”?

We were supposed to do it last year and then COVID happened. So I’ve been reading this play for a year and a half. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I lie in bed and the first thing I do is go to one of the speeches. Just to see “Oh yeah. I got it together.”

Are you nervous?

nope At the moment I don’t know the voices of the other actors. All I know is that I’m doing the piece for myself. You know, that play changed my life because it was the play that drove me so crazy that I got sober doing it as an understudy on Broadway. [Jackson originated the role of Boy Willie at Yale but was replaced by Charles S. Dutton, who had been shooting a movie during the Yale run. Wilson and director Lloyd Richards had promised Dutton the role.]

how did it drive you crazy

Now, I was crazy, and it drove me crazy listening to it backstage every night instead of hearing myself doing it. The difference in performance… [Jackson makes a screaming sound]. Then he won a Tony and then he got the Pulitzer. [Jackson lets out a louder scream.] It got me to the point where I freaked out so much I got drunk and passed out enough that my wife put me in rehab. What fixed my life. And here I am again… three-sixty. Life can be so funny. Samuel L. Jackson has no regrets. Except maybe for the Oscars

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