Steve Pratt talks to Samuel L Jackson about becoming the most successful box office star of all time as he brings the world of basketball to the our screens. Jackson plays real-life coach Ken Carter who hit the headlines when he locked out his successful team because its academic record was so poor.

SAMUEL L Jackson had a constant reminder of the real life sports personality he was playing in his latest movie Coach Carter. High school basketball coach Ken Carter, who made headlines when he locked out his own team for failing their academic grades, was on set most days.

"When I met him for the first time I was interested in finding out the character of the man and the conviction of his beliefs," explains Jackson. "Beyond that I didn't imitate him in any way but tried to play the honesty of the scenes."

Ken Carter himself says he had a very short list of actors that he'd like to see portray him - and Jackson was the only name on it. The film tells how Carter inspired members of the team to overcome their poor backgrounds and motivation to learn about basketball and teamwork. Jackson had his own inspiration as a teenager. "I had a lot of teachers that were very challenging to me in a specific way, only because the majority had taught my mother and sisters," he explains.

"I knew what their plans and hopes were for me. I realised that doing things that made them proud made me feel better. I worked hard to please these people and myself because it's a really good feeling to have, especially, an authority figure put their arm round you, hug you and say, 'you did a job and did it well'. Through my successes, they have succeeded vicariously.

"The few times I've seen my life story on the TV, these same people have been there talking of how proud they are now. That's a great feeling of satisfaction to know I've done something to add to their legacy."

Jackson has just earned the distinction of being the most successful box-office star in the history of movies. "It's a dubious kind of honour. It means you've done a lot of films that are successful. It's a new watermark for others to reach. Hopefully now it's there, it will mean something in the history of cinema. I'm proud of it," he says.

He was the older figure of authority on the Coach Carter set, as he worked with the younger, less experienced actors playing the basketball players. He led by example, by what he did rather than what he said. He was usually the first person on the set, knew his moves and his lines - "and knew theirs just in case".

His only worry was that they were having so much fun that they played basketball at every opportunity. "I had to let them know there was work to be done, that we had to get done in a specific amount of time. But yes, we could have fun while we were doing it. If you had a question, don't be ashamed to ask it. And don't be afraid to make a mistake because we can do it over again.

"I tried to know all the names of people around me andtalk to them every day. I'm not the sort of actor you don't speak to, and I tried to stop them falling into the bad habits they'd heard about.

"Doing a scene over and over again was suicide for them. There were times I actually had to stop the director and advisors from pushing them so hard because they didn't realise the level of energy it takes to do stuff. I was a kind of protector as well."

If there was one thing Jackson didn't like about Carter it was, you get the feeling, his taste in colourful ties. They were his trademark, along with wearing a suit while coaching.

The actor didn't shoot hoops with the others off-camera. "I used to play basketball and when I could no longer play on the level I used to play, I did something else." That something else was golf. Jackson never misses the chance to play a round wherever he is. A golf movie is a different matter. Many people play the game but there aren't that many who want to go and see a movie about it, he says.

What cinemagoers do want to see is George Lucas's Star Wars saga. Jackson reprises his role of Mace Windu in Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith, which is released in May. He was cast in the sci-fi series after publicly canvassing for a role. He didn't finish work on the final part until a few weeks ago.

"I won't have a sense of completion until I see it and then I can say, 'it's done'. I'm glad I'm part of it. It's really wish fulfillment in terms of sitting in a theatre seeing the first one and thinking, 'how can I get in something like this?'. And now I'm part of it."

Ask if his character goes out with a bang and he replies, "Yes, I do", but doesn't elaborate. He has a permanent reminder of the role at home - his light sabre. He asked if he could keep it and Lucas said yes.

His voice was also heard as supercool superhero Frozone in one of last year's big animated hits The Incredibles. The end result was "absolutely amazing", he says, although he didn't know what was going on while making the film.

"Over a period of three or four years, I'd get a phone call out of the blue saying, 'we need you in the studio for an hour'. I go and say four sentences eight different ways and then go away again. There were never any visuals, just me and a microphone. I didn't know what the film was, just that it was about retired superheroes."

* Coach Carter (12A) opens in cinemas tomorrow

Published: ??/??/2004