Emmy-winning actor James Cromwell

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An Emmy winner for his supporting role in the FX hit, American Horror Story: Asylum, Cromwell discusses his romantic lead role in the indie film, Still Mine.

Actor James Cromwell followed his parents into the family business and counts as credits roles in diverse stage productions, more than 50 films and numerous TV shows. He's won rave reviews for his performances, including in Babe—for which he earned an Oscar nod—L.A. Confidential and The Artist and on TV in Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire and American Horror Story: Asylum in a role that garnered a 2013 miniseries/movie supporting actor Emmy nom. And, at age 73, he took the lead in the feature drama, Still Mine. An outspoken activist, Cromwell has participated in a number of civil and animal rights causes, including joining a committee to defend the Black Panthers.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with James Cromwell, the Oscar-nominated character actor who has anchored so many outstanding movies including, of course, “Babe” and “L.A. Confidential.” Cromwell is now starring in a highly-praised new movie called “Still Mine” which details the lives of a long-married couple as they navigate old age and illness with dignity.

But before we get to that conversation, as this is our 10th anniversary here on PBS, we continue to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night. Joining me now is my man, Brian Anderson. He is my stage manager who’s been here with me every show for 10 years. And, to the extent that I can be given orders and directions, Brian attempts to do that, but he does it awfully well. And, Brian, I’m honored to have you on our team, sir.

Brian Anderson: Thank you, Tavis. I’m honored to be on your team. You know, I met you 12 years ago or so on a little show called “Politically Incorrect.” You came on as a guest and I said, “One day I hope to work with you.” And you gave me this opportunity and I’ve been grateful and enjoyed 10 years of meaningful television. I feel blessed to work on two of the best talk shows on all of television.

Tavis: And we’re glad to have you on our team directing this operation, so you need to get back to your spot of directing me. Before you do that, though, tell us who’s coming up tonight.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with actor James Cromwell coming up right now.

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Tavis: So someone once described, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, James Cromwell, that a character is the man who doesn’t get the girl. That may be true, but they often get great roles and accolades and that’s certainly true of our guest tonight, James Cromwell, who has shown his range as the kindly farmer in “Babe” which earned him an Oscar nomination. Of course, then as the deadly corrupt cop in “L.A. Confidential.”

Now he’s getting rave reviews once again for his role as a devoted husband trying to keep his wife from slipping further into dementia in the independent movie titled “Still Mine.” His costar is – say that name for me. You say it so much better.

James Cromwell: Genevieve Bujold.

Tavis: I love how you say that [laugh]. Let’s take a look at a scene from the movie.


Tavis: Tell me more about “Still Mine.”

Cromwell: Well, actually what you said was he actually can’t prevent her descent into dementia.

Tavis: That’s true.

Cromwell: He wants to make the transition into that dark night as comfortable and familiar for her, you know, her surroundings. It’s a very genuine thing and he feels that he wants to minister to her and take care of her the way he always has partially because she’s meant so much to him in his life. She deserves it. You know, he doesn’t ask anybody else. He knows what he has to do. He’s capable of doing it.

And then he runs afoul of a bureaucracy and regulations which are in place by necessity because unscrupulous people do take advantage of other people. And there evidently has to be some sort of government to regulate it. Unfortunately, there are no exceptions, so they don’t see or appreciate how capable he is and they simply say, “If you do not comply with our regulations, we’re gonna bulldoze the house.”

Tavis: And therein lies the rub.

Cromwell: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cromwell: Yeah. It’s not only a personal tale of – you know, people last year saw “Amour.” That’s the dark side of it and, not that any of this ever turns out really well ’cause it does get really awful for most people, but we chose to show a lighter side. At least in a way that you saw that his action was possible and that it was prudent and that it was the best of all possible options.

And, unfortunately, so often there are many things in this culture that we refuse to talk about. Dementia is one, growing old is another. You know, suddenly you are moved to the periphery, you no longer have volition on your own, you are at the effect of other people, and he is not. Even at 87, he’s still incredibly capable.

Tavis: You have just, by my count, given me at least five – maybe I missed one – five or six good reasons to not make a movie like this because – I see you grinning – because it doesn’t fit the roadmap for Hollywood success, and yet you did it. So why did you choose to do this?

Cromwell: Well, first of all, it’s not made in Hollywood. Like the film I was in last year, “The Artist,” never made that film in Hollywood either. No, it was made other places where people are really interested in dealing with these subjects. We have to – you know, we’re dealing with it right now or trying not to deal with it, which is what happened in the trial of Trayvon Martin.

So people in other countries are looking at this and I thought I misread the script. I read it cursorily. I gave some really wretched notes. It wasn’t until I got the job – I was shooting another film and I started to look at it – that I calmed down.

You know, you get so used to reading scripts that are about car chases and explosions, short little dialogue, the entire focus is on the leading man, maybe one other a character. You fulfill a very small function. You don’t drive the plot forward. You’re more of a diversion and it all happens really quick.

So you get something that’s slow and deliberate and sensitive and character-driven and interior. I don’t wanna say small in a pejorative way, but it’s the microcosm. You miss it. So it took me a while to calm down and I noticed it when I see the film. Actually, somebody said today they really enjoyed that this film moves at a measured…

Tavis: Pace.

Cromwell: Yeah. Emerson said, you know, take your example from nature, the pace of nature. It’s based on patience and we have no patience in this country. We want instant gratification, we want instant – you know, we don’t take responsibility – instant blame, instant punishment and instantly forget about it and go on to the next thing.

Tavis: Did you have the occasion to go back and look at your notes that you made initially about the project?

Cromwell: Oh, it took me about four hours to talk him out of it. He had made a second version…

Tavis: [Laugh] Based on your notes.

Cromwell: I begged him. I said, no, it’s absolutely wrong. Luckily, ’cause they were his words, he was not reluctant to go back.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Cromwell: And it clarified it a lot for me by having to do that and for him. And he got from me my interest, which directors often don’t. He got that I was only interested in making the best film possible. I didn’t want it for me. I wanted to tell the story as best as I could. And that informed my participation and everybody around it – everybody, not because of me, because they all believed in the thing. It was an absolutely miraculous production.

Tavis: Let me jump this way, James, and I’ll come back.

Cromwell: Sure.

Tavis: That story you just told says something to me, at least, about your own capacity and humility and willingness to reexamine your own assumptions in life. Tell me more about that.

Cromwell: Other than I’m so often wrong [laughs]?

Tavis: I doubt that, I doubt that, yeah.

Cromwell: No. I think that’s part of growing. I think you have to – you know, you think you know something and understand something, but if your goal is to become conscious, then you keep having to reexamine the premises that you base your actions on because actions have consequence. I’ll look at them and, throughout my life, I have learned from participating in things that were beyond my ken that I knew nothing of.

I’m not talking simply about the acting. I’m talking in my life experience where my eyes were opened to other peoples’ experience, their wisdom. I listened to Dick Gregory last night. I was in a gathering to see a documentary on Mark Lane. Dick Gregory started to speak to mostly white people and Dick Gregory got on it and he started telling it like it was and it was really interesting.

Because I had been to a progressive Democrat thing when I heard people talking about, oh, you know, we can do this and we’re gonna do this. I’m thinking, are you out of your minds? You can’t even get your candidates elected. What are you talking about? I wasn’t asked to, but I felt reluctant to say what was on my mind, what I experienced of the truth, and I watched him tell the truth passionately about what he believes in.

And I thought, oh, so now I have to take the responsibility like when you see somebody wearing a fur coat, you can’t just let it – I stood next to two people in full length…and I just wanted to go over and say, “Do you have any idea the suffering that goes into the coat that you’re wearing?” And if you don’t do it, it stays the same. And the pain goes on, the suffering goes on, the killing goes on, whatever the consequence is.

Tavis: But if you do it, James Cromwell, it makes you the party pooper. It makes you the guy who killed all the fun. It makes you persona non grata perhaps. It certainly makes you politically incorrect if you do it.

Cromwell: Yeah. Mark Lane said an interesting thing. He said, “I have wonderful friends, really, really wonderful friends, and they are not only dear to me, but they have supported me and made my life possible.” He said, “I also have wonderful enemies and I earned every one of them and I am real proud of them.” Because the people who aren’t willing to step up to the plate and deal with the subject – you know, I don’t try to drive it down somebody’s throat, but I have a lot of opinions.

I have positions on veganism, I have positions on the death penalty, I have positions on Snowden. I have positions. I want to have a conversation with somebody and I want us to go – I don’t have anything to defend. I want to explore and see if we can’t come to some – if we can’t make it better and you can’t do that unless you’re willing to change your mind.

Tavis: Let me push another button here. I want to frame this the right way ’cause I don’t want to cast aspersion on every white male watching this show. I love white men. Some of my best friends are white men like James Cromwell [laugh].

Don’t take this the wrong way, but here’s the point. Since you led me down this road, I want to follow you. You referenced by inference – well, not inference – you directly referenced Trayvon Martin and the recent trial of George Zimmerman.

There are a lot of folk in this country – and we have an upcoming episode of this show where we talk about white entitlement or what former senator, Bill Bradley, referred to as white skin privilege. If anybody enjoys white skin privilege, it’s white males and there are a lot of people on this side of that trial who just don’t get how many Americans, white Americans, white males, can’t develop a sense of empathy, understanding, openness, to your point, to step in the shoes of someone else.

And, again, I’m not trying to indict all white males. I’m asking you as a white male since you referenced it to say something to me about how you as a particular, a singular, white male found himself open to the world, to wanting to hear other peoples’ points of view no matter how disparate they are and consider their pain and to be empathetic toward their situation. How did that happen for you? Does that make sense?

Cromwell: Yeah. Because my father was an actor and a wonderful director. My mother, an actress; my stepmother, an actress. I guess I come genetically and by experience from – I mean, that’s what we have to do in our work, whether I’m genetically predisposed to appreciate and embrace empathy. I went along mindlessly, ignorantly. I got out of going to – my driver fought in Vietnam.

I got out of Vietnam. Basically, I had no idea what Vietnam was. I just had started my career and I didn’t want to go and I got a psychiatrist in New York to write a letter that I was nuts and the inspecting officer believed me. I said totally inappropriate to him and he said, “That’s it” and I was out and I never had to confront either going to Canada, going to jail, what conscientious objection might mean.

Tavis: Some would say that makes you not a conscientious objector, but a coward.

Cromwell: Yeah. Well, I think I was a coward, but I was a coward out of ignorance. I didn’t have any sense that I was dying. I also had nothing to defend. I didn’t understand what was at stake. I still don’t – well, I know what’s at stake now and I abhor it. I remember that was the year that John Kennedy was killed. My life sort of – I looked at it. None of us could believe that this could occur, that you could kill the President of the United States.

And then very shortly after that, I went to the south ostensibly to be in a theater and was taken to a house in the quarter that had “coloreds only” on it. And in my naivety, said, oh, that must be a throwback to the Civil War. Isn’t that quaint? I went in and a very nice Black lady showed me to a room and the head of the theater, John O’Neal, took me to a restaurant. We were thrown out of the restaurant because I was sitting with a Black man in a restaurant in New Orleans.

I’d never been thrown out before. I stand up, typical me, my fist balled. He said, “No, no, no, sit down,” informed the man that he was violating his civil rights. Then not only rehearsing the play and learning more about “Waiting for Godot” than I ever did from a Black minister who told me something about the play that I had never heard any other, no critic, express…

Tavis: I want to hear this.

Cromwell: And then going into Mississippi. My introduction into Mississippi was we drove into McComb. The side of the church had been firebombed. We went to the Freedom House. There were more Black men than I had ever seen in my entire life. I was from Westchester County, man.

They are listening to a 14-year-old Black girl say how she had been beaten, kicked upon and spat on for integrating the lunch counter. I thought what country am I in? Then I watched the courage of those people and the people who were supporting us, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, people who came down. I went to school with Mickey Schwerner. They were missing when we were…

Tavis: As in Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.

Cromwell: And Chaney. So I saw things that fractured that complacency, that entitlement. I realized you have to earn everything in this life which has nothing to do with the color of your skin. It has to do with your principles and what you are willing to do to do the right thing. The obligation is to do the right thing.

Tavis: You mentioned this Black minister a moment ago. He said something to you about – I want to hear this because the last time I saw you – and you were brilliant, by the way.

Cromwell: Thanks.

Tavis: I didn’t want to come backstage and bother you, but I saw you here in L.A. in the production of “Waiting for Godot.” Loved it. So what did this Black minister say to you about “Waiting for Godot?”

Cromwell: Well, I had done this play in college and it had totally bamboozled me. It’s a tough piece, you know, to figure out what does it mean. I’m interested in what it means. I have a cast in which Lucky is white. I’m Pozzo, I’m white. Estragon is white and Vladimir is Black and I’m directing this play.

I’m beginning to sort of around the edges get it and he said to me after we rehearsed one scene, you know, Pozzo has Lucky at the end of a rope and Lucky carries everything that he owns, the (unintelligible) and I have the whip. This is the relationship between a master and a slave. And he said to me, “You know something? The master is as tied to the slave as the slave is tied to the master.”

And I always thought that the thing only went one way. It was a question of power, but it isn’t. The more power there is, the more dependence there is. It’s only the slave that acquiesces to a certain point and then, as it’s happened in Egypt and in the Middle East, there comes a point when you say no. The people in the south said no. It stops now.

You know, the best thing was we went to Greenville and I, by that time, used to have a colloquy afterwards to try to find out because I’m dealing with people who have never seen theater, a movie. They know nothing about this. So I had put blackface on myself and white face on the Black actors and tried to balance it so it wasn’t pretending. You see, that was my ignorance. I thought racism? Me?

So I said to the assembled, “Did you think Godot was coming?” This woman in the back raised her hand. She had a black glove on because her Sunday gloves, the white gloves, were dirty. But it was a very formal occasion, so she had her funeral gloves on.

I said, “Did you think Godot was coming?” and she said, “No.” She sounded so positive. I mean, people have been deliberating this since the play was written. I said, “How did you know?” She said, “I looked in the program and his name wasn’t listed.”

Tavis: [Laugh] That’s a brilliant answer.

Cromwell: Which is the most brilliant analysis of the play that I have ever heard.

Tavis: I didn’t see him listed in the rundown. That’s funny [laugh].

Cromwell: And I thought of it when we were doing the play. Waiting for Godot, you’re waiting the whole time. They talk about it endlessly. All you have to do is turn the page. Ah, it’s not about waiting for Godot. Fanny Lou Hamer said – she turned around to the audience at one point in Indianola and said, “I want you people to pay attention to this play because we’re not like those two men. We’re not waiting for anyone or anything. We’re taking what we need.”

Tavis: See, every time I talk to you, I get blown away by some new revelation. As much as I have studied the civil rights movement and read, I have not until this moment ever been aware that there was a nexus between the civil rights movement, Fanny Lou Hamer and “Waiting for Godot.” I never knew that [laugh]. I’m glad to know it and I can hear Fanny Lou saying that. Oh, she’s a powerhouse.

Cromwell: A powerhouse, incredible woman.

Tavis: Powerhouse, powerhouse.

Cromwell: Well, there were so many wonderful women, men. It was an extraordinary time. And the fact that we’re still fighting it at this juncture is appalling.

Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of fighting against certain things, what’s your hope at least for the take – I want to go back to the movie, “Still Mine.” What’s your hope for the takeaway of this? Because it’s a tender piece. It in no way prosethelytizes, but if I know you, there is something that you want to get out, though, through the film.

Cromwell: Yeah, I do. In terms of the relation, I love people. You know, there’s as much ageism as there is sexism,

Tavis: Um-hum.

Cromwell: And I would like to believe – I know ’cause I experience it at my age and it’s really frustrating…

Tavis: Not in Hollywood.

Cromwell: No, never in Hollywood [laugh]. I’d like people to understand that people of a certain age still have a life, they still have dreams, they still make love, they still care, they’re still capable.

Tavis: As a matter of fact, did I see your derriere in this thing?

Cromwell: Yeah.

Tavis: I thought I did.

Cromwell: Any excuse to take my clothes off [laugh]. Nobody cares anymore, but I mean – but the other part of it is sort of a byword of mine always has been resist authority. I just think we swallow way too much in this country. That’s one of the things that was so impressive about what Dick Gregory was talking about.

We just are bamboozled by the amount of misinformation and mendacity and I think people – you know, I looked at it today. I always feel that since I was involved in and worked with the Black Panthers and I was at the anti-war movement, we came very close to having a revolution in this country.

I believe the reason it failed was that we polarized the country because we blamed the others. There was blame and the natural American impulse to violence which is not in this film which is the reason that it’s a Canadian film or exemplary of Canada is that, instead of punching him out or picking up a gun or doing something bizarre, they just worked through it in a very natural – I don’t want to use the word civilized – mature, humane way.

And I notice today people talking about the demonstrations for Trayvon. The watch word is we have to do it nonviolently with discipline. So it’s changing. We’re clearer now than we were then. The discussion is still the same. The remedies will be different because we’re better now.

Tavis: Is it fair for me to say that, after all these years of doing what you do so well, given that “Babe” was really the lead, the pig.

Cromwell: Definitely, without a doubt.

Tavis: Yeah, the pig was the lead.

Cromwell: Yeah, that’s right. The pig was the lead.

Tavis: This is your first leading role?

Cromwell: It’s the first one.

Tavis: Yeah, after all these years.

Cromwell: I waited a long time and it’s really fun. I mean, it’s a very interesting thing. I compare it to Chinese paintings. You know, they only paint just the top of the mountain or you see one edge, and then the rest of it is supposedly in cloud. The canvas is white which allows the viewer to create the entirety in its imagination.

When you do a character role, you only have the one shot. You got a five-minute scene, you put everything but the kitchen sink, and the kitchen sink, in there. When you play a lead, you withhold information and choices and allow the audience to fill in in their mind so that the act of watching the piece is creative for the audience because the hero that they see is the hero that they’ve created.

Tavis: He is one of the greatest character actors ever and now, at this young age, he’s a lead. He’s the lead in wonderful film called “Still Mine.” His name, James Cromwell. He’s welcome back on this program any time and I mean that. I’m always enlightened by our conversations.

Cromwell: Thank you.

Tavis: Good to see you, James.

Cromwell: You too.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: September 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm