What happens when Samuel L Jackson (Coach Carter, Pulp Fiction) and Eugene Levy (American Pie, Bringing Down the House) team up for a comedic action film? Combine a case of mistake identity with an undercover cop scenario and you’ve got your answer: The Man. The flick plays out like an episode of The Odd Couple in a cop car.
Derrick Vann (Jackson), a foul-mouthed, untrusting federal agent, has 24 hours to uncover the illegal arms dealers who killed his partner. Andy Fiddler (Levy), a trusting dental supply salesman from out-of-town, gets thrust into the operation when the bad guys mistake him for a stolen arms dealer.
Listening to the chatter of other reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel, it’s clear that everyone has preconceived notions of what to expect before the actors have walked through the door. Cinematic track records would have you believe that celebrity personalities are similar to their on-screen personas. Looks can be deceiving and type-casting is every star’s nightmare. But is the truth here? Let’s find out. Up first was Eugene Levy…
What did you enjoy about playing this character?
Eugene Levy: “The character falls into the tribe of characters that I love to do. I love to play real people… good people that I know the audience will get behind. It’s the good people in the world that I gravitate to. Most good people get pushed around in their jobs or in their life. They’re never one to butt in front of other people in a line, but other people might butt in front of them. This is the real world. When I saw the script, I saw the character and knew I could do the character. It’s a relationship movie, which is also what I love to do. That’s what attracts me to projects. I don’t get the great storyline, action, mystery scripts; I get comedies. And relationship comedies are what I do. It’s what attracted me to American Pie. It’s the guy and his son. They had a great relationship and it was a great character. And doing [a relationship comedy] with Sam was exciting. I’ve done a lot of comedies with a lot of comedy people. My peers. I’ve never worked with anybody of the kind of dramatic caliber of movie actor that Sam is. It was a little bit intimidating for the first day. Or two… Or the first week. Other than that, it was a joy.”
Had you met ever met your co-star before working together?
Levy: “I met him for the first time on The Today Show. He came out of an elevator. I was promoting A Mighty Wind and he was promoting something else. He said, “I hear we’re going to be working together.” I said, “On what?” He said, ‘The Man.’ I hadn’t heard his name mentioned before. I made a few calls and found out he had the script and was interested. That was it. What I remember from that was that he was a friendly, animated kind of guy. His screen image is a hard boiled intimidating kind of character. That’s what I remembered thinking, ‘Boy, this guy seems like a normal guy.'”
Do you want to continue doing more dramatic roles?
Levy: “I’m a character actor and that’s what I do. All the roles that I’ve had have been mainly support roles, because character actors don’t usually get the lead in movies. It rarely happens. This was a case where it was a funny role teamed up with another actor. It’s a great teaming. And the role was a bigger role. It wasn’t so much that it was a co-starring role. This is not a new direction. I’m not saying, ‘No. I’m only now co-starring.’ It just happens it’s a co-starring role. If there’s an interesting role that comes up as a great support role in a decent picture, then I’ll do that. I could keep doing it. I love coming in for quick pops. You come in. You score. You leave. You’re on the golf course. It’s great. You don’t carry any story. No exposition; [though] I’m ready for something a little meatier.”
You are also revisting the whole dental field.
Levy: “That is true. I did play a dentist in Waiting for Guffman. It is definitely in the same field…I wrote the speech at the conference. In the original script, when it got to that scene, it was, ‘Thank you very much. Good night.’ Literally. I just thought, ‘He keeps talking about this speech. The keynote address is the big thing in his life and this is too important to say, “Thank you. Good night.” I think we have to see and hear him doing what he does.’ So I got together with my dentist and we worked through a few things. I thought it was funny that teeth bleaching would be the high point in his speech.”
So they let you improvise during your scenes?
Levy: “It wasn’t so much improvised. The speech was written. Any changes that I made to my line, I asked if I could make them, which I do in every movie. So far everybody’s been gracious enough to say yes. The only improvising I do is in the movies I do with Chris Guest, which is what we do. Those are the rules. To improvise in a movie with other people, when they’re following a script, everybody has to know what’s going on. I think a line or two we might change. Certainly, I do. But I wouldn’t call it improvising. I’d call it fudging the lines.”
You’ve said Sam Jackson is a “one-take” kind of guy. What’s your process?
Levy: “I’m a one-take kind of guy, except I don’t do it in one take. We both approach our work the same way. I’ve never considered myself a comedian. I’m a comedic actor. I approach my work the way an actor approaches their work. The only difference is that I do comedy, and my job is to make things funny. My style makes things sound like they’re improvisational and happening right then and there. I act the way I talk. It probably comes from starting out in Second City, improvisational theater. I can go from take to take. I’ll ask for another take. Sam never asks for another take because he knows what he’s doing. He gives you what he thinks is the best take, and he does it on the first take. And me? I may not get it on the first take. There may be something I don’t like, or I’ll miss a word. We’ll keep going.”
What’s someone’s first reaction to you in public?
Levy: “Oddly enough. The thing I get the most is, ‘Hey, Eugene.’ You know what I mean? There’s no catch phrase like: ‘What a week I’m having.’ People will actually just say, ‘Hey, Eugene’ or ‘Hi, Eugene.’ It’s a great thing; they feel that comfortable calling me by my first name. It’s not being forward. It depends how you say it. I think they can’t help themselves. They think they know me. I find it gratifying.”
What actor would you like to work with next?
Levy: “I never thought I’d be working with Sam .That’s about as good as it gets. Ben Stiller has worked with Robert De Niro. I think I’ve had my taste. Certain comedians work with certain actors; like Adam Sandler worked with Jack Nicholson. I got to work with Sam. I can say I did it. I had my shot. I’d love to do something with De Niro or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino. Those are guys I grew up watching. That would be wonderful. Now that I’ve gotten a taste working with a bona fide movie star, I think I’d be more prepared to go head to head with some of the big boys.”
Finally, what’s it like to have Samuel L. Jackson as your bitch?
Levy: “Oh boy. Let me tell ya… Did I enjoy smacking him across the pooper! I’m the only guy in the history of movies who’s ever slapped Sam on-screen and lived to tell about it. Yeah, he’s a good guy. He is my bitch, and I love that bitch.”
Loaded questions aside, Levy proves to be more serious than his on-screen character. And his descriptions of Jackson lead you to wonder, “Is Mr. Jackson truly intimidating or is it merely the public’s perception?” There’s tension in the air as veteran actor Jackson enters the suite. One reporter jokes, “You are intimidating,” to which Jackson responds, “Nah,” with a laugh.
What was your first reaction when you found out you were going to be working with Eugene Levy?
Samuel L. Jackson: “I was okay with him. When I’d read the script, that’s who I’d seen in my mind. When I ran into him, I said to him, ‘I read the script. You’d be great.’ He had no idea what I was talking about. Then, we saw each other again in London. He’d read it and was enthused about it.”
How much of your character is you?
Jackson: “Let’s see… he’s black. I’m black. He’s tall. I’m tall. He has scars. He has earrings. He has tattoos. I don’t have any of those things. He doesn’t trust anybody. I trust most people. Not producers. I don’t run around shooting people. Much. I only shoot two people a year. Maybe. Road rage, you know.”
How did you strike a balance between your character being untrusting, but still likeable?
Jackson: “I don’t know that those two things go together. Just because people don’t trust people doesn’t mean [they] don’t like them. There are lots of paranoid people in the world. You figure out their personalities and make them work. Derrick can be abrasive. Just because you don’t trust people doesn’t mean you walk around pushing people away. You just let people do what they do and look at them and give them enough rope until they do what you thought they were going to do… which is screw you over. That’s him. You maintain the balance that way. It’s interesting that these two guys have to spend so much time in the car together because that’s where the information comes out; how they feel about each other, how they feel about the world. Vann has a guy talking to him about stuff that nobody’s talked to him about before. Nobody’s talked to him about his family. His wife doesn’t even talk to him about their relationship anymore. This guy’s talking to him about his family. He sees how this guy talks to his kids and he envies that. They start to make profound changes on each other even though they’re very subtle. When Vann finally lets him go, he’s in that space of needing to evaluate who he is. He trusts this guy, and all of a sudden, he thinks he’s [internal affairs]. ‘Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him.’ By the end of the film, he’s profoundly changed by this guy. Andy is changed in a way too. He’s done some stuff that he never in his wildest dreams did he expect to do. I don’t know if he can even go home and tell his wife how it played out.”
What did you [and Eugene] learn from each other during the filming process?
Jackson: “We both come from the same place. Eugene did most of his work in SCTV and ensemble situations. I’d done all this theater work before I got into movies and ensemble situations. We both learned how to develop characters and interact with other people in a unique and economic sort of way. We both try to play the reality of a moment and don’t try to impose humor on something where it doesn’t belong. Contrary to what other people seem to think sometimes.”
In the film, Agent Vann shoots Andy in the butt. He gives him hot sauce to sooth the wound. Will you ever see hot sauce in the same light again?
Jackson: “Sure I will. Interestingly enough, we’re not sure if that’s true or not. According to the way things always worked in my house, if it stung, it worked. If my mom put anything on us and it created as much pain as the injury then it [was] probably going to work.”
You’ve done so much in your career. What is left for you to do?
Jackson: “A lot. What’s left? There are tons of stories out there. I read a lot of scripts on a weekly basis. I’m looking for stories to tell and stories that I hope will be interesting to an audience. Maybe I can work for at least two more years. Hopefully.”
You seemed to be enjoying Mace Windu. Were you sad to see Star Wars end?
Jackson: “Who said it’s over? If you go into a comic book store, there are tons of Star Wars stories on the stand. There are lots of different stories to tell. Maybe George won’t tell them. Maybe some kid, who’s a Star Wars fan that’s planning to go to film school, will call Lucas and say, ‘I’d like to make a Star Wars film.’ Then, they’ll make one. There are a lot of little kids, amazingly enough, that see me. Their parents go, ‘That’s Mace Windu.’ They go, ‘Oh, right. Well, you know, Jedi can fall from really high places. So you’re probably not dead, but you only have one hand now.’ That’s good. There’s hope.”
One of the films you’re working on now is Pacific Air 121—
Jackson: “[It’s called] Snakes on a Plane, man! We’re totally changing that [name] back. That’s the only reason I took the job because I read the title. You either want to see that or you don’t…Some of [the snakes] are aggressive. Some of them are cool. They’re interesting to watch and interact with. It depends on what kind of snake it is. One day it took four guys to bring in this 350 pound Burmese python. We were all kind of like, “Where’s that going?” I watched an Albino Cobra strike airplane seats the other day. I watched it from another studio. It’s actually been a fun shoot…And actually I have an animated series that’s going to be on Spike Television next year called Afrosamurai. It’s being done right now. Afrosamurai is trying to find a guy who killed his father, who was Number One. The guy who killed his father has the Number One [scarf], which is this thing you wear around your head. Only number two can challenge number one. On the way to Number One, he has to fight all these people. So, I am Number Two.
What reaction do you typically get from the general public when someone sees you?
Jackson: “‘You ‘da man.’ It’s incredible: ‘Sammmy… you ‘da man!’ That’s the typical one. Then there are people who want me to quote [a character] and then there are people who ask what’s in the briefcase [from Pulp Fiction]. Little kids go, ‘May the force be with you.’ I have a whole new fan base. Totally cool.”
How do you answer the briefcase question?
Jackson: I say, ‘I don’t know. I never looked in it.’ They go, ‘Really?’ John looked in it. Tim Roth looked in it. I didn’t. When Tim Roth says, ‘Is that what I think it is?’ I say, ‘Mmm hmmm.’ That’s the most I ever reference that briefcase.”