Frank Miller's take on the classic Will Eisner comic strip The Spirit comes out on DVD on Monday. Everyone's favourite bad mofo Samuel L Jackson plays the villain of the piece, The Octopus. Here he talks about making the film, and why he has no plans to retire...
What attracted you to The Spirit?
“I’ve been chasing Frank Miller’s work for a while. Even before people knew what Sin City was I was kind of aware of it and was trying to track him down and ask, ‘Can I do one of your movies?’ Then they made Sin City and all those other movies from his work and I was disappointed I wasn’t in them. But then out of nowhere I got a call saying ‘Frank’s doing The Spirit and he wants to talk to you about it’. I knew the story and I was like ‘Um, he wants me to be The Octopus and in the graphic novel that guy is just a pair of gloves’. I imagined I’d just be doing voiceover but Frank said ‘Hell no, I want to see you on screen!’ and after that I was like ‘OK, I’m on board’.”
Other actors say green screen work can be frustrating, but after Star Wars and Jurassic Park you must be used to it…
“It doesn’t bother me. In The Spirit the green screen is just for the backgrounds and there’s only one time in the shoot I had to react to something that wasn’t really there, but then pretending is what acting is all about.”
How was it working with Frank Miller?
“It was great. Frank is so new at it that it’s almost like we were taking advantage of him sometimes. We’d come in, show him what we wanted to do and he’d be ‘That’s great, let’s shoot it’. Most directors are so busy composing the frame or staring intently at the monitor, but we could engage Frank and make him laugh. He’s still a fan watching the process happen and he’d ask the director of photography if it was possible to do this, that or the other. He was guileless and open to suggestions.”
Do you have a method to your acting?
“I construct the whole performance in my head from beginning to end, just as when I’ve done theatre and rehearsed plays. When you’re making a movie you jump all over the place and if you don’t know what you’re doing in scene 65 there’s no way you can go back and do scene four which leads you to scene 65. You kind of need to know. There are actors you work with who don’t have a clue about that. Every take they’re trying something new. It’s a director’s job to sometimes say, ‘That’s kind of out of context’ but there are some directors who get caught up in that whole thing of ‘Let’s try it this way now’. I’m like ‘I’d rather not do it that way because it has nothing to do with what I’ll be doing three days from now’.”
Do you stay in character throughout filming?
“No, no, no. When I’m not shooting a scene I do what I need to do, calling agents, speaking to friends and family, whatever. I have the performance in my head – where it’s going to go and what I’m going to do – so that I don’t have to walk around pretending to be the character full-time.”
Is it true that put together, your movies have made more money than any other actor?
“That’s what they tell me. I dunno the exact figure, but it’s six or seven billion dollars. But then I have made a hell of a lot of films and there are some big ones in there – three Star Wars movies, Jurassic Park, The Incredibles.”
You must be well paid for your efforts?
“Not really. Those movies actually don’t pay very well. People say ‘You must have made a lot of money’ and I tell them ‘No, the producers made a lot of money’.”
How do you feel about being labelled an icon?
“That’s fine with me! I still think of myself as an actor who gets up and goes to work as often as he can, but I’ve been fortunate – I’ve done some films that will be remembered for a long time. I’m sure with Star Wars they’ll be talking about it in film school forever going, ‘George Lucas started this whole new thing’ and with Pulp Fiction they’ll be going, ‘Quentin Tarantino changed the way people made movies and the chronology of how stories are told’.”
Do you get approached in the street?
“Yes, and I’m happy when people approach me. Star Wars geeks are reverent because I played Master Windu so they treat me as if I’m a Jedi master. Kids get excited when they realise I’m the guy from The Incredibles, and not a week goes by without some Pulp Fiction fan asking me what a quarterpounder with cheese in France is called, or they’ll ask ‘What’s in the briefcase?’ My answer? Eight batteries and three lights.”
Which film are you proudest of?
“Wow, that’s hard. I’m proud of 187 because I have this healthy respect for teachers and it was a great story. I like The Red Violin a lot too in terms of it being a complete story. But my favourite is The Long Kiss Goodnight. I like action pictures and I think it’s one of the best action pictures ever made.”
Is there anything you wish you hadn’t done?
“Nah. I did ‘em, y’know. There was something that made me want to do ‘em at the time – I thought the stories were valid, maybe, although there are some movies where the process of making them wasn’t so much fun.”
Do you think Snakes On A Plane suffered because of all the hype?
“I’ve no idea what happened there. It was one of those internet phenomena that kept building and building and by the time the film came out we realised people who sit at home and blog don’t actually go to the cinema because they’re on to blogging about the next movie. I also think it suffered from being a little better than people were expecting. Had it been a bit cheesier or worse cinematically, it might have been a bigger cult hit. But it’s a pretty well-made film and people who saw it liked it, but maybe they stayed away because fear of snakes is a huge fear. They’ll go see people get chopped up or whatever but they can’t sit there and watch snakes.”
Is it true you have it in your contract that you have to have time off to play golf?
“Yes, that’s true. Just two days a week. How good am I? I’m okay. [Laughs] I can play a round of golf with the same ball.”
What are your other pleasures when you’re not working?
“I watch a lot of movies, mainly Asian films. I read a lot. I’m pretty quiet.”
What are your DVD favourites?
“Asian films like Hong Kong crime stories and the stuff that’s coming out of Korea. I like horror movies, especially Japanese and Chinese ones. I also watch The Godfather series a lot, even The Godfather III, and they look amazing on Blu-ray. I watch classic westerns like High Noon, Gunfight At The OK Corral and, more recently, Unforgiven. Last Tango In Paris is a classic, too, and I’m a TV-on-DVD junkie – all the Law & Orders, CSI, The Wire, Dexter.”
And new American movies?
“I tend to watch those in the cinema. I really like going to the movies, even my own. If anyone says they hate watching their own films it’s bulls**t. If you hate it then how can you expect people to pay money to go see it? It’s a look-at-me business. One of the criteria for me when reading scripts is ‘Would I pay money to go see this movie and would I like to see me in it?’ If you’re the kind of actor who doesn’t like to see himself work then you need to do theatre.”
So you go see your own films as a paying customer?
“Absolutely. Opening weekend I know my movies are going to make at least $1,000 because I always go and buy $1,000 worth of tickets and give them to family, friends or kids at my local church. You’ve gotta have some box office.”
Do you still have the same passion for the job? And what keeps you working?
“Acting is one of the great passions of my life. There are only so many acting opportunities in any given lifetime and I try to take advantage of as many of those as I can. People go ‘God, you make a lot of movies!’ but painters get up every day and paint, writers get up every day and write, so why wouldn’t I get up every day and act? It’s what I do for a living and most responsible adults go to work each day.”
You’ve just turned 60. Does getting older dictate which parts you can play convincingly?
“I do whatever appeals to me and whatever makes sense - what I want an audience to believe and what is believable. How much longer can I do action stuff? Well, you can do action films for a long time but you have to be reasonable about it. You can shoot people from a distance as a very old person but you can’t get into physical confrontations with 20-year-olds and expect the audience to believe you could actually win them.”
Would you ever retire?
“Maybe a female actor is forced to retire because of how much emphasis is placed on their looks, but there’s always a place for Michael Caine so I assume there’ll always be a place for me. I haven’t discovered that directing bug yet that would allow me to do what Clint Eastwood does but I’m happy to keep on acting for as long as I can.”
The Spirit is available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from Lions Gate Home Entertainment from Monday 25 May.