There is always a little bit of me in almost every character I do,” he says. Samuel L Jacksonand the history of recent cinema cannot deny it: Violent times, from Tarantino being born to Marvel, Samuel L. Jackson has walked through many corners of modern cinema. Almost like no one. He is undisputedly the highest-grossing black actor in Hollywood history. He now premieres on Apple TV + his dream: The Last Days of Ptolemy Graya series based on the book Walter Mosley (the black author who is also a screenwriter here). The story recounts the days of a black man where his dementia makes him discover a new partner in his life and an experimental medicine shortens his life while fully restoring his faculties. And yet, speaking of Nick Fury or Ptolemy Grey, when Samuel L. Jackson talks about his characters, about his brand, he says: “You can’t help it, you are what he is. That yes: Ptolemy was different for me. He resembles many of the great-uncles, of the people I knew when he was a child; people who were already eccentric in themselves, who still have different ways of speaking, of remembering. Or even different ways of being lucid and understanding”.
“Is this one of the most difficult roles you’ve ever had to play?”
-Do not. This is my dream project, I have carried this book under my arm for ten or more years. I always thought about him, when I was doing something, I thought about how to do it. When I didn’t do anything, I thought about how to do it. When I was in a chair getting my makeup done, I would ask the makeup artists if they could make me look 91 years old. He asked the dressing room how much something like this would cost. This project was so much in my life that I can’t believe we finally filmed it. I always took care of him, I always thought that making it into a movie was not going to help him, that it was going to harm him. And luckily the world was changing in such a way that now, finally, a platform agreed to do it. I was always on the side of this story. Always eager to do it, and hoping that when that happens I would be there, with the best partners, with the best authors, and actors. That’s how it went.
—In a press conference you told that in your family they have experience with Alzheimer’s, did that help in something when it came to building this character and his illnesses?
“I’m not a famous method actor, so. I do understand the pain, and since it was so close, in my mother, uncle, aunt, grandparents, I remember conversations, and I can recreate things like that. I remember specific things that happened to me, like having long conversations believing that they understood me and although they spoke and answered me, they processed something else. I soon understood what questions not to ask. My mom not understanding was something devastating. And there are situations with people in that situation that are not only linked to pain: I had moments of seeing two family members together and they lived like children, that time, and just the other answered the game, and they could go to that place where they had been children, and they played together as when they were children, when they were little. Little is really said about that: the happiness that sometimes many people can even give you in that situation. A happiness that is unexpected, and surprising. I have beautiful and devastating memories. My mother would sit down, for example, and she would leave, she is in her memory, in her memory, and her look, that look, of being in a place where she is a refugee and I did not want to bother her. Hopefully that makes it to the screen, but not by method and not by anything else.
—Stories are something fundamental when it comes to memory, of our identity and you are someone who is in many of them, many that define the love of cinema for many generations. What do you think were the stories that made you fall in love with art? to count?
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have a TV, and we didn’t for a long time. And I listened to a lot of fiction on the radio, radio dramas and other things, with my grandfather at night. Andy Griffith telling stories, The Lone Ranger, The Ghost; and everything was a voice, telling, and there I suppose I learned that of giving personality to a story from the tone of voice. How raising a note generates something, how lowering it generates something else. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but voice always knows how to be noticed. (Series). All of that, all of those sounds and moments, became something else: my grandfather told me, “then, now, you make up a story for me and you tell it to me”. And that did. I grew up with them, with my mother, with my aunt. There weren’t many children, so I made up stories where I started. There is something very special for me in those moments, in those stories. I think that somehow put me where I am today. Telling something and at the end there was someone applauding or someone squeezing their cheeks in celebration, well, you get used to that.
—How does it feel after so long to finally be able to do TV?
I always wanted to do TV. They just wouldn’t let me. My agents wouldn’t let me. I always want to do theater, TV, things. For a while there was the stigma, and I was a movie star. But when Raíces, for example, started, TV was something different. Then came The Sopranos, or The Shield, an incredible long story. I always saw those characters and it drove me crazy. I wanted a story arc like that, I wanted to get to that early. But they made me do movies, a lot of movies, and the truth is that it didn’t turn out badly. But now I wanted to do this TV.
—A character of color over 90 years old and with dementia: only a name like yours can push such a project? Or do you think things have changed?
“I understand what you say. And it may be true. But I prefer to believe that things have changed. What is also true is that the path of this character did not cost me as much, as an actor, as everyone thinks. All roles are matters of time: that place where Ptolemy is, we are all going to arrive. Age comes to us all. So thinking about the passage of time is the most immediate, it is the most impressive. The idea that he is seeing again those who make his life, that is something that moves and excites me to this day. You have to think that years ago they wanted to make this a two-hour telefilm: how do you manage to capture all the depth of this story like that? That this story could be told was also a matter of time. Sometimes time works, and that is something that life has taught us.
grow old in hollywood
What impresses you about family dynamics?
-Much. I was always an only child, so I always paid a lot of attention to what happened in the families of many, with many children. I know a lot of people who don’t get along with their siblings, who get along terrible or who fight over things, especially at the end. Everyone wants things in the end. “I was his favorite family member” and all that hell. This character can put his life back together, and he wanted to put things in order. And that order had to do with showing that there was someone who loved him, cared for him, needed him. He chooses who to call family. We should all have that option.
-It seems that being old is not something that society wants to see, how do you see that idea of beauty that never ages in Hollywood?
—Modern society is very different from others in which I have lived. In African society, for example, elders are highly respected. Or a society that raises children that they know will take care of them, by tradition. Today perhaps too much attention is paid to young people. I don’t know today that young man talks to his grandparents. I talked for hours with my grandfather. I grew up with him, and he wasn’t just old, it was easy to see there was more: and the same thing happened in my community. My idea of who my neighbors and my community were was different. Today you don’t even know who your neighbors are. That happens everywhere. But I do believe that the grandparents are being left without a voice, it is easier to displace them: the information highway equalizes opinions, and that is not bad, but on the other hand, yes, because I do not think that the elderly have their voice. It’s okay to fight with your elders, their ideas, but first you have to listen to all those ideas, like in any fight.
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Samuel L. Jackson: “This is my dream project”
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