James Earl Jones said that he was paid only $7,000 to voice Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope. According to Jones, it was a huge score for him at that time, even if it doesn’t sound so much now.
To start with, Jones said he was only paid seven grand for his work in the 1977 blockbuster film, written and directed by George Lucas, which would change not only moviemaking but pop culture globally. Jones explained to American Film Institute that he was picked by Lucas; the actor in the suit, the late David Prowse, had the enormous build for the role, but his voice was all wrong.
“George wanted, pardon the expression, a dark voice. So he hires a guy born in Mississippi, raised in Michigan, who stutters. And that’s the voice. That’s me,” Jones said. “I lucked out, from all these so-called handicaps, for a job that paid $7,000! And I thought that was good money. And I got to be a voice on a movie.”
‘George wanted a dark voice… And that’s the voice. That’s me’
In that same AFI interview, Jones said that when he returned for The Empire Strikes Back, he planned on giving a different performance than the one he delivered in A New Hope. Lucas shut that down quickly, he explained.
“He said, ‘We don’t know what we did right, so let’s just try what we did.’ Naturally, I wanted to make Darth Vader more interesting, more subtle, more psychologically oriented,” Jones said. “And he said, ‘No, no. What we’re finding out is you need to keep his voice on a very narrow band of inflection because he ain’t human, really.’”
In a separate interview for a making-of feature, Jones said when he first read the script for Empire, he thought for sure Vader was being deceitful with Luke Skywalker about being his father, saying, “I thought, ‘He’s lying. I wonder how they’re going to play that lie out.’”
According to Jones’ explanation, in an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, he has had some fun with the voice in the past, but only once. “I was driving across the country with a CB radio and I used ‘Darth Vader’ as my handle,” the actor recalled. “It freaked a lot of people out. When I got to the truck stop, there was a buzz about it. So, I decided not to do that anymore.”