In the upcoming film CHANGING LANES, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck go head-to-head as two New Yorkers who's car accident inadvertently puts them both in different kinds of jeopardy. Each blames the other as tensions flare. Soon, the men shock themselves by going to increasingly exhausting lengths for revenge.
Pulling off the kind of chemistry required for such an intense relationship would be challenging for any two actors on any given script; but it was especially hard in CHANGING LANES because of how little screen-time the co-stars actually share.
"It's amazing," says Jackson. "You read the script and you buy into the relationship. It seems like the characters are together, relating to and opposing one another in every scene. But the reality is that Ben and I only have two scenes together in the whole movie. One at the beginning and one at the end."
For Jackson, the relationship is still a very strong one. "Like a friendship or relationship you develop on-line or over the phone, it's still there even if it's not physical."
Jackson's character in CHANGING LANES, named Doyle Gibson, represents something of a departure for the veteran actor.
"He's so different from the characters I've been playing recently," explains Jackson. "I've been playing a lot of bad-asses, like Shaft. Don't get me wrong! I love doing that bad-ass stuff. I think my fans like to see me in that kind of role, and I think that I have a faculty for it. Plus, I love the costumes! But as an artist my stock and trade is in variety, in switching roles. Doyle is the complete opposite of a Shaft. It was time for me to do this inward character. I wanted to play the role of someone who was silently raging. Someone who was trying to find a way to fit in."
The actor, who's training is in classical theater, goes on to describe a love for character exploration. One of the ways in which Jackson got to explore his character in CHANGING LANES was through varying emotional levels. In the hands of a lesser actor, Doyle could have had only one reaction at his disposal anger. But Jackson was determined to avoid making Doyle out to be one-dimensional.
"I've never done a one-dimensional character in my life," says Jackson with a smile. "Well... at least not that I know of, anyway."
It was by finding his "human" side that Jackson was able to bring the character to multi-levels.
"Generally when I approach a character I try to find ways to make it more human," explains Jackson. "Even guys who are angry all the time have moments when they're at rest. And I don't perceive Doyle as angry all the time. He has a lot of different things going on. He's desperately trying to hold onto his family, and to his job. And he thinks that there are a lot of things pulling him back because he's used to blaming everything on everybody else. I was trying to find a way to balance all of that, especially with everything that Ben's character was throwing at him."
The actor refuses to take all the credit, however, in the creation of his role. In fact, he speaks very highly of CHANGING LANES director Roger (NOTTING HILL) Michell's ability to work with actors.
"Roger is great about emotions. He's great about finding the emotional beats. And he could pull me back from reacting to things before they would happen, which is a tendency of mine. That was key."
When asked about working with Affleck, Jackson responds with simply one word: "Incredible."
"He's nothing but professional. He was in this script. I mean he knew it backward and forward. He signed when he first read it, while standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier during brakes in the filming of PEARL HARBOR. This is a kid who knew his stuff and did his homework. He was always bouncing back what you were giving, and would give even more."
In fact, Jackson says that he would "definitely work with him again... Yeah, in a heartbeat."
Ironically enough, Jackson wasn't originally contacted to play the part of Doyle, but rather that of Affleck's character, Gavin Banek.
"Neither part in the film was written for a black actor, and neither part specified a younger or older role, but we wound up believing that Gavin's character, the lawyer, worked better if he were a younger person who was in the process of losing his idealism... an emotion that Ben nailed perfectly."
Interestingly, Jackson stepped into the role of Doyle without anyone rewriting his character, as usually happens when a black actor assumes a role written for a white actor.
"This part isn't about race. It's about family. It's universal. Color didn't impact the emotions in this case."
And while ultimately, CHANGING LANES is a movie that winds up teaching a moral, Jackson says that wasn't an important element to him.
"I don't make a point to make films that teach us how we should be," says Jackson. "I think we're all going to find our own path, and it's not important for me to try to direct people in how they should live. But I think that I looked at this story objectively. It does teach a moral... but it's also a great, great story. And that's why audiences are going to respond to it."