Soul survivor

Nov 5, 2008 at 12:00 am

Samuel Jackson insists he's never been much of a badass motherfucker, but that doesn't stop him from playing one on the big screen. Over and over and over. Hell, he's already played three BAMFs this year in Lakeview Terrace, Jumpers and (yes, it was a cameo) Iron Man. On Friday, he adds a fourth to said lineup with Soul Men — in which he stars as Louis, a minor soul-music legend turned bank robber on the bumpy road to a comeback.

"Louis was the guy who was the hardass in the group," Jackson explains of his character, sitting across a table, one of his trademark golf caps pulled low over his brow. "He was the hardest drinker, the hardest druggie and, when something went wrong, he was the guy who went there and did something about it — or raised the most hell about it."

Being such a noted BAMF on screen, one expects Jackson to be just as, well, badass in person. He is, even if he denies it. Not that he pulled a gun or menacingly quoted scripture during this talk to promote Soul Men, but there's an aura about the guy. More accurately, he radiates. His eyes — famous, you'll note, for their unblinking hardness — warn you to tread carefully. Many movie stars might attempt to answer questions they don't like, believing it's all part of the PR game-shtick, but Jackson will only glare at you, shrug quickly with his whole body, even those eyes, and answer, emphatically, "No."

Soul Men, you might recall, is the movie both Bernie Mac and soul legend Isaac Hayes died shortly after shooting. Mac plays Louis' former bandmate, Floyd, a hard-working dreamer like Mac was; Hayes has a bit part as himself, since the Real Deal, Louis and Floyd's duo, was, like him, a Stax Record act. Ask Jackson if he has a favorite moment behind the scenes with Mac during the production, though, and — BAMF alert — he answers, "No." He later explains he knew Mac for 15 years before the pair signed on to star in Soul Men; he has many memories apparently, but they're not for public dissemination.

Man, this guy's badass. Hmm, maybe we can crack that stony exterior by getting around the personal. You know, maybe by asking something about Mac's performance. "So, Sam, did Bernie know how good his performance was in Soul Men? It's easily the best of his career."

"Probably," Jackson says, still monosyllabic. Wait, his lips are parting again. He's going to expound upon his answer!

"Aside from the fact that I told him every day, we talked about it every day. The really sad thing, the saddest thing for me ... [when I got the call] he passed, the first thing I thought was, 'Damn, Bernie ain't going to get to see the movie?' But, if you had to pick a vehicle and say, 'This is the last movie you'll ever get to do,' [this would be it]. Bernie Mac that came into their homes every week, the guy that was the King of Comedy, and made them pee on themselves when he was doing his act; it's a fitting last performance for somebody to remember him by. All the elements of the Bernie that people knew and loved are in this film."

Jackson isn't exactly the nostalgic type, but his hesitation at discussing Mac with a stranger is compounded by the fact he wants to honor his old friend in the correct way. "He would have found a way to make a joke about it," he explains. "If I weren't here, he would have had something funny to say about it. He would have been poignant, and then he would have been funny." So Jackson will do the same: "He died one day, then the next day Isaac died, so somebody said to me, 'Do we need to get you to a safe house?'"

The BAMF laughs, brandishing that big, toothy smile of his.

The result of Jackson and Mac's first (and, unfortunately, final) team-up is a raunchy, abrasive, and surprisingly touching story about defaulted dreams and the scrabbling in our later years to reclaim some semblance of who we were in our youth. The two actors, 58 and 49 at the time of shooting, can't help but swagger, shuffle and dance through each scene, even going so far as to sing all their own songs. And they make it looks easy.

Jackson has an easy explanation for that ease. "We were kind of grown when it happened for us," he says. "The level of hard work that we know we put in, and the payoff for it, kind of gives you a reason to feel like, 'I earned it, I deserve it, and I can stand up a little straighter.'"

He continues: "Those two characters also, you look at those two guys, they are two guys that Bernie and I recognize and know in a very real way. They are guys of a certain age, but they grew up together. They were kids together. They know a lot about each other."

Adam Herschmann, who plays a record-company intern trying to get the Real Deal to New York for a show, still can't wrap his head around the fact he just acted in a movie opposite Bernie Mac and especially Samuel L. Jackson. "You've [made it in] Hollywood when Sam Jackson calls you a motherfucker," he says.

It's true, too. The word belongs to a BAMF, and nobody uses it like Jackson — including in Soul Men. Just look at his performance as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction; it'd take many, many fingers to count all the "motherfuckers" he dropped, but every one sounded unique. Dude has made art from swearing loudly. Sit across from him, you don't think, "Holy shit, that's Samuel L. Jackson glaring at me." You're thinking, "Holy shit, how cool would it be if Samuel L. Jackson flipped this table over, kicked me out of my chair, and shouted, 'Who's laughing now, motherfucker?!'"

Next up for Jackson, his fifth BAMF of the year — playing the Spider, the villain of Frank Miller's super-hero romp, The Spirit. Just how badass is the Spider? "Pretty crazy," Jackson says, grinning mischievously.

Soul Men hits theaters on Friday, Nov. 7.

Cole Haddon is a Hollywood correspondent for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]