Samuel L. Jackson stars alongside Ryan Reynolds in The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Jackson is the hitman, and a key witness in a case to bring down a despot. Reynolds is the bodyguard, tasked with getting the hitman from A to B in order to testify in court.
Salma Hayek plays the wife of Jackson’s character. She’s locked up in prison for much of the film, with the carrot of her release being dangled to make Jackson’s killing machine comply in the upcoming legal proceedings.
We were invited to chat to the pair at a swanky hotel in London. And let me tell you: walking into a room with that much star-power in it is very nerve-wracking. Jackson was sat at a table and Hayek was laid out on a sofa nearby. I shambled in and awkwardly worked out where I was meant to sit. (It was at the table with Jackson, if you were wondering.)
Both stars were smartly dressed, cheery and funny. Here’s how the chat went…
So, we’re here to talk about The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I wonder if we could start with how you both came into it? I know it’s been gestating since as far back as 2011.
SLJ: Really? See you know more about that than I do.
SLJ: I had no idea that it had been gesticulating that long. Um, I don’t know. Somebody called me and said that they’re doing this great movie. Ryan Reynolds was attached to it. And they hadn’t told me about you [Salma Hayek] yet.
SH: No, I think I was called last minute.
SLJ: At first it was me and Ryan, and I was like, ‘alright, let me read it’. And I read it, and it’s like, ‘oh, this is kinda funny’. Kinda great.
SH: Kind of written for you.
SLJ: Well. Yeah. Actually. And, um, I like action movies. I like comedies. Action comedies. It’s like, great!
And then all of a sudden when they said ‘and you’ll be married to Salma’, I was like, ‘Oh, wow! Great!’ But they never told me, ‘oh but you’re not gonna see her’. [Laughter] And then all of a sudden that other scene was in there where we met, and I was like ‘okay this is great’. At least I get to see her, for a while.
So, yeah, it was a combination of great things. And I was actually more anxious to work with her [Hayek] than Ryan, ‘cause I’ve known her longer.
So how far do you go back in real life?
SLJ: I see her, I just see her at awards shows backstage. And I was like everybody else, you know, you always look at her and she’s like too beautiful to touch. You know. It’s like, I’m gonna damage her if I touch her.
SH: No! I always liked you! We always talked. We were friendly.
SLJ: Yeah, I know.
SH: I always wanted to work with him. So, they kind of had me at hello when they said I was going to be playing with Sam.
The scene with you two meeting for the first time is probably my favourite bit of the whole film. [Very spoiler-free, that.]
SLJ: Yeah! Right? It’s the kinda girl you wanna meet, right?
SH: You wanna know what’s my favourite one? The last time you see us together.
For the two of you, what’s it like when you’re filming the stuff when you’re just on the phone to each other? Were you actually talking to each other in scenes like that?
SLJ: That very seldom happens. You know. When you’re doing phone conversations, you’re very seldom actually speaking to the other actor. Sometimes, they have a recording. But you [Hayek] hadn’t shot yet, so when I shot my side of the conversation, I didn’t hear you.
SH: But they told me that you had said… which is the first time in my life, I have to say… that an actor actually volunteers to be on the phone.
SH: He was so nice. But I didn’t want to bother him. I was nervous, you know? It was first my scene. What if I don’t do it right? I’m going to be so embarrassed that he’s there! You know? And they had the recording, so I used the recording.
SLJ: Listen. When we did Jackie Brown… interesting story… I was off one night. And my phone rings at four in the morning. And it’s Quentin [Tarantino, obviously]. And he’s like, “Hey, you have to work.” And I was like “I have to come to work?”
And he’s like, “Nah, you know that conversation you have with Bob [De Niro] on the phone?” I’m like, “yeah” [And Tarantino’s like], “Well, he won’t do it with me. He’ll only do it with you.” I’m like, “So I have to come in and talk to him?” And he’s like, “No, all you have to do is stay on the phone now, and do the scene with him.”
So I was on the phone from like four in the morning ‘til six.
SH: What about, like… did you know your lines? By heart?
SLJ: I always know a script by the time we’ve started shooting. But yeah, I knew them, and I had to stay on the phone for in the morning ‘til six, doing this scene with De Niro.
SH: Was it kind of fun?
SLJ: … No. [Lots of laughter] Woke me up from a dead sleep. Quentin going [affects a high pitched voice] “Cut cut cut! Okay, we have to do another set up because there’s a close-up!” I’m like, “But you have me on tape now, don’t you?” [And Tarantino goes,] “No no no, he wants to talk to you on the phone.”
SLJ: Dude would not let me hang up.
SH: And you know what? The truth is that, I heard what he did once. [As in, she listened to the recording of Jackson just once on the set of Hitman’s Bodyguard] And that was it. It kind of stayed in my head, you know?
SLJ: Oh, good.
SH: It kind of stayed in my head every take.
Both you have a fair bit of action to do in this film. And obviously you’ve both done fight choreography and shooting people and stuff before. Did either of you have to learn anything new for this one?
SH: Um… I had always done my stunts. Because, the first time I worked with Robert Rodriguez, he made me feel like, if you don’t do your stunts, people really look bad at you. In this business.
SLJ: [Quiet laughter to himself]
SH: Which is not true, at all. But that’s what I thought. But Robert’s crazy, he always wants to do everything himself. If he could’ve, he would’ve been doing my stunts too. He has just way too much energy. And, so, [he said] it makes you look bad if you don’t do it.
So they brainwashed me, and I always did my stunts. I really regretted it, because I have two herniated discs, a dislocated… I have so many health problems now because of all those stunts. And, I said I was so stupid. Of course, now that I’m older and wiser, I said ‘I’m not doing this. I’m not doing those stunts.’
So they got a stunt double, and the stunt guys – who I knew, and I had worked with them in the past, and I was a legend, because I was actually really good at stunts – had said ‘so we obviously got you a stunt double now, because we don’t think you want to do this.’ And it just made me feel old.
So the first day, I had to do just one little thing, and I was rusty, my coordination was not… and I nearly lost sleep over it. I felt so in decay. And then, the next day, I said [claps hands together] “I’m doing all my own stunts.” And I actually did them.
I was so happy that night when I went home, I went, “YES! I’ve still got it!”
SLJ: And I was at the bar like, “Go Salma go!”
SH: But let me tell you something Sam, the next morning… it was really painful for about two weeks.
SLJ: Yeah. Recovery time is not what it used to be.
SH: It’s like drinking.
SH: You know, before I used to like drink and the next morning like nothing. Now, I have to really consider the possibility of drinking, if I don’t [want to] stay in bed all day the next day….Please scratch that, this is absolutely the wrong audience for this commentary! Continue…
No, it’s great!
SLJ: [Hearty cackle]
SH: Like the geeks want to know about my drinking problems.
SLJ: Of course they do! They do.
I was looking at some behind the scenes videos, and I was kind of surprised to see you were out there on the speedboat in Amsterdam actually doing the chase scene.
SLJ: Yeah, man.
Was there a guy like hiding underneath actually driving it or something? How did it work?
I just mean, you know, it’s a pretty dangerous thing!
SLJ: They took me to the reservoir in Shepperton, and I did speedboat lessons.
That’s very cool.
SLJ: You know, I drove around in a speedboat. And the great thing about the speedboat is: the faster it goes, the safer it is. You know, if it’s slow, it’s like sitting in the water like that. [Holds hand out at angle.] But the faster you go, the front comes down, and you can actually see. And the sharper turns you make, the more the waves you get, and the more fishtail, and all of that.
So by the time we got to Amsterdam, it was kind of like, ‘I have to do this in the canals. Yeah, no. I have to do it.’ And I did, it you know.
It looked good.
SLJ: It was great fun, and there were tonnes of people on the bridges watching us do it. I did videos of me and people behind me, screaming and yelling and talking. It was fun!
SH: I wonder how long it’s going to be before you get yourself one. [This comment was aimed at SLJ, not me, obviously.]
SLJ: I’m not buying a speedboat.
SH: We’ll see.
SLJ: I don’t need one. You know? Speedboats. Porsches. There are certain things that you don’t need any more. I had a Porsche for a long time, and then I reached a point where getting in and out of it was way more trouble than it needed to be.
SH: But not the speedboat. You can’t speed on the Porsche, but you can actually speed on the speedboat.
SLJ: Yeah but I don’t. No.
SLJ: I’d rather be on a bigger boat. I don’t need the speed. I don’t need the boat. You know? Either or neither? Neither.
With comedies, you hear a lot in interviews about how much improvisation people did. And I was wonder if that was harder to do on a thing where there’s action beats and marks and stuff, or was there a bit of freedom?
SLJ: Well those things you can’t change. Like fights, and certain kinds of things, you have to do it by the beat, or somebody gets hurt. Everybody knows what direction everyone’s going, and it looks like spontaneity, but it needs to be planned. I like a plan. I am totally down with that.
When you’re doing dialogue, occasionally, you get away with… something comes up funny in a moment, while you’re rehearsing it, and you keep it. And you know, you can riff of it a little bit, and Ryan [Reynolds] is very good at that. He’s very glib.
But, I tend to want to know what the other person’s gonna say, so I know when it’s time for me to talk. You know? I hate working with those actors that mumble.
[At this point Jackson does some very quiet faux-mumbling.] And you have to kind of watch their mouths, and go…
SH: Is it time yet?
SLJ: Is it time for me to speak yet? Is it cool? Actors that talk to you like this, [turns his head away and does some more barely-audible mumbling]. You’re over there like, [confused face], ‘What the hell is he doing?’
Did either of you have any ad-libbed or improvised bits that made it into this one in the end?
SH: Me? Yes, just because I was by myself most of the time. You know? And then, actually, they asked me… I don’t know what happened, but there was a problem with the dynamic in the things or the setup of the thing… and we had to improvise.
And now he [I assume the director, Patrick Hughes] wanted me to… he decided I was going to curse in Spanish. Because what he wanted to do with the phone, we couldn’t do… so now I had to throw the phone, or something. And so I had to come up with all these bad words, one right after another, in Spanish, and I had to improvise quite a bit. I don’t remember even why. But there were things that were not like he planned it, and we had to improvise.
SLJ: There was probably some comedy gold in there somewhere.
SH: Yeah, I’m sure.
One thing that I was going to ask about. At one point, Ryan Reynolds drops in the line about your character singlehandedly ruining the word motherfucker.
I was thinking that must have been an improv, but maybe it wasn’t if the script was written with you in mind from the start.
SLJ: I wasn’t there for that. So, that’s a Ryan question. I’m not sure. But it probably was. It does sound like an adlib. Yeah. That plays more on me as a human being than as [the character] Darius Kincaid.
And did you take it personally when you saw that?
SLJ: No, of course not. I thought it was hilarious. Yeah. Because most people say I glorify the word. That’s the first time I’ve heard someone say I’ve ruined it.
SH: [Laughs] I’ll tell you what was fascinating for me. We had to do the dubbing version for television. And I mean, I have only a couple of scenes in the film, but it was impossible to try to think of other words to say instead of the bad words that would look on your lips like that’s what you’re saying! And the whole time I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, what did Sam do? What did Sam say? What did Sam do?!’
SLJ: I never try to make sense of that. I don’t care, when they start the whole TV thing and replace this word with something that starts with this. I don’t care, you know. So when I have to replace motherfucking with something, I always say something stupid like monkey fighter.
Me and SH: [Laugh]
SLJ: So people will know. Yeah, they just replaced it.
SH: Yeah, that’s dubbed.
SLJ: Yeah, ‘cause Snakes On A Plane. The whole thing is, he says, “These monkey fighting snakes on this monkey fighting plane!” It’s just stupid. Everybody knows what I’m saying. So why should I try and make sense of it, you know?
My friend, I’ve done that. Things that sound like M-F. My friend. Money feelers.
SH: [Laughs] You’re making me want to go see all your movies again, in the television version. Just to see what you say.
SLJ: The longest time I’ve ever spent replacing TV words was Pulp Fiction.
SH: [To me] Can you imagine?
Gosh. How long did that go on for?
SLJ: About two and a half hours.
SH: Oh my god.
That sounds great. I’ll have to go seek out that version now.
SLJ: The sanitised TV version is horrid.
SH: Now everybody, all your readers, and myself… we’re going to go and watch all of his movies again in the edited TV version.
SLJ: Yeah, I just make up stupid words.
I’m very aware that I’ve got this amazing pair of actors here, who’ve come into Hollywood not being the Caucasian male that would historically do best in the industry.
SH: Yes, that’s definitely not me.
But I was just wondering, what would you say to anyone that’s reading this, who feels that – for whatever reason – they can’t fit into the industry they want to fit into?
That’s a pressure that you both might’ve worried about before you started. What would you say to those people, who think their dreams are unattainable, just because of who they are? Because you’re living proof that it can be done. You can make it in anything.
SLJ: Well [gestures to Hayek], she’s gorgeous. She just happens to be Mexican. And that was probably one of those things where everyone went, ‘well, I don’t know, we can’t put her with this guy, we can’t put her with that guy’, you know. But pretty works no matter what.
SH: I want to hear about you [aimed at SLJ, obviously].
SLJ: I always… I watched movies all my life. And I knew who character actors are. I always wanted to be those guys that move the story along in a way, or when you saw them, you knew a specific kind of thing was going to happen. Something different was going to happen, than what’s normally happening right now.
So I never cared about being, you know, the lead. I just wanted to be in it. I wanted to be Jack Elum, or Strother Martin, or whoever those guys were that got in there, and they were a character that made the story spicy. That did something to move the story along. So that when people left the movie they were like, “But that guy was doing the thing? That guy was awesome!” You know?
So that’s what you want. When I did Coming To America and I robbed MacDonald’s, I wanted that robber to be special, so I gave him a desperation that you wouldn’t normally have in a movie like that. You know?
[The role was there] To be a foil for Eddie Murphy. [But] I had my own thing happening. You knew I needed that money. I wanted it. And if I didn’t get it, someone was gonna get hurt. You know? So, when you leave, and your scene is over, people are still talking, ‘Man, that robbery scene was off the chain!’
So you’d go in, and you’d do something that makes you special. You don’t necessarily need to be, you know, the lead guy. I mean, I wasn’t gonna be the guy that gets the girl. You know. I wasn’t Denzel, I wasn’t… you know… Howard Rollins.
SH: But wait a minute, wait a minute. Were you disappointed when you became the huge movie star that you are and you got all the leads?
SLJ: No no no no no. No. But it was still a different thing. I mean, all the movies I’ve done, you’re maybe the… somewhere between… I doubt if I’ve kissed more than six women in all the movies I’ve done.
SH: Oh my god, that’s shocking. But you’re so sexy, my Sam!
SLJ: No. Well, apparently not. Sexy me doesn’t sell tickets. Action me, killing people me, sells tickets. Me kissing the girl does not sell tickets.
SH: Well I wouldn’t know about that. We’ll see after this movie! This movie has it all.
SLJ: But you’re, out of the five women I’ve kissed in cinema, you’re one of them.
SH: But I’ve got news for you. I had it really, really tough. If you think that because you’re pretty you’re going to get the job, you are wrong. It was really impossible. It was really almost impossible to get a job. Because, when, at the time that I came, this was something that they thought it was a ridiculous thought.
You have to think, the last Mexican that worked in the United States as the lead, before me, was in 1930. Dolores del Rio.
SLJ: Dolores del Rio was it?
SH: In the silent movies.
SLJ: Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
SH: And nothing until the nineties. Maria Conchita Alonso is the only one, and she is not Mexican.
SLJ: Oh wow. Wow. That was it?
SH: They would laugh at me. It was an impossible task.
SH: People would tell me, “Go back home, you’ll never make it here.” With the studios, you could get a job as the hot maid, or the girlfriend of the gang member, but let me tell you something: they didn’t have that much roles for maids. They were not even into the gang member thing. That’s how old I am.
No no no no no. It was an impossible task. But, here we are.
SLJ: You never wanted to be Maria in West Side Story?
SH: I don’t actually like West Side Story.
SLJ: But you weren’t Puerto Rican.
SH: And I’m not Puerto Rican! Puerto Rican is different, because they don’t have the accent. You know? They are part of America. The problem was the accent, because somebody actually told me… this is the head of a studio… “We could never put you in a leading role in a movie, because no matter how beautiful you are, or how good you can be, the minute you open your mouth, the audience are going to think about nothing but their maid.”
SLJ: [after a bit of a stunned silence in the room] Woah! Somebody said that out of their mouth?
SH: Oh yes, and that is not the worst thing I’ve heard said.
So how did you crack it? Was it perseverance? Keeping on being in that room? Keep doing the auditions? How did it happen?
SH: Um, yes.
SLJ: Well there’s that, and the world changed, and like she said, she worked for Robert Rodriguez. You worked for Robert, you worked for Quentin, you worked for people who see past all that. Or, there’s a certain point where Hollywood changed, in that, the people that wrote stories and started to direct stories were from a different era where the people that they saw – or the people that inhabited their world – were more varied than just the dominant society.
SH: It was tough even after I worked with them. Let me tell you something for the people that wanna do it, specifically: you have to be extra ingenious. You have to, like, for example… he [SLJ] was going for something specific. He targeted it. And you have to be excellent at something, or very ingenious. You have to go above the norm, in order to be noticed.
SH: And I will give you a specific example: when I was producing for other Latin people that were not still getting the chance, with Ugly Betty, they said no three times to me, the network. And the third time, what I did was, I went to an agency that is the link between advertisers and networks. And I said, let me show you the numbers of the Latinos that are consuming in the United States.
And I did a whole study. Can you show this to your advertisers? And here’s a script. This is the story. This is why I think this is a crossover. This is why I know I’m going to get the Latin market. Can you see if there is anyone that would want to advertise in this time if this was on TV?
They had already said no. And guess what? He came back to me, and said, “Guess what? We’ll buy the time on TV. It’s done. I’ll buy you the hour. I already have so many.”
So I went back to a studio that said no to me three times, and said, [claps hands together] “Here we go!” And actually they didn’t take the package. They said, “Oh my god, maybe there’s something here.” And I had been telling them, but they didn’t listen. And you know, for them, you have to do it in a smart way. Because, for them, they always don’t want you to be right. Because how come you thought about something, you Mexican woman, with big boobs, that they didn’t think about?
So it can work against you. You have to be smart, even about how your present things. And they didn’t go with that package, they got their own, because otherwise I sold it – I did their job! And we had 16 million viewers the first episode of Ugly Betty.
So, if you are different, you have to be very smart about how you present that thing that makes you different, as your strength. Which is also what he [SLJ] did.
SLJ: But I also insisted to my agents, too. That they didn’t send me on roles that specifically said African American. I was like, “Just give me the script, let me look at it, and I’ll tell you who in there I wanna be. And you send me in there on that.”
[The agent would say, in a high pitched voice apparently] “Yeah, but they’re not gonna….” [So SLJ would say] “Look, if I don’t impact this story racially, in some kind of way, I’m just another person in the script.”
SLJ: Just put me in the room, and I’ll handle the rest. And that’s what they did. You know, I insisted on reading whatever. And sometimes I went in and said, “I know this character’s a woman, but I could play this role.”
SH: Oh, brilliant! So you have to know who you are, and what is your strength, and what is it that you’re bringing into something. And know how to sell it.
SLJ: And a lot of times, I often tell actors, I know that we want jobs, but a lot of times you just wanna go in a room and present yourself to the people. To be your best you. You know you’re not gonna get the job. You go in there and be your best you, because those people are gonna do something else. And they’ll go, “Wow, you remember that kid that came in that read for that? He’d be great for this.”
SLJ: So I did that a lot, too. I just went to auditions so that I could meet the people in the room or present myself to those people. So that, later on down the line, they’d be like, “Damn, remember that guy that came in?” And I got jobs from that.
Samuel L Jackson and Salma Hayek, thank you very much!
The Hitman’s Bodyguard is in cinemas on Friday 18th August.