By KRISTEN GELINEAU
They’re starring in a play about a woman reluctant to age and the perils of passing time, but veteran actors James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury say that life in their 80s continues to be exciting thanks to their determination to keep doing what they love.
Jones and Lansbury, in Australia to star in a touring production of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play “Driving Miss Daisy,” say the thrill of performing has propelled them throughout their decades-long careers and gives them the energy necessary to keep up with their often grueling schedules.
“First of all, wake up. Wake up and try to get your bones moving,” a grinning Jones, who turns 82 this month, said Monday ahead of the cast’s first rehearsal. “And then be enthusiastic about what you do. I’m very enthusiastic about acting still. I love the process of creating a character.”
For 87-year-old Lansbury, whose seven-decade career has spanned stage, film and television, performing live gives her a rush that can’t be matched on the screen.
“You get on stage and you really can let it out,” she said, throwing her arms wide. “You’re not hampered by camera angles or lighting.”
Lansbury, nominated for three Oscars and beloved for her role as amateur detective Jessica Fletcher on the long-running TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” said it was the stage that gave her a jolt of fresh inspiration later in life.
“Coming back to the theater about seven years ago turned the tide for me, it really did. Because it gave me a career after 70,” she said. “I could still work in the theater and play great roles, but it wasn’t so easy to continue as a motion picture actress., Which I was very glad of — I didn’t like the way we were making movies. ... The kind of roles I would like to play didn’t seem to exist. But I love the theater and, as it turned out, it was the thing to do.”
Both actors jumped at the chance to perform in “Driving Miss Daisy,” which began as an off-Broadway play and inspired the Oscar-winning film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. The play follows the evolving friendship of Daisy and her chauffeur, Hoke, in the American South over 25 years.
“When I saw Morgan do it, I said ‘I’d like to play that role,’” Jones said. “I thought I understood [Hoke] and I want to understand him more.”
Jones also was attracted to the role because of Hoke’s illiteracy. Jones, famous for his distinctive baritone voice, suffered from a debilitating stutter as a child that left him virtually mute until he was 14. An English teacher mentored him until he discovered his voice, which then led to his acting career. Now, he finds particular fulfillment when playing characters who struggle with language.
“Hoke Colburn is such a character. He’s illiterate, but he speaks English ... and uses it very effectively and very poetically,” Jones said. “That’s what I love about the role, trying to understand how he re-weaves language so he gets himself across.”
Lansbury said it was the play’s setting in the American South that helped attract her to the role of Daisy.
“I understand the southern mentality,” she said. “I went to drama school with a number of young women who came from [the South] and I never forgot them and I never forgot the way they spoke. Their accents were so interesting to me.”
The role is a big change from her 12-year run as Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote,” and the change is welcome. Though Lansbury has a soft spot for the mystery writer, she admits she doesn’t miss her much.
“I was happy to retire her. I’m constantly reminded of her by people who are still very fond of watching the show. ... I can’t get away from it!” she said with a laugh. “I’m more famous for Jessica Fletcher than anything.”