If you’re one of those people who bought a Kangol cap in the late 1990s with the notion that maybe it will make you seem as cool as Samuel L. Jackson (I plead guilty), then read on.
SLJ (as he’s often called in the U.S., and now by many in the Japanese media, too) came to Tokyo to promote “Kong: Skull Island” (“King Kong: Dokuroto no Kyoshin”) earlier this month, along with Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. It was a momentous occasion for the Japanese media, and Jackson’s schedule was packed to the gills with press conferences and TV interviews. After all, the last time Jackson graced these shores was in 1995, when he visited for “Die Hard With a Vengeance.”
It took over two decades and some 50 film appearances before this second sojourn, and from the film distributors’ point of view, every single minute of his time had to be deployed to maximal effect.
“The last time I came here, I was warned that the Japanese know only two black actors: Eddie Murphy and Will Smith,” says Jackson during our tightly scheduled minutes. “But I walked down the street and everyone pointed at me and I thought, ‘S—-, I’m famous too!’ “
What about this time around?
“I haven’t had a chance to find out,” he says. “I’m hoping people will at least ask me for an autograph or something.”
He’s more likely to strain his wrist from all the signing, but Jackson stresses that the road that got him to his point had never been easy.
“Man, I grew up poor in Tennessee and then started working as a stage actor in Atlanta, way before black actors were even a thing. Hollywood didn’t give me a call until Spike Lee wanted to cast me in ‘Jungle Fever’ in 1991,” he says. “I used to dream of standing on the red carpet and working in films with stories that I could get excited about, but that didn’t really happen until ‘Pulp Fiction’ — a couple of years after that.”
The scripts that get Jackson excited are and have always been “high adventure stories.” He grew up reading “Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and professes that he “seriously wanted to be a pirate with a sword between my teeth.”
He did finally get it. “Many year later, I got an offer for ‘Star Wars’ and they said I could have a light saber,” he says. “And I thought, ‘Hey, I got my sword.’ “
It’s apt that in “Kong: Skull Island,” Jackson plays Col. Preston Packard, the only character who doesn’t panic when faced with the 90-meter-tall ape Kong, not to mention the other prehistoric monsters inhabiting Skull lsland. Like many of his characters, Jackson’s U.S. Army colonel is single-minded, dedicated to a fault and easily destroys whatever and whomever he perceives as the enemy with no compunction. Packard goes after Kong with everything he’s got. Critics have compared Jackson’s performance to Gregory Peck’s Ahab in “Moby Dick.”
Jackson sees that as a compliment, having “loved” the 1956 movie and studied Peck’s performance. “Except my white whale has a lot of black fur and he moves on land instead of the ocean,” he jokes.
“Kong: Skull Island” is set in 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War. Besides the definitive groovy 1970s soundtrack, viewers will see a lot of expertly simulated retro stuff — clunky computers; phones with actual receivers;and the “new” Landsat technology that enables the U.S. explorers to locate Skull Island. As for Packard, he’s seething with rage because he had to leave the battlefront and is desperate for a chance to fight again.
“They got the look and feel of the era just right. I know this era. I was there,” says Jackson. “I remember when the war ended and how a lot of people felt that it was a lost cause, or, like Packard, felt that they had been abandoned.”
To recreate that ’70s mood and give it some authenticity, “Kong” was filmed in Northern Vietnam. “That was a revelation for me — actually going to a jungle location is done less and less these days,” says Jackson. “In ‘Tarzan,’ they had a fully air-conditioned jungle set and I was comfortable all the time. But Vietnam was hot, humid, everyone was tired and there were bugs all over the place.”
Joking about the experience, he continues, “We would walk for miles and still not run into a Whole Foods. I mean, I had to stop myself from expecting to see a Whole Foods so I can go right in and get a bottle of designer water.”
At the end of the interview, Jackson returns to his childhood dreams.
“I think one of the greatest things anyone can say about their careers is that they got to do what they wanted when they were kids. I kept wishing I could relive my fantasies of fighting monsters and wandering in jungles,” he says. “All of that came true with this movie. Suddenly, I find myself on the red carpet for a King Kong movie.
“I can’t get used to this s—-, it’s just awesome — every time.”
“Kong: Skull Island” is showing at cinemas nationwide.