LOS ANGLES — After a succession of quick cameos in almost every Marvel Studios movie, Samuel L. Jackson’s mysterious Nick Fury is at last stepping out of the shadows for his turn in the spotlight in “The Avengers.”
“It was finally satisfying to get to find out exactly what Nick’s been getting at,” Jackson said on a recent morning at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “About the Avengers initiative, and why he thought it was necessary. We find out a little more about where he operates, how he operates, sort of the workings of his mind.”
The film, which smashed box-office records in U.S. theaters as it opened over the weekend, unites the Marvel superheroes that have dominated the big screen in recent summers — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) as well as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — under the leadership of Fury, director of the international intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
Jackson, 63, has been a fan of Fury since the character first appeared in 1963’s “Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos,” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Of course, Nicholas Joseph Fury was then a white, cigar-chomping World War II hero with both eyes intact.
The character has undergone several incarnations since, not least of which is comic artist Bryan Hitch’s depiction in 2002’s “The Ultimates #1?: A bald, African-American general modeled on Samuel L. Jackson.
“It was kind of weird,” Jackson said. “I just happened to be in a comic store, and I picked up the comic because I saw my face. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure I remember giving somebody permission to use my image.’”
The comic itself even noted the likeness in a panel in which the Ultimates discuss who would portray them in a hypothetical movie. Fury answers, “Why, Mister Samuel L. Jackson, of course. That’s not even open to debate.”
Stunned, Jackson approached Marvel.
“They were kind of like, ‘Yeah, we are planning on making movies, and we do hope you’ll be a part of them,’” he recalls.
Six years later, Jackson donned Fury’s eyepatch for a surprise 34-second scene that screened after the credits in Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” “Mr. Stark you’ve become part of a bigger universe; you just don’t know it yet,” Fury told Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative.”
Fan blogs went wild with conjecture and anticipation, and Favreau and producer Kevin Feige knew they’d hit on something big.
In the next few years, Jackson made appearances in “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” always a shadowy figure, more mystery than man. For each of these films, Jackson flew in, shot his short scene and was on his way in less than a day, he said.
It wasn’t until “The Avengers,” with Joss Whedon at the helm, that Jackson was finally able to flesh out his character: A war veteran, a brilliant strategist, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a leader who could harness a host of disparate heroes in an effort to maintain a precarious peace on a planet beginning to make a blip on the cosmic radar.
It was then that he began to get excited.
“I really enjoyed being with Joss and talking with him before this even started, because Joss has this relationship with comics that I think I have with them,” Jackson said. “He’s always read ‘em. And he understands the genre and how it works from the inside, and how these guys talk, and what the relationships between superheroes would be if they had relationships. And how each one would test the other in a certain way to find out who’s stronger, who’s better, who’s this, who’s that. He used me as the sort of glue to bring these guys together for one common cause, to make them understand that yeah, you’re all great individually, but think of how much greater you’d be as a unit.”
“The Avengers” casts Fury as both seasoned and scarred. His renegade streak doesn’t sit well with his bosses — the World Security Council — but he’s a man who can get the job done, provided he does it his own way.
“He’s been around,” Jackson said. “Wars have casualties, and he’s a warrior. He understands the nature of war and the nature of what it takes to get things like that done, and the toll that it takes on a person for having to do certain things.”
And Jackson’s trademark biting delivery and formidable glare are put to good use as Fury asserts his authority over a group of alpha-male superheroes who outmatch him physically and intellectually. Though he can shoulder a rocket-launcher and hold his own in a fire-fight, Fury’s most useful ability involves pulling strings and pushing buttons.
“He is a strong leader in his own way, even though he has no powers,” Jackson said. “He’s sort of the master manipulator.”