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Sitting down with Samuel B. Jackson, ‘20

| Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Gabriel Zarazua | The Observer

I had the great pleasure of recently sitting down with Notre Dame alumnus Samuel B. Jackson ‘20 for an interview regarding his recent work with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, as well as his journey after graduating. 

Editor’s note: the audio for the first two questions was not recorded fully due to a technical error, but notes taken during the interview serve to fill in the gaps.

The interview began with Mr. Jackson detailing his journey after his graduation. His story with Notre Dame did not end after graduation, as he worked in admissions for some time before attending Columbia University to receive his master’s degree in fine arts. He joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2022 with the show “Choir Boy.”

“And so through that I worked again, and I found jobs through ‘Choir Boy,’ which is how I found my next gigs, including ‘Chlorine Sky.’” I asked Jackson what he particularly enjoyed about Steppenwolf, and he placed an emphasis on the community and its available resources. 

Samuel B. Jackson (SJ): I also love the history of [Steppenwolf]. The history of it really really intrigues me … There is a tradition that’s been around for a couple decades now where everyone who is in a dressing room writes one line from that show and then, of course, they date it. Being able to go into my dressing room every morning or evening and seeing the great Laurie Metcalf or Rainn Wilson, just people like that, who are super super accomplished. It really inspires any actor really, but especially one just starting out. To know that they have made a space so graciously and have welcomed me so wholeheartedly and to their space and to their family, it really means a lot and you can definitely feel that in every interaction.

Andy Ottone (AO): Steppenwolf has a long and storied history as a company, with you participating in their recent production “Chlorine Sky.” Would you please tell our audience about the show in your own words?

SJ: For sure! “Chlorine Sky” is about the journey of the main character, the titular character Sky. A journey that largely revolves around becoming increasingly self-aware and self-secure regarding issues such as racism, colorism, texturism; and even issues as deep as abuse, manipulation and sexual assault and harassment. Very deep topics considering all of the characters are in high school, but I think the subject matter is complemented very well by — whether it be community comments or nostalgic music or phrases used in the early aughts, which is the time setting of this piece. And, yeah, I guess more particularly for the plot, it’s essentially about two young girls navigating life as growing Black female students and understanding how the aforementioned “-isms” kind of take place and root in their lives, and how that challenges their lives and their interactions, both with each other and themselves. 

AO: Now I want to talk about your time at Notre Dame. In your last year as a student you were our leprechaun at football games, where you typically did a move called the “death drop,” which I also saw you perform in “Chlorine Sky.” How did this move find its way into “Chlorine Sky”?

SJ: Since the show deals with becoming the full version of yourself and loving that version that you see, whether it be when you look in the mirror and you look at yourself. Do you love that person? The show deals with those themes. Our director thought it would be great to bring in elements of voguing, which is a style of dance that originated in New York by Black and brown queer, particularly [transgender], individuals, and it was all about self-expression, among other things. So yes, it fit perfectly within the world of the play, within the story. I would say the mass popularization of voguing has been called the “death drop,” which I guess everyone calls it, especially on TikTok or “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” But the technical term for it is actually called a “dip,” so I referred to it as a dip. The process was fun, because I love to vogue, and that full expression of oneself, and I brought that very, very excitedly to the leprechaun. And that was my whole thing, to be a positive reinforcement for what Notre Dame can look like that may lie outside the typical bubble that you and I, and most other people who have attended Notre Dame, know very well. The dip was great! The duck walking was another element of it. I loved doing that. It was really hard on the knees, so I had to stretch. I had physical therapy that was really great. 

AO: In what ways did your time as the leprechaun influence your philosophy on performing beyond just “Chlorine Sky”?

SJ: In my senior year, well I guess junior year when I had to audition — or try out, or whatever it’s called for the leprechaun — there was a huge opportunity cost, because I knew that in order to be the leprechaun I would have to forgo every and all opportunities to do productions, whether it be through FTT or PEMCo or wherever else. Being on the field or on the court really taught me that … It was really very similar. I really didn’t miss out as much as I thought I might be, because I was always on stage. It kind of expanded the idea of what a stage can look like. It was really great in kind of opening up my understanding and my philosophy on what acting is, what art is. I guess deep in my perspective on interactions with so-called artists and whoever they’re performing for, and the relationship between them. 

AO: Where do you see yourself and the show going next? 

SJ: There are discussions of the show transferring to theaters outside of Chicago. I won’t name any specifics yet, but there is a perceivably bright future for “Chlorine Sky.” If the show travels, I will also be traveling with it. I love Chicago. I love the feeling of community within the theater scene, and I am excited to continue acting in TV, film and theater here in the city. I also will probably move out to New York. I think grad school will be in the very near future, again to go back to get some training and make some good connections, so I can continue and have longevity in the industry. That’s the thing also, it’s really hard to plan anything in the industry. The only thing you can kind of plan is to be rejected many, many times over. But even with that, even with that being said, things have been going well for me so far, so let’s just hope things continue in the same direction.

AO: In “Chlorine Sky,” you play all of the male roles, and all of the roles you played were distinct from each other, in body language and the way you spoke. Would you care to give us some insight into how you switched between these different types of characters so quickly, sometimes without even leaving stage?

SJ: It was really fun. I’ve actually always dreamed of doing something like this. I think the key to any good performance is to bring a human onstage, so that any performer-to-spectator relationship can be transformed into a human-to human-one, which I think kinda goes back to one of the other answers I had. That was my job, that is my process and the foundation of any process I have for any job that I have. This one was more difficult, because I had to bring five humans onstage. So I think throughout the process, the director, the assistant director, they were all super, super great in allowing me to explore, because I didn’t really get much help and that’s simply because I think that in high school theater or college theater you go into the rehearsal room and you kind of wait for the director to tell you what to do or where to stand. While some of that is true, I think it’s more of a collaboration process. Waiting for the director to tell you something is being a puppet, not really an artist. So I came with a lot of ideas, and the environment was really, really welcoming to my ideas. Some of them stuck, others didn’t, but nonetheless it was all a super fun time. Basically it was figuring out where all the characters existed in my own body. The only person or experiences I have to create another human are my own, so just understanding where each character existed within my own body. The chakras, or other fancy theater terms. And then that allowed me easy access to pivot back and forth between the characters seamlessly and very quickly. 

I think playing all the male-presenting characters was a deliberate choice. I didn’t know I was going to play all five, I was cast as two, and then over the first week of rehearsals I was slowly told “Yes, add three more.” So that was very wild. But I think it was a deliberate choice made by the directors, the five dimensions of the patriarchy represented within one vessel since the story does highlight the very specific experiences of Black women, particularly a darker-skinned Black women.

AO: What would you say your favorite moment while developing “Chlorine Sky” has been?

SJ: I’ll give you two answers. My favorite part of the process was coming into the rehearsal space every morning and trying different things. In the morning I would wake up, I would get in the shower and my lines would just repeat in my head, or the scenes in my head, and I would just try a bunch of different things. I would experiment so much with my voice, my body, you know, all of it. And I would come into the room and very fearlessly portray whatever I had in my head. Which is super fun, because I think that’s the joy of theater: You do what you can’t do in real life. Whether it be to fight, fly, whatever, you can’t do all that in reality, so you go on stage to do things that people would kill to do, and in fact they pay money to see you do it. And if you don’t do it well, they’ll write you a bad review (laughs). So that was really really fun. Another fun part in the show once we started performances … I would say so many parts of the play were really fun, so I won’t limit it to any specific moment in the play but I will say the engagement with the youth was really amazing. We would perform it five times a week for high school students, like up to four or five hundred high school students per day, and after every show, we had a talk back with them during which they would ask us multiple questions and either express how inspired they were because they they were also aspiring artists or just asked general questions about the storyline. I think that was really fun, because I know that this is a story that I definitely wish I could’ve seen when I was younger and so to be able to pay it forward especially as an older individual kind of removed from my teenage years, being able to play these high school characters, kind of being able to give grace to younger Sam and humanize his actions, or understand the idea of what projection really looks like, especially when you’re young and you don’t know what’s going on and you have so many questions about life, or you feel less than. Being able to really analyze those things within my characters allowed me to go back to Younger Sam and really show him grace, and so to be able to pay that forward to the young audiences, it was awesome. It was amazing. It made me extremely extremely grateful for the intersection of the arts and our school systems.

AO: For any aspiring performers among our readers, what advice would you give them?

SJ: A big question I had, especially when I was at Notre Dame, I remember asking a professor “How do I know I’m good at this?” I thought I was good. I’ve always thought I was talented, since I was 2 or 3-years-old. But I’m not a casting director; I’m not a director; I’m not a producer, so how do I know when I’m good enough? And the answer I received was to continue to train. If we were to go into an operating room or a courtroom with your doctor or lawyer who’s only had one year of experience or one year of training, we would be a little skeptical because that’s not really adequate time to learn your craft. Sanford Meisner, an acting teacher, says it takes 20 years for someone to become a really good actor. So training is important, so get that training, and additionally have that faith and confidence in yourself, maintain that. And the most important part, for me specifically, since I was acquiring the first two things is “Listen to life.” Life will tell you if something is cut out for you or not. It is imperative for the artist to have open ears as to what feedback they are receiving, and that requires humility, confidence, separation of worth from your artistry, because quite honestly it can be a little tough, especially when you’re outside of college and it’s no longer fun and games. It’s no longer “I have tech rehearsal after my math class.” You have to figure out some big things, like “What is insurance?” and “Will this be sustainable for when I’m off my parents’ insurance?” assuming I’m privileged enough to have that. So I’d just say stay open to when life is giving you feedback, if it’s saying “OK maybe you should switch to this direction” or “Maybe what you want is not exactly what is most beneficial,” and I think knowing when to pivot is really important. 

AO: First, I want to thank you for your time, and before we end the interview, I want to ask if you have any last thoughts you’d like to share with our audience?

SJ: Go Irish! That’s really it.

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