James Cromwell has one of the best-known faces in film and television and, at more than 2m tall, one of the most recognisable physiques.
He is the Empire State Building amid row after row of low-rise Tom Cruises, Johnny Depps and Robert Downey Jrs.
Indeed, Cromwell has so many wonderful movies on his CV – ranging from his breakout roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation and L.A. Confidential through to his lovely little turns as Prince Philip in The Queen and Jean Dujardin’s loyal butler and driver in The Artist – that his name among the credits is almost a guarantee of quality.
Yet in a career that stretches back to the 1970s – when he began working alongside Peter Sellers, David Niven, Maggie Smith and, of all people, Truman Capote in Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, and includes more than 50 movies and countless TV shows – Cromwell has never had a lead role.
At the age of 73 Cromwell finally has his name atop the credits for Still Mine, a wise and beautifully judged Canadian comedy-tinged drama about a farmer who fought an epic battle with authorities for the right to build a home the way he wanted, without submitting plans, without the proper paperwork and with his own blood, sweat and tears.
While Cromwell is enjoying his rare moment in the sun – he was the richly deserved winner of this year’s Canadian Screen Award for best actor for his quiet yet powerful performance in Still Mine – the towering twice-married father of four knows his place in the Hollywood pecking order.
“I’m a true character actor. My definition of the character actor is the guy who never gets the girl,” Cromwell says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he was born to show business parents, actress Kay Johnson and director John Cromwell.
“I’m too tall and too bald to be the leading man.
“Unless you look like Brad Pitt you’re not going to get the girl in an American movie but I can’t complain.
“I’ve have had a pretty good run.”
Ironically, when Cromwell, who spent most of the 1980s and early 1990s toiling in series television, was finally offered a leading role in a movie about a pig with the ability to round up sheep he slumped in despair. “‘Oh, man’, I thought. ‘Have I finally stooped to doing kids’ pictures’,” he recalls.
“But a friend said ‘It’s a great opportunity to go to Australia. You’ve never been to Australia. And if the picture fails it’s the pig’s fault, not your fault’.
“So I went to Australia and made Babe and I owe everything that has happened to me to that little guy.
“From then on, I had a life.”
Despite winning rave reviews on the big and small screen, most notably entering the annals of great movie villains playing the corrupt cop Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential (he tells a man “hush” before he shoots him and calls everyone “boyo”) and Ruth’s depressive second husband in Six Feet Under, he’s still not considered leading-man material.
Indeed, he was surprised when Canadian writer-director Michael McGowan asked him to play 89-year-old New Brunswick farmer Craig Morrison, whose battle to build a more suitable home on his property so he could take care of his ailing wife of 61 years (wonderfully played by Genevieve Bujold) hit the headlines in 1989.
“Normally they would go for a guy like Dustin Hoffman,” he says.
“So I was grateful to Michael for thinking of me for Craig, who is one of those eccentric, single- minded characters you think has been made up for the movies but exists in real life.”
It’s also one of the rare times in his career that Cromwell has not played a villainous institutional figure, like Jack Bauer’s father in 24, but a character that matches his own curmudgeonly anti- establishment self.
Inspired by his father John, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-wing sympathies, Cromwell has spent his adult life involved in progressive causes, beginning with his membership of a committee to defend the Black Panther Party (an era covered by the recent Robert Redford film The Company You Keep).
An ethical vegan and a member of PETA, Cromwell was arrested in February this year for interrupting a University of Wisconsin Board of Regents meeting while showing a graphic photo of a cat to protest against the alleged mistreatment of animals on campus.
“All my adult life I’ve been a rebel and a radical so, yes, I do have a spiritual kinship with Craig, who took a stand for what he believed in, even though he was of an age that you would have expected him to be in an old folks’ home,” Cromwell says.
“What I like about Craig is that he made his point in his own quiet way and without resorting to what usually happens here in America, which is violence.
“When faced with those kinds of predicaments our response is to strike out.
“The Canadian response is ‘Eh, I’m going to do it anyway’.
“I love that. He had the same feelings for questioning authority and resisting it but he didn’t turn it into me-versus-them.
“He just went on with his life.”
Indeed, Cromwell believes that the reach-for-the-gun attitude that has reached “crisis proportions” in America is fostered by the very industry which has provided him with a nice living for decades.
This is one of the contradictions of left-leaning Hollywood since Cromwell’s father was accused by Howard Hughes of being a communist.
“We are a wartime culture. We are like Israel. We have been at war for so long we don’t even know what peace is,” says Cromwell, who played the US president in the adaptation of the Tom Clancy nuclear-strike thriller The Sum of All Fears. “Every conflict is resolved by somebody taking out a gun and shooting someone. “Look at the young man who was involved in the Boston Marathon bombing.
“They tracked him down and shot him. That doesn’t happen in Europe or Canada or Australia.”
Indeed, a 30-minute conversation with Cromwell is as bracing and informative as a university lecture, as the actor freely ranges across every hot-button issue in US President Barack Obama’s deeply divided America.
“We are entertained to death,” Cromwell says.
“Our media does not inform us about what the truth is.
“It is pure propaganda. So it is no wonder we are so complacent in the face of crisis. We don’t know what’s going on and when we do we don’t know what to do about it.
“We are supposed to be a democracy but the power of our votes has been taken away from us because it has been bought by the rich and powerful. So they put people into office who represent their interests – including President Obama – at the expense of the 99 per cent.
“The official who tries to stop Craig building his house in Still Mine is not a bad guy. He just thinks in terms of categories and abstractions so he misses the big picture. That’s what Babe was all about. If we pigeonhole people we will miss the humanity and ultimately stultify ourselves.”
Mark Naglazas, The West Australian