After 30-plus years and 100-plus roles, Samuel L. Jackson ranks his own roles
No. 1 is not what you think it is
Samuel L. Jackson, who stars as “Frozone” in this week’s The Incredibles 2, knows a dope character when he sees one. The legendary actor, now 69, has been bringing to life some of the world’s most quotable characters for 30 years now — his first film credit comes from Spike Lee’s 1988 historically black college classic School Daze.
In 2011, Jackson entered the Guinness Book of World Records because he’s had roles in movies with more than $7.4 billion in total box office, making him the highest-grossing actor of all time. Since then, those totals have only grown. And even when he’s not in a high-grossing film, he can simply turn a movie out. He has more than 100 feature film credits, with several repeat roles in big-budget sequels and prequels and more on the way.
Jackson has done a lot over the years, but something he’s never done is rank his own work. In the spring, we sent Jackson a list of his 111 feature films and asked him to rank his top 20. He did it, while qualifying the list as his very own favorite roles. He’s aware that this list will spark arguments from die-hard fans — pun not entirely unintended. With that, in reverse order, Samuel L. Jackson ranks Samuel L. Jackson.
20. Lazarus Red
Black Snake Moan
I spent a year learning to play the guitar to do the role. I had a really great guitar teacher … it was fun. Being back in Tennessee and shooting … [I had] an awesome time with Christina [Ricci]. She’s a great actress.
19. Charles Morritz
The Red Violin
A really beautiful film. One of the most cerebral characters that I’ve played. I spent time with guys that made violins so that I’d understand the process of evaluating violins and knowing their authenticity. It’s just a sprawling and beautiful movie.
18. Elmo McElroy
The most appealing part was I got to wear a kilt the whole movie, which was kind of awesome. And I was running around with these golf clubs on my back the whole film. I rocked these braids and a big turtleneck sweater. We shot in Liverpool, where … I knew about soccer, football, but I never invested in it. So because I was there they took me to some Liverpool games and I became a fan.
17. Major Marquis Warren
The Hateful Eight
Just because he is who he is. Major Warren. Always fun having a character who explains himself in plain words, and there’s no mistaking who he is and what he’s about.
16. Darius Kincaid
The Hitman’s Bodyguard
I could have put Kincaid higher. I loved doing that film with Ryan [Reynolds]. We were able to put together two interesting characters with really diverse life views that meshed very well. Ain’t it funny?
15. Ordell Robbie
Robbie could have been higher on the list. Ordell is just a good-time guy who lives in a world of his own. He’s his own man. He’s a great friend to have, but he’s definitely the wrong guy to cross. He definitely will put you in a trunk of a car. There’s no ‘might’ about that.
14. Ken Carter
Inspirational. A great story. And the real Ken Carter was around all the time, talking and hanging around. … [He] helped me with some of the characterization. And my relationship with those guys — I liked those kids a lot. We had a great time shooting that movie. And in reality, the team won that championship that year, but the studio decided it was a better object lesson to have them lose, after sacrificing and doing all the things they did to let them know that things don’t always work out that way. But the journey is the thing — not the thing.
13. Carl Lee Hailey
A Time to Kill
Carl Lee is a powerful character. And I have a daughter. I understood the dynamic of what was going on … and how it all worked. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that film. I know it’s a powerful film, and it’s great. But we shot a lot of stuff that’s actually not in that movie, which taught me the power of editing. When we did it, I was doing one thing, and then when the film comes out, it looks like Carl Lee had this plan that he was going to kill these dudes and he was going to get away with it. But that was never the plan. The object of that whole thing was to let my daughter know that I am your protector. And if anything happens to you, I will take care of it. So she wouldn’t have to worry about those two guys being on the planet that she’s on, ever again. And that was the goal of Carl Lee, to do that. And if he got away with it, fine, but if he didn’t, he still did his job as a father. But they made Carl Lee seem a little conniving. I still love him. He represents all the black men in my family, because that’s who they are: hardworking guys who believe family first.
12. Mr. Barron
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
I always wanted to play a sort of demonic, crazy guy, and Mr. Barron fits that bill. It’s a Tim Burton movie, so I got to be as bizarre, as quirky as I wanted to be. And that’s very freeing in its own way.
Stephen is my dude! Stephen was the king of that plantation, because Leo [DiCaprio] is off fighting his slaves and running his strip joint or whatever. The people didn’t know he could read. They didn’t know he could write. He wasn’t as decrepit as he portrayed himself to be. He was a very formidable guy. Without him, that plantation wouldn’t function. And once again, it’s awesome to be unapologetically evil. And believe me, there are some scenes we shot that aren’t in that movie that Quentin [Tarantino] was like, ‘I don’t want nobody to kill you.’ We shot some stuff that’s pretty nasty. I keep telling [Tarantino], ‘You can do it as like a five-part thing on Netflix or something.’
10. Zeus Carver
Die Hard with a Vengeance
A springboard role. Most people say that I got famous after Pulp Fiction. When we were shooting DHWAV, Pulp Fiction happened. And Bruce [Willis] and I went to France and watched Pulp for the first time. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ Bruce is like, ‘Yeah, this is a good movie. People are going to know who you are. But this movie that we’re doing right now is the movie that’s going to put you on the map.’ And Die Hard With a Vengeance was the highest-grossing film in the world that year. So all of a sudden I was an international name.
9. Richmond Valentine
Kingsman: Secret Service
I was fussing to [director] Matthew Vaughn about Kingsman. I was like, ‘So how can I shoot this dude in the face and he still be alive and I kind of got stabbed in the back and I died? Valentine deserves a second take, right?’ I loved him.
8. John Shaft
Shaft and Son of Shaft
I was like everybody else: ‘Why do we need to do another Shaft? The one we’ve got is like totally good.’ But then I thought about it: ‘OK. But you have to put Richard [Roundtree] in it so that everybody would know I’m not pretending to be Richard; our characters are relatives.’ It was Shaft for the millennium. The Christian Bale character was going to be the bad guy. But I kept saying that I can just go by his house and kill him. Why would he be the bad guy? And Jeffrey [Wright] was killing it as Peoples. He was the best of bad guys. It’s easy to catch this little rich white kid from Jersey who is hanging around. But [Peoples] is part of the fabric of that community, Uptown, where Shaft is supposed to be.
7. Elijah Price
Elijah could be up higher too. I love Elijah. He’s just so cerebral. He has his own sense of cool and style. He’s sure of who he is, what his path is and where he’s going. And he’s made plans to find out why he is the way he is, and why other people are the way they are. Even more will be revealed in February when Glass comes out in 2019.
6. Gator Purify
“Dance for me, Gator!” Gator was me — I was that character. I’d been out of rehab maybe two weeks when we shot Jungle Fever. I didn’t need makeup or nothing. In fact, when I showed up to shoot and I went to craft services to get something to eat, Spike [Lee] had all these Fruit of Islam guys around the set, and they thought I was one of the crackheads from around the neighborhood. They were like, ‘Get away from the table!’ Gator is really close to me because [he] signified me killing that part of my life and moving on. So when Ossie Davis, the Good Reverend Doctor, killed me in that movie, it kind of freed me from all those demons I had in my real life. That was kind of cool. That was the summer of dueling crackheads. It was me, and Chris Rock was Pookie in New Jack City. Gator was that guy everybody had in their family. I was like, ‘This has to be about me ruining my family relationships with all the people that care about me because you get stuff from them, and then you just break their hearts.’ It’s easy to play high. He was just always looking for that next thing. Using his mom, using his brother, using all these people was what Gator was about.
5. Nick Fury
Marvel Universe films
Nick is one of those blessings that just kind of fell out of the sky. I was in the comic book store because I’m in Golden Apple like once a month or twice a month. I saw the ‘Ultimates’ cover and I’m like, ‘Did I give somebody permission to use my face on the comic book?’ So I called my agent and manager and they’re like, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ So I told them, they called Marvel and they’re like, ‘Well, you know, we’re thinking we’re going to make these movies and we hope he’d like to be a part of it.’ And it also says so inside the comic. ‘If they make a movie about us, who would you want to play you?’ And Nick Fury says, ‘Samuel L. Jackson.’ I’m like, ‘Done!’ Because the Nick Fury I knew was this white dude, because I’ve been reading comics all my life and that’s who he was. It was a wonderful opportunity to step into a place and hang out with some superheroes.
4. Frozone, Lucius Best
The Incredibles, 2004
The Incredibles 2, 2018
He has a superpower. And Lucius is this really cool dude. He shows up, he hangs out, he’s got a solution. He never gets flustered. And he’s got this really dope wife that nobody’s seen yet.
3. Mace Windu
He’s a Jedi. Come on! I remember going to the first Star Wars in New York when it came out and I was sitting there staring at that movie like, ‘Wow, how do you get in a movie like this? How? How? How?’ And then I was on a talk show in London and this guy asked me if there were any directors I hadn’t worked with that I wanted to work with, and I knew they were shooting Star Wars. I was like, ‘I would really like to work with George Lucas, blah blah blah.’ And I didn’t think anything about it. [Then] I got a call: ‘George would like to meet with you, he heard you wanted to work with him.’ So I went to the ranch and I talked to him and he said, ‘I know your work, but right now I don’t know what I could do. And I was like, ‘Look, man, I could be a stormtrooper. You could put me in one of those white suits, I’ll run across screen, nobody even needs to know!’ He was like, ‘I’m going to find something better.’ Two months or so later, I got a call: ‘George wants you to come to London, he’s found something for you to do …’ I showed up … hadn’t seen the script. They put me in this room, and [someone] came in and said, ‘OK, why don’t you try on this costume?’ And I go, ‘Is this a Jedi costume? Am I a Jedi?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh. Yeah.’ And then somebody came in and gave me a little piece of paper — they still hadn’t given me a script. Who is Mace Windu? And they go, ‘That’s you.’ So I’m actually going to be in the movie?! And then I go downstairs and this man comes over with this big [case] and he opens it and is like, ‘Lightsaber handles; pick one.’ My goal from that point on was, ‘OK, don’t get killed. Just don’t piss anybody off, don’t get killed. Just stay alive.’
2. Jules Winnfield
Jules is one of those kind of dream roles you get. I saw Quentin [Tarantino] at an audition for Reservoir Dogs and I didn’t get the job. But I was at Sundance when they had the first screening. So I watched the movie, I went to him and I said, ‘I really enjoyed your movie.’ And he was like, ‘So how did you like the guy who got your role?’ I didn’t even realize he knew I’d auditioned because I was so bad! But he said, ‘I’m writing something right now, and I’m going to send it to you.’ So I’m off doing a movie and I get this brown envelope with a script in it, and I read it and I’m like, ‘Is this as good as I just thought it was? Wait a minute. Start over.’ I read it again and was like, ‘Wow, amazing!’ And it was just … John [Travolta] and I hanging out and talking and being about who we’re about. It was the most natural and not movie-ish, picture-ish kind of things that I’d ever read. It was like doing a play on the screen.
1. Mitch Henessey
The Long Kiss Goodnight
My dude! I love that movie so much. A movie way ahead of its time. Geena Davis — awesome Charly Baltimore character. The studio didn’t know how to market that film because they didn’t know that women like seeing themselves as badasses. I kept saying, ‘You need to advertise this thing during the day when women are watching soaps.’ Whatever. They were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But it’s gone on to be like this really great cult classic because Geena is so good. And the Mitch character in the original iteration got killed. When they did a test screening, the audience like lost its mind. Like no, you cannot kill Mitch Henessey. So we went back and we redid those [shots] with Larry King. We did that like three days before the movie opened. And they stuck it in the movie. But I just loved Mitch because he’s got such a big heart. He’s a fun-loving, kind of profane guy that wants to be this thing that he’s not. But he’s not afraid to step into the space for somebody that he cares about.