James Cromwell is an inherent philosopher. His passion for politics, film, art and both human and animal rights is tempered only by his sense of humor and awareness of the fleeting mystery of it all.
Cromwell began his career in the theater, following in the footsteps of his parents. His father, John, a noted film director who was blacklisted in the early 1950s, undoubtedly influenced the self-described radical progressive’s stance on various social and political issues. His curriculum vitae is about a mile long, despite his bumpy beginning in film and television.
Cromwell’s first notable TV appearance was in “All in the Family,” playing Archie Bunker’s pal, Stretch Cunningham. He’s been in dozens of highly regarded shows since, including “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “The West Wing,” “Six Feet Under” and “24.”
After a string of film roles that flew below the radar of the powers that be, Cromwell caught the attention of the masses as the benevolent farmer in 1995’s Babe, the film that propelled him to the role of PETA spokesperson and garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Then, pigeonholed by the industry into “warm and fuzzy” roles, Cromwell shattered his nice guy image with a riveting performance as a corrupt, Machiavellian police captain in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.
His political predilections have extended into his film work, having thus far played four American leaders, including George H. W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. and Lyndon B. Johnson (a role he played before in RFK) in the upcoming Flying Into Love, about Jacqueline Kennedy’s relationship with JFK.
His 6’7” height may have initially undermined his career aspirations—he often dwarfed the leading man—but having persevered and persisted, Cromwell’s striking presence is paying off.
The actor has recently crossed the line into producing with the soon-to-be-released political film, A Lonely Place for Dying, and a slate of projects that reflects his eclectic interests. Cromwell’s unique blend of sincerity, wit and passion will surely be evidenced in his future films and prove him an artist to be reckoned with for many years to come.
Anne Norda (MM): You’re very present in your roles. How does an actor attain that level of authentic expression?
James Cromwell (JC): I resisted growing up for so long. I rammed my head into so many walls so many times and so hard; I was frustrated… Running into the walls was basically trying to figure out what I was doing and whether I had any talent. And I never had an opportunity—I was a character actor. A guy who’s a character actor is basically the guy who never gets the girl, so I never got the lead.
For a long, long time it just didn’t matter what the hell I did; nobody seemed to notice. I was just somebody else in the company.
There was a drought for the next 10 years; I made one or two other films in that time. People got used to me as a situation comedy actor on television. I couldn’t imagine playing a lawyer or a doctor or a businessman. I thought nobody would believe it.
JC: I didn’t look like the people I saw playing those parts. I didn’t fit in. I ran out of options a number of times. I don’t call it a career, it was more like a careen. You just go from pillar to post.
I went back to New York after 10 years of doing television and got into a play. And I trained. I had 10 teachers: Uta Hagen, Warren Robertson, Milton Katselas, Peggy Fury, Irene Dailey, Bill Hickey and any number of people. I also hitchhiked around the world for 18 months. And I got involved in radical politics for many years. So I had a life outside the interests of the theater or film. It’s important to have a life.
MM: Do you ever have to delve into a part of yourself that’s unfamiliar when researching a character?
JC: Whether it’s unfamiliar to you or not, it’s there. Someone asked Dustin Hoffman, “Is there any part you’d like to play in particular?” He answered, “Hitler.” And they asked, “Why?” He answered, “Because I want to show that Hitler who’s fond of children and likes animals.” Finding the humanity in the monster; to do that, he’s got to get in there. If you watch Dustin in Wag the Dog or Stranger Than Fiction, and watch the way he inhabits the characters, it’s wonderful. They’re all really unique—and it’s all Dustin.
MM: If you could do anything else, if all possibilities were open to you, what would you do?
JC: If I could be a writer and have that voice and have something to say with that voice, it would be extraordinary. It’s not the way I tell my stories; I tell them with images. I think telling stories is what makes us human. In that respect, I’m partially doing what I want and frustrated that I can’t be more of an author instead of a character. I’m caught in a Pirandello play.
MM: You have a role as a producer on the upcoming film A Lonely Place for Dying.
JC: It’s the first film that I’ve had my name on as an executive producer, which actually doesn’t mean much. A producer is the person who does the work. I am not the producer on the film. I don’t know that I’m qualified to be the producer. I thought it was best to do my work as an actor and let them do their work.
MM: You seem to be interested in political roles. What’s your particular stance, your own political view?
JC: My own political view is that it’s all politics: Politics of the family, local politics, national politics. It’s the energy that holds the structure of the event.
“Politics” is a very interesting word. I always thought that it was the obligation of government—or governance, if you’re going to accept the idea of governance—that the governance be as supportive to the largest number of people possible in every way and facilitate the intercourse that goes on between people in an equitable, compassionate, even-handed and forward-thinking [manner]. It says, you know, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” We want to provide for our families and ourselves and our children and the succeeding generations and always leave a better place. If government is supportive of that, it’s benign and it works. If government is inimical to that and opposed to that, then it should be resisted.
So I am a radical progressive. I wouldn’t say I am an anarchist, because I’m not sure if that system has ever really worked. If you read Albert Camus’ [essay] “The Rebel,” you’ll see how there is a paradox in governance and the assumption upon which governance is based that needs to be resolved individually, at the level of a society, to have it work for everybody. I know what I think is right and I know what I think is wrong. And I oppose what I think is wrong and support what I think is right. If I can.
MM: What’s next?
JC: I have a variety of things I would very much like to do. I have a documentary about a Holocaust survivor; she’s my dearest friend and her story’s never been told. There are no camps, no shootings. It’s about a little girl who manages not only to endure, to survive, but to prevail.
I’m also hoping to make a documentary on the effects of heritage mining, mostly in northern California, mostly in the indigenous population. The amount of arsenic and heavy metals in the water supply… What we did to establish the wealth that led to the greatness of the American republic.
I have a play that I’m working on with a friend which, hopefully, has the possibility of stopping the war in Afghanistan. It’s the Einstein plan. We’re trying to find out if we’re all going to go to jail if we do this thing. Einstein was opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and he came up with a plan. So this writer has applied this plan to these two wars. And it could actually work—it’s a very interesting idea. And I have a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Theatre Royal in York, England.
MM: What’s the one question you’d love to be asked?
JC: “What’s it all about?”
MM: So what is it all about?
JC: It’s that old Gertrude Stein joke: Someone said to Gertrude Stein, “What is the answer?” And Gertrude Stein said, “What is the question?” So, “What’s it all about?” is a point of view. It’s what cannot be talked about.
MM: It’s ultimately what everyone wants to talk about—the thing that we can’t talk about. So, that’s what you would want to discuss? Philosophy? The meaning of life?
JC: A friend of mine said, “Understanding is the booby prize.” It isn’t so much in the understanding, it is in the experiencing.
As an actor, I’ve had this experience of sitting offstage waiting to go onstage. There is a line on the floor: On one side of the line it is dark, it is offstage, and on the other side of the line it is lit, it is bright. And in that lit space, in your line of sight, there is a conversation going on. There’s an audience. There are observers of this conversation which you are about to have with some cost, some effort and some energy. And you will never know how it is really perceived by the people in the dark, beyond that lit space.
I think of that as a metaphor: We are in a womb and we make our entrance on to a stage, into a play we may have played many times before and we assume a character, which we think is us. The idea is to so inhabit it that it becomes us and we have this conversation, which is a play—it is a fiction. There is a real event in the darkness that exists and there are watchers. There are the generations, there are the ancestors, there are the gods, there are the others who watch and listen and make we know not what of all we do. So all we have is that moment in the light and what you do with it—how you inform it, how you enjoy it, how you expand it and how you live it. Then you’re off into the darkness once again.
You disappear. The lights go down. It’s over. Whatever is beyond is unknown and will always remain unknown. MM