THE OSCAR NOMINATED ACTOR CONTINUES AN ELECTRIC 50 YEAR CAREER BY REPRISING THE ROLE OF ELIJAH PRICE IN M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN’S GLASS A PART THAT EXPLORES, HE EXPLAINS, THE DUALITY OF GOOD AND EVIL
BY JOEL KELLER
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a quarter century since Samuel L. Jackson came to most filmgoer’s attention as the fiery, Bible verse quoting hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Who can forget how intimidating it was to hear the bearded, Jheri curled Jules bite into a frightened target’s fast food meal and exclaim, “This is a tasty burger!” No one before or since has made such a mundane statement so frightening.
What’s almost as also hard to believe is that this actor’s breakout role actually came twenty five years into a career that consisted of stage work and bit parts in movies like Coming to America and Ragtime and TV series like Spenser: For Hire and Law & Order.
“Every year a certain group of people come of age to see Pulp Fiction and realize that it’s the coolest movie that’s ever been made,” Jackson said during a Build Series panel in 2017.
Since that groundbreaking 1994 film, Jackson, already considered a tireless actor journeyman, worked even harder and in higher profile roles. He’s had significant parts in movie franchises like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Marvel Cinematic Universe productions his default (and highly bankable) aspect a certain glowering, ill-tempered unpredictability.
One of the big name directors Jackson has worked with along the way is M. Night Shyamalan; in the 2000 movie Unbreakable, he played Elijah Price, a comic art dealer with brittle bone disease. He is convinced that there must be someone out there who is the direct opposite, and after orchestrating a rail accident, finds that person in David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Elijah, who comes to be known as “Mr. Glass,” trains Dunn to utilize his newfound superpowers.
Nineteen years later, Jackson reprises the role in Glass, the third in a Shyamalan film trilogy that includes Unbreakable and 2017’s Split (starring James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb). In the new film, Mr. Glass, in full villain mode, orchestrates a battle of good and evil between Dunn and The Beast, one of many identities that reside inside Crumb, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
“It’s essentially new in a way, because it’s been so much time between when we last saw him and when we see him now, and what his trip has been,” Jackson said of Elijah in a Universal Pictures interview. “To be in that particular place and that mindset for so many years, having to live like the way he has…I guess there’s a way to get lost in that.”
At the beginning of the film, Elijah is in a bad way.
“He has been living with pain, relentless, chronic pain since his birth,” Charlayne Woodard, who portrays Price’s mother, offered in another studio interview. “This has affected him in extraordinary ways. I won’t say he’s evil. I won’t say he’s good, because aren’t we all both, really?”
But, as Jackson explained, “He’s pretty much the same guy. Elijah is still very calculating, he’s still very watchful, he’s still strong. He has just been isolated, which has given him a lot more time to formulate opinions, formulate plans, and to dig in to what he believes even further.”
When Dunn and Crumb get together, though, Elijah gains strength. One hope in the film, according to Shyamalan, is that while Elijah isn’t really doing anything different, how the audience perceives him will change.
“The idea of having a marginalized character that is your hero, who is the title character, is very satisfying for the audience,” he explained. “You really want him to succeed, even if some of the things he’s doing are dastardly.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Jackson’s career is full of roles like this people you root for despite the fact that they’re doing things that are decidedly less than kosher. And this stage and screen personality started long before he played Jules in Pulp Fiction; Spike Lee cast him as Gator in 1991’s Jungle Fever the addicted brother of Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) and a man constantly asking for money…even ransacking his parents’ house looking for cash.
Lee was one of the most instrumental people in Jackson’s career; the two met when the famed director was still a film student, and he cast Jackson in just about every movie he made in the 1980s and early ’90s, culminating with the role of Gator. Before that, Jackson, who started acting fifty years ago while he was attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, performed in politically charged shows with his soon to be wife LaTanya, then moved onto a mainstream career.
One of the things that was holding him back, however, was being a high functioning crack addict.
“I had a very good theatre reputation. Granted, I was a drug addict and I was out of my mind a lot of the time, but I had a good reputation,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “I was doing Pulitzer Prize winning plays. I was working with people who made me better, who challenged me. So I was doing things the right way. It was just that one thing that was in the way…my addiction,” adding that he exited rehab shortly before starting Jungle Fever. “Once that was out of the way, it was boom! The door blew wide open.”
Tarantino noted that Jackson’s performance as Gator is one of the reasons why he cast the actor as Jules in Pulp Fiction, and the two of them have worked together a number of times since, the latest in 2015’s The Hateful Eight. Another person he has worked with frequently is Willis, who not only costarred with Jackson in Pulp Fiction and Unbreakable, but also the 1995 smash hit Die Hard with a Vengeance.
“I always enjoy working with Bruce,” said Jackson during the Glass studio interview. “He’s a very familiar and easy character for me to fall into, and to fall into patterns with through the different films we’ve done. We have an ease of working together where you just fall right into it.”
Coming up for the 70 year old is a range of new projects, including two more turns as the eye patched S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Nick Fury in Captain Marvel and Spider Man: Far From Home. June will bring his turn as John Shaft II in Son of Shaft, co-written by ABC series Blackish creator Kenya Barris. He is also in production on The Banker, wherein he and Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War, Ant Man) play bankers in the 1950s who recruit a white man to front their business in order for people to work with it, while they pose as a janitor and chauffeur. The film is based is based on the true story of entrepreneurs Joe Morris and Bernard Garrett.