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Colin Bell

Whether you’re talking about his career or a simple staring contest, SAMUEL L. JACKSON always comes out on top. His buzzed-about new film, The Spirit, promises to keep his winning streak alive.

Only a fool goes mano a mano with Samuel L. Jackson. This is, after all, the man with a twitchy trigger finger, a propensity for rousingly quoting scripture, a preternatural talent for serpent wrangling, a lightning-quick purple light saber, and the most formidable no-nonsense visage since John Wayne.

Nevertheless, you’re sitting across a boardroom table from Jackson, waging war against the involuntary reflexes that are imploring you to blink after 83 seconds of gazing deeply, competitively into his eyes. Call yourself a fool. After all, it was you who suggested the staring contest against this Oscar-nominated man who, according to graphic-novel maestro Frank Miller, writer and director of such films as Sin City and The Spirit (Jackson’s latest), “can scare the hell out of anybody.”

“When you don’t blink, you possess the greater intensity,” Jackson purrs with a velvet cool that belies his feral command. “You can intimidate people. You can let people know you’re really into them, that passion thing. You can convey a terror so great that they cannot look away. You communicate everything with your eyes.”

Then, leaning the slightest bit forward across the table, he adds, “I’m really good at not blinking. So what are we doing here, anyway? How good are you?”

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Colin Bell
It’s this endearing formidableness -- the exquisite combination of playfulness and menace, the collision of gamesmanship and soulfulness -- that has made Jackson an audience favorite since his breakout performance in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and one of the most respected, not to mention prolific, actors of his generation. If you do happen to blink, you’re still unlikely to miss Jackson on the big screen; he’s appeared in more than 50 films since 1991’s Jungle Fever and has four slated for release in the next 12 months, including The Spirit. According to Guinness World Records, he’s the highest-grossing actor of all time.

“Sam is so alluring yet so laid-back. He’s magnetic. You want to be around him. You want to see what he’ll do next. You want to share the same air with that man,” says Christina Ricci, who costarred with Jackson in the swampy, sensual drama Black Snake Moan. “Everything Sam does, it’s so cool. It makes you a little cooler, being around him. It probably makes you a little cooler just watching him in the movies.”

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Gabriel Macht, who portrays the titular hero in The Spirit, the big-screen adaptation of Will Eisner’s legendary comic book of the same name, says Jackson effortlessly portrays “menacing, deadly, and fierce” but that it all comes from having a child’s sense of wonder. “He is so free and spontaneous. [He was] always making choices that were outrageous -- yet perfect for the film,” Macht says. “He is trying new things all the time and is not afraid of being vulnerable. I strive to be as free a spirit as he is.”

The 59-year-old Jackson, who once practiced the “don’t blink” trick every day as an acting exercise (and later used it to chilling effect in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable), believes the key to his success rests in the unadulterated joy he finds in the work. “For me, acting is a huge extension of being a kid. I spent my childhood playing war, and cowboys and Indians, and cops and robbers; jumping out of trees; rolling down hills; playing hide-and-seek, smash and burn,” Jackson says. “I was just getting ready for my job.”

Jackson laughs -- a resonant, rolling rumble of gratitude and rambunctiousness -- and the man’s joie de vivre is as infectious as his intensity is palpable. “In my job, I get to do all that James Cagney stuff -- stagger and fall. It’s a boy’s life,” he says. “Plus, it lets me work out my kinks. Saves a lot of money, [not having to] lie on someone’s sofa.”

In Jackson’s latest foray into cinematic mayhem, The Spirit, he portrays an übervillain known as the Octopus, who is intent on seizing control of the fictional Central City. In the beloved Eisner comic, the Octopus was never shown, save for a pair of gloved hands. Jackson, then, given pretty much carte blanche to bring the character to life, created a baroquely flamboyant vision of madness and evil. His Octopus is Wile E. Coyote by way of Liberace -- a kilt-wearing, missile-toting, wisecracking lunatic who just happens to be indestructible.

“The Octopus is a cartoon buffoon to a lot of people, especially in a visual sense. You look at him and you don’t get the fear thing,” Jackson says. “But he is very dangerous. He’s a little demented, a little twisted, and he knows he’s indestructible, so he walks into situations boldly and wildly. There’s power in being indestructible. I think it makes you crazy, or evil, honestly.”

Deborah Del Prete, producer of The Spirit, says Jackson relished the opportunity to unleash his id in the comic-book universe. “Sam himself is larger than life, which is why he was so perfect for this part,” Del Prete says. “Every day, he brought to the set a sense of fun and excitement, and it was infectious, so everyone on-set was more excited about doing their jobs. He brings so much joy to what he does.”

“I had such a hard time keeping a straight face while working with Sam,” Macht says. “He told me from the get-go that we were going to go ‘all out’ on this movie, and he wasn’t kidding. I had a blast. And even though he’s pushing 60, I bet he would demolish me in a real fight.”

For Jackson, working on The Spirit, with its rooftop fisticuffs and man-size monkey wrenches and physics-defying death matches, was a natural extension of one of his passions: comic books. “I read comics. I love comics. I love those kinds of movies. I love going to Comic-Con every year and meeting people who love the same stuff,” he says. “I love a good light-saber battle in the parking lot.”

It wasn’t too many years ago that Jackson was in a life-and-death battle of a different kind -- an existential crisis played out against new fatherhood, a career that wouldn’t quite stick, and an addiction to drugs that nearly claimed his life. In 1989, Jackson’s wife and his daughter found him unconscious beneath the kitchen table, the result of a near overdose. It was then that Jackson decided to turn his life around. After only a few months of being clean, he was offered the role that launched his career: a weary, doomed crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever.

It’s now almost 20 years later, and Jackson hasn’t merely recovered; he’s triumphed. “I used to wonder if I’d be funny or talented or cool anymore if I were sober. [I thought,] ‘I won’t be the life of the party anymore if I’m sober. No one will like me anymore if I’m sober,’ ” Jackson recalls. “But it’s this simple: I stopped doing the things I shouldn’t and I started getting all the things I wanted. There’s just no contest for me on where I’d rather be.”

Jackson, whose greatest role to date is arguably his Oscar-nominated turn in Quentin Tarantino’s seminal Pulp Fiction, says he regularly draws on the darker days, “the honest stuff,” to illuminate his life and work today. Oftentimes, he’ll work closely with directors to infuse his films with greater authenticity. “It always scares directors. They stop and say, ‘Wait -- how do you know that’s not how this happens?’ ” Jackson laughs. “And I have to tell them, ‘I’ve been some places I shouldn’t have been.’ ”

Jackson believes that his survival and success are part of a bigger plan. “There’s no honest reason why I shouldn’t be in that bad place, except something was watching me,” he says. “I’ve been in a room full of guys with their guns out, a real bad scene, and one of the guys looks at me and says, ‘What are you doing here? Get out of here, man!’ Cops have recognized me and sent me out the door during raids. I used the doors that were shown to me back then, and a lot of them saved my life.”

Jackson, who was raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, largely by his grandparents, grew up going to the movies. He would spend all weekend at the cinema, “just getting my education,” he says. At the age of three, he made his stage debut in a local production of The Nutcracker. While a student at Morehouse College, he picked up some extra credit by appearing in his public-speaking instructor’s production of The Threepenny Opera. “It’s what I always wanted to do, really -- be a kid my whole life,” he says.

One of the things kids do is play, and Jackson still plays hard. Several years ago, he picked up the game of golf and is now so avid a player that he is contractually guaranteed two days a week on the links. “And the studio has to pay for it, too,” he says with a smile. His love for the sport could have something to do with the fact that it’s the perfect game for an only child, which he is: It requires only one to play, and everything that happens, good or bad, is solely up to the player. And Jackson explains that, much like acting, golf is a game of mistakes. The goal in both, he says, is to minimize those mistakes and learn to adapt.

“Some days, it’s pouring rain; some days, the other guy doesn’t know his lines,” he says. “Some days, your swing is lousy; some days, the crew’s moving in slow-motion. You always have to make your adjustments. That’s golf. That’s acting. That’s life.”

Back at the boardroom table, the clock ticks away: 85 seconds, 86, 87. Your eyes begin to tear -- desperate to close -- the windows to your soul shattering before the immutable gaze of Samuel L. Jackson, and you realize there’s nothing to do here but give in. You blink. This is a man who’s lived a hundred lives, played a thousand more, and lived to tell the tales with joy. Jackson was always going to win this one, for sure. It’s simply what he does. AW