Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing actor of all time. I know, I was surprised too. According to the Guinness Book of World Records he has appeared in more than 100 films, that have in total grossed over 7.42 billion. Of the few actors, specifically African American actors who I would think to achieve this —Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishbourne, Will Smith, or even Sidney Poitier— Sam L, the star of such films as Snakes on A Plane, The Spirit, Lake View Terrace, would not have been my first guess. Though Jackson has stared in cult classics and hard-hitting blockbusters like Die Hard: With A Vengeance, Jurassic Park, three of the prequel Star Wars movies, most of his films lack the artistic quality to be pinnacles of great cinema —excluding Pulp Fiction, Jungle Fever, Losing Isaiah, Eve’s Bayou and a few choice others. If I were to flimsily guess how he became the highest grossing actor, I would use the simplicity of his films. Most of his films don’t challenge audience members in any profound way and many don’t really say much of anything. I mean the overall message of Deep Blue Sea —I’m postulating— is don’t ever stand too close to a water tank when a ravenous man-manipulated highly-intelligent shark is on the loose. Yet assuming Jackson succeeded because his films were easy didn’t sit right with me. I felt as though I was robbing the man of his talent, and being, to my chagrin, a snob.
So, I started an investigation —no this was not a form of procrastination to distract myself from writing, I swear. Over the course of two weeks, I watched and re-watched as many films starring Sam L. as I could. Most compelling of his performances, the thread that united his roles, was his voice. What other actor could possibly make the line “I have had it with these motherf***ing snakes on this motherf***ing plane!” a catch phrase? A line that people parody and quote for months, even years after the film has been forgotten? First time I watched Snakes on a Plane I wondered why, who, for what purpose would someone produce, direct and create this film. And now, check on youtube the twenty second video of Samuel L. Jackson reciting that line has over two million hits and syntactically the line’s not even as compelling as “I do not like them Sam I Am.”
Except that’s perhaps where his success lies, not in what he says, but how he says it. Sam L. adds a cadence and bravado to each and every script. In one of his skits spoofing Samuel Adams’ beer commercials, Dave Chappelle infamously retorts, while pretending to be Samuel L. Jackson, “No I can’t stop yelling cause that’s how I talk.” And it’s true. Jackson does speak at an octave higher than every one else and it’s amazing still that he hasn’t lost his voice after all those films. Sure his roles don’t vary much. But what does that even matter when you consider his voice: often smooth, sharp, indignant. With it he oddly demands respect.
As an apprentice writer one reads over and over in craft books how important it is for writers to “Find their voice,” and what exactly “voice” means is part of that challenge. To sum up lazily the books I’ve read: “writer’s voice” is a combination of diction, syntax, punctuation, and tone. But honestly, to me, it seems more like a feeling, intentionally ill-defined because all that matters is once you’ve found it —and you’ll know when you’ve found it— hold onto it as if it is more precious than all your adult teeth.
What’s always intrigued me more though, and what’s beginning to intrigue me of Sam L’s performances, is how to find the characters’ voice. Honestly, if my character’s voice doesn’t sound that great or unique I’m unable to write on, even if I have a great potential scenario. As a writer, I’m constantly perplexed by the challenge of finding a way to create a character, who regardless of what he says, still captures his readers’ imagination. Basically, I want my characters to have a cool, powerful voice like Samuel L. Jackson. How can I, as a writer, produce the literary equivalent of a line like “Yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell!”
There are writers who immediately come to mind as having created powerful voices: Junot Diaz’s ability to literarily imagine on the page young Dominican-American men in Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao still amazes me; Zora Neale Hurston’s iconic novel Their Eyes Were Watching captures the voices of black Americans in the early 1900s astutely, the dialect resonating with heart-ache. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita makes one marvel at how a voice can be so erudite, and yet still so perilously misguided. And who as a young adolescent didn’t love Holden Caulfield? Enough said. Of course, these characters are usually saying a lot more than most the roles Sam L. is most known for, and though I want to capture the strength of Sam L.’s voice it’s not like I want to write the novel version of Formula 51… I just have to admit there is work that goes into perfecting a character’s voice and Samuel L. Jackson has accomplished something that’s actually quite difficult.
Of course, I realize that Samuel L. Jackson is an actor and I am a writer and that his medium plays a large part. Film allows for sound and visual, which together make it a lot easier for viewers to identify and attach themselves to a character’s voice; it takes a lot more work to imagine a character’s voice when the work is written. I know I’m better off rereading those aforementioned novels, acting as a cultural aficionado and condemning Jackson’s work. But I can’t help it. I’m truly beginning to believe maybe watching his films and listening to his voice, could help me tap into the power of one’s voice; that his voice will help me understand how to create the same kind of daring, bravado in the characters of my first-person narratives. It’s possible. Isn’t it?
I know what you’re thinking. I’ve just written a blog post attempting to convince you and myself that watching eight hours of Samuel L. Jackson films a day is a productive worthwhile activity. Yeah, I’m surprised at myself too.