Jan. 25, 2009 -- The unmistakable voice on the phone sounds congenial enough. Even more so after James Earl Jones is congratulated on being this year's recipient of the Screen Actors Guild's highest honor. He'll be presented with a lifetime achievement award on the broadcast Sunday night at 8 ET/PT on TNT and TBS. Jones, 78, reflects on over a half-century in showbiz with USA Today.
Q: Have you written a speech yet?
Jones: Just a thank-you to tell them how I like their work. When I surf the cable shows and see a certain movie, I often think, "I'm glad I had a chance to catch that." The work moves me.
Q: You have said in the past that you feel most at home on a stage, rather than in movies or on TV. Is that still true?
Jones: Absolutely. I consider myself a novice film actor. I still have a lot to learn. On stage, that is how my training started. That is where I felt most fulfilled so far. I still want to do more film. I didn't know how to take it, frankly, when Alan (Rosenberg, the president of SAG) called me and told me about the award. I just laughed. After my wife said something, I called him back and I told him I wasn't dismissing it. I just didn't know why, except that I am 78 years old. And that is no reason to receive it.
Q: Your only Oscar nomination was for repeating your stage role of the boxer based on real-life fighter Jack Johnson in the film version of "The Great White Hope." What did that mean to you?
Jones: I knew George C. Scott would win that year for "Patton." His film was more fulfilled. Our file was truncated from what we achieved onstage. They did away with a lot of the poetic elements. It was too large a life form to work on. Martin Ritt was a wonderful director, but he was better with smaller-scope social stories, like "Norma Rae." But I am glad we got what we did on tape.
Q: As the voice of Mufasa, Simba's caring father in the 1994 animated feature "The Lion King," your death had almost as much impact as the shooting of Bambi's mother some 50 years earlier.
Jones: I saw the screening with children in the audience. When Mufasa died and Simba said, "Wake up, Dad," you could see children looking around and saying, "Where's Poppa?" They were looking for their own dads.
Q: The role you are most famous for, however, is the sinister voice of Darth Vader in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Initially, you didn't even ask for screen credit because you felt you contributed only a sound effect. Why?
Jones: I still feel that way. I didn't take credit until the episode where they showed his demise. Not only did I refuse credit, I told everyone it wasn't me. I would say it sounds like the Un-cola guy, Geoffrey Holder. It was more fun to do it that way.
Q: And you were just as surprised as the rest of us when you read the line, "Luke, I am your father"?
Jones: I thought he was such a bad guy that he was lying and manipulating the boy.
Q: Have you ever attended a "Star Wars" convention?
Jones: I am happy to be a part of the whole cult movement. But they are scary. People are fanatics. I went to a comic-book convention once. George Lucas wrote me a statement to make as nasty as Dark Vader. It was a salutation. But at least I had something to do. I don't sign autographs.
Q: Like every actor, you have done some less-than-stellar films, such as being the villain Thulsa Doom in 1982's "Conan the Barbarian" with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Jones: I thought that might be the last large film I would ever have the chance to be a part of. It was wholesome mythology and fun to do. In fact, my only purpose in the film was to set up the revenge theme by chopping off Conan's mother's head. There were no point to the speeches. Just a lot of words.
Q: Whose voice do you admire?
Jones: John Gielgud and Richard Burton. They are pleasant to listen to. Very clear. They also have the best connection between thought and sound.
Q: You were one of the first black actors to play a president on film, in 1972's "The Man." What do you think about our new president?
Jones: There's nothing to it. It is as it should be. I don't even want to say how exciting it is. It is as it should be, given who he is, his mind and sensibilities. Not given that he is a black man. One of his big jobs is dealing with racial issues, especially poverty.
Q: Have you caught up with the movies in contention for awards this season?
Jones: I've seen them all. "Benjamin Button," I really liked that. The director put together a wonderful jigsaw puzzle. I like both of Kate Winslet's movies, especially "The Reader." But I had a problem with "The Dark Knight." It was a jumble until the issues of morality showed up at the end. I'm not criticizing it. You just have to get past that style.
Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in your profession since you began?Jones: One thing I noticed is the use of the voice. There is a lot of whisper acting these days. Paul Giamatti in "John Adams" whispered most of his dialogue. Not to criticize him, but, one, I'm hard of hearing. And, two, voice is voice. Not aspiration. A whisper is a raspy sound. A voice is a full sound. Speech is a very important aspect of being human. A whisper doesn't cut it.