Thom Geier
September 30, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Less than a week before his first performance as the legendary Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson is in a Times Square rehearsal studio Googling flowers on his iPad. ”We’ve been talking about this flower for three weeks and I decided to look it up today,” says the 62-year-old star, who’s preparing to make his Broadway debut in The Mountaintop, a new drama by Katori Hall that imagines the civil rights leader in room 306 of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on the night before his assassination in 1968. Late in the play, when speaking of the many nights he’s spent away from his family in Atlanta, King recalls how he’d buy flowers for his wife, Coretta, ”always with the mind that they would last long enough till I made it home…. I picked a beautiful flower called absence.” But scrolling through botany sites, Jackson can find no such flower. ”She just made that s— up,” says the blunt-speaking star, slumped in a folding chair beside his ravishing costar, Angela Bassett. ”Maybe it’s a metaphor. I ain’t even thought of that. I’ve been using it literally.”

While there may not be a flower called absence, you can bet that vacant seats will be rare at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre this fall. Thanks to its high-wattage cast and subject matter, The Mountaintop has become one of Broadway’s hottest tickets, long before its Oct. 13 opening. But if the hardworking Jackson is daunted by playing an American hero, it doesn’t show. ”I just got through playing a hero — a Marvel hero,” says the actor, who wrapped his role as superhero wrangler Nick Fury in The Avengers in August. ”I’m playing a man this time.”

And The Mountaintop‘s version of King is far from the plaster saint you might expect. While fretting about the future of the civil rights movement and the continual threats against his life, this King cusses, smokes Pall Malls, drinks whiskey-spiked coffee, and flirts up a storm with Bassett’s Camae, the sassy and mysterious woman who’s sent to deliver him room service — and who’s definitely not Coretta. The play has already drawn fire from some King loyalists for dramatizing his reported weakness for women, though the encounter with Camae remains chaste. ”Yes, there will be people who say we don’t have enough icons and now you’ve spread dirt on the icon by making him a womanizer, smoker, drinker, curser, or whatever. But he’s human,” says Jackson. Adds Bassett, 53: ”He wasn’t perfect and neither are we. But the best of what we can hope to do is to live as honestly as we can, and try to do our best. Some give all their best. He gave his life.”

Despite Jackon’s and Bassett’s storied Hollywood careers — both earned Oscar nominations, he for 1994’s Pulp Fiction and she for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It — the two are no strangers to theater. They met while performing in New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company in the late 1980s, just before Bassett made her Broadway debut in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1988. ”I come from the stage,” says the actress, who has two 5-year-old twins with actor husband Courtney B. Vance. Jackson’s only previous Broadway experience was understudying in Wilson’s The Piano Lesson from 1990 to ’91 (he never went on). The tug of live theater returned after he and his actress wife, LaTanya Richardson, bought a home in New York about five years ago and he began to frequent Broadway shows. ”As I sat there, I realized how much I missed the energy and doing something from beginning to end.” He turned down offers to appear in various Broadway revivals, unwilling to face the inevitable comparisons to earlier performances. ”The whole time I was doing [the 2000 remake of] Shaft, I was thinking about Richard Roundtree. I fixed that by getting Richard in the movie. Had he not been there, then I would have had to live up to that cool.”

When he heard about The Mountaintop, an original drama that had a short but acclaimed run in London in 2009, Jackson decided to take a chance. After all, he had a long personal association with King. ”I was actually an usher at his funeral. I marched in the march that we talk about in the play. I saw him many times when I was a student,” says Jackson, who graduated from Atlanta’s Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, in 1972. ”So it was an opportunity to put a different face on Dr. King outside the iconographic face that everybody sees.”

King’s face, Jackson readily admits, doesn’t bear much resemblance to his own. The actor wears a wig and prosthetic nose on stage, and he styles his mustache to resemble the late preacher’s. ”I’m working diligently on the speech pattern that’s not his oratorical voice but his interview voice,” he adds. ”I’ve looked at a lot of YouTube interviews.” Bassett, who’s had plenty of experience playing real-life figures from Tina Turner to Rosa Parks, understands the challenge. ”In the moment the clothing, makeup, and the lights help a great deal,” says the actress, who will appear in February’s spy comedy This Means War with Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, and Tom Hardy. ”But if you can get one or two sounds or tones, or one physical gesture, you can get audiences to believe.”

For Jackson, the challenge of playing King won’t last long. On Jan. 16, the day after his final show, he’ll be in Louisiana to shoot Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-bounty hunter in 19th-century Mississippi seeking to free his wife from the plantation of brutal Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). ”That’s going to be ugly,” laughs Jackson, who plays Candie’s ruthless plantation manager. ”I go from being the most beloved black man on the planet to probably the most hated Negro in cinematic history when I get through with it.”

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