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South China Morning Post
Saturday Review
June 6, 1998

David Cohen speaks to Hollywood star Samuel L. Jackson, an avowed Hong Kong movie buff who won't go to a film set without a suitcase full of films from the SAR
Related Story: Deauville Film Festival Honoree 2000 - Samuel L. Jackson
When Samuel L. Jackson goes to work on a movie, he has simple needs: A good script, a character with a clear point of view — and a suitcase full of Hong Kong movies.

"I always have them so when I go on location to work, I have something to watch during the day." explains Jackson, a Hong Kong movie buff for more than 20 years. "I leave a lot of them unopened until I go to work."

Jackson spens a great deal of his time filming movies, which means a great deal of time in his trailer, waiting to be called for the next shot. By contract, he has a laser disk player and VHS player waiting, and those long waits become his personal Hong Kong movie festival.

Jackson began collecting films on laser disk and video some eight years ago, after his breakout role in Jungle Fever. He became a fixture in contemporary films, appearing in Jurassic Park, Die Hard With a Vengeance, A Time to Kill, and Pulp Fiction, which earned him an Oscar® nomination. This year, he can be seen in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, Michael Crichton's Sphere, and 187, a drama about a dedicated teacher pushed to the edge by urban violence.

More high-profile roles are on the way. He will star with Kevin Spacey in The Negotiator, in a role he took over from Sylvester Stallone, and will be seen in the upcoming Star Wars prequel. He is sworn to secrecy about that one but reveals he will appear with Yoda and get to say "May The Force be with you."

And whatever he is shooting, wherever he goes, those Hong Kong films go with him. With a movie star's income and all those days in a trailer, his collection has grown as fast as his fame. Today he owns more than 300 HK titles — and counting.

His love affair with HK films began in 1972. That year Jackson and his future wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, moved to New York from Atlanta. As he juggled low paying stage roles and occasional day jobs (including a stint as a night watchman), he and his actor friends began haunting the movie theaters on Manhattan's famed 42nd Street.

In the 1970's, 42nd Street was no longer 'where the underworld can meet the elite.' The elite had long since fled, and the strip's decaying theaters played either pornography (Think Midnight Cowboy) or Hong Kong 'chopsocky' films. Jackson and his young actor friends became regulars at martial arts matinees. "We had plays to do at night and we weren't rehearsing another play during the day. There were like at least 4 places that would show triple features of Hong Kong films. We would go all day, and watch three features a day."

Jackson barely remembers the first Hong Kong film he saw, a Shaw Brothers production. "There were Bruce Lee films that happened, but most of them were kind of anonymous films like The Seven Deadly Venoms." He came back for triple feature after triple feature.

"That was where I got my whole love for them. I now own a lot of films that I saw, and a lot of new ones, because they didn't show the Hong Kong crime films, they only showed martial arts films." He remembers Master of the Flying Guillotine as a particular favorite. "Back when David Chang was actually the One-Armed Boxer, that was totally cool. David was the man!"

He picked up small film roles now and then (Sharp-eyed viewers can spot him delivering one line as 'black guy' early in Sea of Love.) and became a highly regarded stage actor. But as his career took off, his personal life headed for a crash. He began drinking and using crack cocaine. He did not realize that he was addicted until his wife found him passed out in the kitchen of their apartment with a crack pipe in his hand.

A stint in rehab followed immediately, and his life turned around instantly. He began shooting Jungle Fever right after rehab, and the role earned the first and only Best Supporting Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Jackson was suddenly in demand, and his salary skyrocketed accordingly.

He plunged into work, and there was no more time for martial arts triple features. At about the same time, the powers that be decided to clean up 42nd Street. So Jackson began buying Hong Kong films on video. He has not stopped since.

Today 42nd Street's restored theaters host Broadway musicals, family fare like The Lion King and Samuel L. Jackson (he has said that the L stands for 'Lucky'), too, has seen his circumstances improve. The onetime security guard lives with his wife and teenage daughter in a US$2.5 million, two and a half acre compound in California's San Fernando Valley. The address may lack a bit of the prestige of Beverly Hills or Bel Air, but with two houses, two swimming pools and a tennis court, the amenities more than compensate.

He enjoys a life that he could hardly have imagined while watching Fist of Fury 25 years ago. He loves golf and recently played in a tournament in Bermuda. He learned to scuba dive for Sphere, and goes diving with his daughter. "I've got a little leisure life going," he admits.

He even gets to visit Hong Kong. He especially likes to visit Stanley Market and has fond memories of meals at the Glorious Restaurant. "Asia is this wonderful mix of the ancient and the modern and they've found a way to make them coexist in a really cool kind of way. It works for me. It's a place on the move. I like the activity of it, the hustle and bustle of it all, but it's still the kind of not-noisy hustle and bustle. Just kind of happening."

Prosperity has also brought a brand new home screening room. It has a big screen TV, of course, but best of all, it is big enough to bring his film collection together under one roof. "I have a huge bookcase in one room that has laser disks on it. I've got maybe three or four thousand laser disks. And the bottom row is all the Hong Kong films."

He is always in demand and loves to work, so there is plenty of trailer time for the latest HK release. (He always has a laser disk and VHS player in his trailer now.) He has his laser disks special ordered by a shop on LA's trendy Melrose Avenue.

When he visits New York, though, he returns to the Times Square neighborhood where he first discovered Hong Kong films — carrying an empty suitcase. His favorite video store is on a seedy corner near the Manhattan bus terminal. "When you walk in there, you will see a lot of porn movies, but every Hong Kong movie that's damn near ever been made is in there and is on tape."

"I'll either buy the newest ones they have or buy the old ones I never bought. And since they're three for (US)$25, I always end up with a suitcase that has 25 or 30 tapes in it."

That suitcase soon winds up in his trailer on a movie location somewhere. On the set of Pulp Fiction, he began a ritual with another noted Hong Kong movie fan, Quentin Tarantino " he was walking by my trailer and he heard all this noise coming from my trailer, and he came in and he couldn't believe I was watching this movie. 'Oh my God, this is great!' So from that point on he would stop by my trailer to see what I was watching from day to day."

Jackson even tries to bring some of that HK energy to his movie roles. He remembers trying to convince Renny Harlin, the director of The Long Kiss Goodnight, that his character ought to be shot. And shot and shot.

"I'd say 'I want to be shot like, eight times.' And he kept saying, 'but the man would die.' I'd say 'He doesn't have to.' He actually shot all this stuff where I got shot in the back or shot in the chest, fell against that truck and left a big smear. But they were too scared to leave it in the movie. I'm like, 'it's okay!' But that's the stuff that I watch, you know."

Now that he has his screening room, he looks forward to more nights watching HK videos at home. Hong Kong movie night with Sam Jackson was once a family event, but now he generally watches them alone. "Sometimes my daughter will watch some of them, but she doesn't watch very often. It's just me. It's my fascination now."

He has become so expert that he takes an almost scholarly approach to his viewing. "I'm actually putting things together in sequence according to how they were made, these days, because I own so many of them that I can put them together. Or I'll just find one particular actor and see what his evolution was from an early film to a late film. Like Simon Yam, I've been going through his career."

For anyone still unfamiliar with HK films, Jackson suggests these four films as an introduction: Hard Boiled, Drunken Master, My Father is Hero, and The Bride With White Hair.

"The Bride With White Hair, to me, is like the old staple thing that they always do, with all the flying people, the mysticism and all that. I would use Hard Boiled as the template for what Hong Kong films became when John Woo started. It was the quintessential film that everybody tried to copy, kind of like Quentin doing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

"Drunken Master as an old example of what the Shaw Brothers were doing when they first started, the pure martial arts film. That's a period piece. And My Father Is Hero, as the kind of film that they make now that's a mixture of martial arts and modern morality play."

Jackson still hopes to work with some of his Hong Kong heroes. He and Chow Yun Fat are mutual admirers, and they hope to do a film together. "He sent me this really great book from, for Peace Hotel. He sent me a great book from that and a signed poster and all. We keep like passing notes to each other but we've never actually met."

He caught up with Michelle Yeoh at the premiere of US Marshals, though, and has met John Woo. He missed a meeting with Tsui Hark, but is hoping for another chance.

If he does fulfill his dream of working with those Hong Kong filmmakers, though, it looks like 'chopsocky' films are out. "I like the crime dramas more than the martial arts films. There based on a lot more reality." He pauses, then laughs that "Besides, I can't do any of that kicking stuff, I'm too old."