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Interview with Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel at table with bible

HBO

Tommy Lee Jones said he called you up and asked you to read the play - was it as simple as that?

Samuel L. Jackson

It was not much more than that. He called me and said, "Look, I'm doing this thing. It's a two-man play and I'd like for you to do it. So I'm going to send it to you, read it and tell me what you think." I could have told him right then and there I would have done it. I like working with TL. I like him. I totally respect his choices intellectually so I was sure that it was something I'd want to do.

HBO

What about the play interested you?

Samuel L. Jackson

The amount of dialogue! [Laughs] First of all, the challenge of learning that much dialogue. Secondly, the challenge of learning dialogue that intellectually stimulating, the intensity of it, the level of responsibility that my character has in the beginning to keep that conversation going. And not having done a play in 15 years, I wanted to see if I could still exercise that muscle.

HBO

Does having worked with Tommy Lee Jones before give you a shorthand with each other?

Samuel L. Jackson

It makes things easier because we can talk about the things that bother us without feeling self-conscious. I could understand what he wanted to do and what he was trying to accomplish in terms of movement of the camera, or the juxtaposition of the characters -- who's in the dominant position and who's in the submissive position, how much work he wanted to accomplish per day. And it's just easier when the person you're working with is someone you can laugh with.

HBO

Did having him direct you change your relationship?

Samuel L. Jackson

Not really. You learn that theater is a dictatorship and you do what the dictator wants.

HBO

What wisdom did Cormac McCarthy offer on set?

Samuel L. Jackson

Every now and then I would have questions about my character's intent or what he was trying to say. I'd look up a word and it'd have three different meanings. [Laughs] And I would be like, "So which meaning am I using when I'm referencing this word in this particular phrase?" Because it totally changes the dynamic of what you're trying to say or what you're trying to accomplish. So fortunately Cormac was there to answer that.

HBO

Set designer Merideth Boswell mentioned you had a distinct sense of who Black was, and what he would or wouldn't have in his home. How do you know what's right?

Samuel L. Jackson

I usually do biographies for my characters, because it is make-believe. I have the freedom to figure out who they are, how much education they have, what kind of parents they have, how much time he spent in jail, and for what? Did he have military experience? He talks about the kids he had -- Cormac gives a certain amount of information, I just have to fill in the blanks. They aren't things I have to talk about or things that the audience will find out, but they're important things that make me a whole character. I might be the only person that knows where that sofa came from. Did I salvage it myself, did I get people to help me drag it up? When I was doing theater, you were taught, "Where are you coming from?" "What's your intention when you get here?" and "Where are you going when you leave?" whether the audience knows it or not.

People ask me, "Where do you think White went when he left the apartment?" Black thinks he went to kill himself. Me personally, I haven't given it thought yet. But Black knows he's going to commit suicide and he's devastated.

HBO

Is there anything Black could have said to keep White from leaving?

Samuel L. Jackson

I doubt it. White spends a lot of time trying not to hurt Black's feelings. He spends the majority of the time saying, "You don't want me to tell you all this." But Black's pushing buttons, until finally, White lowers the boom. He's so intellectually superior, he knows how to make what he's saying as scathing and as hurtful as it could possibly be. And Black has no idea of the depths of his despair. There's nothing he can do but unlock the door.

HBO

To use a phrase from the play, has anyone ever "put you in the trick bag"?

Samuel L. Jackson

[Laughs] People lie to you about things all the time.

The Sunset Limited

HBO Films

Samuel L. Jackson

as Black