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Actor James Earl Jones

Actor James Earl Jones

His is one of the distinctive voices of our time, yet few people know he fights a stutter; Jones' stage work off-Broadway in Jean Genet's The Blacks and Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot lead to a Broadway success in The Great White Way, for which Jones won a Tony. His work in August Wilson's Fences won him another. It took one day to record the voice track for Darth Vader in Star Wars: a performance which lead to many other commercial voice-over projects. A new edition of his memoir Voices and Silences has just been published.

14:17

Other segments from the episode on August 23, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 23, 2002: Interview with Michael C. Hall; Commentary on language; Interview with James Earl Jones; Review of the film "Mostly Martha."

Transcript

DATE August 23, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Michael C. Hall discusses his show, "Six Feet Under,"
and his acting career
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Michael C. Hall is one of the stars of "Six Feet Under," the HBO series
about a family which owns a funeral parlor. Hall is well-known on the New
York stage and is currently starring in the Broadway revival of the musical
"Chicago." Terry spoke with him in March.

"Six Feet Under" begins taping its third season this fall. Last year it won
two Golden Globe Awards, including best drama series. The father, who ran the
business, died in the first episode. The two sons, Nate and David, took it
over. David, played by Michael C. Hall, is more straitlaced,
business-oriented and uptight than his brother. He's also gay and came out to
his family during the first season of the show. In the first episode of the
second season, his mother was trying to be supportive of him. At the same
time, she wanted to let her children know that she's having a relationship
with Nikolai, the owner of the flower shop where she works. In this scene,
she's telling the family that she's invited Nikolai to a family dinner. She
wants each of her children to bring someone, too.

(Soundbite of "Six Feet Under")

Ms. FRANCES CONROY: Nate, I'd like you to invite Brenda. Claire, I'd like
you to invite Gabriel Dimas. And, David, if you have a special friend, I'd
like for him to come as well.

Mr. MICHAEL C. HALL: Why is my friend `special'?

Ms. CONROY: All right. If you're having sex with anyone, I'd like to meet
him. Is that better?

Mr. HALL: Not really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CONROY: Stop acting like children! Are you seeing anyone?

Mr. HALL: No.

Ms. CONROY: Well, why not? Sex is an important and healthy part of life.
It's nothing to be ashamed of.

Mr. HALL: Yes, I know that. Unfortunately, I'm not having any right now.

Ms. CONROY: What happened to that cop, the black man?

Mr. HALL: He met someone else.

TERRY GROSS: When you auditioned, did you know which brother you were
auditioning for?

Mr. HALL: Yeah, yeah. I was asked to read for the part of David from the
beginning, and when I read the script, I think I responded to that role
because, of course, I had it in mind, but I think I would have anyway just
because if drama is conflict, David is inherently dramatic because he's
conflicted over his sexuality, of course, but also his relationship to his
family, to his work, to his religious life even. They're all characterized by
conflict.

GROSS: So what did you have to do to prove yourself against the other David
Fishers?

Mr. HALL: I don't know. I think--in spite of the fact that, on paper, I
suppose I'm very different from David, there was something that I did
immediately respond to in terms of having a sense of how he might express
himself or how he walked or breathed or, I don't know, that sense of, you
know, resenting what you imagine to be a lack of appreciation for all the
sacrifices you've made for all the other people in your life. And not that
I'm fueled by resentment, but I guess I knew what that was about somehow and
took that as a starting point.

GROSS: In "Six Feet Under," you play someone who runs a family funeral
business. Had you already had the experience of going to a funeral director
and organizing a funeral, choosing the coffin, making all those horrible
arrangements?

Mr. HALL: I'd been sort of on the periphery of intake meetings. I was never
the person who was making the decisions, but I'd been through that with family
members and the like, and I'd been to wakes of friends and family members and
could draw on that, just that atmosphere. I've heard Alan talk about it.
It's a place where--and I think they do this in terms of the way they shoot
the show, that everything's real, but there's just some sort of peppering of
surreality when you're in that situation. Of course, David and Nate are on
the other side of that and maybe are creating a space for people to exist in a
place where they can feel whatever they need to feel. But there remains that
element of surreality or timelessness, time stops, and I remembered that.

GROSS: Did you meet anybody who reminded you of yourself on the other end of
the desk when you were arranging the funerals?

Mr. HALL: Well, I think--my father passed away when I was 11, and I think my
most intense memories of spending time in a funeral home come from that time,
and I guess we haven't had someone quite that young, but I know when Gabe
Dimas, whose younger six-year-old brother shot and killed himself
accidentally, is there with his mother. Of course, he felt an incredible
amount of guilt and responsibility because he was looking after a kid who shot
himself. But when my father died, just because of the confusing feelings that
come up, I dealt with some of that sense of guilt or vague responsibility as
well. So I think I did relate to that, yeah.

GROSS: Well, so far this season, the good news is you don't have AIDS;
although you'd been having unprotected sex. The bad news is you do have
gonorrhea.

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: The other bad news is your ex-boyfriend appears to be in a solid
relationship with a new guy...

Mr. HALL: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you still have feelings for him.

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: When did you find out what the story for this season would be?

Mr. HALL: Well, we really find out about things on a script-to-script or
episode-to-episode basis, so I wasn't presented with an arc for the new
season. I was presented with the first script, and while shooting that
script, about halfway through we'd get a copy of the next, and so on and so
on. So it's kind of like leading a second life. You have a little bit of
warning, and sometimes you'll maybe want to get a sense of where things are
going, just so you can have that in mind. But I think one of the unique
challenges of doing an episodic serial like this is that you don't rehearse it
as an entire piece as you would a play or don't shoot it with an entire arc in
mind. At least when you do a movie, you have something that's very
open-ended. And every script is a page-turner, you know. We never know
exactly what's going to come next, but that's the fun of it, too.

GROSS: What do people most ask you about in terms of the plot? What do
people most want to know?

Mr. HALL: Early on, people were interested in who burned down the house.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. HALL: But I guess usually specific questions about the show have to do
with my character because, of course, they're talking to me. And I've had a
woman recognize me and tell me she loves the show, and then put her hand on my
arm and tell me that she hopes that I'm going to be OK--this was about halfway
through the first season--which was kind of exciting and creepy,
simultaneously. There was a guy who walked by me in the locker room of a gym
in New York, an older guy, and this was after the season finale when David had
had his epiphany in church, and he told me he was glad I was finally starting
to behave myself. That's all he said, just said that and walked away. And,
you know, like, a New York fireman walked up and recognized me from the show
and said, `Are you going to get back together with that cop? I like you
guys,' you know, which is great. I think it's...

GROSS: Yeah, I do, too. I also think you should get back together.

Mr. HALL: Good.

GROSS: Because you play a gay character...

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: ...probably a lot of viewers wonder if you are gay or straight
yourself, and how you feel about playing a gay character in the series.

Mr. HALL: Right. Well, you know, my first impulse is to say, `Well, what
does it matter?' But I think the fact that the character has residence is why
it matters. People inevitably have varying degrees of preoccupation with
sexual orientation. I'm not gay. No one ever asks me if I'm a mortician, you
know. But...

GROSS: We know you're not. We know you're an actor.

Mr. HALL: Right, I'm an actor. Right. You know, I'm not gay, I'm not a
mortician, I'm an only child, not a middle child, so, you know, it's a bit of
internal alchemy and imaginative work. That is why I do what I do, and I'm
really honored to breathe life into the character, because I recognize, as I
think a lot of people do, that he's a pretty unique creation in terms of a
character on television or film or really anywhere I've seen, and he's a
complex, flesh-and-blood, you know, person who's not incidentally gay and is
not the understanding neighbor upstairs or the comic relief. And he also
is--his relationship to his sexuality is very complicated, and I think that's
unique. So I feel a sense of responsibility and I'm honored to play the part.

GROSS: Is it an issue anymore playing a gay character and how that may or may
not affect future casting roles?

Mr. HALL: I don't know. I mean...

GROSS: Is that just a thing of the past now or is that something...

Mr. HALL: Maybe, maybe not. I mean, I think it's certainly not enough of an
issue for me to not play the part. And when I read the part--I'm not playing
David in spite of the fact that he's gay. I mean, because he's such a great
character--he's such a great character because of his conflict. And his
conflict is rooted in his relationship to his sexuality. So I guess in that
sense I'm playing the part because he's gay.

But I don't know. You know, if anybody out there lacks the imagination or is
holding onto whatever bigotry that would keep them from wanting to work with
me, I don't really want to work with them anyway. So...

BOGAEV: Michael C. Hall speaking with Terry Gross. Hall plays David on the
HBO series "Six Feet Under." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview Terry Gross
recorded last year with Michael C. Hall. He plays David, the gay brother, on
"Six Feet Under," the HBO series about a family that runs a funeral home.

GROSS: Have you been in movies?

Mr. HALL: Nope. I...

GROSS: None at all. Not even a small part.

Mr. HALL: No, this is really my first thing other than--I did--a couple days
I delivered some room service on an episode of "All My Children" in between
theater jobs back in New York. But other than that, this is it. This is--I
mean, they definitely took a chance because I didn't have a reel or anything
when they hired me of screen work, so this is my first chance to get in front
of a camera. I'm just glad that I was able to play a character who was so
tense because I didn't have to try to get over it. I could just incorporate
it into what I was doing and hope that, as David relaxed, I as an actor would
relax as well.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite episode from the series so far...

Mr. HALL: Well...

GROSS: ...or a favorite scene for yourself?

Mr. HALL: Huh. I guess some of my favorite scenes and one of my favorite
episodes is the Las Vegas episode, I guess the third-to-last episode of the
first season, I think because in that episode, David's coming out to his
mother and his epiphany at the church. And the final episode notwithstanding,
it's one of his biggest triumphs, in that he goes to Las Vegas, steps in and
gives the speech that his father was scheduled to give and goes off the cue
cards, throws them in the air and improvises, which is something that he's not
so inclined to do. And it's a triumph. And his dad's former colleagues
embrace him and take him out. Then he's outed by a stripper. They turn on
him. And David, in turn, turns on himself and acts out in the most extremely
self-loathing way that he does up to that point when he solicits the
prostitute in Las Vegas. So as far as David goes from the top of the mountain
all the way to the bottom in that episode, that was fun.

GROSS: What did you do to prepare for it?

Mr. HALL: Well, with a job like this, I did--I guess I could say that was the
11th episode, so in a way, I did the first 10 episodes. I've played...

GROSS: Good answer. Yeah.

Mr. HALL: You know, I'd played David for 10 hours, and I found myself
very--you know, preparing and I was very on top of things early on and I had a
real sense of how it would all unfold and, of course, would modify that as we
actually shot the scenes. But towards the end, you really do have to
surrender somewhat. You can't do that kind of preparation again and again and
again because, in a lot of ways, all the work you've done up to that point is
that preparation.

GROSS: Now you said you'd never done any movies and really not any television
either...

Mr. HALL: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...before doing "Six Feet Under," but you had done stage work. The
transition from stage to camera can be difficult. What was that transition
like for you? Because you had to learn what it's like to be in front of the
camera and you had to learn for real really quickly.

Mr. HALL: Yeah. I think I've done my share of auditioning before getting
this job for television shows or small parts in movies. And I think having a
character that I could so completely absorb myself with helped me to forget
about the camera initially, whereas sometimes reading for a sitcom pilot, my
self-consciousness would be a larger presence than my sense of the character.
And as I've gone on, I think I've realized that the camera can be your friend
and you have to sort of accept it. It's very much in the room with you and a
lot of ways a character in the scene because it's the point of view, you know.

GROSS: How aware are you of where the camera is, what it's looking at?

Mr. HALL: It varies. You know, "Six Feet Under," we do a lot of different
kinds of shots. There's a standard shot that you may notice that there'll be
someone in the foreground and someone in the background, and they'll do raking
shots sometimes--two characters in profile, but they're both in focus.
Sometimes during intake meetings maybe you'll see David and Nate one--you're
almost close enough to whisper into one character's ear and then the other
one's a little bit beyond that. And when a camera's that close to you, you
definitely need to keep in mind that it's there and maybe modify what you're
doing or the degree to which you're doing it and, rather than pretending the
camera isn't there, very much embracing the camera and where it is. And I
don't--people always talked about making love to the camera.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALL: I never really had a sense of what that meant until--I think it's
about that. It's about not shutting it out, but rather opening yourself to
it. And, you know, I think Frances Conroy, who plays the mother on the show,
is an amazing example of that. She's just so sort of wide open in terms of
her screen presence.

GROSS: Are there things that really surprised you about how you looked on
camera?

Mr. HALL: I thought I looked like an alien.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. HALL: Well, I wasn't used to it. It's kind of like the first time you
hear your tape-recorded voice or anything.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. HALL: I watched the pilot and I thought everyone was wonderful, but there
was this alien in a suit walking through the scenes. But at the same time, I
tried to get over that, because I know some actors say they don't watch
themselves, but I feel like there's a great deal to learn in that. And I've
gotten a little bit more used to it. Inevitably I cringe at some points, and
sometimes that's about acting, sometimes it's about vanity. But...

GROSS: Well, those two things can really be in conflict if you're
self-conscious.

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: But you feel that the way to learn is to watch yourself, you know.
Those two impulses...

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: ...are a little bit at war.

Mr. HALL: Yeah. It's interesting because the look of the show is--we have
different directors for almost every episode. But because the look of the
show is somewhat consistent, now when we shoot shots, at least on a set that's
familiar to me, I really--when I watch them afterwards, I realize that I can
totally see them in my head, and so that's nice.

GROSS: Now earlier we were talking about how before you got the role of David
Fisher on "Six Feet Under" you played the emcee in the Broadway production of
"Cabaret." Have you done much singing and dancing on stage?

Mr. HALL: When I was a kid, my first experiences performing were in choirs.
I was in a boys' choir, like, in fifth grade and did a lot of choral singing
through college. I was in a chamber choir that sang in Vienna and I did a lot
of that and did high school musicals. But when I got out of college, I went
to grad school at NYU and really focused strictly on acting. And I guess it
wasn't until a few years out of college that I started to do some workshops of
musical theater pieces in New York and came back to the musical theater. But
I think I always knew that I probably would.

GROSS: What were your biggest parts in musicals when you were in school?

Mr. HALL: I mean, I went to a private day school and so there was a big
musical that I was a part of every spring from sixth grade through my senior
year. So I did--let's see if I can remember them--"The Sound of Music," "The
King and I," "South Pacific," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Oklahoma!" "Fiddler on the
Roof" and "Annie Get Your Gun."

GROSS: So what were the songs that were best suited to you?

Mr. HALL: Best suited to me?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALL: I would say my favorite performance--and it was ultimately just a
chance to show off--was in ninth grade when I got to play Conrad Birdie in
"Bye Bye Birdie" and got to walk into the audience and spray-painted my hair
black. And...

GROSS: Did you get to sing "Sincere"?

Mr. HALL: Got to be--yeah, "You Got to be Sincere" and what "A Lot of Livin'
To Do"...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. HALL: ...which, ironically enough, I sang the Ann-Margret verse of in the
10th episode of "Six Feet Under" in the first season when I was dancing with
the vacuum cleaner.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. HALL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: Michael C. Hall plays David on the HBO series "Six Feet Under." The
12th episode of the first season airs on Sunday. "Six Feet Under" begins
taping its third season this fall. Michael C. Hall currently stars in the
Broadway revival of "Chicago."

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, the voice of God. We hear from actor James Earl Jones.
He has one of the most distinctive voices in the business. Also, linguist
Geoff Nunberg on the rise and decline of the word `greed,' and David Edelstein
reviews the new foreign film "Mostly Martha."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Increased use of the words `greed' and `greedy'
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

What with Enron, WorldCom and the impending baseball strike, these days the
papers are full of the word `greed.' But our linguist Geoff Nunberg has
noticed that `greed' is a word we only see in the papers. We don't use it
much in our daily lives. He has these thoughts about the most newsworthy of
the Seven Deadly Sins.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The other day I looked at a database of major newspapers to see how often the
words `greed' or `greedy' occurred near the words `corporate,' `CEO' or
`executive.' Not surprisingly, the totals weigh up for 2002 more than seven
times as great as for the same period last year. And the figure would have
been still higher if I'd thrown in the phrases `baseball players' and `team
owners.' What's more interesting, the word `greed' by itself is a lot more
frequent in all contexts this year than last. It's up almost 50 percent since
January. It's odd for a common word like that to change its frequency so
rapidly, particularly when it's the name of a basic human frailty. After all,
whatever people may like to think, it isn't as if the amount of greed in the
world fluctuates the way the number of school shootings or bankruptcies does.

But the media give a lot more attention to greed at some times than others,
and particularly when the economy is tanking. When you chart the frequencies
of `greed' and `greedy' in the press, they turn out to be an almost perfect
trailing indicator for the stock market. The worse the Dow is doing, the more
the media start talking about greediness. The words declined steadily between
1994 and 2000, then they shot up again until they returned to a near record
level this summer, when all the market indices were at five-year lows. In the
press, the summers of greed seem always to follow the winters of our
discontent.

It's remarkable that the press talks about greed as much as they do. In
newspapers, the word is 50 percent more common than the word `envy.' That's
very different from what you'd find if you followed ordinary people around
with a tape recorder. `Greed' seems to be a purely public dereliction. It
isn't something we talk about much in daily life. In my household, we
sometimes throw the adjective `greedy' around, but only in a jocular way and
more often in reference to pizza than to money, `Don't get greedy. You
already had two slices.' But getting greedy is just a momentary lapse, not a
moral condition. And the word `greed' isn't what comes to mind when I think
about people I know who take an immoderate interest in accumulating money and
material things. I might question their values, but I don't think of it as a
sin. It's more on the line of a having disorder.

Maybe this is just a matter of perspective. However you define it, greed
always comes down to wanting more than your fair share. And at the scale of
everyday life, it's easier to see what counts as more than a fair share of a
pizza than more than a fair share of money. In fact, I'll bet most people
would have a hard time thinking of themselves as greedy under any
circumstances, given that the notion of a fair share is wonderfully elastic.
I'm confident that if somebody offered me an eight-figure compensation
package, I'd find a way to convince myself that I deserved every penny.

If it didn't have a public career to sustain it, greed would probably sound as
quaint and biblical as words like `sloth' and `wrath' and `gluttony' do. But
the fact that we don't think about greed in everyday settings is exactly what
makes it a useful notion to keep around in public life. It's so remote that
we can all denounce it with a clear conscience. People tend to talk about
greed as a collective pathology rather than as an individual vice. In the
press, I'm always running into references to corporate greed and investor
greed, redevelopers and greedy oil companies. But writers rarely use `greed'
and `greedy' to describe particular people, apart from rapacious movie
villains and a couple of poster-child miscreants who have actually have been
caught dead to rights. And even then, there's a striking discrepancy. Enron
is 25 times more likely to be described as greedy than Kenneth Lay is.

The curious thing about all this isn't that it makes greed easy to condemn,
but that it also makes it easy to defend. That's what explains success of the
slogan `Greed is good.' That phrase was originally supposed to have evoked
the audience's repugnance when Michael Douglas uttered it in the movie "Wall
Street," but the champions of the market system have adopted it as a defiant
way of praising untrammeled inquisitiveness as the source of economic growth
and all the good things it brings with it. You can still find people saying
this even after the revelations of the last year or so, though a certain
defensiveness has crept into their tone.

There's nothing new about this notion. Two hundred years ago, David Hume
called avarice `the spur of industry.' It's hard to imagine anybody making a
catchphrase like that out of most of the other Deadly Sins: `Gluttony is
groovy,' `Sloth is splendid.' But then greed is a more conveniently removed
vice than the others. You can praise it in the abstract without expecting
that anybody's actually going to own up to it. Jack Welch isn't about to
claim in his autobiography that he owes his success to his overweening greed.
For that matter, the guy in the TV repair shop doesn't crow about the social
benefits of greed when he's explaining why he's charging you 75 bucks to make
an estimate.

However people try to redeem it, there's no sin that's privately more shameful
and unlovable than greed is. It's what the poet Matthew Green called `the
sphincter of the heart.'

BOGAEV: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information and the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

Coming up, we hear the voice of authority, James Earl Jones. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: James Earl Jones discusses his stuttering problem and
his acting career
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

James Earl Jones has a voice that conveys power and authority. He was the
voice of Darth Vader in "Star Wars." He's the voice of Verizon and CNN. So
it's surprising to read in his memoir about all the trouble his voice has
caused him. Terry spoke with James Earl Jones in 1993, when his memoir
"Voices and Silences" first came out. A new edition has just been published.
In it, Jones writes about his personal life and his career on stage in such
plays as "The Blood Knot," "The Great White Hope," "Othello" and "Fences," in
films such as "Field of Dreams," "Coming to America" and "Sommersby," and in
TV, including his own series, "Gabriel's Fire."

Jones grew up in rural Mississippi. His family moved to Michigan when he was
still a boy. In retrospect, he credits this uprooting with causing a stutter.
As a child, the stutter was very bad. In fact, there was a period between the
ages of 6 and 14 when he barely spoke at all.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): I did the basics. I was able to function as a
farm kid, doing all those chores where you call animals. And I think I had my
best conversations with the dog, who was a good friend of mine and didn't
challenge me in any way. And I certainly let the family know what my needs
were. But when strangers came to the house, the mute happened. I didn't want
to confront them, and I wasn't ready. I hid in the state of muteness.

TERRY GROSS, host:

I mean, did you not want to speak or did you feel physically unable to speak?

Mr. JONES: It was just too embarrassing...

GROSS: Because of the stutter?

Mr. JONES: ...and too difficult. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Well, what were some of the things that adults or friends did to try
to coax you to talk more?

Mr. JONES: No, they left me alone. My family had a habit of letting me have
my way a lot when it came to sometimes major life decisions, but when it was
about me, they let me decide, and that was one of them, when I wanted to leave
the church and leave Sunday school, leave the religion because of the
stuttering and because of the kids laughing. They accepted that.

GROSS: Even though your grandmother was very religious.

Mr. JONES: Oh, boy, was she ever. Yeah, she was triple born-again, you know.

GROSS: Can you tell us the story of how you started speaking again?

Mr. JONES: Donald Crouch was an associate of...

GROSS: Donald Crouch was your teacher.

Mr. JONES: Yeah--Robert Frost. He was a college professor, but he ended up
in this high school because he retired. He was a Mennonite farmer, and he
retired to his farm in Brethren, Michigan. And the idea that there were kids
down the road at this high school who were studying Chaucer and Shakespeare
and stuff, he couldn't stand it, so he came back and taught high school, you
know. And he was the first English teacher I had--now see, I'm stuttering
again. He was the first English teacher I had, and he accepted that I wasn't
verbal, that I wasn't oral ...(unintelligible) but he didn't like the idea
that I could privately subjectively enjoy poetry and not sound it out loud.

He one day discovered that I wrote poetry, and he said to me, `This poem is so
good, I don't think you really wrote it. I think you plagiarized it,' which
was a shock to me, and I could admit that it was Longfellow-esque, but it was
not certainly stolen from Longfellow. And he said, `The way you can prove it
to me, that you wrote it, is to get up in front of the class and recite by
heart,' and I accepted the challenge and did it, and we both realized then we
had a means, we had a way of regaining the power of speech through reading
poetry.

GROSS: So does the stutter come back very much for you?

Mr. JONES: You've heard it several times now. It's always with me, you know.
And I have to be careful not to talk too fast. It certainly becomes a problem
whenever I do something emotional, whether in real life or as an actor. I hit
it in emotional speech whether it's a positive emotion or a negative...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...joy or pain. And often leads to overload, and I have to be
very careful. There was a time when my acting was affected by it. I think
Gladys Vaughan was the first to notice it. She said, `When you get emotional,
when your Othello, for example, gets emotional, I sometimes believe you less,'
and it's because I'm being too careful. You can't measure out emotion. It
has to flow.

GROSS: Has your Othello ever stuttered?

Mr. JONES: No, none of my characters have ever stuttered except for the very
first thing I did on Broadway. I played the role of Edward, FDR's houseboy,
valet, as a young man, and I had the line, `Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is
served,' and I got hung on the `mmmm,' the `ma-ma' word, `Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.'

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: And it is funny, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: But I guess it's so ridiculous. And Mary Fickett, who was
playing Eleanor Roosevelt, was very patient. She just stood there and let me
get through it. She knew the audience knew that something was wrong, but she
didn't want to embarrass me further by saying my line for me.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: So she let me have my moment, I got through it and it's never
happened since.

GROSS: Now what was it like in your early days as an actor before you had the
reputation, before you were James Earl Jones, and you'd go and talk to a
casting director and you'd be stuttering when talking to them and then you'd
have to somehow convince them that on stage you were going to be fine? I
mean, casting directors, I'm sure, are pretty insecure about that kind of
thing.

Mr. JONES: No, that was never a problem. I don't know why, but it never was.
And to the--besides, Marlon Brando and all the method actors had made
stuttering a part of the way Americans talk.

GROSS: Oh, a part of, like, emotional truth, that you were grasping so hard
for that truth that...

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Yeah. It's like, `Ah,' you know.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. I think some of the advice that your voice teacher gave
you was to not use the full power of your voice, to save some of it in
reserve. What...

Mr. JONES: Well, that's just good acting. Once you take your character to
the limit, the audience can tell that he has no more, there's nothing in
reserve, and they get less interested. There's less suspense about what
you're going to do next, you know?

GROSS: So do you know where your limit is and how to go just short of that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: I just got off the set of a show we did in Richmond, Virginia, and
the very last day I remember yelling at the director for the first time. I
wanted to yell at him a lot, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: ...I was rehearsing a scene with Mary Alice in which...

GROSS: Oh, I like her a lot.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Me, too. And I felt lucky that she was able to join that
cast, playing my wife again, playing Mrs. Altona Johns to my Vernon Johns.
And she was going up the stairs, having admitted that she just allowed our
oldest daughter to get on a segregated bus. And in my outrage, you know, I
flip out about it. Well, in my rehearsal, I flipped out to the peak of my
voice, and the director was about to say, `I don't think it should be that
loud.' I said, `Shut up. Leave me alone. Let us find our way,' you know,
and I was very rude to him. But yeah, he was about to remind me that you
can't do it at the peak. You gotta leave something in reserve, and I knew
that, but sometimes I have to test the walls myself, test the--you know, what
the space can hold myself, you know, and not go on a theory.

GROSS: So when you were yelling at the director, were you using your full
power?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Yeah, yeah. I tested the limits of the set with him, too, yeah.

GROSS: Now your father was an actor--he was a boxer first, then he became an
actor. But it sounds like your family wasn't really proud of that. I mean,
you were raised by your grandparents. They didn't seem at all proud of that.

Mr. JONES: I think they would have been proud. They became later proud of
Joe Louis, and I think my grandfather was secretly proud of Jack Johnson as he
was of Satchel Paige, the baseball player.

GROSS: What about the acting part of his career? It sounds like your...

Mr. JONES: Well, what I'm getting at is...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...they just didn't understand it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: It was hard enough for them to understand a prize fighter...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: ...making a real, honest living...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: ...much less a troubadour, actor? I mean, that was just not
within the comprehension. I mean, these are people who--we got our life from
the soil, and I'm very proud of that, that I shared that kind of life with
them. But they had no way of understanding Robert Earl...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: ...and were very intolerant of him and very resistant to my ever
meeting him. I didn't get to meet him till I was 21, till I was legal age.
And my mother was a part of that, too. It was a very bad marriage, which I
tried to explain in the book and tried to show both sides.

GROSS: I guess that's part of the reason why you ended up being brought up
by your grandparents.

Mr. JONES: Oh, yeah, that was the reason. My mother wanted to be a single
mother, but my grandmother knew better. During the Depression, it was hard
enough for a 20-year-old girl to, you know, manage her own life, and she
insisted that--she found a way to adopt me.

GROSS: In your memoir, "Voices and Silences," you devote a total of about a
paragraph to "Star Wars" and to your voice as Darth Vader, and I got the
impression that it's not something you really want to call that much attention
to.

Mr. JONES: Are you kidding? Not true. It's just that I have very little to
talk about.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. JONES: Had I been one of the actors and given points, I would not only be
wealthy, I'd be probably much better known.

GROSS: You got a flat fee?

Mr. JONES: Oh, yeah. I think George Lucas first of all realized that
although David Prowse was the actor he wanted, it was not the sound he wanted.
So he searched around for a technically and symbolically a darker voice. He
eventually came to me and said to Lucy, `Would Jimmy like to earn a day's
salary?' The job took two and a half hours. They paid me all of $9,000,
which was not bad for two and a half hours of work.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: None of us knew what we had, you know...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JONES: ...and that was fine. Almost not out of embarrassment, but out of
his non-traditional capitalism or lack of capitalism, George gave me a
Christmas bonus that amounted to the same amount of money. But I was just
acting as special effects. That's all that was. And at the same time,
having done "The Great White Hope" film, I had become a member of the board of
directors of the Oscar board, you know, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts
& Sciences at a time when the controversy over whether Mercedes McCambridge
deserved credit for her contributions to Linda Blair's voice, the devil
coming out of...

GROSS: In "The Exorcist."

Mr. JONES: Yeah. In "The Exorcist." And I thought that was a silly
argument, that I said to myself that all that Mercedes is, is special effects.
And I wanted to keep that clear in my case, so I didn't even take credit for
the voice of Darth Vader.

GROSS: Forgive me--and I know this is a small part of your career--but I have
to ask you about the CNN voice. The first time someone said to me, you know,
`I think that's James Earl Jones,' I said, `Nah.' You know, but it's like
they were right. Why did you decide to take that on when you were offered it?

Mr. JONES: Oh, you asked me what has the "Star Wars" involvement meant to me.
What it did, it made my voice--What do you call it?--viable in the commercial
world. But I don't know why, really. I avoided a great way to make a living
and a great craft unto itself. But the "Star Wars" sort of put my name on the
A list, as they say out there, for authoritative voices.

GROSS: So your attitude was why not take advantage of it?

Mr. JONES: My attitude?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Oh, exactly. Yeah. I mean, why kick something that's
going to sit on your lap off, out of the house? I mean--I think the first
commercials I did--I did one for Chrysler and one for Goodyear, and one for
Fisher(ph) audio products. And they asked me to `just give us the sound of
God.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Goodyear Vector tires, you know? `Let God sell Goodyear Vector
tires.'

GROSS: No problem.

Mr. JONES: They had no--they were not embarrassed about saying that.

GROSS: So do you have a voice of yours that you think of the voice of God?

Mr. JONES: No, no. It's just that the sound is--let it go as bass as it can
go and still be clear.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. JONES: And to sound like I mean it. And there's not a product that I've
ever promoted that I don't use, including Wells Lamont gloves, working man's
gloves.

GROSS: And, of course, the Yellow Pages.

Mr. JONES: And Reuben's dinners, Reuben's chain of restaurants. Orson
Welles and Vincent Price and I were once asked to simply, on a recording, read
the menu with as much slobbering, lustful sound as we could conjure, and we
got paid for it.

GROSS: James Earl Jones, I thank you so much for talking with us. It's
really been a pleasure.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you immensely.

Mr. JONES: Thank you.

BOGAEV: James Earl Jones speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. His memoir,
"Voices and Silences," is out in a new paperback edition.

Coming up, a review of the new film "Mostly Martha." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New foreign film "Mostly Martha"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

"Mostly Martha" is a German romantic comedy that's slowly opening around the
country. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN:

It's a funny thing, the most wonderful romantic comedies--I mean, "The Shop
Around the Corner" or this summer's "About a Boy," feature people nearly
paralyzed by melancholy, desperately lonely people who could easily end up by
themselves, or even dead, people for whom a happy ending is the gift of a
puckish God. Which brings us to a new German comedy called "Mostly Martha."
It doesn't have many laughs, but it leaves you laughing, the way people laugh
when they're teetering over the abyss but they somehow manage not to take the
plunge. I love it when I giggle through my tears.

The heroine is Martha Klein, played by Martina Gedeck. She's a chef who lives
for her cooking, which is her art. And that's all she lives for, which makes
her a little brittle. She is sent by the owner of her restaurant to see a
psychiatrist, but all she wants to talk about is food. She confounds her
shrink by cooking for him. Martha works in a high-end Italian restaurant, but
the atmosphere of that is high Teutonic. The kitchen is immaculate. The
dishes are a miracle of logistics. When someone sends a dish back, she's the
opposite of gracious. She calls the customers swine. She vows never to cook
for them again.

Then two things invade her neurotically sealed universe. Martha's sister and
her eight-year-old daughter Lina have an auto accident and her sister is
killed. There is no one else to take custody of Lina, whose father lives in
Italy and doesn't know she exists. Martha doesn't know her way around kids.
She can only reach out to Lina by cooking, but the little girl is numb with
grief and won't eat a thing. Her clothes get baggier, her eyes more hollow.

Watching an eight-year-old starve is not exactly surefire comic material. But
Martha goes back to work to find a new sous chef named Mario, an Italian who
livens up the kitchen by blasting "Volare" and tossing big bowls of pasta.
She thinks he's a lunatic. He thinks she's a nut case who can't possibly give
a child a real home.

You see where this is leading. No, he's not the girl's real father, but he
might as well be. Lina likes Mario. She likes his friendly, inclusive way
with pasta, and she likes the communal kitchen family. And so, in spite of
herself, does Martha.

Now I, frankly, thought I'd be better defended against a movie about an
uptight professional woman who gets warmed up by a moppet and a manly Italian
who warbles "Volare." But Martha's great at what she does. She isn't meant
to stand for a professional woman but for an artist who uses her talent to
keep other people at arm's length.

There's another reason the movie is irresistible. If an American studio had
made "Mostly Martha," it would have lighting like honey and a bath tub full of
violins. It would be all wet. But those Germans are quick with the
dehumidifier. The writer and director, Sandra Nettelbeck, has set the movie
in a wintry Hamburg. The framing is unforced, not Stanley Kubrick cold, but
not in your face. The pacing is unhurried. Music doesn't underline the
emotional breakthroughs. The movie has German reserve and Italian
extroversion in just the right balance. It's on a magical border, and I don't
mean Switzerland.

Most of all, the movie speaks to one's helplessness around children, a theme
that's both funny and sobering. As Lina, Maxime Foerste does an exquisite job
of staying inside herself. You never catch her acting; yet she moves from
near catatonia to sheer little girlishness and back in ways that break your
heart. And Martina Gedeck as Martha can look as if she's 50 fathoms deep
inside herself, too. She has a tremulousness that comes from being wound too
tight. It's very alluring, but it also makes you nervous for the child. It's
Martha's privilege when she's single to defend her personality disorders in
the name of her art. But you have to be emotionally available to kids or you
risk driving them underground.

And anyway, a great chef doesn't have to be anal-retentive. Just look at that
romantic teddy bear Mario. OK, he's too good to be true. But the actor,
Sergio Castellitto, gives him a touch of sadness that grounds him and makes
you think there's more to his story than you'll ever know. He blindfolds
Martha and feeds her soup, then asks her to identify what's in it. And
Martha, the control freak who needs to cook for people but has never liked
anyone cooking for her, begins to relax and open up.

"Mostly Martha" isn't a foody movie like "Tampopo" and "Babette's Feast" and
"Big Night." It shows how food can be a barrier as well as a bridge. But it
makes you hungry for contact, for the nourishment of romantic comedy in a cold
and love-starved world.

BOGAEV: David Edelstein is the film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of "Volare")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Volare, oh-ohhh, (foreign language sung),
oh-oh-oh-oh. Let's fly way up to the clouds away from the...

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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