Samuel L. Jackson isn’t shocked young people today may not have seen a Tarzan movie. The vine-swinger used to be a hot commodity, birthing numerous film franchises through the ’20s and the ’60s and played by the likes of Olympian Johnny Weissmuller and, the actor’s favorite, Gordon Scott. After that he thinned out, with only a few titles (1984’s “Greystoke,” Disney’s take from 1999) over the last few decades. That may be due to the problematic nature of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original books, which teem with casual racism.
The new “The Legend of Tarzan” tries to fix this. For one thing, it features a strong black character — Jackson’s George Washington Williams, loosely based on the real-life 19th century renaissance man — as one of the heroes aiding Alexander Skarsgard’s towering, shirtless Tarzan.
The ever-prolific Oscar-nominee, 67, talks to us unqiue role in an old franchise and not being afraid to speak his mind, even on the Internet.
The character you play is based on a real person. Tell us about him.
He has a lot of guilt about the part he played in fighting in the Indian Wars, then going to Mexico and becoming a freedom fighter of sorts. He was a bit of a rogue. He claimed to be a lot of things he wasn’t. But he still had an impressive life. He wrote an interesting treatise on being black in America. Very, very interesting guy. And he never made it back here from Europe. That’s why he’s buried in Blackpool [England], I guess.
Well, England was always a lot more tolerant than us, even then.
That may change now with the Brexit vote. [Laughs]
You’ve spent a lot of time working in England, including on this film. Have you gotten a sense of how the country has changed to the point where they’d turn on immigrants?
It’s hard to field that, because the country is so multicultural. When you’re walking around, there’s a whole lot of people in native garb. You can tell where people are from. You hear all these languages. To me, London looks more Muslim than most countries. But I can see the fear. It’s the same fear that some people are mongering around here. There’s been a great fear for a very long time, that native Britons are becoming extinct. The complexion of the country’s changing. They’re concerned about that. It’s crazy.