Can you imagine being an acting student and having Samuel L. Jackson coach you through Pulp Fiction’s final diner scene? A lucky handful of budding thespians got to experience just that as part of Jackson’s first and only online teaching gig, with the video-lecture series MasterClass, wherein, for a fee, the masses can find out how to design clothes from Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg, how to write a script from Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin, how to max their tennis or basketball games from Serena Williams and Stephen Curry, or how to make movies from Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog.
Jackson had never watched a MasterClass before he signed up to do one, so he just winged it — and seemed to have a blast. He tells his personal story, goes step-by-step through how he builds characters, does workshops on not just that iconic Pulp Fiction scene but also Black Snake Moan and Kingsman: The Secret Service. His intro, of course, features multiple “motherfuckers,” as he cycles through non-air-able promos like “Welcome to my MasterClass, motherfuckers!” and “You wanna be a motherfuckin’ better actor? Take my motherfucking class!” And he ends the whole thing by stepping out of camera range and exclaiming to the MasterClass crew, “Fuck, that was awesome! That was amazing! I can’t do it any better than that!” We spoke to Jackson on the phone and got a ton of new lessons — on his disdain for acting classes, Tarantino’s new movies, and more — ourselves. Enjoy!
He’s much more into learning on the job than taking acting classes.
Jackson told me he’d actually never taken a class like the one he teaches here, where you watch a bunch of people doing a scene and then talk about it. “Even when I was in college [at Morehouse in Atlanta], we were encouraged to go to work,” he told me. “So that’s what we did. I got a job at a children’s theater and another repertory theater, and we had our own kind of street theater and revolutionary black theater that we did.” He got so much experience that by the time he got to New York, he didn’t feel the need to take any more formal acting classes. “I went to New York to go to work,” he said.
Still, he was astounded that none of the students knew Ezekiel 25:17, the Bible passage about striking people down with “great vengeance and furious anger” — the one his Pulp Fiction character, Jules, likes to recite before shooting people, and the one that earned Jackson an Oscar nomination.
To be fair, the final diner scene is a long one, and the students had to memorize all the parts — and they hadn’t prepped the Ezekiel 25:17 part due to an error by whomever had given them the scene. It got added back in that day at Jackson’s insistence. But come on! It’s the most famous passage of the movie, one of the most quoted movies of all time. It’s on the soundtrack. And yet none of the students, who didn’t look all that young, could make it through it without reading the script or messing up. “I don’t know if it was an age thing or that people like different things so they just didn’t know it,” Jackson told me, “but people try to recite that speech to me all the time. If you’re an actor, that’s one of those actors’ speeches that people try to imitate. So I was shocked they didn’t have any reference for it whatsoever.” In the end, the lesson was less about how to deliver that speech, since Jackson nailed it so well it’s hard to hear anyone else do it. Instead, he taught them how to cope when they get thrown last-minute curveballs. “Sometimes that happens. You go up to an audition, they give you something on the spot and say, ‘Go out here and read this a couple times and come back over here and do it.’”
He has no clue whom he’s going to play in Quentin Tarantino’s “untitled Manson Family Project” or Star Trek movies, or if he’s even in them.
It kind of feels like the world would collapse in on itself if Tarantino made a movie without Jackson in it. When I asked about his involvement in Tarantino’s upcoming projects, “I haven’t spoken to Quentin,” Jackson told me. “Last time I saw him was his engagement party and what we talked about then was his engagement. We didn’t talk about what he was getting ready to do or what he was going to do or what the rumors were. None of that came up. Right now, I’m doing stuff until July, so when I hear from him I hear from him, and we’ll go from there.”
But surely he’s got to assume he’s in them, and maybe reserve a little space on his calendar, right? “I never take anything for granted in the movie business!” he said, laughing. “You can’t assume that you’re going to be in something just because you’ve been in all the rest of them. I can’t make that assumption. I’m not in Death Proof!”
Just like at the beginning of his career, he still gets mistaken for Laurence Fishburne.
“I guess it’s because he’s another black actor who’s my age and tall,” Jackson said. “That was the most common one for a very long time. Now I can be Morgan [Freeman]. People call me Mr. Washington.”
He’s never done a film and felt like he came away a different actor.
Jackson actually burst out laughing when I asked him this. “Uh, no. My life pattern’s pretty set.” Though he did add that he gets something special out of doing films about cops or the military. “It gives you a different way of viewing how they do their jobs or who those people are or what they do,” he said. “When you go to a particular setting and you interact with those people in very structured jobs as they’re actually doing their jobs and you see what their motivation is and why they’re there, you can be changed by that.”
He’s not rushing out to see The Last Jedi (but will definitely see it).
Jackson has been doing voice work on Incredibles 2, just finished shooting Glass (M. Night Shyamalan’s sequel to Unbreakable), and is now in Atlanta for Son of Shaft through the New Year, so he’ll have to watch it after that: “I do not feel the need to be in the first wave.”
He did, however, famously rush out to see his own Star Wars movies in the theater with real audiences. “Yeah! Always!” he said. During the MasterClass, he says that he can’t understand actors who say they never watch themselves. “How you gonna judge yourself or gauge any kind of progress or digression, even if it’s just like, “Oh, huh. Am I getting better at this or am I getting worse?” You generally want to know! Or you need to know.”
Jackson, who’s done some 175 films (remember Snakes on a Plane?), would do even more if he could. And he’ll take your TV and theater jobs, too.
“If I could get up every day and go somewhere and act, I’d be the happiest person in the world,” he says in his MasterClass intro. “Writers get up and write, painters get up and paint. Why can’t I get up and act? Because somebody’s got to hire you to do it.” And it’s not that he just loves movies above all other acting forums. “Movies just happen to be the things I’ve been hired to do,” he told me. He’s constantly looking for ways to get back into theater, “because I kind of miss eight shows a week, doing something from beginning to end, rather than going to work every day and doing a little piece of something,” he said.
And he’d be really into finding a great TV show. Not necessarily a prestige TV show, just one that people would be obsessed with. “I mean, everything can’t be Breaking Bad. Everything can’t be Game of Thrones. Everything can’t be Narcos,” he told me. “But if I did a television show I would want people to want to see it every week and not ‘Oh, I have to finish this because I started it.’ I want it to be something compelling.”
His biggest takeaway from doing the MasterClass is that he’s less of an asshole than he thought he was.
“I think I learned that I wouldn’t be as difficult an individual as a director as I thought I would be,” Jackson tells me, with a little bit of astonishment in his voice. Workshopping the scenes with the acting students, he said, “I actually had fun doing it, and I don’t like to criticize actors, but I think the fact that I was able to do it but not abrasively was surprising to me. I didn’t get upset with them because they didn’t get every damn word I wanted them to do. I was sort of surprised at myself that I didn’t snap at people. So I think I could do it!”
Does that mean he finally wants to get behind the camera? “Not particularly,” he said, laughing. “I’m still not bitten by the directing bug, no.” The job just isn’t appealing, even now that he knows he’d be a non-jerk at it. “That’s not what’s kept me from directing,” he said. “What’s keeping me from directing is the fact that directing takes up almost a year of your life, and when you direct a movie you’ve got to cut it and then you’ve got to be dealing with the music and then you’ve got to run around the world talking about it — and [as an actor] I could do four movies in that time.”