Samuel L Jackson Discusses "Black Snake Moan"

Samuel L Jackson in "Black Snake Moan.". © Paramount Vantage

Black Snake Moan, the latest feature film from writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), is a Southern melodrama starring Samuel L Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake. Jackson plays a former blues man named Lazarus who feels beaten down after his wife leaves him. His life takes a strange and interesting turn when sex addict Rae (Christina Ricci) winds up in front of his house in bad condition.

Instead of transporting her to the hospital, Lazarus decides to chain her up and try and cure her himself.

The Appeal of Playing Lazarus: Jackson loved this particular character because of his complexities and because of how he felt he knew this sort of man. “He seems to be an amalgam of my grandfather and his brother’s. The guys that I worked with in the fields and talked to, and people of the earth who drank hard when it was time to drink. They loved the blues and they sang and told stories and they did all this stuff. It's just an interesting way for me to pay homage to some men that developed me in that particular way that made me want to be a storyteller.”

Getting Into Character: “I'm an actor who shows up to rehearsal with a lot of stuff. I sit down and work out things about characters, and put together biographies and histories and all kinds of stuff. So by the time we got there and started the rehearsal period, it was very smart of [Craig Brewer] to just sit and watch me and Christina just kind of go though what we were going through and figure out how our relationship worked.

[Christina’s character’s] never met anybody like me that she couldn't sexually manipulate, and I've never met anybody or understood what a sexual dysfunction like that was. I guess a country guy who's a farmer who was playing the blues for a while or been in clubs, you've probably ran into some pretty wild women in his day.

But when people talk about nymphomania… I mean people talk about it, but how many people know that they've actually run into a real nymphomaniac or a sexually dysfunctional person? You don't know how to handle it or exactly what it is. To him she was just somebody who was possessed by the devil or evil. The only thing he knew to do is exorcise it.”

Some actors say they know a part’s right for them when the role scares them. Fear doesn’t have anything to do with how or why Jackson chooses his projects. “Fear? No, I'm always anxious to jump in there and kind of figure out who a person is, where they're coming from, and what they're doing. It’s part of the challenge and part of the, I guess, fascination of exploring the human condition for me to be able to safely walk into spaces that are dangerous and know it's a controlled environment, and not have to worry about being damaged by it in the end.

But finding or looking back and saying, ‘Have I seen anybody like that? Have I talked to anybody like this? What was their process or how did I perceive their process to be?’ Because it's all make believe. You make up anything you can to make the character fuller for me. Lazarus had a lot of stuff going on.

He led a pretty wild life and gave that life up when he got married and became this farmer, which was not what that woman married. She married somebody who had a high-life, who's kind of lively. He bored her and she left and he had no understanding of that whatsoever because he viewed himself as a great provider, kept the house warm and kept you fed, but she needed more. He had no conception of that and didn’t understand that his music was what made him a person who was alive in a real sense. Once he got back to it, he got back to what made him feel better about himself.”

A Voice for the Blues: It’s actually Jackson singing in Black Snake Moan and his voice fits the genre. “Fortunately Mississippi Delta blues doesn’t necessarily need a silky smooth Luther Vandross type of voice. It's more about making sure the emotion of what you're saying is coming out then being a great singer.

It helped a lot.”

On the Critical Choice His Character Makes: Lazarus makes the decision to try and help Christina Ricci’s character, Rae, rather than turn her over to a hospital. “Interestingly enough I understand the choice just because I understand the rural South,” explained Jackson. “I spent a lot of time in it when I was a kid and my grandfather's brothers were farmers. I spent time on the farm when I was a kid with them walking through the fields, and working and hanging out. But there are instances where you find yourself in a circumstance if you put her in your truck and take her to the hospital, there a lot more questions than if you keep her at your house and try to nurse her back to health. Hopefully, she'll walk away.

That choice that he made of keeping her there is [because he’s] sort of out of his mind in another kind of way at that point. He'd lost his woman that he had no control over and all of a sudden he has a woman and she's kind of out of control in that interesting sort of immoral way he pictured his wife. And he wanted to control her and fix her in another way. The only way he could think to do that was to put this chain on her and still give her some amount of freedom, and kind of pump this biblical medicine into her.

It's interesting… It's not in the film, but we shot a lot of stuff where he's reading the Bible to her at different times. Like when he puts her in the tub for the first time, he's sitting there on the floor and starts to read to her. She's in the tub.

Then there's times when she's laying on the sofa and he's reading to her. There are times when she's eating and he's reading to her, but all that stuff is gone for some reason - but the time frame seems kind of off. I don't know how you see it, but in our cinematic minds when we shot it she was at his house for over a month. Now it looks like she's there a couple of days.”

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Samuel L Jackson on Learning to Play the Guitar for Black Snake Moan: “It was one of the things that I spent most of the time doing. Fortunately I had maybe 6 or 7 months to work that out and had a really good guitar teacher in the beginning, Felicia Collins in NY, while I was shooting Freedomland. Then when I left to do Snakes on A Plane in Vancouver, the prop master was an awesome guitarist so he spent a lot of time with me in my trailer every day.

It was something I did daily, constantly, for 6 or 7 months until I was comfortable doing it. It tactually became something I looked forward to doing every day.

By the time we got to the film, I was pretty fast out on it. I actually taught myself to play the songs in a very different way than Scott played them, because I’d watched him play them and I worked it out like this. He watched me play and said, ‘I never thought of doing it that way.’ Then I talked to all these old blues guys when we were doing our little road tour and most of them had taught themselves to play after 30. They all had very different playing styles, so I created something that was actually my own in terms of how I learned how to play and worked my way though the songs. According to Big Jack, that's really cool.”

Acting with an Almost Naked Woman on a Big Chain: Christina Ricci was attached to a 30-40 foot long chain during filming.

Jackson says Ricci insisted on using a real chain and it was long enough for her to go all over house. Commenting on working opposite Ricci under those circumstances, Jackson said, “Well, you know after about I guess an hour of looking at Christina in those little panties and that shirt, you kind of get over it.

That's what she had on every day and she didn't put on a robe between shots and hide herself. She just kind of hung out, so you get over it pretty quickly.

The great thing was that during the rehearsal period, Christina and I developed this really interesting bond, and interesting trust, that kind of allowed her to kind of go anywhere she wanted to. I'd support her to the point where as an actor or as Samuel L Jackson I became another sort of Lazarus figure.

Is Black Snake Moan a Misogynist Film? “I don't know. There are a lot of films you can call misogynist. I think that Christina’s performance is one of the bravest performances I've seen that a young actress would take. I'm sure there are a lot of young women who wouldn’t touch this thing. I saw audition tapes for maybe 3 or 4 different women. Like I said, we talk about sexual dysfunction and we talk about nymphomania, but we never see what that process is. It's kind of interesting watching whatever this thing is that internally takes her over. The way she succumbs to it all the time rather than fighting it. She says, ‘No, no, no,’ but she always kind of lets go and lets it happen, and not realizing that her power is in resisting it.

I don't know. It's titillating. It's not often you see a young actress in that state of undress 2/3 of a film. It's very kind of early Helen Mirren and that, you know? I used to like watching Helen Mirren's young lady films because she was always naked. I don't know. Misogynist, I don't know. Titillating, yes.”

Working with Justin Timberlake: Timberlake’s recently transitioned from pop star to serious actor and has a supporting role in Black Snake Moan. “The interesting thing to me about Justin is it would have been easy for him to choose something that allowed him to be more Justin Timberlake,” said Jackson. “Guys, especially young guys, don't tend to want to portray people who have frailties and are less than macho. It's an interesting choice for him to choose a character that's so opposite of who most women or guys would want their heroes to be.

He wasn't afraid to do it. He stepped in there and gave it his best shot. It worked for me in the film.”

The Interesting Hairstyle: “Craig actually wanted me to look a lot like R. L. Burnside who actually died when we were shooting. That’s sort of what he looks like and it's also sort of what my grandfather's brothers looked like. It was a conscious choice to have that receding hairline and have white hair to make him older and kind of lived in. He walked like he carries a lot of weight around on his shoulders, kind of like farmers. Farmers are very strong and vital kinds of guys, but they don't move very fast to conserve their energy.”