Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Django Unchained,” has already made a number of headlines for being unlike any Western or any film depicting slavery that the world has ever seen. Part of that uniqueness is found in the characters and their place in that dark period of history.
However, no character is as controversial as Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen. In a film that clearly makes a statement about the white aristocracy of the pre-Civil War South, it’s Stephen that emerges as one of the most evil characters.
To find out the story behind Stephen, MTV News’ Josh Horowitz spoke with Jackson about accepting the role and working through the difficult material.
“Years ago, I would have said I was going to be the hero or Django, but [Tarantino] took too long to write it,” Jackson said. “When he sent it to me, he said read the role of Stephen. I read it and was like, ‘Oh, you really want me to be the most despised Negro in cinematic history?’ ‘Well, yeah.’ ‘OK, I’m down. Let’s do it.’ ”
Aside from the character’s complex emotional nature, Jackson also had to work on the physicality of Stephen, who is much older than Jackson. To get a head start on the look, Jackson began experimenting with makeup while working on “The Avengers.” He would work through different types of looks with hairstyles, skin colors and applications until he achieved the right combination.
“We finally narrowed it down to about four things, so when I got to New Orleans, we tested all four things,” Jackson said. “None of them worked separately, so we started to mix and match the pieces until we found the perfect match of all of them that would be efficient for everyday application.”
On set, Jackson was able to turn his focus away from the look of Stephen and concentrate on his character’s most important relation, Calvin Candie, the evil plantation owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Since the role was so different for DiCaprio, it took some time to find his comfort zone.
“Once [DiCaprio] got comfortable with the language and the convention of what it was, we’re like, ‘Yo, man. Step into space. Don’t be afraid.’ Because he’s like, ‘Do you really have to go this far?’ and we’re like, ‘Yes, you do.’ You got to say it. You got to do it. You got to believe it. You got to own it. Once he owned it, it was great,” Jackson said. “The whole repartee between he and I started to play out when we were doing rehearsals. I was experimenting one day, and I just decided to repeat the last word he said, every time he said something to see what that felt like. Quentin fell in love with it, fell on the floor laughing, so we just kind of kept that stuff.”
Ultimately, it’s the relationship between Stephen and Calvin that proves to be the greatest enemy for Django, so establishing a strong rapport between Jackson and DiCaprio became a high priority.
“At a certain point, the whole story is that fable that Christoph tells Jamie about Broomhilda and Siegfried and that whole thing, the mountain, the dragon, the damsel in distress. Slavery becomes the mountain,” Jackson said. “The dragon becomes Calvin Candie and Stephen, so I’m standing behind him sometimes being the power behind the throne. He’s in the chair. It’s almost like there’s a two-headed monster there, messing with him.”
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