“The Sunset Limited,” the new HBO film based on the Cormac McCarthy play, has a simple setup: Two men, one named White (Tommy Lee Jones), the other Black (Samuel L. Jackson), talk in Black’s dingy flat in a crime-ridden neighborhood after Black saves White from killing himself in front of a train. But this being a Cormac McCarthy work, much more is exchanged than just pleasantries, such as back and forths on the existence of God, religion and what it all means. Our conversation with Jackson was a little less existentialist.
Before we get into the heavy stuff, what’s a simple way to tell people what “The Sunset Limited” is about?
I tell them it’s a story of a guy who stops some guy from jumping in front of a subway train and takes him home to find out why he’s trying to commit suicide and has a long conversation with him about faith, hope and life.
But, being a McCarthy work, it’s so much heavier than that. It is so packed with language.
It was daunting in that way. I haven’t done a play in 15 years. You know, on an average movie, you do eight-and-a-half pages a day. You come to work and you got one or two sentences to memorize and then you put the script down [mimes acting] and you’re driving, walking, looking. But this is another kind of challenge. Getting there every day and accomplishing what TL and I were trying to accomplish every day, in terms of the amount of work and getting it right, was very important, very satisfying.
The film is very much like an intimate play, just seen on TV. Do you think mainstream viewers will grasp the work?
It’s important that both actors are, I?guess, intellectually capable of understanding what’s on the page and artistically capable of giving it to an audience in a way that the audience can understand, whether the audience is intellectually strong or weak. But I think it’s the kind of piece that stimulates conversation.
I notice you call Tommy Lee Jones ‘TL.’ Does he call you ‘SL’?
[Laughs] Yes, sometimes. Sometimes he does indeed.