Changing direction marks his career

Samuel L. Jackson unreels his life in way he plays roles

April 18, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Samuel L. Jackson has felt road rage.

Not in the 9-iron, tee-off-on-the-other-guy's-car way, a la Jack Nicholson.

Or in the let's-duke-it-out fashion of Gene Hackman.

Jackson, known for his jittery characters on-screen, said he sometimes honks or gives someone the finger. He'll even get out of his car and ask the other driver what he's so upset about. When the other driver recognizes Jackson, the confrontation is usually diffused.

If only Jackson's character in Changing Lanes, which opened last week, could react with the same restraint. An escalating duel after a fender-bender between Jackson's struggling father and Ben Affleck's hotshot lawyer compels them to perform increasingly vicious acts against each other.

"I think it's about people taking responsibility for their actions," said Jackson, 53, "and understanding what part they play in what goes on around them every day - how much calm and chaos there is because of it."

In his own life, Jackson's decision to leave New York and overcome a crack habit in the early '90s made his life more tranquil. But he has continued to make a study of the addled and addicted in film. He starred in a string of Spike Lee movies topped by his crack addict Gator in Jungle Fever (1991). His performance as a hit-man philosopher in Pulp Fiction (1994) earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Last year, he donned leonine dreadlocks to play a paranoid schizophrenic in The Caveman's Valentine.

"I would like to think audiences separate me from film to film to film, only because I actually go to drastic lengths to make sure they don't think about the last film I was in," he said.

His Doyle Gipson in Changing Lanes is a mix of the unbalanced and the ordinary.

Jackson feels audiences will relate more to his Everyman, who misses his child-custody hearing because of the accident, than to Affleck's Armani-wearing attorney, who might cost his firm millions because he left a legal brief in the hands of Gipson.

In May, Jackson does another 180-degree turn, reprising his Jedi knight Mace Windu in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones. He said he was unveiling a more violent Mace but wouldn't give away much more. He performed his scenes in a bare green room on an Australian sound stage, either solo or with Ewan McGregor, who plays Obi-Wan Kenobi.

"I'm not quite sure what I was fighting or how many of them there were, or even know where I was," said Jackson, who takes yet another role to the big screen in August in the drug saga Formula 51.

Jackson, who starred in the 2000 remake of Shaft, said he would also love to bring back the Harlem detective for another go, but he has heard nothing on that front.

It was no secret that Jackson and Shaft director John Singleton did not get along. Jackson confessed he has clashed with more than a few directors, but he and Changing Lanes' Roger Michell (Notting Hill) kept the peace. Michell said there was room for negotiation and that Jackson's spirited debate was constructive.

"Because I have that undercurrent of rage in my character," Jackson explained, "some days I would want to explode before it was time to explode, and Roger would say, `No, just hold that back for a while.' So we worked well together."

Jackson does not hold out much hope for the world getting along. If there is an ultimate message to Changing Lanes, which was made before Sept. 11, it is that violence is not a solution to a problem, he said.

"Unfortunately, it's too late for that," Jackson said. "We have to start over. Hopefully another generation will grab hold of that."

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