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James Cromwell: ‘In jail, everyone recognises my face’

The Hollywood star now has a second life as a fearless animal activist and eco warrior and, he reveals, it all started with Babe, his film about a talking pig

James Cromwell, veteran actor, Oscar nominee and star of LA Confidential and The Green Mile, is listing what he hates about Hollywood. I dont like the system, he says. I dont like what it does to people. I dont like the values. I dont like the class system. I dont like the disparity in pay, for men and women, and men and men. He smiles. I have a chip on my shoulder about Hollywood.

Cromwell, at 78, might be assumed to have shed any youthful inhibitions about speaking his mind. In fact, he says, he has always been awkward, particularly when starting out. I had issues with authority and made myself fairly unpopular in almost every theatre. Not only was he terminally stupid, he had a temper. On the set of 1997s LA Confidential, Cromwell disagreed with the director Curtis Hanson over a line. I cursed him, he recalls. I kicked dirt. I punched the car.

He has been married three times, has four adult children, and currently lives with his wife Anna in a cabin in upstate New York, which today is blanketed in snow. When Cromwell comes to the door, a towering 6ft 7in with the face of an Easter Island statue, he says hi then turns to go and haul logs in for the fire.

The thing people say to Cromwell in the street is: Dont tell me. What were you in? Youre that guy! The last time Cromwell was in jail he has been arrested many times for his activism, most recently for protesting against fracking he says: They all knew my face. Hey, hes the guy in The Green Mile! I was always the guy.

Unexpected
Unexpected hit Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett in Babe, which reviewers were forced to watch. Photograph: Allstar/Universal

Much to his amusement, Cromwells best known role is probably as Farmer Hoggett in 1995s Babe, about a cute pig that wants to be a sheepdog. Made when he was 55, it became an unexpected hit. (So low were their expectations, that Universal didnt even give it a Hollywood premiere and reviewers were forced to watch the movie as a condition of seeing Apollo 13.)

It was interacting with piglets on the set that started Cromwell thinking about animal rights, leading him to not only become a vegan, but to take up the fight for animals. More recently, he narrated Farm to Fridge, a 2011 documentary about the horror of the slaughterhouse, and in 2013 he was arrested for protesting against animal testing. He was arrested again last year for disrupting an orca show at Sea World, spending three days in prison after refusing to pay a $375 fine.

For many years now, acting has come second to his activism. While he will tell a wry story about crashing a Hollywood party and hanging out by the pool with Michael Caine and Sean Connery, he is happier saying something like: Methane is 87 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. And then hell explain how fracking is being introduced across the US by stealth.

The difficulty for Cromwell, and for any political activist, is that the vast majority of people would rather hear the one about the Hollywood party. Yes, he says, such issues as fracking are easy to ignore that is until they affect your life, your air, your children, your water. Then they become really real. The question is whether people will come to their senses in time. Because theres going to come a point when mother nature turns around and slaps us up the side of the head.

Cromwell
Cromwell protesting from inside a crate in 2014, demanding Air France stop flying monkeys to laboratories. Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Cromwells politics are rooted in his childhood. He grew up in Connecticut, where his family moved after his father, a Hollywood director who made more than 57 pictures, was blacklisted during the McCarthy-era witch hunts. His mother was an actor, but after his parents divorced she never acted again. His father, however, found a new footing in the New York theatre world. He never lost the best part of him, which was to be a member of an artistic community that supported each other and cared about the work. He never found that in the studio system. All my fathers friends cut him dead. They would pass him and not look at him. John Cromwell, he points out, was not a communist, but a middle-of-the-road liberal.

Young Cromwells first big test came when he joined a production of Waiting for Godot as it toured the segregated south at the height of the civil rights movement. It was 1963 and the company played Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, mainly black audiences and occasionally surrounded by armed guards out of fear that white supremacists would firebomb their venue.

In fact, he says, most of the white townsfolk thought they were a joke, an integrated theatre company performing esoteric works to a black audience. Meanwhile, he says, the reaction of the black people in the south to that play was more sophisticated than Ive ever heard from white people in the north and Ive played it many times. They got the play immediately. In fact, in Indianola at intermission, a famous civil rights activist named Fannie Lou Hamer turned to the audience and said: I want you to pay attention to this, because were not like these two men. Were not waiting for anything. Nobodys giving us anything were taking what we need!

James
Cromwell with Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey in LA Confidential, 1998. Photograph: Peter Sorel/AP

Cromwell has since been arrested numerous times, first at a Vietnam war protest in 1971. Last January, he went to the Womens March in Washington DC and found it wonderfully inclusive and peaceful. Im in a strange place, he says, because the only thing I really have to offer is my marginal celebrity, which I dont mind using at all. In fact, I like putting that ridiculous thing to use. But that is not often what is needed. What is needed is community organisers.

Given his fathers blacklisting, has Cromwell ever hesitated to join a protest because of how it might affect his Hollywood career? He smiles and, after a long pause, says: Once. Somebody approached me in LA to protect the Ballona Wetlands. They were going to develop them. One of the developers was Steven Spielberg, who wanted to put his studio out there. I went out and did a tour. It was incredible. The wetlands were magic. I said, OK, Ill do it.

Next he received a call from an actor who said: Jamie, theres probably no such thing as the blacklist any more. But supposing your name comes up at Spielbergs DreamWorks and they say what about Jamie Cromwell for that part, and somebody goes, Is he the guy whos trying to block the building of our studio?

I thought, Ah, shit. Ive got all these kids and school and college. So I called them up and said, Ill give you money and come to the protests, but I cant be your front man because my position in the industry is not secure enough. About a week later I see a news report: a celebrity has chained himself to one of the fences out there and its Martin Sheen. And I thought, God damn it!

Fighting
Fighting for orcas at SeaWorld, San Diego, in 2017. Photograph: WENN.com

How did he feel? I felt like a horses ass although Martin could get away with that because he was a huge star and The West Wing was at its height. I wasnt and havent been. But I felt that I had flinched. And I said Im never going to flinch again.

And he hasnt. Cromwells own star has risen steadily. He considers himself very lucky to have appeared in some of the biggest films of the last 20 years, including The Artist, The People vs Larry Flynt and, this summer, the sequel to Jurassic World. The sick feeling he got from abandoning his principles never left him, though. When he and Anna an actor he has been married to for four years, although they have known each other for 35 moved to this cabin, the first thing Cromwell said to her was: Do you want to be involved?

He meant local activism because theres got to be issues something out here. Sure enough they found their target: a power plant that activists suspected was being fuelled by fracking, as part of a huge semi-covert system. If you see a map of the country, he says, with the infrastructure for the 300 plants theyre planning, its like a spiders web over the United States. It isnt benign. And hes off, eyes ablaze, ready for the fight.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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