At which point Jones' dip into the sentimentality pool ends. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the reminder of this anniversary, but his is a forward-looking attitude to life and acting. Asked about memories of that first opening night, he pauses again, wearing a slightly mournful expression. "I've had opening nights that were horrendous in great ways and really disturbing ways," he says. "It's an area that's totally unreal for actors. It's irrelevant because opening nights aren't relevant to anything. They're like awards: They're not associated with reality. You'd say, 'What are you talking about? You're an actor, right? Don't we all go out, do unreal things?' I'd say, 'Playing roles is connected to reality.' But award shows, openings—those aren't connected to reality. I go back to my father. When it came to an opening night, I'd count on being distracted by him in the audience. Until I could compartmentalize him…it was hard for me—so that I wasn't disturbed."
Now Jones discusses being thrown off his game. What of his vast reputation for a laserlike intensity in his work on stage (where he says he's most comfortable), on screen, and in the commercial voiceovers he especially enjoys? Can he even be pictured rattled in midperformance? Go back nearly 40 years to his work in Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Great White Hope, in which he played a prizefighter loosely based on the legendary Jack Johnson, won the 1969 Tony for best actor in a play, and then reprised the role on film, earning an Oscar nomination. Go back to 1987: Jones won another Tony, for playing fearsome father Troy Maxson in August Wilson's Fences, also a Pulitzer winner. For his Othello more than 40 years ago, he won the first of five Drama Desk Awards; he not only played the Moor Off-Broadway for nearly a year, but has reprised the role throughout his career. Jones' stamina is legendary: In 1963 he acted in 13 plays. In 1964 he debuted on film as Lt. Lothar Zogg in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. By the 1970s, Jones was acting royalty—back on stage as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, as the title character in Paul Robeson, and in 1982 delivering another Othello, beside Christopher Plummer's Iago. Jones disturbed? That's pure cognitive dissonance.
But talking to him, one realizes that despite his acclaim—1992 National Medal of Arts, 2002 Kennedy Center Honors—part of him remains tethered to the stuttering, almost mute young boy he was in his native Arkabutla, Miss. As Jones expects reporters to know their facts, he opts not to rehash how, due to a teacher's efforts, he conquered his speech impediment, or how he didn't really know his father, actor Robert Earl Jones, until his adult years. His point is that concentration is a crucial part of an actor's training. Otherwise, he says, actors won't be interesting to an audience. "When Gene Frankel directed The Blacks Off-Broadway," Jones recalls, "he said, 'The only reason why anybody's going to sit in those seats and watch you is because of your concentration. It has to be twice that of anyone else sitting there. Why would some guy look at his date, his girlfriend, and look at you?' "
And that's why he says fretting over who's in the audience isn't productive. "When Broadway critics come to reviewers' nights, they still clump into one night, because they want to be there when the hotshots are there, so you end up with a bunch of seats allotted to them," Jones explains. "They're all right down front—right where actors begin our first relationship with the audience. It's a black hole." He grasps the device recording this interview, drops his jaw, rolls his eyes, and offers an imitation of an expressionless critic scribbling notes. "They may be taking in stuff—I hope they're taking in stuff—but it's not human," he adds. "We can't do roles to please critics. Actors have to listen to what Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: Do it for yourself."
Here's the way Jones warms up. "It's that shaking danger out of your pores," he says. "I don't meditate, but a piece of music can help you, a piece of writing can help you. I'd read 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night' before I'd go on in On Golden Pond, because it was a tribute to my character"—Norman Thayer, originated on screen by Henry Fonda and Jones' most recent Broadway role before Big Daddy in Cat. If a vocal warm-up is useful—and for the three-act Cat, he says, it likely will be—he likes "the old butta-gutta butta-gutta." But mostly, he says, "I try to get out by the stage area—not on the set, but where I'll enter. I'll stand in the dark and relax—not just physically, but because it lets my brain calm down, lets me dissociate from my daily cares."
That, he cautions, is just what works for him. For while Jones freely offers acting tips, what's keen is his resistance to presenting such tips as demands or instructions. Indeed, unlike many acting teachers, he's very much a natural, believing in spurring actors to own their work and to give themselves a break.
"Be gentle with yourself, because you're not going to feel the same thing every night," Jones says. "Just put yourself in whatever mood gets you in touch with the character. I like to pick characters where I have taproots: Lear, Of Mice and Men, Big Daddy. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie takes me—talk about taproots—to the dirt, to the earth. That's where we all have some residual attachment. Maybe it's primal, but I think we all at one time dug the roots out of the ground and didn't wash them off. They were just happy to have half-rotten roots, because a half-rotten root is better than no root at all.
"So there's always something that hurts," Jones continues. "Not what damages or destroys your character, but hurts—where you feel it. You just have to get out there and get in touch with that. Now, you might enter laughing, but you feel the hurt."
What hurts Big Daddy? "He doesn't understand why he loves that human being, his youngest son, or why he hates his elder son," Jones replies. "He can't even tell Brick. He says, 'I've always had a love for you.' He's saying, 'I don't know why I love you so much, because you're an asshole.' It wouldn't matter so much if his son wasn't in crisis. Big Daddy wouldn't be so consumed with it."
In Cat, Big Daddy also feels physical pain, although he's unaware of being terminally ill. "I wince once in a while," Jones says, mockingly clutching his side. "Is there some way to play awareness of death? I don't think so. But I think we're all aware of our death.
"Big Daddy has a wonderful, productive family," Jones concludes. "He's got this son he loves and doesn't quite know. Now, Tennessee might have thought there was latency, but Tennessee had lots of unusual private thoughts—he was boldly exploring homosexuality. But Brick is in no way homosexual. And Big Daddy finds that out pretty quick." True, not all students of Williams' play will cotton to this view, but that returns Jones to concentration, to actors doing plays for themselves, not for critics, scholars, or agenda setters. "Big Daddy does what an interventionist does with an alcoholic," Jones says. "He has to tap into why Brick needs to numb his brain. Everyone thinks it's because he and Skipper were lovers. That's not it." Case closed.
Challenge Jones' Cat interpretation at your own risk: He's read every version of the play (six in all, he says), including the profanity-laden script, used in this Debbie Allen–directed revival, most associated with the landmark 1974 Broadway production starring Elizabeth Ashley and Keir Dullea. The current Cat co-stars Terrence Howard as Brick, Anika Noni Rose as Maggie the Cat, and Phylicia Rashad as Big Mama.
Yet firm as Jones' views may seem, he's not beyond self-criticism. When Circle in the Square revived Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh on Broadway in 1973, director Ted Mann cast Jones in the tour de force lead role, Hickey. "Ted got wonderful notices and deserved them," he recalls. "We, we just hung in there. And I say that because I'd said to Ted, 'I'm not Hickey.' I'd seen Jason Robards do it—he was Hickey. I was raised in the Midwest, but I'm not a Hoosier…so I said, 'I'll play this only if you'll let me play Of Mice and Men one day.' " That is why Hickey—one of O'Neill's monumental roles—is a character Jones seems reluctant to analyze.
"When the movie of Shaft was going to come out," Jones adds, "I was cheese at that time—new cheese, if you will, rather than stinky old cheese." Studio executives made offers, but he saw the lead character as an uncomfortable fit. "I said, 'I'm not an urban Harlem guy.' And they said, 'It's called acting.' " But he still passed.
"And when I got to play On Golden Pond," Jones admits, "I kept an image of Henry Fonda in my mind. I put it aside when the director at one rehearsal said, 'I want you to tear ass.' He wanted me to be playing it very aggressively, cruel, mean, and since I'm known for gentleness, I could get away with it.... Somebody gives you license to be an asshole—who wouldn't enjoy that?"
And who, given the scores of films and TV shows he's appeared in, would be better to discuss acting across mediums? Interestingly, acting for Jones is much the same whether live or on camera. Still, certain trends and tics worry him. "I find it odd to watch a movie—except for the Merchant of Venice that Al Pacino starred in so wonderfully—with whispering actors," he says. "I'm a little hard of hearing, but there's something wrong with whispered acting. Young actors can get out of focus and not know it. It's too careful. It's too uncommitted. It's too easy to go back and loop your lines. And it's contagious: Your partner starts to whisper, so you start whispering. When you're 10 feet from each other saying passionate things, it's not the way it should be." Still, he accepts roles on film and TV "because as an actor, as a worker, as a member of my union, I like to walk on more than one foot. I'm a quadruped: I love doing theatre, commercials, TV, and movies. Now I want to be a centipede."
Meanwhile, the temptation hung in the air to ask about voicing Darth Vader in Star Wars. One senses Jones is asked about it often; perhaps it would bore him to recapitulate the tale of how a one-day voiceover yielded a ticket to immortality. And Jones has always been an industry pioneer. During the same period in which he became a stage star, he also became the first African-American actor to play recurring roles on soaps, including As the World Turns and The Guiding Light. Even today, he remains one of the few African Americans to excel across film genres. Whether he's playing Eddie Murphy's father in Coming to America or Adm. James Greer in The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger; voicing King Mufasa in The Lion King; or narrating umpteen documentaries and books, his stature is such that asking him to say the words "May the force be with you" somehow seems needlessly fannish.
Then Jones brings up Darth Vader to make a point.
"Star Wars gave me entrée into the world because everybody wants the voice of authority," he says. "For example, Verizon was the result of Lee Iacocca needing a dark voice for one of his Chryslers." Whether it's declaring "This is CNN," intoning the words "Bell Atlantic," or recording the 19-hour, 14-CD James Earl Jones Reads the Bible, he takes the work partly for money but equally because it interests him. And when reading copy, he says, an actor's primary concern must be "reading with authority." While he declines to discuss his personal views on faith, he uses the Bible CDs to further illustrate his take on the voiceover craft: "You should read as if—even if you don't believe it—you at least understand it. That was the hardest part, really: sounding as solid for David as for his father. For me, a bass voice is hard to understand because it's muddy. That's why tenor voices much better project in the theatre or the opera house."
Soon he returns to the topic he began with: concentration as a tool to conquer vulnerability. "I had an experience as a soldier in the Army," Jones says. "That's when I didn't want to show any vulnerability—to weather, to potential enemies. I was in the infantry, trained to kill. I was not in combat, but I was trained for it at the tail end of the Korean War. I watch war now on TV and realize how vulnerable our little bodies are. It's one of mankind's deepest insanities, the will to kill each other. The day I got my bars pinned on, I thought it was my ticket to death. We don't want to be vulnerable; it hurts to be vulnerable." But acting, he repeats, always hurts. Still, he says, "it's a lot easier than being in war."