Academy Award nominated character actor James Cromwell has appeared in dozens of popular film and TV shows since the 1970s — but never, until now, in a lead role. Cromwell reflects on life, death, legacy, working as an ageing actor and much more.
James Cromwell, to use a tired phrase, needs no introduction. The 73-year-old character actor has appeared in too many films and TV shows to list – though Babe, L.A. Confidential and The Green Mile are probably the titles most commonly associated with his name. Across a plethora of different genres, one common thread each production shares is the extent to which the Academy Award nominated performer features. More specifically: every James Cromwell performance has been a supporting role.
That is, until now. In Still Mine, a rural Canadian-set heart-tugger from directors Michael and Martin McGowan, Cromwell, after nearly four decades in the business, commences his career as a lead actor. He plays 91-year-old Craig “all I wanted to do is build a house” Morrison, a real, hard yakka farmer who tends for a sick wife (Geneviève Bujold) in between being hauled into court and interrogated by his local council for building without a permit. It’s a slight and unprepossessing drama that fits Clint Eastwood’s “get off my lawn” old man shtick, but with a soft, squishy emotional thrust that feels pure and lucid.
I begin our interview with a bone to pick. There’s a scene in Still Mine (now playing in select cinemas) in which Morrison attends a funeral of a friend. Cromwell breaks down, and the slow, steady shot that frames him, soaking up the emotions of his face as it gradually rips apart, made — along with the beautiful film that preceded it — my eyes go watery. When I tell him that’s not supposed to happen to a film critic, he responds with boisterous laughter followed by: “I’m so sorry.”
Much has been said about a new movement of films geared towards older audiences (such as Quartet, Hope Springs and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) but Cromwell isn’t convinced the American film industry is looking beyond productions that rely on young faces.
“There’s no room in this culture – I’m talking about the culture of Hollywood now – for stories involving an older person. Especially not older women. They suffer a greater deal more than we do, because they’re really old at 40, whereas we can keep on going,” he says.
“Our culture is all about 10 to 14-year-old boys and what they want to do and see. If you need a grandfather that’s fine, and he sort of stays in the background, but it can’t be a story about him because he doesn’t buy shit, so you don’t need him.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Cromwell candidly discussed many things including his political views (“I have been a radical and a rebel and an iconoclast since college”), his roles in high and low art (including W. andRevenge of the Nerds) and ruminated on his own thoughts towards death.
“I don’t know that it (my life) is going to go past tomorrow, and it’s more likely to not go past tomorrow than it is to go much further,” he says. “So you have to say to yourself, well, how do I feel about that? Am I at peace with myself? Do I have a sense of gratitude and appreciation and love for what it is that I’m leaving? Have I made a difference in the world? Is every moment of it now as sweet as it was?”
You generate a great deal of emotional impact in Still Mine. Your performance as Craig Morrison, the old bloke who never tookno for an answer, feels like the kind of role you spend your whole life working towards. Is that a reasonable assumption?
I think it is. As a character actor you only get to work in different pieces, and it’s very circumscribed by the requirements of the Hollywood system in which most of the attention and the story, the narrative, goes through the star, the lead character. You show up and you work your ass off and you usually drive the scene that you share with the star, but people only see you for five minutes then they are back to following the story of this other person. Very rarely do you get an opportunity to play something close to yourself. You’re either a pig farmer, a corrupt cop, a scientist or whatever. That’s what you are – these abstractions – and you try to bring as much humanity as you can to them.
At this juncture, I not only have my first leading role, where I actually get to have an arc over the entirety of the picture, which is a lot more difficult than even I imagined it, but I am allowed to do something that is close to me. I understand Craig’s circumstance. Both his age, the relationship he has with the woman he loves, his relationship with his children and his relationship with the world in general, which is not adversarial but certainly sceptical about the intentions of other people and what other people want to impinge on what you feel you need to have. I see most of the things I do in political terms as well as emotional or psychological terms, but I think politics is very important and I happen to appreciate his politics.
He’s a very stubbornly independent person who rubs up against people who enforce regulation. At one point he says “when did we become a bunch of bureaucrats?” The character seems to me to echo conservative American thoughts about right to land, liberty and so forth. What side of the political divide do you sit on?
It’s interesting to me that you say American, because to me it’s a quintessentially Canadian story. My sense as an American was, were my character to be written as an American, the first thing that would appeal to him would be to go get a gun and shoot the guy. In America we tend to resolve our conflicts with violence, and he doesn’t. I have been a radical and a rebel and an iconoclast since college, since my father, who was a Hollywood director, was blacklisted. One of my first jobs in the theatre was down south during the civil right movement. I came to the process from the side of resisting authority and questioning authority. I still don’t have a whole lot of faith in it. In fact I have practically none. All of that – those qualities in Craig’s characters – resonated with me personally.
Early in the film Craig is asked by his wife “do you think about dying?” You reply “probably not as much as I should.” What about you? Is dying something you think about?
Oh yeah. You get to be my age, they keep telling me it’s not old but it certainly seems older than I think of myself. You say, well, my life is ending. I don’t know that it is going to end tomorrow. But I don’t know that it’s going to go past tomorrow, and it’s more likely to not go past tomorrow than it is to go much further. So you have to say to yourself, well, how do I feel about that? Am I at peace with myself? Do I have a sense of gratitude and appreciation and love for what it is that I’m leaving? Have I made a difference in the world? Is every moment of it now as sweet as it was? When I was young, I made almost everything really grim. By agonising and resisting what was so. And not – as a friend of mine once said – riding the horse in the direction it’s going. I insisted on turning around in the saddle and looking back and being filled with not only regret but self blame for having missed the thing I just rode by.
Men, unlike women, we’re really simple. We can only do one thing at a time. If we do more than one thing at a time we usually fuck it up, which is why the world’s in as bad a shape as it is. Craig, for all his life, has done one thing, the thing right in front of him. He does that fully, and competently, and with a sense of participation that doesn’t leave him a lot of time to agonise about how it’s going to end.
With regards to Craig’s views that society has become too politicised, too bulked down with red tape, is that an opinion you share?
We are a world now that lives with these incredible machines, computers, that border now on artificial intelligence. We have all this information at our fingertips and yet the modern day computer can trace its lineage back to the very first computer. The first computer is really basically a very simple on/off. Yes/no. It’s binary. So all the flaws in binary either/or thinking as a platform have been adapted through various iterations, only now the flaws are so embedded we don’t even realise that this machine – which is only one small view of the way things work, which most people assume is the way things work – is either/or, on/off and one at a time.
People don’t realise that is a limited view, that it does not represent a true picture of the way reality operates. I think it is true with our legal system. There is a quote I happen to like by Anatole France: “the law, in all its majesty, equally forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread.” So we have this incredible codified mechanism of law and regulation which has been manipulated by those in power to serve those in power, and to basically deny people who don’t have the power the opportunity to be fully self-expressed and realised.
Craig Morrison is over 90-years-old and thus, almost two decades older than you are. Was playing a character with that kind of age gap a concern?
It was, in a sense, because I thought well, what do I do? We couldn’t afford to do a full old age makeup, which would have required probably a couple of hours in the chair every morning. Then in between every take an on set makeup person has got to address the prosthetics you’re using, which slows the entire shooting down, and as an actor I would have had to develop a certain physicality appropriate to the age makeup.
Then I looked at it and said but on the other hand, this man is 90-years-old and he’s selling logs, hauling them, milling then, stacking the board feet, pouring the foundation, framing the house, doing the electrics, the plumbing, roofing the house. I couldn’t do this now. I couldn’t have done it when I was 50. So how can I assume that the guy should look the way we all think a 90-year-old person should look? My father made his last picture at 91. And if you look at him you can’t tell he’s 91.
On the subject of age and films, there has been a movement lately that has been geared towards older audiences. Titles like Hope Springs and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel come to mind. Have you felt the benefits of that movement as an actor?
I wish! I was just looking at IMDB and they have a list of these kids who just got major motion pictures. They all look 12 to me! One of the youngest looking is a young man — wonderful actor — that I was just with on a show here called American Horror Story, and he’s going into a big film. I don’t mean to blow my own horn but I did pretty good work in that show. But there’s no room in this culture – I’m talking about the culture of Hollywood now – for stories involving an older person. Especially not older women. They suffer a greater deal more than we do, because they’re really old at 40, whereas we can keep on going. I look at it and think, where’s the allure?
Marigold Hotel is an English picture. The rest of the world is not only cognisant of the fact that their population is aging, but that they don’t have as much ageism towards the older population that seems to permeate our culture. Our culture is all about 10 to 14-year-old boys and what they want to do and see. If you need a grandfather that’s fine, and he sort of stays in the background, but it can’t be a story about him because he doesn’t buy shit, so you don’t need him. They don’t buy stuff, nobody’s interested in their story, and anyway their stories are always depressing because they end badly.
If you were to name other films in which you played dramatically challenging roles and roles that pushed you as a human being and an actor, I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t mention Revenge of the Nerds, right?
It’s funny because that film presented a different challenge. Everything offers you an opportunity to get out of your way and out of your judgement. I did not want to do Revenge of the Nerds so badly. I thought, I cannot tell somebody that I am in a film called Revenge of the Nerds. That is the worst! And when I got down there, we started to work and I fell in love with those guys, with Anthony (Edwards) and Robert (Carradine). They were just adorable and the scene that I had – my only scene in the film – was a very sweet, loving moment between a father and a son. I’m always tickled by that film. It still makes me laugh. It makes other people laugh. The rest of them weren’t any good because the studio ruined the franchise, but the first one had a lot of soul in it. It was a very, very sweet picture.
Still Mine isn’t the first film in which you’ve played a non-fictional character. You clearly have a good deal of affection for this person you’re playing. But you previously described yourself as a radical – yet you played George Bush senior in W, by Oliver Stone, and he is anything but a radical. In what ways did that challenge you an actor?
I did a lot of research on the Bush family, who I am not very fond of. Every time I would come in to rehearse with Oliver Stone, I’d tell them the latest thing I’d seen about what this wretched family did and what they were responsible for. Oliver said “Jamie, if you have this much opinion about this character you’re not going to be able to play him.” And sure enough, I would have gone towards caricature because of my dislike of the man, and it was really Oliver who forced me to deal with my own humanity as a father and make that the reality of the character.
If you don’t humanise characters in biopics, you face problems. The reverence, for instance, that is shown in Lincoln. It’s an extraordinary performance because he (Daniel Day Lewis) is an extraordinary actor, but to my mind that is not Lincoln. I believe, both in the performance and in its realisation and conceptualisation – although Tony Kushner happens to be one of my favourite writers – that there is a reverence that doesn’t allow the character to be a whole human being. They only want you to see that part which is beyond reproach. But we’re all human. We have foibles. We have failings. We have desires. We have things that don’t fit.
My teacher, a wonderful teacher named Milton Katselas, said always look for the arbitrary moments. The moments that break out of the perceived pattern of life and alter our view. We have to recognise, as Shakespeare said, the purpose of playing is to hold the mirror up to nature to show virtue of her own feature. Scorn her own image. And the very image and body of the time is form and pressure. That’s our responsibility as artists, and you can’t do that if you’re not committed to showing the entire panoply – as much as you can in your characterisation.
Having been an actor for so long, and having such a wide and diverse CV, when you’re in the cinema watching a new film with you in it, when the lights go down and the curtains part, is it unusual to see yourself on the big screen? Does that ever become normal?
It’s very difficult to let go and see yourself as others see you. You see all the warts and the wrinkles – not physically so much, I’m not so concerned with that – but all the little flinches, and failures, and temerity. Then every once in a while I say oh, that’s not bad. That works.
In those films which I am known for – like Babe and L.A. Confidential andThe Green Mile – as I look at them I think, it’s not bad. You’re actually there. You’re OK. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. I have been blessed, given what I look like and the limitations of my talent, to have had the career I’ve had.
Still Mine’s Australian theatrical release date: June 6, 2013
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