Interview with James Cromwell: “When you reach a certain age, everything is taken away from you”
James Cromwell – activist, actor, voice of reason in Succession and the farmer Babe – explains his love for England has an incredible talent. “It’s the best of England,” says the 81-year-old with his velvety, sensitive timbre. He remembers two boys who auditioned with a song about bullying and quickly got choked up. “In America, everything is violence, instead of love, compassion and feelings. What I love about the show is that Simon—” Cromwell’s voice cracks and he clears his throat. “Oh, I get emotional. The way Simon Cowell and these judges embrace people who are brave enough to come out there…”
He goes to The X Factor, especially Cowell weeping over a young man grieving for his best friend, and “that wonderful woman from the North of England” – Cheryl, I guess. “She’s standing there asking, ‘How can we ease her pain? How to celebrate this man? How do we get him to the next moment, but also allow him to have his feelings?’ Cromwell sighs, eyes misty. “That’s the kind of job I’m looking for.”
In a conversation that spans everything from politics to pigs to protest, Cromwell’s adoration of tearful British reality shows is a mere aside. But it also goes to the root of him. While he’s played awful people before – the corrupt police chief of LA Confidentiala nazi doctor American Horror Story: Asylum – it is most often associated with morality, kindness or saying kindly to a talking pig: “It will be fine, pig.”
Off camera, whether demonstrating for animal rights or leading anti-capitalist sit-ins, he is only capable of empathy for the most vulnerable in society. He also sports a kind of eternal youth, an older man who still sees the world through innocent eyes. “For me, I’m 19,” he jokes. “I still make the same 19-year-old mistakes. I hope not as much, but close. Those same dreams and desires still inform everything I do. And for a six-foot-tall weirdo, I didn’t fare too badly.
Cromwell calls from the upstate New York log cabin he shares with his wife, Anna. She owns 13 acres of land, all of which are currently covered in winter snow. Cromwell’s brother-in-law lives next door with his family and does most of the legwork around the property. “He cuts the trees and plows the meadow, and I sit here and feed myself,” he laughs.
Cromwell has lived on the property for seven years, having traded a postage-stamp-sized cottage in Los Angeles for vast tracts of farmland and forest. “I can’t imagine at my age keeping pace with a city,” he says. “After you’ve lived a lifetime, you want to sit back and let life flow over you. I know I’m down the stream, I know what the end is, so at least let me sit here and enjoy what I see.
There is a pragmatism in the way Cromwell talks about death. He broaches the subject often, without fuss, as if it were vain not to recognize that he is closer than he once was. But it also seems shocking at times. Cromwell is still visibly passionate about the work he has to do, and his face still bears the twinkling wisdom that made him so endearing in baby.
His new film, the Australian comedy Never too late, exploits such liveliness. He plays a Vietnam veteran confined to a nursing home in Adelaide, which is far more compelling than the staff make it out to be. Recruiting other members of the group of POWs with whom he fled captivity decades earlier, he plots to escape the institution and reunite with his lost love – a former combat nurse played by Jacki Weaver.
Weaver and Cromwell have great chemistry, with the latter finally getting the chance to play a romantic lead. In 1995, around the time when baby was released, he told a reporter that he wished he was more often cast as the “lover” in a movie, or someone with a rich inner life and sexuality.
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“Character actors never get the girl,” he explains today. “Their love life is irrelevant. You are there to serve the leader, who can express his feelings and have relationships. As a human being, I wanted to be able to express a part of me that I don’t have much opportunities to express. The closest he came back then, he adds, was with baby. “I have a relationship in this film, but it’s cross-species. I understand the animal and what its aspirations are. It has courage, which inspires me to have courage.
Cromwell also liked what Never too late says about the elderly – who, he says, regardless of their individual abilities, tend to be infantilized by society and cut off from the world. “When you get to a certain age, they say, ‘That’s it, you’re done, don’t drive a car, we don’t want to see you anymore.’ Everything is taken away from you and you do not exist in the world as a viable entity. He waves his finger at his camera. “Unless you give yourself something in return. You’re still alive, you’re still learning. You can still contribute, you can still make a difference, you can still inspire. And what else is there?
Cromwell’s creative life tended to intersect with his activism, though not always deliberately. Years before he shot to fame and got an Oscar nomination for babyhe was a television and theater actor and the son of a filmmaker – of human servitude director John Cromwell, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “I felt like Woody Allen’s character, Zelig,” he jokes, “always on the periphery of a big event happening, regardless of his own involvement.”
He was touring the southern United States with a theater troupe at the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, then became involved in anti-war activism in the 1970s. His work in the theater of guerrilla – protest plays often performed in public and without the permission of the authorities – saw him cross paths with the Black Panthers, anti-capitalists and those who oppose sexism, homophobia, nuclear and environmental cruelty .
“In other words, I kind of fell into things,” he says modestly. “The ones I respect the most are the unrecognized people, who don’t waver or lose their passion. They are the heroes. I now have my issues – physically – which make much of what I could do before unattainable for me.
He still works as hard as he can, though. He is currently on six months probation for protesting animal cruelty in Texas, and was charged with a third degree misdemeanor in 2019 for protesting the construction of a natural gas power plant near his home. him. “I don’t know if it affected my ability to act,” he says. “Maybe in Hollywood – I think they’d rather not have me. But I still work out frequently, so that’s good.
But that work has to align with his values, he says. When Cromwell was approached by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong to play the older brother of billionaire bastard Logan Roy (Brian Cox) on the show, the actor initially balked at the idea. During an hour-long chat about the role, he encouraged Armstrong to rework the character to have more of a moral compass than just another. Succession monster.
“The entire world of the show is dark and devoid of any sort of community,” he explains. “Every action is secret and every character has an agenda, and you have to defend yourself against people like that. This is how I feel about the class of people represented in Succession, and the class of people who seem to be running this country and sinking it into the ground. He did not believe that a Vietnam veteran like Ewan Roy would have emerged from the war without compassion for his fellow man, and insisted that his character reject the selfishness and moral debasement that Logan embraces. “Bless their hearts, they gave me a wonderful character to play. I love Jesse for that. Because we have to speak truth to power – that’s where change comes from.
I admit that – in our current climate – it’s hard not to feel like progressive politics is a doomed enterprise. How does he keep hope alive? “We can’t be discouraged,” he said. “We cannot afford to be. The best way to deal with how you feel is to commit. Real journalism is incredibly important now. Telling the truth is really important now. You know King LearHe reaches out and clutches his Zoom camera in his hands: a private one-man show. distribution should undo the excess and every man would have had enough.’ “It’s right there! He said it. God’s gift to the world: William Shakespeare.”
With this dramatic call for the redistribution of wealth, Cromwell promises to keep fighting. “Laws against legitimate, constitutionally guaranteed protests in this country are becoming more widespread, and they do so not to stifle the right but the radical left,” he says. “I cannot say that I am a revolutionary because that would mean total commitment. But I am on the verge, and my time will come when my voice will be needed again and my presence will make a difference. Before saying goodbye to us, he delivers a final soliloquy into the camera lens – the accomplished performer. “Don’t go easy on this good night,” he breathes. “We must rage against the death of light!”
“Never Too Late” is in theaters from February 4