Samuel L. Jackson
Special to Page 2

If you want your film to be instantly credible, cast Samuel L. Jackson. If you want it to be risky, intense, funny, smart, hip or surprising, cast Samuel L. Jackson. From "Do the Right Thing" and "Jungle Fever" to "Pulp Fiction" to this month's "Changing Lanes" (with Ben Affleck), Jackson's been one of the most versatile and compelling actors in America for almost 15 years.

Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson's "Changing Lanes" opens Friday.
He's been an athlete and big-time sports fan far longer than that, and on July 10 in Los Angeles he'll once again serve as host of the ESPY Awards on ESPN. Page 2's Eric Neel thought the Wednesday news conference to announce his upcoming gig would be a fine opportunity to find out how good an athlete Jackson really is ... by firing 10 Burning Questions, high and inside. Jackson never even flinched.

1. Page 2: First things first ... will the Lakers three-peat?

Samuel L. Jackson: Right now, yeah, I think so. Once the playoff intensity starts, they'll kick it up. They'll win it again.

Samaki Walker
Samaki Walker
Besides Shaq and Kobe, who would you say is the key for them in the playoffs?

Jackson: Samaki Walker has to step up and play big against all the strong forwards in the West.

2. Who are the contemporary athletes you find most interesting?

Jackson: I watch Tiger a lot. I like Derek Jeter, I watch him to see if he maintains his level of excellence. And, you know what, there are a lot of really good soccer players in the world that deserve a whole lot of respect. I watch a lot of different soccer teams, particularly Liverpool. When I was over there, I got a whole soccer bug.

Who were your sports heroes growing up?

Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron
Jackson: When I was a kid, if we were playing baseball, I wanted to be Willie Mays or Henry Aaron. If we were playing basketball, I wanted to be Oscar Robertson. If we were boxing, I wanted to be Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali. I think I wanted to be Jim Brown, too, until I realized that Gale Sayers got hit a whole lot less, and then I wanted to be Sayers instead.

Who were your sports nemeses, the guys you loved to root against?

Jackson: There are some guys you love to watch fail until you meet them, then you discover that they're interesting people and everything changes a little. But I was like an anti-Celtic fan the majority of my life. And then, years ago, I met Bill Russell, and now Bill is one of my best friends. And now, I actually realize the level of excellence he played at for so long, and it's a humbling kind of respect I feel for him and for his accomplishments. But at the time, I just couldn't watch him or the Celtics at all!

3. What about outside of sports, who were your heroes in other walks of life?

Jackson: I didn't have a lot of those. I read a lot, and I knew I wanted to be out in the world, but I didn't look up and say I wanted to be like this particular person or that particular person.

Michael Owen
Michael Owen of Liverpool.
What kind of stuff did you read?

Jackson: I read histories, I read a lot of science fiction. I was a TV kid, too. I was looking forward to the day that I would get out of Tennessee and into the world.

4. Many of your roles require athleticism. How good an athlete does an actor have to be to do his job well?

Jackson: That depends on the kind of movies he's doing. If he's doing a lot of action films, or if he's doing his own stunts, he has to be a decent athlete, somewhere around a seven out of 10 athlete.

You were a competitive swimmer in high school ... do you still swim?

Jackson: Yes, all the time. I swim to stay fit.

At the beach or at home?

Jackson: In the pool at home. I don't want to swim against waves. I'm not there any more. I like it in the pool at home.

Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson
Geena Davis and Jackson in "The Long Kiss Goodnight."
5. To most of the world you're Samuel L. Jackson ... the full name. Who calls you Samuel L. and who calls you Sam? Is there a difference between the two?

Jackson: They're the same guy. I try to treat everybody the same way, and I'm still the same guy I always was. Some people know me by one name or the other, but it doesn't make much difference to me. People who know me well usually call me Sam. One derivative of my name I really don't like, though, is Sammy. Other than that, I'll take all the rest of 'em.

Do you have any nicknames from your days as an athlete, or your early days as an actor?

Jackson: Some friends call me Big Jack.

Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson plays it cool in "Pulp Fiction."
6. Do you have a favorite role from one of your films?

Jackson: No, they're all my favorite while I'm doing them.

Are you able to easily leave one role and move on to the next?

Jackson: Oh yeah, I'm usually shooting two pictures at once here recently, so it has to be.

You're pretty prolific ... is it difficult for you to get the roles you want to get, or have you reached a point where you can kind of call your own shot?

Jackson: There's still some measure of difficulty, depending upon how the producers have seen the role from the beginning, especially if they're not thinking of a minority actor in a particular role. I sometimes have to go in a room and convince them that I'm not going to change the dynamic of what they're doing if I do the role.

When has that happened?

Jackson: It happened on "187" and on "Long Kiss Goodnight."

Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier
7. Do you have a favorite sports movie?

Jackson: "Dead Solid Perfect."

Is there a movie, sports or otherwise, you can watch again and again, or a movie you go back to to get inspired?

Jackson: I watch the Baby Cart movies (Japanese samurai films from the early 1970s) a lot. You know, "Shogun Assassin," that kind of thing. That always brings me up.

Everyone I know thinks of you as the very definition of cool ... who do you think of as cool?

Jackson: Sidney Poitier is cool. Very cool.

8. When you do something like the ESPYs, and you're surrounded by all these athletes, is it the kind of thing where everyone's on equal footing and it's old hat, or do you hold some of the athletes in awe and get excited to meet them?

Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson as a Jedi.
Jackson: I'm very excited to meet them because I've watched them a lot over the years and they've performed and they've brought me some kind of joy or some kind of thrill, or made me feel angry because they accomplished something I didn't want them to accomplish at a particular time. They elicit emotion from us.

Is there a contemporary athlete you identify with -- in terms of their career and your career -- or their work ethic and your work ethic, being similar?

Jackson: There are basketball players who have come through the CBA, Europe and everywhere else, and made it, and now they're like known hoopsters I look at those guys. I respect them. They did it, they took the journey.

Joe Pesci
Joe Pesci
9. You actively pursued a role in the "Star Wars" prequel series, and George Lucas made you a Jedi. What's the best part of being a Jedi?

Jackson: Having a light saber, which I do get to use this time. And being all-powerful in the universe, that's pretty cool.

10. Is it true you get greens fees and tee times in your contracts these days?

Jackson: Yep.

Did you and Ben Affleck play during the shooting of your new film, "Changing Lanes"?

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods
Jackson: No, we were shooting during winter in New York, so the courses weren't open.

Among actors, who are the best golfers?

Jackson: Jack Wagner. Jack Wagner's a scratch golfer. Joe's decent. Joe Pesci, he's decent.

You've played with Tiger ... what impresses you most about him?

Jackson: His focus. Yeah, his focus.


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