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If you like James Earl Jones's story, you might also like:
Ernest J. Gaines,
John R. Lewis,
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
James Earl Jones Interview (page: 7 / 7)
National Medal of Arts
You've met your share of controversy in your career, in the play about Paul Robeson, even over your performance as Darth Vader. How do you deal with that?
James Earl Jones: Well the Darth Vader controversy I was able to laugh off. Raymond St. Jacques, I think, wrote a letter to the editor saying, "How dare you present the only black in the galaxy as the bad guy?" I said, "Well heck, I'm just special effects. It's David Prowse that's in that costume."
I have not been able to laugh off the Paul Robeson controversy. I write about it in my book a little bit. It's still painful. Avery Brooks now takes the same production, exact same words, and presents it to the public, and he adds the fact that he's a singer; and it's a glorious production. No controversy at all. In my time, Paul Robeson, Jr. had not resolved his position as guardian of his father's image. He had not resolved it yet. We got in his way. We became a bone in his side, and so he became a bone in our side. I just happened to get in Paul Jr.'s way at the wrong time. He haunted the production and he concocted social apartheid to bring the production down. The young playwright Phillip Hayes Dean said, "He's acting like a McCarthyite himself now." But you know, victims of tyranny learn from the bad guys. You see it in Israel, you see it in black people. If you learn from the bad guys, you end up doing what they do.
What characteristics do you think are most important for success in any field?
James Earl Jones: I really don't know. I ambled into this, so I didn't record what works and what doesn't work. I don't know if we ever learn from history anyway. You've got to learn for yourself. Given that, I think every actor has to find out what works for himself. I'm hesitant to advise young actors because their world is so different from mine. How you approach an audition is very different. I think they have to dress up more, because we're talking about image in movies more than we're talking about the stage. I think you have to come on with an image. You have to dress the role much more than we ever thought of doing. We'd be embarrassed by that. That a brunette woman would dye her hair blond just for an audition is probably not unheard of now in a Hollywood situation. The business of training is very different now. I think you have to learn the basics.
You have to learn something more than just acting. You have to learn how to behave, how to fill your space on the stage or in film. You learn the difference also. That the film space is inner space, but you've got to fill it. You know, you watch Paul Newman, and he's jam packed in a very small area of his face. All the energy that I would express in my whole body, he's expressing right here: Zhooooom! That's a hard one to learn for a stage actor.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
What do you know about success now that you didn't know when you were younger?
James Earl Jones: Nothing. It was not about achievement. It's about setting on the path and going. I would've been a good explorer. I would've been good with Lewis and Clark. Cause you're out there, and there's nothing telling you whether you're successful or not. There are no landmarks. You know you want to get to the Northwest corner of the country, but all you can do is walk. And there's space and space. It must have been a wild and weird world, but I think I would have fit in very well there.
Is there something you've not yet had a chance to do in your career that you'd still like to do?
James Earl Jones: No. I don't think I've done "the role" in film that I could say, "I leave that as my legacy." I've done it on stage, but I've not done it in film; I've not found that role yet. I'd like to find it. It's not too late. I'm still learning the art of film acting, and once I learn it, I might find it and do it before I retire. But that's not something I need to do, that's something I'd like to do.
Is there anything outside of acting that you've always wanted to do?
James Earl Jones: I want to rebuild a world the same as the one I came out of. We had the Mississippi River, and in flood time, when the flood subsided, you could walk out and see catfish in the mud puddles. I'm digging a little lake now, a three-acre lake. I want to stock it with fish. I want to rebuild that self-sufficiency that I knew as a child. That's got nothing to do with show business.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to our society in the 21st Century?
James Earl Jones: We've got two big ones. One is health and one is sanity. I won't say "racism." I say "sanity," because racism is a form of insanity. Unfortunately, giving it a name almost sanctions it, as though we understand it. We don't understand it. Religion becomes a part of it, and that's insanity. Giving it a religious name almost sanctions it, and that's wrong. We shouldn't sanction these things, we should try to understand them. We have extreme psychotic situations that are disturbing our balance as a nation.
We have health imbalances, in the way we've gone about handling disease. Now there are doctors and scientists trying to find out what we did wrong with antibiotics. Where do we go from here to solve the serious health problems we're confronting? Including drugs. It's a health problem. To deal with it only as a crime problem won't work. Because as long as there's money involved, it's going to be as much a part of the economy as oil is. So you've got to deal with it in a whole other way.
When my mom came with her first bid to take me into her life, I didn't know her, because she had gone off with her new husband. They were migrant workers in the Delta region of Mississippi. They were grain harvesters, rice harvesters. In those days, large farmers would line the male workers up each morning and put a thimble full of cocaine into each shirt pocket, and the government sanctioned it, because it made them work happier and harder. I don't think the government knew what it was doing, but at the same time, there was not a lot of addiction that came out of that period. So the addiction has to do with something psychic, mental, rather than something physical. The addiction is the despair that drives you to want to stay asleep all the time, to knock yourself out all the time. That didn't exist then, so that cocaine itself was not addictive. So we've got to deal with it as a mental health as well as a physical health problem. That's all, then we're perfect!
What advice do you have for young people starting out today?
James Earl Jones: Carl Sandburg said, "Take no advice including this." I think I should stop right there.
What book or play would you choose to read to your grandchildren?
James Earl Jones: My son is 13, and he used to be read to all that I need! His room is full of books. His mom did most of the reading to him. If I'm able to utter a sound when he has a child, he'd have to start pretty early. I'd like to read him some of the books we read my son. I don't know when I'd get to a serious book, that is a book that I think would be meaningful to the child for the rest of his life.
You write in your book about your Irish and Native American ancestors as well as your black ones. Was it a source of anxiety or problems when you were growing up? Did that upset you?
James Earl Jones: Why should you be upset? You are who you are. Blacks have become as racist as racist white people, and have a hard time acknowledging it. But no, we had no anxiety about having white blood in us. How could we? We all did. So what? You end up being who you are, and if you can't come to peace with that, you're in a lot of trouble. To deny you had Indian blood, deny you had black blood, deny you had white blood, is part of the insanity I'm talking about.
People say, "What do you do about the bombings in the churches?" What do you say? You don't say anything. You have a response, hopefully a positive, a creative response. But the idea of talking about it? You can't rationalize insanity. You can't talk about it either. You lock it up. Or you treat it.
What does the American Dream mean to you?
James Earl Jones: I'm not a dreamer. I never acknowledged there was one. Each person has a place they want to get to. I just defined mine as this self-sufficient world, which is the farm. Is that the American dream? No! Most people don't want to be on a farm. I notice that Canadians are more inclined to be that way. Every urban Canadian has the dacha, or the shack out in the woods. I don't know if there's an American dream. Or that you'd call it an American dream. It might be a human dream. "Dream" sounds like fantasy. I think there are problems we have to solve, if you want to call that our dream. Solutions are our dreams.
Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 14:50 EDT
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