InDepth InterView Exclusive: James Earl Jones Talks DRIVING MISS DAISY, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, STAR WARS, THE LION KING & More
Today it is BroadwayWorld's extreme honor to bring you an exclusive and extensive discussion with one of the finest American actors in history all about his legendary career onstage and on screens large and small - the commanding and versatile two-time Tony Award-winning and Academy Award-winning James Earl Jones. Touching upon much of his internationally regarded iconography as well as looking ahead to current and future endeavors, Jones eloquently expresses his observations on acting, art, humanity and life itself. Focusing on the Broadway Near You and ScreenVision presentation of Alfred Uhry's DRIVING MISS DAISY starring opposite fellow icon and InDepth InterView participant Dame Angela Lansbury, Jones astutely outlines the themes of the touching Southern drama depicting the unlikely friendship between an uptight society woman and her dedicated chauffer as well as opens up about his own experiences with culture clashes and race in his life. Additionally, Jones juxtaposes his observations of working alongside Vanessa Redgrave on the Broadway and West End iterations of the play versus the Australian tour with Lansbury which has now been preserved on film and is being shown in movie theaters across the country throughout this month. Plus, Jones reveals some of his own favorite moments in the powerful play and dissects the dynamics of his dense and complex characterization of Hoke in the piece and how he sees Hoke's relationship to that of Daisy (Lansbury) and her son, Boolie (played by Boyd Gaines). Besides all about DRIVING MISS DAISY, Jones also previews his upcoming Broadway return in the recently announced revival of the classic Kaufmann & Hart chestnut YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU and expresses his thoughts on the multi-racial casting planned for the hotly anticipated production. Furthermore, Jones looks back at some of his most fondly remembered roles to date - ranging from the voice of Darth Vader in STAR WARS and Mufasa in THE LION KING, to his seminal work in films such as DR. STRANGELOVE, CLAUDINE, CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY, FIELD OF DREAMS and more. All of that, his thoughts on the upcoming STAR WARS sequels currently in production, observations on his role in the new feature film comedy THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, memories of his Shakespeare In The Park KING LEAR (available on DVD), his Tony Award-winning work in August Wilson's FENCES as well as much, much more!
More information on James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury in ScreenVision's presentation of Alfred Uhry's DRIVING MISS DAISY in movie theaters nationwide is available at the official site here.
A Soul In Bliss
PC: Right off the bat, I have to say that my absolute favorite filmed production of all time is your Shakespeare In The Park KING LEAR.
JEJ: I'm glad you saw that LEAR. I probably shouldn't say that I thought that it was particularly effective because, after all, I played in it, but I think it was surprisingly effective for a video as far as what we captured with cameras.
PC: It's so visceral. That production was so unique - how marvelous that it was preserved for future generations to see.
JEJ: Yes, I am very happy that it exists.
PC: Do you enjoy being a part of the legacy of filmed productions? That was an early major filming, of course.
JEJ: Well, I'm not sure. Plays by Shakespeare and also modern playwrights, they are designed to have an inner space with an audience and a cast and also a large space. I was never certain if there was a good way to record that - to capture it - but I think we are definitely improving.
PC: As can clearly be seen in this stupendous filmed record of DRIVING MISS DAISY.
JEJ: Yes, as we can see with this DRIVING MISS DAISY film. I think it all comes down to the director, really - as usual. The director has more to say about how a film can achieve what a good production does more than anybody else. Yes, actors are involved, but the director... [Pause.]
PC: He's the central force.
JEJ: Yes. For instance, with DRIVING MISS DAISY, the director, what he did was to focus only on the actors - because it was only out of the actors' mouths that the words of the play could happen. Atmosphere didn't seem to do it, so they mostly eliminated whatever suggested a set, sound and effects - all of that became less important as we worked on it. It was about the actor's faces - they lit it to focus on the relationships between the three characters in the play.
PC: How illuminating.
JEJ: It's never been an easy process. I think that there have been attempts to record stage plays many times since I have been an actor - especially back in the days before they had body mics and things like that, you would just pick up what you could get from a camera set up in the back, behind the audience, picking up what you could hear; which wasn't always much... and certainly not very clearly! [Laughs.]
PC: Technology has certainly improved by leaps and bounds since then!
JEJ: I'll tell you, though, as an actor who has been recorded many times on what we call archival films - the New York Public Library For The Performing Arts has recorded most of what I have done on Broadway and others before that - and I think back on Richard Burton's performance of HAMLET on Broadway, I often wonder: what would it be like to see that film record? Personally, I'm not anxious to see it, but I think it really means something that it is there - that it exists. Actors of my time were never that anxious to see productions once they were filmed or even to really have anybody else see them because they were archived - they are archives; there is no attempt to make them movie entertainment like with DRIVING MISS DAISY.
PC: Would you adjust your acting at all if you know cameras were filming that particular performance for the archives?
JEJ: If I did, it would only be by some inadvertent subconsciousness.
PC: Do you think the lines between theatre, film and TV are blurring - particularly due to the internet and the accessibility of HD technology?
JEJ: Yeah, I think so.
PC: I would assume you've probably been offered many of these new limited-run TV series so popular these days...
JEJ: That would be a pretty good assumption, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: Do you have any performance of yours you would want to go back and see?
JEJ: No, I don't think so. Back in my day, they actually were not offered for anybody except scholars to see - who, for some reason, would want to review what was recorded or something. You see, the sound was never good in my day for those types of things - as I said, the ones I am talking about we did before there were even body mics. We relied on the acoustics of the room back then, and, today, there is rarely a production done on Broadway that isn't miced - whether footlight mics or body mics.
PC: Speaking of technology, do you ever utilize an earpiece like Angela Lansbury famously often takes advantage of onstage when she can?
JEJ: I don't know much about them! Even though I've worked a lot with Angela, I've never seen one or seen how it's rigged. I wouldn't want one, though, I don't think - it would be very distracting. But, if I was having problems with lines, perhaps I would pray for one! [Laughs.]
PC: You were doing DRIVING MISS DAISY as you were memorizing MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING last year. Was that tricky to juggle both in your brain?
JEJ: Well, I had mostly already memorized MUCH ADO. Knowing my lines didn't help, though - it was a horrible production.
PC: What a shame. You and Vanessa Redgrave as a much older Beatrice and Benedick was such a unique idea.
JEJ: Yes, it was a unique idea, but it got lost. Wasted. Honestly, I should have bowed out of that production...
PC: Thank goodness your next Broadway role is already lined up, then: YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.
JEJ: Yes, I am bowing very much into that production! [Laughs.]
PC: Kristine Nielsen was just announced as your co-star, so I am curious if you can give me the scoop about any other actors involved?
JEJ: She was?! I didn't know that! That information is not usually shared with the actors beforehand, unfortunately.
PC: Have you discussed casting in general, particularly given that this is going to be the first major multi-cultural production of the show?
JEJ: Well, we discussed casting in terms of ethniticity and stuff like that, but I don't have any say in who I am working with usually. Honestly, I am just looking forward to the first meeting! All I know right now is that I am playing Grandpa. I assume that the whole family will probably cast white except for me, though.
PC: Do you generally believe in colorblind casting?
JEJ: I'm not sure. I think that ethniticity is such a big part of our culture that it is hard to ignore it, but I am going to ask the audience of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU to accept that I am an African American man who probably married a very pale wife - Penny is the only child of his, you see, and Penny had children; his grandchildren. I expect the audience will be accepting of it.
PC: An intriguing parallel between DRIVING MISS DAISY and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is that Alfred Uhry wrote a musical, PARADE, with Jason Robert Brown, who it was just announced will be providing the incidental music for YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU.
JEJ: Oh, really?! How funny. I didn't know that.
PC: Getting back to DAISY: What was your first meeting with Angela Lansbury like, as far as you remember?
JEJ: Well, there was a time when a theater was rented for the purpose of presenting playwrights' favorite scenes. A whole bunch of different scenes were presented that night - all of them being the favorite scene of the particular playwright. And, so, Angela and I were lucky enough to do a scene together in that from DRIVING MISS DAISY.
PC: What scene was it?
JEJ: It's the scene where they are driving along and having a disagreement. I knew from just doing that one scene on that night together how Angela might tackle that role and I longed to work with her ever since we did that. So, we did the whole tour of Australia - six months together - which was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me, and for her. And, for Boyd Gaines.
PC: Did you and Angela have any excursions or fun nights out while on tour or were you mostly concerned with ensuring you gave it all at the performances?
JEJ: Well, you see, Angela believes in resting. She said to me, "At our age, the best thing you can do when you are not onstage is napping!" So, I took her suggestion and I napped a lot - and, actually, I still do.
PC: Your generation is so resilient and has such endurance. It's enviable.
JEJ: Well, as long as we can go onstage and not knock over the furniture, I think we'll still keep working. [Laughs.]
PC: How are Australian audiences different than Broadway and West End audiences?
JEJ: It's interesting, because Australian audiences watch a lot more American movies and television than British audiences, and they understand our culture much better than we understand theirs, certainly. I found the Australian audiences to be very in tune with the play. Audiences outside of the US seem to understand the south of the period that Alfred Uhry is addressing in the play - that is: the segregated south - and I think that they are perhaps a bit more patient with the conditions than New Yorkers tend to be, because it was such a horrible, horrible system. The Australians really got the humor, as well. Of course, the play really isn't about segregation...
PC: Definitely not.
JEJ: It's about a woman who does not know that she is bigoted because she has had the privilege of being white. She's Jewish, but the Jews - especially Ashkenazi Jews - were mostly thought of being German, and many were blond and blue-eyed. It was difficult for her to understand why other people - like the KKK - would hate her people. She had a hard time understanding why, like in the scene where the synagogue is bombed... she didn't understand how that could happen. I mean, if it was a black church that was bombed she could understand that because it was about segregation and ill will, but she didn't understand how white people could attack other white people like that.
PC: What would your character, Hoke, think of a black president being elected, such as Barack Obama?
JEJ: Well, of course, I can't really speak for Hoke because he lives in Alfred Uhry's mind, but in the play there is a suggested relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. - Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to address a synagogue. I think Hoke is detached, though - he didn't want to be Martin Luther King, Jr.; he didn't want to be a part of that movement. He simply wanted to work. Being a chauffeur in the south was an honorable position to have as an employee back then. So, for me, I played Hoke as being quite detached from the Martin Luther King, Jr. experience - he needed and wanted it to be resolved, but he was more interested in trying to survive and endure under it than to solve it. He dealt with her - with Daisy - in a way that I think helped her. She was in such denial about her own bigotry. Daisy is a sharp character, though - she was a schoolteacher, after all. And, the first thing that happens between her and Hoke is positive - she finds out that he cannot read and she jumps right on that and encourages him to learn how to read, which is an advanced thing.
PC: Speaking of "jumps," the physicality that you and Angela bring to the roles is astounding - especially the first scene versus the last scene. Of course, the last scene is so tender, intimate and moving, particularly as you two play it.
JEJ: Yes, the tenderness is always there, though - from the very beginning - but it cannot be expressed under the segregation system. Hoke can't even touch her unless she is falling down or something - it was taboo for a black man to touch a white woman.
PC: Did you and Vanessa play the last scene similarly to how you and Angela play it?
JEJ: Well, you cannot compare any actor to another - and those two are incomparable in the best way!
PC: That's about as good as it gets - now or ever.
JEJ: It is. It is. With Vanessa, it was a different approach to Angela, though. If you'll give me a minute, I'll cite one example: the first scene, which is a debate between the mother and the son; between Daisy and Boolie, her son, about when the car keys should be taken away. Now, that is a horrible moment for any senior citizen - when they are told they cannot drive anymore. Driving in most of our society and in many societies is an aspect of liberation and freedom, and when those keys are taken away and a chauffeur is hired, that is a bad day for her. When Vanessa played it, she wanted the scene to be played in the kitchen and she wanted to be cooking. The way Angela wanted to play it was that she is in the parlor, setting out flowers for a vase. That's the main difference between them in that scene, but it was interesting to see their different needs for that scene - the choice they made in how they saw the scene. In the scene, it's a debate - a harsh debate - between mother and son in which things are revealed about both of them.
PC: How do you see it?
JEJ: Well, Boolie is caught between generations - contrasted to many men of the south at the time he is liberated; he treats Hoke very well. I treat Boolie like my son, in a way - and love him, in a way. There is great love in the play. Earlier, you mentioned the great tenderness in the pie-eating scene at the end - that exists underneath it all, I think. The conflicts that they have are unavoidable, though - because of her denial and because of the conditions surrounding them both, in society. That's the only difference I care to point out between the two actresses.
PC: You did the play first with Vanessa besides that one-off performance with Angela a few years back, is that correct?
JEJ: Yes. And, I had the same director - David Esbjornson - and the same Boolie, Boyd Gaines, for both.
PC: How would you describe your relationship with David? What was your first meeting like?
JEJ: Oh, I get along with David pretty well. He's a farm boy as I am - from Minnesota; he was raised on a chicken farm. And, I was raised on a subsistence farm in Mississippi and Michigan. So, he and I had a lot in common to begin with - and, in a way, it had a lot to do with patience and slowness of thinking. By slowness of thinking, I don't mean retarded, but deliberate thinking - seeing things as simply and clearly as possible; and that's how he approached the play.
PC: The brilliant John Lee Beatty set for the production evokes a memory play at times.
JEJ: Yes, I agree. The set is almost Brechtian at times - suggesting only parts of the room and parts of the house; the backdrop is used as a screen to depict the passage of time.
PC: What are your thoughts on the feature film version directed by Bruce Beresford?
JEJ: That is a great motion picture - award-winning, Oscar-winning; as it should be. The director of the motion picture opened it up - there are exterior scenes, like when the policemen pull the two of them over. Actually, I don't remember the bombing scene in the movie, but that is definitely the most difficult scene in the whole play, I think. It's a wonderful motion picture, though. What you are seeing now in the stage recording is not the movie, of course.
PC: The policemen scene is a famous one from the film. Was it ever discussed to integrate that or any other elements from the film adaptation into this production of the play?
JEJ: One can only do the play as it was originally written. If Alfred Uhry hasn't already told you, he told me that the new recording of the play that we did in Australia is the most accurate representation of his play to date - that's why it is being shown in movie theaters and why it was released.
PC: Did you see the original production with Dana Ivey?
JEJ: No, I didn't. As you may know, it never actually was done on Broadway until I recently did it with Vanessa and Boyd. It was only done Off-Broadway and then they made the film.
PC: Was the film the first experience you had of DRIVING MISS DAISY, then, I assume?
JEJ: Yeah - it was.
PC: Did you have an inkling that you would like to take on the role? Do you keep a bucket list of roles in general?
JEJ: I don't know how to answer that! I will say that I was inspired by Morgan [Freeman]'s performance, though. I thought he was wonderful and the film was very, very good. Besides the film, though, the only other exposure I had to DRIVING MISS DAISY was in that scene we talked about that I did with Angela featuring the playwrights' favorite scenes from their plays. There were several scenes done that night and that night was the very first time I got to do any of DRIVING MISS DAISY onstage - just that one scene - and I enjoyed it very much.
PC: Is there a particular moment in the play that you anticipate performing every night most of all?
JEJ: Yes. The whole thing. [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious - and probably pretty true, too!
JEJ: It is. It is.
PC: Since we already discussed the first scene, how did you and Vanessa go about the last scene in the play with the pie? Was it vastly different with Angela, especially since their interpretations of the first scene were so disparate?
JEJ: Well, when I played the last scene with Vanessa, when I first offered her the pie she rejected it - she didn't want any.
PC: No way! How interesting.
JEJ: Yeah. I offered it to her and then I started to eat it myself and express to her how good it was. Then, she had a piece.
PC: Is that one of the features of this play that your enjoy - the many different ways you can go about many of the scenes?
JEJ: It's all about the little things. Dialogue is always the same no matter who is playing it, but everything else - especially the little things - can be different depending on the performer you are playing it with.
PC: The staging is so inventive and unique, as well. I'm curious, were there any technical mishaps involving the turntable?
JEJ: Of course! Of course things went wrong. You know Murphy's Law - if something can go wrong, it will! Seriously, though, to answer your question, I think that I might say one of the most exciting moments for me - I wouldn't say a challenge because it was so much fun to come up with - was to create a car onstage. Obviously, we couldn't have an actual car onstage...
PC: How did the staging conceit come about, then?
JEJ: The main concept was that we would create the car together - I would bring out a wheel and she would take a seat on the bench and then I would reach under the wheel and all of a sudden you would hear the sound of an engine turning over. And, then, suddenly, we were in a car and moving forward - or, round and round, as the case may be, because of the turntable; but, it all suggested movement.
PC: The concept works so well on film, as well - a credit to the detail you two infused your performances with, no doubt.
JEJ: Basically all we did on film was what we were already doing onstage. We didn't change anything for the film - we just played the play and they recorded us playing the play.
PC: Have you seen the final finished film?
JEJ: I have. I liked it a lot.
PC: You have no issues going back and watching your performances?
JEJ: Usually I can.
PC: For instance, if you are flipping through the channels, will you stop on FIELD OF DREAMS if it is playing?
JEJ: Well, my favorite movies that I have been in are movies like FIELD OF DREAMS - very simple movies. I have been in what they call blockbusters, but I don't cherish them in the same way that I do FIELD OF DREAMS and MATEWAN - about the coal miners - and CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY and some of the things I've done on TV. Nothing is comparable in this business, though.
PC: Says the man whose first film credit was under Stanley Kubrick - in DR. STRANGELOVE, no less!
JEJ: That's true! [Laughs.]
PC: On YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, you will be working with Scott Ellis. Is this going to be your first time working with him?
JEJ: Yes. I have not worked with Scott Ellis before - I am looking forward to it.
PC: Coming back to Broadway, how do you view the new New York? Times Square has changed a lot in recent years, has it not?
JEJ: It's a lot harder to get to work, I'll tell you that! [Laughs.]
PC: You can say that again!
JEJ: It's much more entertaining as you're going work now, though - you see much more activity these days than you used to in that area.
PC: How have audiences changed in your half-decade-plus in the theatre?
JEJ: Audiences are a sacred body as long as we are a sacred stage. [Pause. Sighs.] I don't compare it to religion, but, I mean: they are to be cherished. We rely on the audience - not for laughter or applause, but for their presence.
PC: Given that screen properties become stage vehicles and then come back to the screen again - as will be happening with a live-action BEAUTY & THE BEAST movie it was announced this week - I'm curious if you'd be open to appearing in a live-action LION KING were they to consider doing it?
JEJ: As Mufasa?! I thought the stage version was so great, but I don't think I could do a live-action version of it.
PC: Have you ever considered doing a musical?
JEJ: Well, I can't consider it, really, because I can't sing! [Laughs.]
PC: The most mellifluous voice in history and you can't sing!
JEJ: Exactly! Exactly.
PC: I've also heard you have closed the book on STAR WARS and will not make an appearance in the new STAR WARS follow-ups. Is that true?
JEJ: Darth Vader is dead!
PC: Your voice is used at the end of one of the new George Lucas films from early this millennium - REVENGE OF THE SITH.
JEJ: Yes. I did record something for when Darth Vader awakens from his trauma and he has been transformed into a bionic person and he realizes that he has killed his own wife.
PC: So you did revisit the world of George Lucas for that?
JEJ: Yes, I did.
PC: Do you enjoy being so well-known around the world for your voice - and by so many generations? Especially in regards to THE LION KING and STAR WARS.
JEJ: Yeah, I do. I love it - absolutely love it. I love being a part of that whole thing.
PC: My good friend Jim Steinman told me a delightful story about playing some songs for you and Judy Collins and how much fun you all had together. Were you and Judy Collins close?
JEJ: Yes, Judy Collins was a dear friend of mine. I remember that my first wife and I were at our apartment one day and my wife had built a harpsichord from scratch and she played it for us.
PC: She built a harpsichord?! That sounds awfully tricky!
JEJ: Well, you buy a kit. My first wife was a musician and she bought a kit and built a harpsichord from scratch.
PC: You couldn't even sing along!
JEJ: That's right! I couldn't!
PC: Do you play any instruments?
JEJ: Not really. Just a harmonica - maybe. [Laughs.]
PC: So, is there still an elusive role you yearn to play?
JEJ: Not really - I don't hanker anymore. I mostly consider what comes along and take the things I like the most and just enjoy doing them while I'm doing them.
PC: Hopefully we will be discussing your next Tony Award nomination this time next year for YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, then.
JEJ: Yes! Thank you. I hope so, too. I recently received my first Oscar, as well, as you may know.
PC: As did Angela! Huge congratulations! Was that a great honor?
JEJ: Oh, yes, it was. It was wonderful - wonderful.
PC: You have another movie currently out in theaters besides the DRIVING MISS DAISY special screening - THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN. Do you and Robin Williams have any scenes together?
JEJ: Yes, we have one scene - in an electronics shop. It was a lot of fun to do. I mean, I'm not a comedian, but I can be a straight man if it is written for me.
PC: Last question: do you have any specific memories of August Wilson? Your work together on FENCES is so legendary.
JEJ: Well, my work on FENCES was mainly with the director, Lloyd Richards. I liked August Wilson a lot the few times we discussed things, though - I don't think I understood him, really, though, to be honest. He was one of the greatest playwrights in the world.
PC: This was remarkable, James. I cannot thank you enough - such a thoughtful and intuitive conversation.
JEJ: Thank you very much, Pat. I really enjoyed this. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro