Samuel L. Jackson says he’s too old to remember when exactly he first saw the original 1933 King Kong, but he does recall what appealed to him about the script for Kong: Skull Island when that landed in his hands.
“It’s King Kong,” he says when we sit down with him at a hotel in downtown Los Angeles to discuss the spectacular new monster movie. “Those two words alone are a signal to me to like, ‘Okay, let’s go have some fun.’ I’ve watched every iteration of it since somebody came up with the concept. In between that and Mighty Joe Young, and Godzilla, Mothra — all those things come to mind, and you go, ‘Here’s my opportunity to have some fun in one of those movies.’ I like them. I always wanted to be in one.”
We’ve spoken with Jackson before and can tell you that this is a man who has read and watched just about everything, and he can pinpoint what it is about those old giant monsters — American-made like Kong or crafted in Japan like Godzilla and his ilk — that captures the imagination. “When you’re a kid, they’re fantastic. They’re set in exotic places. Even something like Godzilla, I mean, I’d never been to Asia or Japan, so I’m looking at it and saying, ‘Oh, that’s what it looks like?’ That’s interesting. Then you’ve got King Kong, he’s in this really exotic jungle. Jungle always means somewhere hot and dangerous and whatever to city kids. It smacked of exoticism and adventure, which was great for me.”
Kong: Skull Island is set in the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War is winding down. A scientist named William Randa (John Goodman), who works for the mysterious Monarch organization, manages to get government funding to go in search of an island that may hold the key to stories of ancient, gigantic creatures that may have once walked the Earth and still might be doing so. Jackson plays Lt. Colonel Preston Packard, commander of a helicopter squadron that’s now out of work with the end of the Vietnam conflict and who signs up to take Randa and his team on their expedition.
Of course, the team gets more than it bargained for as they reach Skull Island and are immediately confronted with Kong, hundreds of feet tall and capable of slapping their choppers out of the sky like irritating mosquitos on a sticky summer night. That doesn’t sit well with Packard, as his unit is not just grounded but slowly decimated by the many horrors awaiting them in the jungle. He soon wants his revenge, and he wants to take it out on Kong.
“I tend to think of him as Ahab at a certain point,” says Jackson. “King Kong becomes his white whale. He’s killed enough of his men. He’s trying to exact some revenge. He totally believes that man is the dominant creature on earth. Since the beginning of time, there have been things bigger than us roaming around, and we found a way to bring them down, or to survive. He’s trying to exact some revenge. He’s pretty much positive there’s a way with his modern weapons and ingenuity of man that he can do it.”
Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts took his cast and crew to locations in Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam to get a realistic feel for his Skull Island setting — the better to populate it with creatures like a giant spider and things called ‘skullcrawlers’ — and the shoot marked the first time that a major Hollywood production had actually filmed in the latter country. Going to Vietnam was a first for even the well-traveled Jackson.
“It’s a pretty amazing place,” Jackson explains. “The city is like everywhere else. I mean it’s like going to New York City. If you go to Hanoi, you’re in New York on crack. It’s just like a thousand times more motorbikes than cars. But once you get out of the city and into the country where the rice paddies are and the people live and work and survive, or where the war was fought, I had a great understanding of the difficulty that we had as an invading force. If you’re not part of, or indigenous to, that particular country, there’s no way they were going to win any confrontation that was going on there. The French had tried. It’s just impossible. It’s beautiful and it’s treacherous.
“The people are amazing. It’s visually stunning, and assaults the senses in an interesting way. Being there gave me a whole other understanding of what the war was and who those people were. We had some military advisors on the film who had actually been in the war.” He adds, “We also had people out there, people that walk around looking for un-detonated munitions, before we could actually go to work in certain areas that we worked in. They were still discovering mines and bombs and stuff out there.”
Another interesting aspect of working on Kong: Skull Island — besides the giant monsters and exotic locales — was that it reunited Jackson onscreen with Tom Hiddleston, known for playing Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (where Jackson, of course, is superspy Nick Fury). It also brought Jackson together with future Marvel star Brie Larson, who will be suiting up as Captain Marvel in 2019 (and probably before that in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War).
Asked if he gave Larson any pro-tips on getting involved in the MCU, Jackson says, “No,” adding “I just told her to make sure that I was in her movie, you know. They seem to be finding ways of not putting me in the rest of them. Damn, is Nick Fury still out there walking around trying to find whatever happened to S.H.I.E.L.D. or who’s responsible? They keep hiding me now.” (A cameo or two on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aside, Jackson was last seen as Fury in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron).
Jackson says he “thinks” he’ll be in the all-star Infinity War — he hasn’t signed a contract yet, but reckons he owes Marvel two more movies (he inked a nine-picture deal with Marvel in the MCU’s early days). And he’s a little irked that Fury didn’t get a chance to get in the middle of last year’s family feud in Captain America: Civil War: “Yeah, it would’ve been nice if I was around during Civil War to kind of calm those kids down a little bit.”
The actor is excited about the possibility of revisiting another character — the self-styled super-villain Mr. Glass from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable — now that Shyamalan’s latest movie Split revealed itself to be a semi-sequel to the director’s 2000 exercise in superhero origin story deconstruction. “I don’t know if it’ll be Unbreakable 2, but it’ll be something,” says Jackson about the chances of Glass facing off with Bruce Willis’s David Dunn again as well as James McAvoy’s monstrous Horde from Split. “According to the financial success of what happened with Split, and the interest generated by people who were really aware of what happened right there at the end, hopefully we’ll be all suited up and after each other by the end of the year. That’d be great.”
Although whatever Shyamalan is cooking up will likely take Jackson to the director’s preferred setting of Philadelphia instead of the far-flung locales of Kong: Skull Island, Jackson sees the brittle-boned but brilliantly sinister Glass as unfinished business: “I’ve always wanted to do it. It was intended to be a trilogy from the beginning. I don’t know why they abandoned that idea. Like most things, I think Unbreakable wasn’t a success in somebody’s mind, but it was a runaway success in my mind. It’s a much bigger cult film than The Sixth Sense is. I think there’s an audience out there for that movie.”
Kong: Skull Island is out in theaters this Friday (March 10).