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The Sunset Limited – Why Samuel L Jackson takes the time to ruminate

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The Sunset Limited - Samual L Jackson
Black (Samual L Jackson) © 2011 HBO

In his entire career, Samuel L Jackson has only done a handful of TV roles. Maybe that’s changing with his new movie The Sunset Limited. Based on the play of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy, Jackson co-stars with his friend Tommy Lee Jones, who also is the executive producer and director of the piece.

In this two-hander, Jackson portrays a deeply religious ex-con who saves the life of a despondent college professor (Jones) who has just attempted suicide by throwing himself in front of an oncoming subway train, the Sunset Limited.

Secluded in the apartment of the rescuer, the two men from vastly different backgrounds engage in an intense exchange of ideologies as they debate the value of their existence.

Jackson spoke about the project with the TV Critics Association via satellite from New Orleans.

As an actor, how great was it to have a piece that’s so intensely dialogued?

The Sunset Limited - Tommy Lee Jones and Samual L Jackson
White (Tommy Lee Jones) and Black (Samual L Jackson) © 2011 HBO

I have always loved the theatre. And it’s been a while since I had an opportunity to learn that much dialogue at one time and spit it out. And to be in a creative space with someone like Tommy Lee Jones was a real blessing for someone who’s been away from the theatre as long as I have.

It’s always a really amazing chance to do speeches, and to have ideas that are challenging to the actor and to an audience to listen to. For Tommy Lee and I to be able to sit there and look at each other in the eye, and take the pauses that people take when they have conversations, to take the time to ruminate over what one person said, and keep that rumination active so that we can energize the thought that Cormac is trying to express [was wonderful].

Has memorizing lines always come easy to you?

I do have an ease in doing it. There were times when we were rehearsing [where we would] skip three pages, or something would happen and we would get lost, because there are so many repetitive things. It became the challenge also to know where I was in the room, especially being at that table a lot.

You can’t memorize words by your blocking, you have to listen to the other person talk and honestly respond in an honest fashion. So it wasn’t as easy as it used to be when I was younger.

You have some great dialogue in this.

The Sunset Limited - Samual L Jackson
Black (Samual L Jackson) © 2011 HBO

Yeah. I learned early on that doing a movie, one quarter of the film is dialogue and three quarters of it is camera movement, actors doing things, going from place to place, and things like that.  So being able to pick up something that is a direct conversation or argument between two people, or two people exchanging ideas that are intelligent, it’s an expression of all of the human emotions.

They are verbalized in such a way that you have to sit there and give those words energy and give those people your attention, because they are very passionate about what they are saying. That’s pretty much what’s going on, and not people driving down streets [in] car chases. There aren’t people leaving, entering, exiting. We are just there. And it’s really wonderful to have someone as brilliant as Cormac putting things on the paper that we have an opportunity to say.

Is this kind of role the reason you became an actor?

I learned to love things like this when I started to act because I was able to take real people, interpret them in an honest way, find a life form, and to vocalize and physicalize that reality.

I also got into acting because I liked going to the movies on a Saturday and watching Roy Rogers, Bela Lugosi and the monsters, Lon Chaney and the Three Stooges. So I like doing that stuff, too. I like entertaining. This is like food for an actor or life blood in terms  of saying I can validate myself, [that] I am intellectually capable of doing this, but I also like doing the stuff I don’t have to think about.

Did you and Tommy ever argue about the script or his staging?

We didn’t have those kinds of discrepancies. When I had a question about something, I would ask T. L. if he felt that something wasn’t exactly totally correct. He is one of the few people I’ve ever taken a line reading from, and he was right …  or sometimes not!

What was Tommy like as a director?

The Sunset Limited - Samual L Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones
Black (Samual L Jackson) and White (Tommy Lee Jones) © 2011 HBO

We have such a great relationship that when I’m listening to him, or when we were rehearsing or going through the blocking, it kind of organically happened. And there would be times that I would get up and I would walk around and he would ask me what I was doing. I would explain it to him, and he would go, ‘Yeah, I like that.’

He actually gave me the confidence of saying, ‘You don’t really have to move unless you really want to, or unless you’re motivated to move by something that’s very real,’ because sitting at that table was an option that he was okay with.

You haven’t traditionally done a lot of TV except for voice work. Is this the start of your interest in exploring that more?

I have an interest in television. I have a television deal at CBS, and I’ve sold several shows to the network already. Some of them I’ll take more than a producer part in. I may act in a few of them.

Television is a fertile ground.  There’s some wonderful work being done in television like the indie film world back in the ‘90s. So I’m exploring that thought and working more towards it.