The Root Interview: James Earl Jones on Driving Miss Daisy

Illustration for article titled The Root Interview: James Earl Jones on Driving Miss Daisy

Driving Miss Daisy, the racially charged, 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Alfred Uhry, has had a long shelf life. In 1989 it was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Now it's coming to Broadway, opening tonight. This go-round, the timeless story of tenderness across the racial divide during Jim Crow in the Deep South will be performed by James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave for a 12-week run. Recently the play's producer, Jed Bernstein, led a panel discussion with Jones and Redgrave. The Root's contributing editor Harriette Cole was there. Here is what the legendary Jones had to say about …


… returning to live theater after years away: One, it's a job, and jobs are nice to have. You know, I read somewhere recently that 40 percent of people who are out of work now expect to never have a job again. We actors, no matter how well known we might be, can never feel that we are above unemployment. We are all vulnerable to that.

I was trained from the stage, and I was trained in the city at the American Theatre Wing. We were trained to speak to be heard several seats back. Our problem with movies is to tone it down so that we can be understood in that context. I don't know what else to say about it, but I like to work. And you mention voiceovers and stuff. I will find any way to do a job!

… on playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and then stepping into Morgan Freeman's shoes: I took on Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I felt like I knew that man. I knew him both as a black person and as a white person. I don't know if I did or not, but I felt I did, and the same with Hoke [James Earl Jones's character in Driving Miss Daisy].

When I saw Morgan Freeman play it, I could have said, that is the epitome. No one could do it better, and that is probably true, and that's not the point. Every generation owes itself a shot at those great characters and those great plays, and this is our shot.

[Laughter] Morgan is a great deal younger than I am! I mean, on this shot in this play.

… on dealing with rabid Star Wars fans: That's my Jedi Knight over there. That's my son, Flynn [gesturing to his 27-year-old son, who was in attendance], and he takes care of all that stuff, and often it's a poster that people bring back. Their grandfathers might have been a Star Wars fan, and they have become and they become, they go on forever. I'll accept that, as long as I have him with me.


… on growing up in Mississippi with a "racist" grandmother: I want to go back to Mississippi. The reason I brought that up in the context of the play and Morgan Freeman is we are both Mississippians. I realized just today — not Mrs. Redgrave, but the character she is playing and the way she is playing it — reminds me a lot of my grandmother, nothing in terms of age, ethnic or anything, except the soul of a person.

My grandmother was more of a racist than Miss Daisy would ever imagine. Being part Choctaw, Cherokee Indian, African American … she found out [as it relates to] race, how they betrayed each other. Being a Mississippian, she hated all races, including the black race, where we identified with, and she taught her children and grandchildren the same hatred. So when I was 14, I had to sort things out myself, which was the first exercise in independent thinking. So she did me a favor.


When I look at Hoke, in his relationship with her [Miss Daisy], that's what people [are] supposed to do: to find a friendship. And it's usually hard. It's been hard in the South since Reconstruction, which was a very badly organized event. It's still going on, and it will never be resolved. And Hoke has learned how to accept that it is not resolved, and it's still going on, and how do you find friendship with anybody — not just another race — [with] your own race, with your own family. It's a hard place to find friendship because it's a harsh place to be.

… on why he's not trying to deliver a message with his choice of plays: I don't ever expect the plays I'm in to convey a message. Messages are conveyed by lectures. The play's not a lecture. I hope it will give an experience through the characters, that the viewer will come and say, well, my grandmother was a lot like that person, so I know my grandmother better, and in a way, [that] helps me understand Miss Daisy better. I don't know if the play will help anybody. It will give you a glimpse from another angle from another time. 


It will [show] what kind of patience was required from people, especially people who were essentially powerless. Not just Hoke but Miss Daisy, and in a way, Bootie, too. Really powerless to curb the things that were wrong in the South in general, in America in general. We didn't have much power — not that we would have used it well if we had. You will have a chance to see people functioning from powerlessness, and you have to have patience with that to understand how that might be important to you.

… on why there's no shame in playing a black chauffeur: I have no problem in what other people consider troubling, because Hoke is a throwback. When you misinterpret that throwback, which I hope not to do, and the director is also bent on not letting me demean him in some way or making him less than a man. Hoke wouldn't be a great date. Hoke is essentially inarticulate. Like many inarticulate men, he is very intelligent … I think Alfred was very accurate in the Hoke he created because he knew men like that. He knew one in particular, and he remembers some of the things he said and how he said them. He remembers his vernacular.


Hoke and many people I know in the South, my relatives in Mississippi, the few I got to know, they don't use excessive words. If a sound is unnecessary, they'll throw it away … They just simplify the language, often making it more beautiful in a way. In other cultures, they do the same thing. Yiddish people, Jewish people, Irish people from all around the world have a way of beautifying the language by simplifying it, in their own context, you know, and Hoke does that.

I find it quite poetic, and as we experienced with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, what passed as Southern for a lot of people when Burl Ives played it, and when we played it, a lot of people thought of Stepin Fetchit and Amos 'n' Andy, 'cause they never heard black people speak with a Southern accent before. And Cat is a very cruel play, and I think the sympathy shifted according to how bad Big Daddy was. … The intellect is intact in spite of how inarticulate he might be of "dese" and "dems" … he does say "dat"! And I catch myself saying "dat" sometimes. "Dis here," "dese here," and I don't find it difficult to fall in the language that I used as a child when I spoke. It's not that I don't forgive Hoke for not being articulate; I accept him for not being articulate. If I present him clearly, people will see him, accept him and listen to him 'cause he's worth listening to.


Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.

Harriette Cole is the author of the book of meditations 108 Stitches: Words We Live By and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter