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If you like James Earl Jones's story, you might also like:
Athol Fugard,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Whoopi Goldberg,
Ron Howard,
Jeremy Irons,
B.B. King,
John R. Lewis,
George Lucas,
Audra McDonald,
Jessye Norman,
Harold Prince,
Sidney Poitier,
Lloyd Richards
and Hilary Swank

James Earl Jones's recommended reading: The Song of Hiawatha

James Earl Jones also appears in the video:
Perseverance and the American Dream

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James Earl Jones
James Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones Interview (page: 6 / 7)

National Medal of Arts

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  James Earl Jones

What kind of setbacks did you meet on the road to success?

James Earl Jones: Setbacks? Yeah. There were specific ones, but it didn't diminish my enthusiasm. Being told one day that I had a job, my first job in a TV series, the next day to going to a party and finding another young actor had the job. Somebody had lied to me. But that was the game. I've learned that game could be even more vicious if you let yourself feel it that way.

The idea that you're competing with fellow human beings can get rough. My wife knows actresses who, when they go to auditions, they will deliberately distract all the other actresses. They'll start telling stories. They'll start asking questions deliberately, to throw you off your balance. Well, I don't like to hear about stories like that and I certainly don't like to -- my first time on camera was with a wonderful actress named Diana Sands, and Diana began to try to tell me -- my first time on camera -- she began to try to tell me, "Look, you know, if you want them to use your take, then you do something to distract the other actor's take." I said, "You know, I don't think I want to know that. I don't think I want to be that busy manipulating because I came here to act, you know; and if I use all my energy manipulating, I'm not gonna do my job." And there was something very disturbing about all that, you know. She was a brilliant actress and could do both, could manipulate as well as do her job. But, I didn't think I could do that, you know.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

How did you deal with self doubts, with fears of failure?

James Earl Jones: Oh no, you don't have self doubt. You don't have fear of failure. If you do, you gotta take care of it. If the way you approach your goal is right for you, then you won't have self doubt. Undiminished enthusiasm always stays with you.

You're the only person who can tell whether you have talent or not, and there's a certain point where you've go to be really honest with yourself and say, "Yeah, I do, and I'm going on." or "No, I don't." And your parents can't do it for you, and critics can't do it for you. Once you've determined that, then there should be no room for doubt, you know. There is room that, "Well, maybe this isn't the right role for me." That's always going on, you know. You're told every day you're not right for this role. And they might, "It's 'cause you're too tall." They usually don't know why you're not right for it. It's just, you didn't ring a bell for them, that's all. And that's okay. You've got to accept the fact that you don't ring a bell for everybody.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
There's only one actor I know who does: Morgan Freeman. He can ring a bell on the drama side, on the comedy side. It's rare for this actor to miss in terms of the way he achieves his work, and it's also rare for him to miss in his character. Whatever he does, it always seems to work in his character. That's very rare. Most of us don't have that going for us. We will fail to ring somebody's bell, and that's okay.

When I first came to the theater, I followed Sidney Poitier's generation, which is not far ahead of mine, a couple of years. He had established the height of what young black actors could do, the rest of us were there to establish the breadth. I figured there was room for all of us: for Lou Gossett, for Raymond St. Jacques, for Godfrey Cambridge, for Billy Dee Williams. There was room for all of us, so we never felt competitive, and that was a blessing. I continued to feel that.

Do you see Jean Genet's play The Blacks as a turning point in your career?

James Earl Jones: I think usually there's the turning point that's very public that's acknowledged in Newsweek magazine and whatever, and then there's those turning points that nobody notices. At first, The Blacks was one of those quiet turning points. It came to be acknowledged later on, as the production went on, year after year.

James Earl Jones Interview Photo
I remember meeting with the producer. She said, "James, I'm worried. Except for Roscoe Lee Brown, I don't know whether I can gather a group of Black actors who could handle this language. It wasn't classical language but language that doesn't have an ethnic or street twist or a rural twist. She was not sure she could find the actors would were trained vocally for that kind of speech. She was challenging me too, and I said, "Well, you might not be able to, but start with Roscoe, and I think you might." And she did. She built a cast around Roscoe that could handle the language.

I remember Roscoe and I were referred to as "fine mummers" in one of the reviews, "There's these two fine mummers." But she did gather a group of actors who could handle language, and that was kind of a phenomenon. We weren't playing sharecroppers, we weren't playing street dudes, we were playing people of the world. It had some relevance to the movement at that time, the civil rights movement, and acknowledged the danger of racism. Genet was very clever. He wasn't saying whites were bad and blacks were victims. He was saying any race who takes on a superior position is going to be threatened by the other race taking it on. It could flip-flop. It was an important message at the time. It's a play that's difficult to do now, because it tapped into the sense of America's conscience as it existed then, and I don't think that conscience is as healthy today as it was then. We're too cynical for that play to work.

How do you deal with criticism? Do you react to it?

James Earl Jones: That's a tough one, because the critic is there as an operative in that industry. He's supposed to have a job that helps make the industry work. He's supposed to inform people what's worth seeing and what's not worth seeing, according to his opinion. Or if you're Kenneth Tynan, he's supposed to tell you what you tried to do and how well you succeeded. And that's very valuable. But I learned early on.

I learned early on. I think I was doing a play with J.D. Cannon, who was one of the actors in the McCloud series. And J.D. said, "Look Jimmy, we're gonna open tomorrow night. Would you do me a favor? Don't tell me what the critics said. I can't handle it." I said, "What! You can't handle it? If they're good can I tell you?" He said, "No. Especially when they're good. Because whatever they say is gonna distort your ability to go on stage the next night and do the work you should do. If they say you were good, you have to try and be good. You have to try and 'What did I do that was so good?' And you're distracted. If you're bad, you're totally defeated, or your ego's deflated, and you're distracted," he says, "I'd rather not know." And I decided at that moment that I'd do the same thing. I'd not read them anymore. I let my wife read them, and my agent read them, and if there's something I should know, they would interpret it for me. But, I would not read that person's opinion.

It reminded me of one of the two books we were encouraged to read. It had nothing to do with show business. One was Zen and the Art of Archery. The other was Rilke's To a Young Poet his series of essays and letters to a poet. And...

Rilke had said to this young poet, "I sense this is what you're doing, you're writing for the critics. You're writing to please the critics." He says, "That'll never work. Because they're not pleasable. You must write to please yourself. And then they might be pleased, you know. But they're secondary to what you do." And so this all began to fall into place for me and I respect what critics do, but I don't -- their work trails mine. I mean, I've done my work, and I'm gonna keep looking ahead, and not behind at some reflection.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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