'Django Unchained': Samuel L. Jackson on playing 'the most hateful negro in cinematic history'

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Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 4.30.12 PMENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you just told Tarantino ‘Let’s do it.’ No hesitation signing on as this collaborator slave?
SAMUEL L. JACKSON: I had no trepidation. I liked the fact that Stephen calculates, and he’s interesting. And Quentin put a lot of great things in his mouth to say. He’s the dialogue king. So I loved doing it. Inhabiting that space is kinda cool.

Stephen is a thoroughly contemptible villain, and — to me — even worse than DiCaprio’s Candie because of the hypocrisy of his character. Do you feel that way?
Calvin is a reflection of Stephen. Stephen raised him. So Calvin is a total reflection of who he is. I like to think of him as the Dick Cheney of Candie Land. He’s the power behind the throne. Calvin is not the brightest candle in the room.

When we first meet Stephen, he comes out all stooped, walking with a cane to greet DiCaprio and meet Foxx and Waltz’s characters, who are undercover trying to infiltrate the plantation. Stephen is spouting these “yessah, nossah” kind of minstrel lines, very much a horrible stereotype. Then we see later — there’s a lot more to him than we realize.
[Laughs] It’s like Christoph tells Jamie in the movie: ‘You’re playing a character.’ Quentin has that theme running through his movies. That’s actually a similar thing I say to John [Travolta] in Pulp Fiction: ‘Let’s get into character,’ before we knock on the door and kill those guys. Quentin has this thing about people putting on faces within faces. It’s kind of great to be able to do that.

How does somebody like Stephen happen? He’s a black man, and he’s seeing his people not just enslaved but tortured and killed for sport. He’s doing more than just collaborating to survive.
Stephen happens because he’s the product of his environment. His father did that job, his grandfather did that job. And he inherits the job of taking care of the Candie family. He’s never been in the field, never been touched. Nobody has ever laid a hand on him.

He’s really the functioning boss.

Yeah, he essentially takes care of the house, and all the property. Calvin’s major concern is just to go out and stage Mandingo fights. Stephen, when you see him, he’s sitting there writing checks. So he’s the guy who makes that plantation run. Within those 75 miles that are Candieland, he understands he’s king. He can do anything he wants to there. Even the white people obey him. But if he steps foot outside that 75 miles, he’s just another slave in the South. He’s smart enough to know he needs to keep up his own kingdom. The institution of slavery works for him.

What do you think the other slaves feel about him?
It’s a whole kind of family vibe. Even the slave women in the house have a better life than the people working out in the field. Women who cook are the granddaughters or daughters of women who have been cooking there all their lives. The girls who serve the tables were taught the serving ceremony by their mothers or grandmothers. The only itinerant or transient people on that plantation are the people in the field. They come and go. They get whipped, they get beaten, and they die. And the Mandingos, who fight and die. But the life inside that house is an ongoing thing that always was and always will be.

This hypocrisy is just ingrained in him then?
He’s been born into the idea that he’s not property. He’s not like the rest of those people around there. And he is smarter than everybody else around him. But he puts on this face to make them think he’s stooped and bent and shaky and old – and he’s none of those things.

Next Page: Jackson on using blackface make-up to show Stephen’s family had no white bloodlines …

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