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James Earl Jones on ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ ‘Star Wars’ Sequels and Politics

Mention James Earl Jones and the actor’s dramatic baritone instantly begins resonating in the mind.

It’s a voice that announced it was CNN the world was watching, taught “The Lion King’s” Simba about the circle of life, and revealed to Luke Skywalker that his greatest enemy was also his father. Its richness and power have made kings and dark lords a natural fit for the 83-year old actor.

Audiences will see another side of Jones next week with the release of “Driving Miss Daisy,” a filmed version of an acclaimed revival of the stage play, which hits 500 movie theaters nationwide from June 4-10. In it, Jones plays Hoke, the illiterate and genial chauffeur of a prickly Southern widow (Angela Lansbury). The funny, loose performance is 180-degrees removed from Darth Vader.

In honor of its release, Variety spoke with Jones about how growing up with a stutter prepared him to play Hoke, the upcoming “Star Wars” sequels and his distaste for Tea Party politics.

What attracted you to your part in “Driving Miss Daisy”?

I was born in Mississippi, so it’s a character that I know very well. What I like best about Hoke is his language. He has not learned regular English. He’s very creative and sometimes poetic in his expressions — similar to Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” There’s nothing to hide with him. There’s no conceit. He has a creativity that comes to people who are not facile with language. I’m not facile with language because I’m essentially still a stutterer.

You performed the play opposite Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway and alongside Angela Lansbury in Australia. How did those two actresses interpret Daisy differently?

They were both incomparable, but there were differences. Angela loves to play the fun. She’s a great comedian, so there was a sense of humor she brought to it. Vanessa likes to approach a character by looking for the idiosyncrasies. As beautiful as she has always been, she likes to explore the kinks.

Both actresses had a hard time being mean, but Miss Daisy is mean. Vanessa had trouble going full tilt, for instance, because she is so sensitive to minority groups and it made her uncomfortable.

But the whole play is about the negative forces that existed during the segregation period and the ill-will that still exists in some parts of the South and that we still see in our politics.

How do you see that kind of racism manifesting itself in our politics?

It started with Richard Nixon, who thought, “Why waste a good vote?” and noticed that the Confederacy was still hot in the South. So he made the Republican Party a party that welcomed segregationists. That whole “Southern strategy” was about making policies that could turn the South from a Democratic stronghold into a Republic stronghold. It’s something that the Republican Party has done successfully and that the Tea Party is doing today.

Disney is planning three new “Star Wars” sequels and a variety of spin-off films. Darth Vader may have died in “Return of the Jedi,” but is there any chance you’ll be involved in these films?

Oh no. I’ve got no illusions that I will or even hankerings to be in them, but I’m very proud to have been part of the original.

Will you see the next “Star Wars” film when it comes out?

Perhaps. I have no idea where they’ll go with it, but I hope they sustain the success of the first ones and do it well.

It’s the 25th anniversary of “Field of Dreams.” Why do you think that picture remains so beloved?

It’s the writing. It’s just a very simple story. There are no embellishments. It’s just a primal story of fathers and sons.

In terms of “Driving Miss Daisy,” are you worried that something will be lost by taping an event that was staged for live audiences?

There will be something gained and perhaps something lost by it, but you lose something if you sit too far back from a live performance.

I saw the movie and it’s a different kettle of fish than the archival recordings of stage shows that have been done in the past. Those have never worked. But this is an attempt to make a movie of a stage production, with a director coming up with a concept and not just sticking his camera in one place and letting the actors say the words. This isn’t like the film of “Driving Miss Daisy.” It’s not a recording of the play. It’s a film of the production.

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