It’s not often that Sam Jackson, a man who works more than any actor in Hollywood and whose movies have made billions, really gets an opportunity to play against type. We’ve come to know and love Jackson for the hardcore intensity he’s brought to roles from Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction” to “Snakes on a Plane’s” Neville Flynn.
Yep, he can be a little scary.
So, it’s about time we saw Jackson, 58, flex some different muscles. A softer, kinder, gentler Jackson emerges in “Black Snake Moan,” the new Craig Brewer (“Hustle & Flow”) drama that hits theaters on Friday. Not only does Jackson mellow out a bit — he actually retreats to type later in the film — but he also does his own singing and strumming in this role about a God-fearing, blues-singing farmer from the rural South who stumbles upon Rae(Christina Ricci), a badly beaten white girl on the side of the road one day.
Now any other old black man who came of age during the Jim Crow era would have kept stepping. No good could come of any interaction with a scantily clad white woman on a dirt road dead or alive. But Lazarus, he carries her back to his home, cleans her up and takes it upon himself to exorcise her demons. Initially, he has no idea that not only is Rae the town tramp, but also a victim of childhood sexual abuse. All he knows is that she has a foul mouth and needs to be restrained (with a long chain) before she harms herself and him, too.
It’s a curious choice that Lazarus makes. And was an intriguing decision by Jackson to play him. The Morehouse College alum who was born in D.C, but grew up in Tennessee, said he fell in love with Lazarus because he’s a compilation of men he’s met before.
“I used to spend some time on the farm with my grandfather and his brothers,” Jackson said. “I spent time with them when I was a kid walking through the fields, working and hanging out. I put all of them into Lazarus. That’s why I can understand the choices he made, because I understand the rural South.”
Becoming a bluesmanTo prepare for the role, however, Jackson had to learn to play the blues. He took guitar lessons with a professional teacher for six months in New York while he was filming “Freedomland,” and refined his skills with the prop master for “Snakes on a Plane,” while shooting in Vancouver. By the time the “Black Snake Moan” cameras started rolling, Jackson tossed the sheet music to the side and developed his own interpretations of the songs for the soundtrack.
“I started to play them in a different way than what was written,” Jackson said. “I talked to all of these old blues guys when we were doing our little road tour and most of them had taught themselves to play after 30 and they all had very different playing styles. So, I created one that was actually my own.”
The crooning skills, however, was already in him.
“Fortunately, Mississippi Delta blues doesn’t necessarily need a silky smooth Luther Vandross-type voice. It’s more about making sure the emotion of what you’re saying comes out than being a great singer, so that helped a lot.”
Some actors might have been afraid to step outside their box but Jackson chuckled at the notion.
“Fear? I’m always anxious to jump in there and figure out who a person is and where they come from. It’s part of the challenge and part of the fascination of exploring the human condition for me. To be able to safely walk into spaces that are dangerous and know that it’s a controlled environment and not have to be worried about being damaged by it in the end.”
Perfect chemistryJackson found a safe refuge with Ricci, who said their chemistry was immediate.
Once we started doing rehearsals I kind of realized that we were going to work really well together and that we could really trust each other,” she said. “And I was so flattered by that because I’ve loved him for so long and I was kind of intimidated and kind of felt like, ‘God, I hope he likes me. And I hope he thinks I’m a good actress.’”
“During the rehearsal period Christina and I developed this really interesting bond, this interesting trust which kind of allowed her to go anywhere she wanted to and I would support her in that,” Jackson said. “I think Christina’s performance is one of the bravest that I’ve seen a young actress take on.”
That was a risky role for Ricci, but Jackson is old enough and savvy enough to know that he can just about go there with any character and his career will not suffer. Sure, he’s not an Oscar-winning hunk like Denzel Washington. Nor does he possess the intensity of Laurence Fishburne or the versatile exuberance of Will Smith.
At the end of the day, he’s just a cat that can get the job done.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Sam was the guy for this role,” said producer John Singleton. “There was no one else around who could have sung this melody — this song that is Lazarus. He exposed all of the layers and did so wonderfully.”
Miki Turner is a freelance writer/producer in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org