Right now, as you are reading this, Samuel L. Jackson is on a yacht in the Mediterranean, perhaps standing on the fantail, whacking golf balls into the deep, deep blue.
“The golf balls are fish food, so they’re environmentally correct,” he said a few weeks ago, reassuringly. “And they fly great.”
Each year, Jackson and his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, take a month to sail the Italian and French Riviera with a few close friends and a crew of 19.
“We both get a chance to really just relax,” said one of those friends, Magic Johnson, calling in between clusters of meetings for his new job as president for basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers. “And if we want to hear the roar of the crowd, we get off the boat and walk around. It’s crazy to have both of us in Portofino. They don’t know who to start with.”
In the Living Room at the Peninsula hotel here, Jackson, 68, didn’t inspire that sort of commotion. Dressed for a workout in blinding all white — ball cap, T-shirt, shorts, sneakers — he ordered a lobster roll but declined the bread plate.
For decades, Jackson has been refining a delicate balance of working hard and hardly working. He is one of the highest-grossing box office stars ever, alongside Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman. His films include instalments in the “Star Wars” and Marvel franchises, voice-overs in big-ticket animation, a political documentary, neo-kitsch action dramas and regular work in the ecosystems of Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino.
In “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a buddy romp due out this month, he plays, alongside a square Ryan Reynolds, Darius Kincaid, an assassin with a soft heart. Like Jackson, Darius is equally relentless about work and pleasure.
By this stage of his career, Jackson’s gestures are firmly ingrained in Hollywood’s master narrative. One of those gifts is fluency with the sort of language that can be printed in this newspaper generally only when associated with White House intrigue. (“I wish Nick Fury could curse, but he can’t,” he said about his Marvel character.)
So it is comforting that the first words Jackson speaks at the beginning of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” are something very close to “that’s mighty white of you,” salted with a profane modifier.
He improvised the line — the cursing, and also the racial needling; the film was originally written with Darius as a white Irishman. Jackson prefers to steer. He is meticulous about preparation and has a deep lack of empathy for colleagues who have foregone the same.
“Sam, like myself, doesn’t suffer fools,” Lee said. “You don’t want Sam to get in your face on the set.” He let out one of his signature exuberant howls. “Even myself, first thing in the morning on a shoot, I knock on the door: ‘Can I get you some breakfast? What do you need?'”
Jackson conceded, “I can be a hard taskmaster for some directors.” He is the boss — when he is on set, that is. The option to go golfing twice a week is written into all of his film contracts. And he is allergic to extra takes.
“I’m at that point,” he said, “where I can say: ‘Uh, you know, that’s not going to be in the movie, right? We already got it, we got it when we did this, that and that. I’m not going to do that.’
“Then they want to call my agent,” he said, fixing his face into that familiar Samuel L. Jackson pursed-lip expression of arrogant exasperation. “Call whoever you want, ‘cause I’m not going to do that. ...” — you know where this is going.
Jackson arrived in New York on Halloween night 1976, and for several years made his way as a theatre actor, rolling with a crew that would become the defining faces of a generation: Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Alfre Woodard.
“We pooled our money and ate together, partied together on weekends, went to the same unemployment office,” he recalled.
He was a regular at the Public Theatre, later did stand-in work for Bill Cosby on three seasons of “The Cosby Show,” and was eventually recruited to, as he called it, “Spike Lee summer camp.”
Since then, he has worked constantly, and feverishly, partly because of a long-ago conversation with a casting director who said that he frowned on actors who take months off between roles. Jackson makes no distinction between big films and small ones, animation and live action, movies and commercials. He speaks passionately about his Capital One ads.
“I remember sitting at home and watching that commercial and at the end of it saying to myself: ‘What’s in your wallet? What’s in your wallet? What’sinyourwallet? How would I say that?'” he said. “So when it came up, it wasn’t a question to me.”
Besides, he pointed out, he had done Barclays Bank commercials in England more than a decade ago. He texted his assistant, Volney, asking him to bring over a laptop and call them up on YouTube. “These are awesome,” Jackson said, clicking through and finding one that looked to have been filmed in a monsoon. “This one’s crazy good. I was miserable.”
The thread that ties all of his work is unbreakable, and highly particular. “Samuel music,” is how Raoul Peck, director of the James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is narrated by Jackson, described it. “His tone, the sounds he makes, the different accents, the different intensity.”
Jackson recorded all of his parts for that film in one day in Bulgaria, where he was filming “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”
“I was looking for not only someone that had great acting experience, but also somebody who has what I call street credibility,” Peck said. “Someone who can speak truth to power.”
Jackson, who was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been doing that since he arrived at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the fall of 1966. There, he quickly gravitated to the Vietnam vets he saw on campus and, eventually, to activists like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, with a detour through psychedelic rock, psychedelic drugs and psychedelic clothes.
“I was sort of an outlier,” he said.
Now, he is more particular with style. After Giorgio Armani made the coats for “Shaft,” he began making clothes for Jackson, who requested an aubergine dinner jacket that is now in the permanent Armani collection. This spring, Jackson was the star of a Brioni ad campaign, and now he has a closet full of bespoke suits and some custom-made shoes. (“A freaky process,” he said.)
He even plots out his golf outfits the night before: “I’m in my closet going, ‘These shorts, that shirt, these socks.'”
These days, if he is not on a film set, he is on a golf course. His handicap has been as low as 2.3 — “not back there yet,” he said, a little ruefully. His regular partners include Anthony Anderson, Charles Barkley, Kenny G and Darius Rucker, and he says he has also played with two presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.
“Clinton is just having fun,” Jackson said. “He’ll hit the ball six times and be like, ah, give me a 5. It doesn’t mean the same thing.” Jackson added that the other hack in chief is “seriously trying to let you know that he should be on tour.” (Last January, in response to an article in United Airlines’ Rhapsody magazine in which Jackson said that he was a better golfer than Trump — “I don’t cheat,” Jackson said — Trump tweeted: “I don’t know @SamuelLJackson, to best of my knowledge haven’t played golf w/him & think he does too many TV commercials—boring. Not a fan.”)
In golf, Jackson said: “You learn if a person is patient, if a person is volatile or envious. Some people have a high estimation of their abilities that they really don’t have.”
But Jackson knows exactly how good he is. And while hiccups may be inevitable, they can always be fixed with another swing: “I make a bad shot, I don’t think about it anymore.”