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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Samuel L. Jackson on ‘Lakeview Terrace’

Neil LaBute’s suburban thriller Lakeview Terrace [read my review here] opens in the U.K. today (it arrives on DVD in the U.S. on January 27, 2009). It’s about a black cop, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who menaces and harrasses his new neighbors, a mixed-race couple played by Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson.

Just before the film opened in the U.S. a few months ago, I attended roundtable interviews with the film’s three stars; roundtables are where a group of journalists literally sit around a table with the talent and talk about whatever the project of the moment is. Roundtables aren’t as focused as one-on-one interviews can be, because everyone at the table has their own agenda and the questions for the talent tend to be all over the place, but they’re a lot more intimate than a press conference.

I was excited by the prospect of talking to Wilson and Washington, because I’m a big fan of both of them, but I had no idea that Jackson would be attending the press day until I arrived on the scene — I’d been told he would not be available to the press on that day. So it was a delightful surprise to find him on the scene. I’m happy to report that he is not at all like most of his characters: oh sure, he’s intense, but in a much more playful, thoughtful way than we usually see from him onscreen.

There are no spoilers in the following, so it’s fine to read before you see the film. But some of what Jackson said made me reconsider the film, so it’s worth reading after you see it, too.

(I’ll have more from Washington and Wilson later today.)
[The following are all Jackson’s own words, on his character, Abel, and on playing a villain]

I think Abel is comfortable with who he is and where he is. He’s trying to figure out how to navigate raising his teenage daughter. Like most teenage daughters, number one thing they say most is, “That’s so unfair,” ’cause you’re saying “no” to ’em all the time. And the important thing is letting them know life is unfair but there’s things you can do to navigate…

Not that he’s okay with himself. I think his opinion, mostly, is informed by what he does day to day. He’s a street cop. He’s dealing with bad people, mostly, and because of that, I think he pretty much thinks the worst of the majority of people that he encounters. He thinks the worst first. And he does have a specific idea about what he wants his community to be; he has a specific idea about how he wants to raise those kids… and this young couple moving in…

It’s not just a black/white thing immediately. This is an influence he’s not sure he wants his kids to have. He sees this young woman at her home, working from home, and she’s kinda cute and kinda brassy… so he doesn’t know if he wants his daughter to be influenced by that. So he’s definitely got his own opinion about who they are before he starts to do those things…

I was hoping to craft the character so that, at times, you could look at him and hear him speak and watch him react to people, and say to yourself, “Well, I can get how he feels about that… Yeah. I see.” And it makes you feel kinda creepy, because you go, “Oooh, wow! Maybe this guy’s not so–” Abel smiles a lot and says bad things.

There was a time that they could have diffused the situation as easily as he could have. The lights were there before they moved there. Buy some curtains. Your affluent couple next door, guy works at Whole Foods or wherever he works, you can afford curtains: buy some! When Abel goes to the housewarming, he’s kind of open, but then, all of a sudden, it’s “we’re better educated and you’re a cop,” and they talk down to him. So, you kind of feel bad for him for a moment, but he defends himself as best he can in that situation. So, there are ways that they all could have done something different that just didn’t happen. But once a line is crossed… he kind of loses it and unravels.

Abel is very different from who I am. I’m always looking for specific acting challenges, or trying to explore some emotions that I don’t have, or being in situations that are foreign to what I’m doing right now in my life. And Abel was pretty much as far away from me as I can get right there, so it was fun.

In the original script, Abel is an out-and-out kind of crazed racist mad dog. His wife is still alive and he’s sort of abusive. And that’s too easy. It’s too easy to hate him. Fortunately, in the rehearsal period we were able to craft some other stuff, get rid of the wife, put him in there by himself, raising his kids. We veiled some of the things that he says, trying to figure out why he’s angry with these people.

The hardest thing for me to do was to hit that little girl, because I never hit my daughter. You just don’t do that.

I’ve been around enough cops, doing enough cop movies. I’ve been trained by several different law enforcement agencies to do different movies, and I’ve done ride-arounds with cops, and with a crash unit, when we were doing 187, with the gang units. So I understood their attitudes about people.

I was just glad I was working with somebody like [writer-director] Neil [LaBute], because he was a playwright and he is a really good director who understands character and character development. The relationships between the characters were a lot more important to him than, you know, laying track, and getting gorgeous camera shots that would “do all the work for you.” It’s really refreshing to be able to work with somebody who pays more attention to what’s going on between the characters in the story than the “composition of the frame.”

Everything’s rehearsed chaos. See, I’m from the theater. I’m used to going to rehearsal eight hours a day for four and a half, five weeks. There are actors who don’t like to rehearse — they want to be spontaneous. Hollywood’s also the first place I ever met an actor who’d never done a play!

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