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The Thinking Man's Gangster



Feature by: Heather Metherall

IT'S A relief and a pleasure to find that Samuel L Jackson, nicknamed the 'King of Cool', for both his demeanour on and off screen, really is exactly as you expect him to be, right down to his trademark kangol hat - though he's missing the kilt (it's a windy day!).

Sitting back in his chair at London's Dorchester Hotel, he greets us with a half smile and a nod - and a confidence and grace that puts everyone immediately at ease.

Though his past roles, in films such as Pulp Fiction, Shaft and Jackie Brown, have given him a reputation as the 'badass' of cinema, Jackson is adamant that the roles he has chosen don't influence how people judge him and is very aware of public perception, wishing to be seen as someone who will take the time out for fans, and criticising those actors who are brusque and unfriendly. It is no surprise, then, that he is astonishingly honest, and actually very funny.

His new film, Changing Lanes, finds the actor applying his varied theatrical and film experience to the role of Doyle Gipson, a man driven to the edge after being involved in a minor traffic accident with a rich young lawyer (Ben Affleck), that turns its two participants into fierce adversaries, frantically trying to reclaim the things they have lost.

The character of Gipson is different to the ones we are used to seeing Jackson play. He is out of control, a man who is ruled by outside influences, as much as his own inability to let go.

A recovering alcoholic, desperate to try again with his estranged wife and two young boys, he is on his way to court to prove his case for joint custody, when his world is turned upside-down.

Gipson's apparent lack of control is something Jackson attributes to the fact he lives in New York, a city famous for its fast pace and unforgiving nature. He describes living in the Big Apple as a completely unique experience; as a place that drives people to seek refuge in, and, in Gipson's case, turn to alcohol.

New York is clearly a place that has had a profound effect on Jackson. He speaks of it almost in the same way as one would speak of a mythical land, as strange, magnificent, and dangerous. He is delighted by director, Roger Michell's understanding of the city and refers to the Notting Hill helmer as a 'delicate director' who has truly captured the magic and beauty of the city.

Jackson plays the role of Gipson with great conviction and this is, no doubt, due to the fact that there are some interesting parallels between his life and his character's journey in the film. Coping with hardship and addiction is something Jackson has had much experience of - although, in his case, he has emerged smiling.

He was a Crack addict and an alcoholic, and spent some time in rehab, before carving out his remarkably successful career in film. He regularly drew on his experiences in rehab when playing Gipson, empathising with the character when faced with what he called 'AA bible dumpers' - members of Alcoholics Anonymous who choose to lecture their colleagues, rather than show support.

He recalled the dreadful moment when he had to face his wife and daughter, at his lowest point in rehab, and compared it to the situation Gipson finds himself in, with his family.

Jackson has been sober for 12 years now, though his resolution was tested on-set. In one, poignant scene, Gipson finds a bar in which to drown his sorrows and, after ordering the drink from the barman, the actor was shocked to find that the glass placed under his nose was filled with real whisky.

This was, apparently, the first alcoholic drink he had been close to in all his years of sobriety and he described it as a true jolt to the system, confessing that he found it hard to walk away.

One character trait that Gipson shares with previous Jackson roles, however, is his violent nature. The actor says he created Gipson on the way he was tempered, opting to show the gradual disintegration of his morals and values, and the slow boiling anger that eventually envelopes his character.

Despite having some similarities to Gipson, though, Jackson cannot be accused of sharing his tumultuous personality, as he said that the thing that frustrates him most in life is lining up in the supermarket, at the checkout, for 10 items or less (cash only), when the person in front has 15 and wants to pay by cheque.

Slipping back into the language he's best known for, he then shouted, 'that busts my ass!', to the surprise of every assembled journalist. He does admit, though, to placing the heads of his enemies on the bodies of people he's shot in his other, more violent films.

Samuel L Jackson has proved himself to be much more than just a fantastic actor; he has pulled himself through some incredibly difficult times.

Maybe Changing Lanes shows, to some extent, what could have happened, had he failed to do so.

The power and force which Jackson brings to the role is mostly due to his talent, but there is the definite feeling that Doyle Gipson is more Samuel L Jackson than we might, at first, think.

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