James Earl Jones is the type of guy you would want as your grandfather, father or friend. This man is so funny, down to earth, and pleasant. He was clearly comfortable and enjoying himself Thursday night at Sidney Harman Hall. He had easy rapport with Shakespeare Theatre Company’s artistic director Michael Kahn which he knew way back when (does Kahn know everyone in the acting world?). This was almost like a comedy act because there was a lot of great laughter. Jones should do some comedy movies! The audience learned some fun facts about Jones; that he loves doctors, is a feminist, and won’t stop working.
When Jones slowly lumbered onto the stage, there was a very loud and enthusiastic reception from the crowd. He described his arrival as “trying to be cool.” The crowd LOVED him. He is heavier set than I remember, but he still looks great, in fact, when he revealed he was 80-years-old, I was floored. Kahn revealed that he had been trying to get Jones to come for years for this interview.
Since this was a “classic conversation” situated at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, there was sadly no talk about Darth Vader, but Jones did dip into talk about Marlon Brando, his first movie “Dr. Strangelove,” and work with other famous actors.
Jones was born in Mississippi and then went to live with his grandparents in Michigan. He had a bad stutter from the ages of 5-15. He is not a spokesperson for stutterers he shared. An English teacher changed his life by taking special interest in him. She noticed Jones liked words and poetry. She told him, “if you like words then you can stay them out loud.” Jones shared with the audience how stutterers can sing without out stuttering and poetry is like that too. Jones described poetry as organic, rhythm with passion that leads to no stuttering.
Kahn asked Jones, or as he calls him “Jimmy” from their Village days in NYC, if he grew up with that voice? Jones replied, that he can’t hear his voice the way we do since it is inside his head, but he responded, “If you’re impressed, then I’m impressed.” (audience laughter)
After high school Jones went to college and was pre-med, but then switched to acting. He said he couldn’t keep up with the knowledge that doctors must continually have. He currently has 5 doctors himself and he listens to all of their advice. When he flies he wears stockings so he doesn’t get a blood clot traveling up his body to his brain. Jones revealed, “doctors know stuff!” (audience laughter) Jones shared, “doctors work hard and they deserve big salaries.” He then asked if there were any pre-med or doctors in the audience as he peered into the audience as the house lights went up.. random, but hysterical!
After college, Jones joined the army. He didn’t delve much into his army time, but he served during the Korean War period. He said the army gave him discipline to help him be successful with acting. He ended up in NYC to study under the famous Lee Strasburg and Fanny Bradshaw using the GI Bill. His first Shakespearean role was Virges in “Much Ado about Nothing.” Jones revealed, “I didn’t know what I was doing.” He got panned pretty hard by critics, which he said he deserved. He doesn’t read critics reviews, but his agent and his wife does. His wife will give him necessary feedback like, “we couldn’t hear him.” He said that has happened before and it was true!!
As for adjusting to New York, Jones describes “it took me two years to to get used to it. I’m from a farm and the army didn’t help change that. I walk slow.. like I did behind a plow growing up. I should move out and let the younger people have New York City. NYC moves at an immense pace.”
Jones got started into acting during a trans-formative period of acting that included Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and others, which Jones called very exciting. He didn’t realize it at the time. Everyone was writing including African Americans. Everyman could be an actor. He believes Marlon Brando’s portrayal of everyday men in movies made movie goers go, “I can do that!” Jones smiles, “and they were right!” (audience laughter) Jones claims he was told by Lee Strasburg that he and fellow actor George C. Scott had their own style of acting and didn’t mimic Brando like Paul Newman and Richard Harris. Jones said once Newman and Harris discovered their own voices is when things really started to happen for them. Jones claims he still doesn’t have style. “I’m still learning!” Brando, Jones claims, got disenchanted with acting because he stopped learning and called acting “child’s play.”
Jones did a play with Michael Kahn about war and it opened on the day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jones said, “It was a disaster, no one came.” (audience laughter) Jones was also in a play directed by Kahn called “The Love Nest.” He played a cannibal who liked to eat mothers. (more audience laughter) Kahn asked him if he had ever directed. It sounds like Jones tried it once or twice and realized he was no good at it. “No I don’t direct,” said Jones shaking his head.
Jones also was in “Henry the V.” He was cast as a bowman and had dialogue with the king. Critics wrongly believed because they cast a black man it was to heighten the issue of war. Jones claims, “I was just carrying the spear!”
Jones loved being in “Measure by Measure” with Colleen Dewhurst because he joked, “I only had three lines!” It was his second role that year he played an executioner.
Jones is famously known for his role in “The Great White Hope” which first he performed at Arena Stage in DC. He was discovered for that role by director Edwin Sherin when he did Shakespeare in the Park in NYC. Jones claimed Sherin had seen “me climb the mountain” and knew he could do the role which garnered Jones his Tony Award in 1969. It was a role that required intensity and size. The role was “emotional and taxing” especially since there was domestic violence. Jones received hate letters over his role. Jones didn’t know if this was going to be a hit. Yaphet Kotto followed Jones in the role.
Jones has done Othello seven times and the last time with his wife who took over from Diane Wiest. The more times one does a role the more “theatre reveals itself.” Jones doesn’t believe people understand Othello’s complexity. People ask, “Why not just get a divorce instead of killing his wife?” Kahn describes Jones as “a great Shakespearean actor.”
Jones also described trying out for a tough role and to prepare he took 2 shots of vodka,which he doesn’t recommend, but it worked as he got the role. Because of his dyslexia Jones learns his lines before showing up for rehearsal. Kahn also prefer actors know their lines before showing up for rehearsals.
Apparently George C. Scott and James Earl Jones were colleagues and friends. They were performing “The Merchant of Venice” in NYC’s Shakespeare in the Park when Stanley Kubrick came calling. He casted Scott as the air force general in “Dr. Strangelove” and Jones as the bombardier who couldn’t get the bomb out of the hatchet. Jones revealed that Slims Pickens wasn’t the original cast pick and he describes Pickens as a modern day Eddie Murphy, “all over the place.”
Jones waxed philosophical and said that he feels women make better directors because they get the sensitivities more. Kahn joked about not wanting to lose his job since he is male.
Jones favorite movie role is “Cry Beloved Country.” He felt most at home on that movie.
Jones also shared a beautiful anecdote from some military personnel who said they knew they were home from the Gulf War when they hears Jones signature voice on TV saying “This is CNN.”
As for advice for actors from Jones? “Only do it if you love it. Never give into bitterness or disappointment.”
Jones is not close to retiring. He was just on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave in “Driving Miss Daisy.” He wants to do more movies too, despite the 50 he already has done. He is definitely a youthful 80 years old. Thanks for stopping by James Earl Jones. You are quite lovely!! True gem.