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James Cromwell: Actor's Actor and Anti-Capitalist Activist
Actor James Cromwell is having a banner year: He played the chauffeur in The Artist, the Academy Award for Best Picture, and is now portraying the slave driver Pozzo in one of the most renowned plays of all time, Samuel Beckett’s existential classic Waiting for Godot, at L.A.’s esteemed Mark Taper Forum.
Cromwell hit it big with 1995’s Babe, playing the talking pig’s Farmer Arthur Hoggett, earning a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
Standing 6’6” inch, Cromwell went on to specialize in commanding characters, playing presidents in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, and LBJ twice – in RFK, reprising that role in 2011’s JFK assassination picture Flying Into Love, George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s 2008 W., and yet another president on NBC’s The West Wing.
Cromwell has also played media mogul William Randolph Hearst in the 1999 TV movie RKO 281, Prince Philip in 2006’s The Queen, a cardinal in the 2005 television drama Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII in a 2010 TV mini-series. He portrayed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in 2009’s BBC drama The Last Days of Lehman Brothers and a tycoon in 2010’s Secretariat.
So, Presidents, Popes, a Prince, a Publisher, Pozzo and a Paulson. In an irony Beckett surely would have relished, Cromwell – whose father was persecuted by the Hollywood Blacklist – is one of the most vocal anti-establishment leftists.
In this Rock Cellar Magazine sit-down interview, Cromwell is typically outspoken about filmmaking, theatre, politics, social justice, Camus, celebrity-hood, and how Newt Gingrich inspired one of his characters.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What was it like being on the stage at What-Used-To-Be Called-The-Kodak-Theatre during the Academy Awards ceremony when The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar?
James Cromwell: It’s now called the “Chapter Nine Theatre.” (laughs) It was great. I love them – Michel Hazanavicius, Berenice [Bejo], Jean [Dujardin] and [producer] Thomas [Langmann] – all of them are magical, they are artists, they are joyous, they are courageous and Harvey Weinstein ran a magnificent campaign in order to get that film done.
You have to understand: It’s a $12 million film with the finance raised in France and three days before they were going to start the money dropped out. And Thomas hocked his house in order to put the money into this film, because he believed in it. They could not sell the film to Warner Bros, so they had no distribution deal in America. They were just going to open it in France, play Europe, make back the $12 million and that would be it.
And Harvey Weinstein, who followed Michel’s work, said, “I want to see the film.” He saw it in a rough, unfinished version, and the minute the lights went up he bought it and began this campaign.
They will not allow directors to shoot in black and white. If you pitched The Artist you wouldn’t get past the secretary in any studio. They’d say: “That’s the stupidest thing ever.”
So, I’ll tell you, what was it like to stand on that stage? It was the acknowledgement of Hollywood – not to me.
It all counted. They all did it – not for money, they did it because they loved the project. And to stand out there and realize that the conventional wisdom is that this would fail, under the onslaught of the studio juggernaut for Hugo and the other films, and that The Artist prevailed, is very satisfying.
RCM: Discuss how you see the symbolism of the film’s title.
JC: When you strip away all the bullshit of the culture – which is the celebrity – and you get down to the nitty-gritty, we’re trying to do something as creative people… to hold the mirror up to nature so this country and this world can see itself, and we can make changes and develop as human beings. So that’s the artist – the person who says “I don’t give a shit whether black and white and silent is a non-starter, it’s how I see it.”
The person who says “I believe I can tell this story in a way that ordinary people, if they are willing, if they are exhorted to come into the theatre – will understand what filmmaking used to be.” When it was images, and where an audience participated in the creation of the story.
What we get today – and I include Hugo – we get a script where you can text your babysitter and not miss anything, because it’s oral. You’re hearing it.
The president of Universal, Barry Diller said: “We produce shit films” – his quote, not mine. Those films don’t have a plot – or maybe a cursory plot – they certainly don’t have a narrative. Because it’s really not about how the people watching the film feel. You just watch car chases – and blow up, explode, people shoot people, bigger and bigger, gnarlier and gnarlier looking guns, shooting people. That’s the level of self awareness of the denizens of the American empire. We are just entertained to death.
RCM: What do you think influenced the bleak outlook of Waiting for Godot’s playwright?
JC: Samuel Beckett was raised in Ireland, in a middle class, upper middle class neighborhood outside of Dublin as a Protestant when Ireland was under the control of the English empire and the Black and Tan. So he must have heard the denigration of Black Irish Catholics in his circle. He must have known what the Black and Tan were doing, because they make the SS look like pantywaists, as far as I’m concerned. Everything the SS did, they probably got from the manual of the Black and Tan.
[During WWII] he works for the Underground in Paris. He’s pursued by the Gestapo and has to flee Paris.
So Beckett’s pessimism – the darkness of his vision, to have lived through two world wars, to have lived in Ireland. The slaughter of the best and brightest in WWI, the absolute mindless pandemonium of the years between the wars, the complete evisceration of Germany which led to the rise of Hitler. The compromise of the Catholic Church with Hitler and the Concordant. And then in France, once the Nazis came – the anti-Semitism and class phobia of the French. They sent every Jew they could find out of France.
RCM: Talk about the character you play in Godot – Pozzo.
Pozzo represents an amalgam of a French landowner, an English gentleman farmer – the oppressor, the fascist, the capitalist.
I patterned the role on Newt Gingrich. That’s my model; I think he’s the perfect Pozzo. Gingrich may be a little bit more erudite than Pozzo, but I don’t think he knows who Atlas’ father is, which Pozzo does. The bloviating, the mendacity, the cruelty, the self serving egoism of the man is perfect.
It’s interesting as an actor, because I know the audience and can feel their dilemma. They’ve just gotten used to Godot’s two guys and figured out that, “Oh yeah, they’re sort of stuck, but gosh, aren’t they funny?” And we can laugh and have a good time and they dance and embrace each other – and then suddenly – “Babe’s dad” comes on, with a rope around some guy’s neck. Pulling on him hard enough to pull him down, and calling him a “pig.” So they’re trying to figure out, “Is this funny, too?”
RCM: The themes of Godot seem eternally relevant, even in the context of the U.S. today, would you agree?
JC: I haven’t read all of Beckettian criticism – but the social aspect of it is, to my mind, completely underplayed in all intellectual, scholarly criticism.
When Lucky describes the god, divine Epimetheus, divine Iapetus, it is a god that’s not only distant, but basically uncaring. But that’s not new. What’s the line from Gloucester? “As flies to men, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Yet on the other hand you have, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” This is a dilemma Sartre addressed in Being and Nothingness and Camus addressed in The Rebel.
I happen to be very fond of Camus. If you want meaning, you’re going to have to create the meaning out of whole cloth, because it doesn’t exist a priori in any way you can possibly see. If you have a faith in transformation and in the innate perfectibility of man – you just have another faith.
If after 10,000 years of human civilization that faith is not rocked at all, and we are still killing our children in Florida and Afghanistan and denying healthcare and debating the viability of nuclear energy and our president is building pipelines with the most corrosive toxic oil in the world to bring it across the pristine heart of this country – you say, well, now wait a minute!
RCM: “Power to the people…?”
JC: It’s like the debate going on about healthcare right now. People saying, “yeah, but it’s the best we can get; we can’t get single payer.” Why? Well, come on, you’ll never get single payer through Congress. No, you won’t get anything through Congress!
How long does it take people to realize the system is corrupt and unresponsive? The power has always resided with people. But we’ve never dealt with the issue Beckett brings up, which is:
In the face of the innate suffering of being born – because to be born is to suffer – are you willing to put your own personal disease aside and make a sacrifice for the good of the whole? Which is actually the socialist ideal. But by god, it’s hard to get human beings to do that.
RCM: Why were you cast to play Pozzo? Because you often play authority figures? Or is it because of Babe, and this is a play on the farmer with the pig?
JC: That’s way too much of a stretch! I like to think of it as realism. I’m cast in the play because you’re looking for an actor with a certain physical size to dominate. I understand that the L.A. Times reviewer said: “Pozzo should be fat, and Mr. Cromwell is not fat. He’s at a disadvantage.” I think that’s at the level of the L.A. Times and just about as stupid a statement you could make about the play.
The reality is, if you’re trying to cast somebody you’re trying to think of the number of actors who’d be willing to do the role and who’d attract an audience. And you think, “I’ve got this actor who’s an Academy Award nominee and whose film is up for 9 or 10 Academy Awards, and the director is working with him on a production of King Lear – why don’t you offer it to him? He’s played the role before – it’s a win-win for the theatre. If they could get Jim Carrey they would have gotten Jim Carrey. But I think they went through trying to get as big a star as they could, and they wound up with me.
RCM: What do you say to those who interpret Godot as being about the helplessness of human beings and their inability to change things?
JC: The first time I did Godot was at college; I didn’t know what one word of it meant. The second time was in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement with the Free Southern Theatre. When we entered Mississippi the church in McComb had been bombed out and I went to the Freedom House and there were more black guys than I’d ever seen in my life. Listening to a 14-year-old girl describe how she had been kicked, beaten and spat upon while integrating the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. I didn’t recognize the America I was in.
When I did this play in Indianola, we performed Godot in a church, surrounded by Black Panthers in the South armed with shotguns, to people who had never seen a play, movie or television. And [civil rights activist] Fannie Lou Hamer got up at the intermission and turned to the assembled and said, “I want you to pay very close attention to this play. We are not waiting for anybody. We are getting what we want, taking what we want. We have our rights and are moving forward.”
So it took Fannie Lou Hamer only about 15 minutes to say, “I get this play. I see what’s wrong with this play. This is for people who choose to wait. We’re not waiting.” People in Mississippi got it, like that [snaps fingers].
Our culture is designed to distract us from the issues at hand and to disempower us from taking control of our lives, by getting us so balled up in working on Maggie’s Farm as wage slaves and in entertaining ourselves to death that we don’t see we have a responsibility.
You’re not supposed to tell truth to power. You’re supposed to bow. “Yes sir. No sir. Two bags full, sir.” And if things are going to change we’re going to have to do it. I think Samuel Beckett would have supported Occupy.
RCM: How do you see the state of live theatre in America?
JC: You’ve got to have a country that has a livable minimum wage and some responsibility towards its arts, which in this country is zero, as far as I can see. If they haven’t cut the National Endowment for the Arts to nothing yet, they’re only just waiting until one of those idiots gets elected, and then they will.
Getting actors to commit to doing live theatre in 99 seat houses in L.A., I must say most of them do it for love. They want to do something that’s important, they want to do good work – they don’t get an opportunity to do it otherwise. Every one of those actors has gotta make a living, which is why they have to do commercials, why they take guest and small roles on a TV series. Of course, if you’re doing television you don’t have to do theatre. You’ll never do theatre again.
RCM: Other than being invited to read at the White House, what are the advantages of being one of America’s top actors?
JC: I don’t know how anyone would say that. I am a middle class actor who has been lucky enough to make his living doing it because I busted my hump and have been very lucky.
RCM: You don’t consider yourself a celebrity…?
JC: Celebrity is about selling product. All the hoopla around “celebrity.” It costs those people who are celebrities incredibly, in their lives. I wouldn’t trade places with them for anything. Well, would I like the access and the clout they have, they ability to get projects done? Sure. But, everything now is product. We’re just about selling things. And celebrity is meaningless.
RCM: You’re almost as well known for being an animal rights activist and vegan as you are for being an actor…
JC: Well, I am a lapsed vegan: sometimes I have eggs.
James Cromwell is co-starring with Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in Waiting for Godot through April 22 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)628-2772.
March 22, 2021
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