Celebrity Interviews: James Earl Jones
   
 



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by
Laurence Washington


  You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a luminary.
  "Look, over there. Isn't that Gordon Parks Jr.?" someone asked.
  "I missed him. I was too busy trying to talk to Cecily Tyson." his friend said.
  This was the scene inside New York City's art deco Ziegfeld Theatre during the world premiere of "Cry, The Beloved Country" staring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced President Nelson Mandela to the standing room only crowd, many of whom came to support Mandela's Children's Fund. After the screening, a fund raising party for the Children's Fund was held. Danny Glover, Bill Duke, Naomi Campbell, Richard Harris and James Earl Jones were just a few of the attending stars. After the soiree, Jones was willing to discuss "Cry, The Beloved Country," his canceled T.V. shows, acting in general,s and of course Darth Vader.
  However, anyone interviewing James Earl Jones should be warned. When Jones speaks to you, he speaks "to" you -- not "at" you. He'll look you straight in the eye and respond -- almost grandfatherly. And when you ask him a question, sometimes he'll not answer right away. Jones prefers to mull over a question, carefully constructing his answer. He cares about, and puts a great deal of thought into, his responses and rebuttles. And with the attention focused on you by his gray blue eyes and the set of his chin, you can tell Jones expects a response out of you -- with the same effort of forethought. Jones doesn't want to simply do an interview, he wants to discuss and exchange ideas.

Q:
"This has nothing to do with "Cry, The Beloved Country," but they keep releasing all these versions of the "Star Wars" trilogy. Do you get any of that?"

Jones:
"No, no. You had to be an actor. And David Prowse was the actor. I was just a special effect."

Q:
"It's the voice, right? Is that a big attraction in why so many jobs come your way?"

Jones:
"Usually it's the voice of authority they hire, ever since Darth Vader. Whether it's Admiral Greer ("Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger"), voice overs for Bell Atlantic, or Chrysler cars -- and I don't mind. It's good to have a pigeon hole."

Q:
"In Dallas there was a letter writing campaign to keep "Under One Roof" on the air. What really happened, and why was it taken off the air?"

Jones:
"I'm sure my Dallas relatives were part of that. It's the same thing that happen to "Gabriel's Fire" and "Paris." Those were the only series where I was either the major or a primary character. Most of "Under One Roof" was thrown together in a panic over one weekend. And in that panic, no one accounted for the fact that writers need time to understand the characters -- so they can turn in good episodes. We had two out of six shows that were well written. The quality just wasn't good enough. No matter how good the actors you have, you can't make material work that isn't. The writers wrote a wonderful episode for the grand daughter, and another for the adopted son. But I never understood Joe Morton's role. They never wrote an episode where I really understood him. And you can't make a series work without that. With "Gabriel's Fire," I realized too late, after the 6th episode, that they had the wrong producer. I said, 'I can't work with you anymore.' But it was too late. I should have taken action sooner. And the same thing happen with Paris. It was just a stock story about a cop and his team. It was just not well written. We had a great cast and concept, especially for today. A great concept -- wasted -- lost."

Q:
"Well that certainly didn't happen in "Cry, The Beloved Country." The characters were richly drawn. How big of a challenge was it for you to play Rev. Kumalo? Kumalo seems really different from most of the roles I've seen you play."

Jones:
Oh, thank you for acknowledging that. I had to hang on to the character's simplicity. Actors love to play something complex in the dichotomies and the conflicts in the character. I hang on to the simplicity. And that was the hardest challenge I had. It's easy to think militancy and standing up for your rights. Those attitudes are very modern. For Kumalo, Apartheid had just begun. It did not ground down the spirit like it did through the '90s. Kumalo didn't have enough time to build up defenses about Apartheid. So I had to keep that in mind."

Q:
"Just in general, usually with your presence, your voice of course, you always come across as this character of great strength. Well you did in "Cry, The Beloved Country" but also you showed a side of vulnerability that we're not used to seeing."

Jones:
"I really welcome that. I've played characters like that, but only on stage. You see film usually asks the least of you. If you're a type, they ask for the type. They don't want to see any other development. If you improve you're acting, sometimes it throws off your character. So they hire you for what your are. So it's only on stage where I found those different subtle aspects of a character and of myself."

Q:
"Was there any part of Kumalo's character that was a part of you?"

Jones:
"I think anyone who accepts the character will feel him. I've known preachers in my life, but I've never known a preacher quite like him though. That gentleness, even though he has foibles, he's human you know. He confesses to being tempted by adultery, and he feels rage which he expresses only to the people who are close to him. That's the most interesting phenomenon about him -- many of which we couldn't get into the movie. But once you accept his humanity, you began to feel for him. And sometimes cry for him. And when it's appropriate, cry with him. But I think that happens to anybody playing the character."

Q:
What was your reaction when you first read the script?"

Jones:
I have read a lot about the young militants in South Africa. So I wondered how would Kumalo's gentleness play with them. Would they accept or just reject it? And I thought, is this a museum piece? The kind of person that existed then, does not exist anymore. Well, I was told they still do. Amazingly the spirit of gentleness has survived all the grinding down that Apartheid did. And that gentleness has to be celebrated. And through that gentleness, perhaps all the harmony and reconciliation that is possible will come out of Cry, The Beloved Country. But it's only since Mendela that has become possible. If this movie were made before Mendela, I don't know if it would work in the same way. For them or for us. With Mendela, gentleness is the key factor. He's very complex of course, but at the heart of the thing is his gentleness, that's not so different from Kumalo's.

Q:
You could have easily done another Tom Clancy story, or big budget blockbuster. Why "Cry, The Beloved Country?"

Jones:
"It's like Robert Duvall. He'll stop making big budget blockbusters and do something simple like "Tender Mercies." Every actor has to do that. You walk with two feet. One in the outer commercial world, and one in the world that is highly artistic. I've done a couple of things that I thought were relevant. This is one."

"Cry the Beloved Country" is available from Miramax on video.

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