Interview with Actor, James Earl Jones
Mitch Mattson: I'm fascinated with the beginning of your career. I worked at Arena Stage in D.C. recently, and you are just loved there because of the work you did that transferred to Broadway.
James Earl Jones: That was The Great White Hope. I also did an Athol Fugard play there called Blood Knot. It was a good place to work, and I'm sure it still is. We were able to create a great piece of theatre there that we then took to Broadway, and then later it was made into a film. I'm glad we got it on record.
MM: I read that you had a profound stutter as a child. How did you overcome it?
JEJ: I didn't overcome it. I think once you're a stutterer, you are always a stutterer. You learn how to work with it and work around it. I suppose that people who are dyslexic have the same problem. People who have Tourette's syndrome have a similar problem caused by the same source: synapses in the brain. Mine started very early. My uncle also stuttered, and I always thought that I might have become a stutterer because I mimicked him.
MM: Who influenced you in your decision to become an actor?
JEJ: Everybody! But mainly myself. My high school teacher, Donald Crouch, was also an influence.
MM: How did your love of Shakespeare come about?
JEJ: I don't know if I do love Shakespeare. Some Shakespeare I don't get along with at all. I did a production of Timon of Athens that was this total train wreck. I just got out of Much Ado About Nothing in London. Total train wreck. That's Shakespeare. You walk in a room, and you get your ass kicked, you know? I had a much better experience when I played King Lear, which was a role I understood.
MM: Your portrayal of King Lear was acclaimed.
JEJ: I don't read reviews, so I don't know that.
MM: The director of that production was Ed Sherin-correct?
JEJ: Yes, one of my favorite directors. We worked together on several plays.
MM: Why did you choose to do the play You Can't Take It With You and the role of Martin Vanderhof/Grandpa?
JEJ:I love Broadway!
MM: How did this production come about?
JEJ: Jeffrey Richards, the producer, tends to find a play that has an older male character and an older female character. He cast me as Grandpa, the older man, and he cast Elizabeth Ashley as the older woman, Olga Katrina. Elizabeth and I worked together before in Gore Vidal's The Best Man on Broadway. A great, great production. Jeffrey's done this type of casting twice now, and I love it.
MM: Do you see this as non-traditional casting?
JEJ: I don't know. I can't answer that question because I don't really know what that means. It probably means a lot of different things to different people. Nobody in our production explains why Grandpa is a black guy. But there is one key secret: Grandma doesn't appear, so you've got to assume she was a very, very pale lady because our daughter looks Caucasian. Our children, and my grandchildren, all look Caucasian. Let's put it this way: I will not promise the audience anything in terms of what they will see about race. I do expect a good exercise of their imagination. What they will see, however, is a battle of the classes.
MM: Will you share your initial thoughts about the play after you read it?
JEJ: Comedy's not my thing, but I have to say that there is something about this play that I find to be very entertaining. It's a good story about a very interesting family, but I am still solving the mystery of it all. We just started working on it, and we're at the beginning of the process of finding out.
MM: What kind of preparation or research have you done in order to play this role?
JEJ: The play is set in 1937, right after the Great Depression. There are references to tax revolt, discussions about mysticism, and other things that were going on in that period that we have to research as actors, so we know what we're talking about. I find it very interesting. The best part of being an actor is that you get to become a student: a role that you play can deal with history and other disciplines that you may not be aware of.
MM: You were alive during the Great Depression-does that come into your own preparation or reflection on the work?
JEJ: Absolutely. This play is about a household of individuals who have become one big family. The whole family has dinner together twice in this play. The two black characters, Donald and Rheba, are servants, but they end up at the table too. I think that is really kind of neat. Kaufman and Hart didn't write Grandpa as a black guy, but they did write two black characters-characters that I have never seen in theatre writing before. Their job is to answer the door and to do the cooking and cleaning and to feed the snakes. Donald is actually Rheba's boyfriend, and he helps serve at the table and all that. But they are also treated as equals. Other members of the household are not genetic members of the family either. They come one day to the house, and they stay for years. There's an open door policy in this family, which makes me think of the Great Depression. Mr. De Pinna-who came one day to deliver ice-discovers that my son-in-law, Paul, is making bombs in the basement, so he decides to stay and work with Paul making bombs. It's really fireworks, but I like to say bombs because it makes it sound more interesting.
MM: Can you share some of your thoughts about Grandpa and his world view?
JEJ: In every comedy, every character has something silly about them. And it's quite clear with most of the characters in the play. I've not yet figured out what's silly about Grandpa. I know I'm not going to get anywhere taking this character too seriously, so I am trying to figure out what his quirks are. How nuts or screwy is he? Walking into this play, I'll bet you there are several of us, including myself, who are in the process of just figuring out who these characters are. We're all asking ourselves questions. The one I'm working on right now is just how silly Grandpa is. And is he wrapped in a shroud of good will?
MM: Grandpa's dropped out of the establishment-correct?
JEJ: He really has figured out how to relax. It's hard to define him. I can't really define him politically. He's not a Libertarian exactly, but he believes in paying taxes only if the money is used for something sensible. I've met people like that all over the world. I knew someone in Europe who was telling me he didn't mind paying taxes in Holland because of all the flowers.
Costume design for "Grandpa"
played by James Earl Jones
MM: How do you think Grandpa learned to relax?
JEJ: It's just something that struck him one day. "Just relax and wait," he says. He says things that make sense most of the time. Grandpa is a great role model. With his friends he says, "Life's greatest struggle is to just relax." He becomes the champion of the two lovers. The young man, Tony, who comes from a very rich family and is expected to go into the family business on Wall Street, is very conflicted. Grandpa becomes his champion. The young man is being pulled away from my granddaughter, Alice, by his father and mother, and Grandpa takes sides.
MM: He's the center of the family. He's the anchor holding it together.
JEJ: He's like the sun with the planets and their orbits. He's been the center of this family for many years. And he doesn't want to be in charge anymore. He wants the place to run by itself. He wants the family to operate the same way they have been at every dinner, even if he isn't there. It's like the blessing he says over the food: "We've been getting on pretty good. We thank you very much. And we leave the rest up to you."
MM: Do you think You Can't Take It With You is about being true to yourself?
JEJ: It probably is. I don't know if the nature of this play is to give the audience a message, or a theme, or a philosophy. I don't think so. I think a great play shows us human experience, and you have to build your own message from it.
MM: What do you look for in a director?
JEJ: I need him to make decisions. I'll come up with the questions and look to him for answers. Right now my question is: How imperfect is Grandpa? And I know that Scott is not going to want me to make him too silly, not make Grandpa too imperfect, because somebody's got to lead this band. And there's no better person to do it then Grandpa.
MM: Public school students are going to read this interview, and they will want to know what it takes to become a tremendously successful actor. What advice can you offer?
JEJ: I don't know if you can set out to be "a successful actor." You can try to learn how to act, but it's a long process. I'm still learning, and I'm 83 years old. I've been at this for, what, 60 years? Almost 60 years and most of that time has been spent trying to learn how to do it. You are learning something every time you go into a new production. It's like combat. There's no combat or military action that's predictable or that you are going to be able to second guess.
You Can't Take It With You is a Roundabout co-production. Previews begin August 26 and tickets are available through the official website.