BWW Interview: James Earl Jones II of COME FROM AWAY National Tour
Coming to the Durham Performing Arts Center from January 14th-19th is the national tour of Come From Away. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing actor James Earl Jones II, who is currently in the production playing Bob & others.
James previously appeared in the national tour of The Gershwin's Porgy & Bess. He has also been seen regionally in productions Porchlight Music; Goodman; Marriott; Court; Chicago Shakespeare; Writers; Lookingglass; Lyric Opera Chicago; SF Opera; Ravinia; and Broadway in Chicago. His TV/film credits include Pokerhouse, Half-Bad, and Chicago Med. To those wondering, yes, he is related to the legendary actor, James Earl Jones, as they are both distant cousins.
To start things off, how has your journey been so far with Come From Away?
JEJ: The journey with Come From Away has been nothing less than amazing. Telling this story from city to city is such a cyclical emotional ride because we tell this amazing story and you feel the audience's energy and then their energy in turn makes you feel better. That's a wonderful experience. No matter where we go, no matter who we perform for, no matter what the demographic, this show is amazing and it continues to be amazing every single day.
Everyone knows the story of 9/11, yet the story of what happened up in Gander, Newfoundland after that tragic event isn't as well known. It has become much more known nowadays because of the musical. How familiar were you with the events in Gander prior to getting involved?
JEJ: I absolutely had no idea that anything had happened in Gander and to be more clear, I didn't know Gander existed. It was all new to me. I was also one of the few people that was not familiar with the show before I auditioned for it.
I guess would you mind telling us about getting involved?
JEJ: Sure. So I live in Chicago, my agent said we have this show. They didn't really know a lot about it either and they said, "but it looks very interesting. Would you like to come in and audition? We're gonna send them a tape." So I sent them a tape and the second week of April, I flew out to audition that following Thursday to New York, April 26th. I had a call back that day and then a call back the next morning when I landed back in Chicago, my agent called me and told me that I booked. It was a super fast process for me, but it was actually kind of interesting because the producers, Junkyard Dog Production, actually originally produced Memphis on Broadway and the tour. It was very interesting that I happened to be auditioning for them. I had just opened a regional production of Memphis on April 25th, the night before I flew out for my audition for Come From Away. I didn't know that they were the original producers, and obviously they didn't produce my production in Chicago, but I thought that was such an interesting story and I found that out when I went in for my audition and they were like, "Oh, you're doing Memphis. We originally produced that show." It was meant to be that I would work with the producers, this awesome cast and awesome creative team. Just a wild, amazing ride.
In this show, every member of the 12-person ensemble plays multiple roles. Would you mind telling us about all the characters you play?
JEJ: So we each have a couple of more prevalent characters. One of the interesting things about a come from away versus the people in Gander is that come from aways, or the plane people, they're generally solo characters, right? They're not. We are representing one storyline of the plane people. But when we are playing people from Gander, you're generally playing amalgamation of those characters. My main character is Bob and he is based on a man from Jersey actually named Tom McKeon. He feels like a fish out of water over his time spent in Gander. Though he comes to understand and appreciate the thought of paying it forward, being kinder, being open, and he takes that message back with him to Jersey. I play seven characters only, but many of them are blitz. Some of them happen in very quick moments, but I can't tell you all of the characters because I don't want to ruin the surprise.
Have you met Tom McKeon?
JEJ: Yes. When we opened in Seattle in October of 2018, we actually met all of the plane people and come from aways that we characterize. They actually came on with us for a big opening night bow and we spent four days with them prior to opening when we were previewing the show and they all come to various cities all the time. So if we wanted to call them or email them, I don't have a Facebook account, but they are readily available via Facebook. We can contact them and talk to them when ever we like.
Tell us about your director, Christopher Ashley. He won a Tony Award for his work on the Broadway production in 2017. He's getting ready to do Diana, which is another biographical musical connected to a famous tragedy as it's about Princess Diana. What is he like to work with?
JEJ: Christopher Ashley is amazing because he gets to the bare bones of the story. I think what was great about David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the married couple who wrote this piece, they did over 1300 interviews, and they put all of this together in this amazing show. They wrote this amazing music and Ian Eisendrath, the music supervisor, director, and conductor, he worked with them and they fashioned it to this amazing piece, but it was Chris who said, "This is how we make this work. This is how we make it work quick. Here's how you make it work efficiently. This is how we do this show in a hundred minutes and get out all of this information and tell this amazing story and still not lose anything from the story." I think that's what's so great about Chris is that he said, "I realize that you got 1,500 interviews and there is so much information that we could tell, but this is the information that is most important, and this is how we tell it in the most efficient way." Yet this show move seamlessly. It is what some might call beautiful chaos. It moves for a hundred minutes with no intermission. Part of why the show works so well and so efficiently is because of Chris. We have five different companies. There's the Broadway cast, the tour, Toronto, the UK, and Australia. That's why we have such an amazing effectiveness and five companies is not only because of the amazing writing, the amazing producers, and the really amazing message, but it's because of Chris and the way that he directed us to tell the story.
Going back to the beginning, how did you first get started in the theatre?
JEJ: So my journey to theatre was actually very different. I wanted to be a doctor, that was my plan. I have no theatrical training. However, my story is that I actually changed my major and decided to go to school for opera at the last minute after already getting accepted to Emory University for pre-med. It hadn't occurred to me how long I was having to spend there, so I rescinded my offer to Emory, and I was actually kind of lost. I wasn't really sure what to do, but one of my aunts said, "Well, why don't you go to school for singing?" I had sung with my concert choir in high school and decided that I would go to school to sing opera. So that's what I did. I went to the University of Illinois, Champaign Urbana, and I studied opera. After I graduated, I actually wasn't pursuing singing at all. I was still working with my voice teacher in Chicago, but I wasn't really pursuing anything. I sang in Europe for a little bit, but I was working in a law firm. I was working a regular job for three years. Before that third year, my voice teacher passed away. When he died, he left me in his will all of this vocal music and a letter. In that letter, he basically asked me what I had done with my life and at that point I hadn't done much. So I told myself that the very next year, I didn't really know how I would make it work. I didn't really know what I was doing. I would just audition for things. Then I did, I focused and stuff, and I just didn't stop. So here I am.
You happen to be a distant cousin of the great James Earl Jones. Have the two of you ever actually met?
JEJ: Yes, we've met. He's done a couple of production in Chicago back when I was much younger. He did Othello and Fences. He would give tickets to my dad to come see the shows, and talk to him afterwards. At that point, I wasn't into acting. I just was coming to see plays that James happened to be in. I had questions for him, but my questions weren't of a theatrical nature because I didn't understand that at that age. My only questions were "How do you change clothes so quickly?" And he said, "Well, I have dressers." I then said, "Oh these dressers see you in your underwear?" Then, he said "Sometimes." Then, I was like "Yeah, I don't know if I could do that." Yet, I'm now doing a show where I make quick changes all the time.
When you're eventually done with the tour, what are some dream roles you'd love to pursue in the future?
JEJ: Honestly, I've already played a couple of dream roles. I had a show called Carlyle in Chicago at the Goodman Theater that really felt like it just spoke to me. It was a world premiere, I was the first person to do the role. I have done a production of Ragtime, but would like to play the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. I have covered the role and performed it, but haven't actually been offered the role. I have played Haywood Patterson in a regional production of The Scottsboro Boys, which was really very amazing experience for me. I would say also if given the chance, I would love to play Mufassa in The Lion King.
I was about to ask if you could ever see yourself playing that role in following the footsteps of your third cousin.
JEJ: Yeah. Part of the reason I want to play it is because I want to break the stigma because a lot of people don't talk about it and it's okay, but like a lot of times people make it seem like characters have to be a certain weight, a certain height to play a role. So I'm like five foot eight, and most of the men who have played the role of Mufassa are six feet and above. My thing is that I have the voice to do it and I have to presence. I don't need the height to do it. I think that anyone who sees me on stage is never caught up in my height. If they are caught up in my height, then I'm doing something wrong. But like that to me is a dream role to break the stigma of people feeling like they have to be a super tall person to be considered revered or a character of importance because it's not important. We are doing shows now where there are people who are performing in wheelchairs and people who are performing who have various physical disabilities and yet they are given the opportunity to perform. No show should feel like they have these intense limits, especially something so trivial as height. So I would very much like to play the role of Mufassa. Other than that, I would say if there was a show that said that "James, we want to create a show around you. We don't even know what we're going to do but we want to do with you," that would be awesome.
In conclusion, what advice would you like to give to any aspiring young performers out there?
JEJ: I would say these few things. One, be kind to those around you because you never know who will find themselves in a position of importance where they might have influence over an opportunity for you in the future. I would say be kind to yourself. I think that business is filled with a great deal of self-deprecation and people who don't believe in himself and don't give himself enough credit, be kind to your folks know that only are you enough, but that you are more than enough. I would also say to continue to study experience and thrive in this world. Get experiences in your life. You never know what experiences may cultivate an opportunity for you. A better understanding of this world or a better audition in a room and most importantly, I would say just keep going. I know it sounds like a moment from Finding Nemo, but that is what she really have to do is you have to just keep going. You have to know that people will say no. People will say not today. People will try to judge you because of your look or your height or your weight, but know that not only at you enough, but keep going. If this is something that you truly want to do, this is something you are truly passionate about. Keep going.
James, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
JEJ: Thank you very much, Jeffrey!
Be sure to catch the national tour of Come From Away. It will be playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center from January 14th-19th. For more information, please visit: