Most performers would feel honored when a prominent filmmaker creates a leading role specifically for them. But when Quentin Tarantino told Pam Grier that he crafted his third feature, 1997's Jackie Brown, with her in mind for the eponymous character, the game-changing Blaxploitation icon had a very different reaction. "I thought, 'I'm in trouble,'" Grier reveals to Yahoo Entertainment ahead of Jackie Brown's 25h anniversary on Dec. 25. "I'm gonna have to work really hard, because I don't want to be fired!"
In fact, Grier was so uncertain about taking Tarantino up on his offer that she avoided calling him back after she read the Jackie Brown script for the first time. "He was waiting for me to call him, and I was waiting for him to call me" she remembers, laughing. "He was getting worried, and told [producer] Lawrence Bender, 'What if she doesn't like it? We don't have anyone else!' He was concerned, and rightfully so."
After a few weeks went by, Grier discovered the reason why she hadn't heard from the director. "I read the note he had written on the back of the script and realized I was supposed to have called him weeks ago! I figured that he had probably recast the role, but I called him and said, 'I love the script. What character am I?' And he said, 'You're Jackie Brown.'"
Despite Grier's fears, there was never any serious chance that Tarantino would have given the role to anyone else. Before he became one of the most successful indie filmmakers of the ’90s, the Knoxville-born movie lover was a serious Pam Grier stan, who grew up watching her classic action flicks like Coffy and Friday Foster in theaters and later re-watched them as a video store clerk. After the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction put him on Hollywood's A-list, he dedicated himself into transforming the Elmore Leonard's 1992 crime yarn, Rum Punch, into a star vehicle for one of his favorite actors.
To this day, Jackie Brown is Tarantino's only feature-length adapted screenplay and it wouldn't exist — or be as beloved — without Grier. (The writer/director also adapted the Roald Dahl short story, "Man from the South" for his segment in the underrated 1995 anthology film, Four Rooms.) "It's because he knew so much about me personally," she says of why their collaboration clicked. "He brought a lot to that script for me."
Jackie Brown announces its swagger in the opening scene, a perfectly-paced four-minute title sequence scored to Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" that introduces us to our eponymous heroine — a flight attendant who makes extra dough on the side as a smuggler for local L.A. crime kingpin, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Tracking Jackie through the airport as she rushes to make her flight is a bravura bit of filmmaking and performance that consciously echoes the beginnings of Blaxploitation classics like Shaft and Grier's own Foxy Brown. Go ahead — just try not to watch the whole thing again.
According to Grier, pace was a big issue for her on the Jackie Brown set, as her character moves between the rat-a-tat-tat speed that Ordell operates on and the more relaxed vibe given off by Max Cherry (the late Robert Forster), the hangdog bail bondsman that's totally into her. "Quentin told me that Sam had a metronome-like quality that's really fast, but that I'd have to slow down for Robert," she recalls. "He warned me that not all actors can do that, so I had to learn."
Grier had to slow her roll down even further as the movie's elaborate plot kicks into gear, pitting Jackie against Ordell on one side and the long arm of the law on the other. Meanwhile, she's stuck in the middle with Max, as she executes a plan to escape with her freedom and a significant amount of cash. "Quentin said to slow my pace down to avoid revealing that I'm planning a scheme," Grier says. "Max knows people inside and out, and knows when they're fooling him — he can smell me if I'm lying. But I also need him, so it's not cut-and-dried. That's why you're exhausted when you work with Quentin Tarantino and his characters!"
Despite that exhaustion, Grier calls her Jackie Brown experience a "masterclass in filmmaking" — one that reignited her own interests in directing, a career she hoped to pursue before she "fell on my face" into acting. "Quentin shared a lot with me that I'm going to be applying to my own work," says Grier, who says that she's completed a script for an ambitious World War II movie. In the quarter century since Jackie Brown, she's also been a regular presence on television, with roles in shows ranging from The L Word to This is Us, and just narrated her eventful life story for the latest season of TCM's popular documentary podcast, The Plot Thickens.
Meanwhile, Tarantino took a six-year break from directing after unleashing Jackie Brown upon the world, finally returning behind the camera in 2003 for the first volume of Kill Bill — the prelude to a two-decade run that included hits like Django Unchained and Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. But he's already vowed that his as-yet-unrevealed next movie will be his last, which means it's unlikely that he'll ever check back in with Jackie in a sequel or prequel.
Asked who she'd want to play the younger version of her alter ego should Tarantino suddenly announce a Jackie Brown prequel, Grier says the final choice is up to the director. "But I would want to see an actor come in who has a blueprint and knows the character," she says, adding that she would definitely be involved in casting whoever plays Pam Grier in the movie or series she hopes to see made from her 2010 autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts. "There are going to be little Pams, middle-age Pams and the Pam that meets Quentin," Grier promises. She'd better warn that Pam that crossing 110th Street is a hell of a tester.
Jackie Brown is currently available to rent or purchase on most VOD services