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BWW Interviews: MISS DAISY Arrives in Melbourne, Icons in Tow

It's hard not to close your eyes when James Earl Jones speaks. That bass sound is so rich, so familiar. It is a voice that resonates across generations and across genres - this voice that has given life to Mufasa, to Vader, to Shakespearean heroes and modern villains alike. It is a voice that Time magazine has called amongst the most iconic in history, and in conversation it is just as resonant as when used to immortalise some of cinema's most famous lines.

It is indeed tempting to close one's eyes and play out the tear-jerk moments from The Lion King in your head, but in James Earl Jones' presence it takes only a moment to remember he is so much more than his extraordinary vocal instrument. At 82, Jones is one of the worlds most respected stage actors, a thoughtful and considered artist as committed to his craft as he was when his career began more than 50 years ago.

Jones is currently in Melbourne to play Hoke in Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize winning play DRIVING MISS DAISY, a role he previously performed to critical success in both New York and London. Sitting next to him today is his Australian Daisy, the legendary Angela Lansbury, star of film, television and stage - and recipient of a record five Tony Awards through-out her seven decade career.

These are the kind of actors who earn spontaneous applause the moment they appear on stage. Though they could tell you a thousand stories about the heyday of Hollywood, and are gracious with fans of their screen work, they are unequivocal about their first love - the theatre. Together with Boyd Gaines, a four-time Tony winner, the three stars of this Australian season of DRIVING MISS DAISY readily admit that theatre is their favourite medium, and believe it adds something to a play better known as an Oscar-winning film.

As Jones points out in this press conference for the Melbourne run of DRIVING MISS DAISY, "The movie hands it all to you. The play hands you three people and it says to you - you figure them out. The audience has a big role to play every night."

Gaines agrees that this experience is quite different to that of watching the movie. He says that it requires more focus and imagination from the audience, and admits he loves our Australian audiences in particular, and the ways in which they have discovered these characters.

"Sometimes you get wonderful surprises in the responses [and you realise] Oh! It's the story that is carrying the day. The story of these three characters."

For her part, Lansbury admits that Daisy is one of the hardest roles she's ever played, and calls her a "great, great role". She admits that she has learned to understand this woman so different to herself through playing her every night.

"She doesn't know how to become a happy woman - she will never be a happy woman. The closest she comes to being happy is with this man," Lansbury offers of Daisy's relationship with Hoke.

The play follows the relationship of Southern Matriarch Daisy and her gentle driver over a quarter decade, and delivers moments of great beauty and humour. Jones considers the story of Daisy and Hoke universal, and has learnt that both the humour and touching moments can speak to audiences in New York or London or Brisbane, just the same.

He also admits that the role of Hoke remains a challenge, even now - "You can play it easy, but it's not easy" he says before adding that there is a particular scene that he is still working on, today.

One gets the sense that these actors are amongst the hardest working in the business. At 82 and 87 respectively, Jones and Lansbury are performing 8 shows a week, and as Jones points out, they never go easy on the matinee.

As to how they pace and find the energy, the theme returns once again to the experience of live theatre, and the role the audience plays.

"To be an actor you have to be able to sky dive," muses Jones, "Walk over to the edge of that stage and simply leap off into that space - and know the audience will be there to buoy you up with its energy. I can't quite explain it, except [it's] human magnetism. And energy."

As to local audiences, Lansbury says that the cast have been looking forward to performing here. "We came with great excitement. We felt that Melbourne was going to be our city. [Melbourne has] all kinds of colours in connection with it."

Melbourne audiences will get their chance to play their role and show off these colours when DRIVING MISS DAISY opens at the Comedy Theatre on April 5th. The play will run for a strictly limited 5-week season before heading to Adelaide and Perth, and offers a once in a lifetime chance to see three of the world's most acclaimed actors up close. I for one will have my eyes wide open the entire time!

Gordon Frost Organisation presents DRIVING MISS DAISY by Alfred Uhry

Starring James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury & Boyd Gaines

Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from April 5th for five weeks only

For tickets and further information, click here.

Image Credits: Jeff Busby.

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