James Cromwell

James Cromwell

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in July 2007.

For a while there it was all the rage for big stars to fill British theatres. The playhouse was considered somehow grittier and more real than Hollywood, a place to retrospectively pay your dues for earning $20 million dollars a picture. Nicole Kidman and Kevin Spacey lead the charge from Beverly Hills to London’s West End and soon everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Rob Lowe was attempting to bolster their artistic credentials by slumming it on the stage.

With the notable exception of the Gate’s successful wooing of Ralph Fiennes, Irish theatres hadn’t really managed to cash in on any overspill of Hollywood invaders. But now Druid a Galway based theatre (which just won an award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival) has managed to lure James Cromwell, star of Babe and LA Confidential, to Ireland for a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It might seem an unlikely move for a man whose last job was Spiderman 3, but he had his own reasons for accepting the offer. ‘I have a history with this play’, he tells me. ‘I lived not 5 minutes away from O’Neill’s old house. My mother had acted in the play on Broadway and I had also directed her in it. You can fail more easily in the theatre and I find that more interesting. You can learn from failure but it’s harder to learn from success. That’s one of the reasons I picked this.’

It might seem like an eccentric response but Cromwell has always been a bit different. For one thing there’s his size. At an imposing 6’7″ he physically stands out in an industry of pint sized leading men, and not always for the better – Blake Edwards once disdainfully asked a casting director of Cromwell ‘what am I supposed to do with (italics) that (close italics)’ and called Cromwell a ‘useless entity’. But it’s his pronouncements and politics that have even more so set him apart from the Hollywood mainstream. He bristles when I mention the phrase ‘liberal causes’ – ‘I’m a libertarian, not a liberal!’ – and in truth he has always been a bit more radical than the usual ‘socially aware’ stars. In the 1960s he was part of a ‘Committee To Defend The Black Panthers’, an organisation preoccupied with freeing members of the black civil rights group who had been imprisoned in New York. Over the years he has campaigned passionately for causes close to his heart – most famously for the animal rights group PETA. He refuses to vote in the American presidential election because he feels that ‘it’s all about who is better adept at bullsh*t. You have to have John Edward’s hair or be black or be a woman.’ At least once during our conversation he alludes to a coming violent revolution and utters the phrase ‘power to the people!’ Without irony.

If he has a mistrust of the political system it might owe something to his background. Cromwell’s father, an award-winning actor director was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Cromwell, who was raised in Manhattan, also moved into acting and the theatre and was fully a part of the foment of the 1960s. He did guerrilla theatre protesting against the Vietnam War. He toured the Deep South with the Free Southern Theatre, a troupe that tried to bring theatre to poor, rural audiences.

Some people might find his political lectures a bit off putting but, to be fair, Cromwell (he calls himself ‘Jamie’ which seems like an odd name for a 67 year old man) shoots from the hip on whatever subject he’s talking about. Unlike most Hollywood actors who gush about having had the time of their lives and having ‘made the best of friends’ on the set of whatever film they happen to be promoting, Cromwell refreshingly refuses to talk nice when that’s not how he feels. Breaking ranks with the carefully crafted PR surrounding the release of the Queen (in which he played Prince Philip) he said that the crew ‘hated’ Princess Diana because she represented ‘the worst kind of English person’ to them. Speaking of Dame Maggie Smith’s supposed iciness on the set of Becoming Jane he grumbled ‘they don’t call them ‘dames’ for nothing’ and tells me that LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson was ‘difficult to work with.’

The bulk of his bile is reserved however for a man he first hesitates to name before adding ‘he won an Oscar for best screenplay for The Departed, so I’m sure you can figure it out’.

‘That man (William Monaghan) worked on the screenplay for that movie when he was supposed to be working on a screenplay for us. He did ours in his spare time. We wrote a 45-page outline and it would have been a no-brainer to create a movie out of it. And it is THE political movie of the Afghan war. It is about what’s wrong with the American psyche when we try to impose of values on another culture. He destroyed it. He fu**ing destroyed it. And it soured the studio on it.’ At this point Cromwell has raised his voice and sounds even angrier than he did when we were discussing the coming American presidential elections. ‘They (the studio) won’t commit any more money. The producer has moved on. I can’t get the head of the studio to return my calls. It’s all in limbo. He (Monaghan) is a twit and he’ll get what he wants.’

Cromwell adds that most of his stories from film set ‘are on me’ (i.e. make himself look bad rather than others) and his bluntness is not to be confused with cruelty. By way of illustration he recounts to me a confrontation with Courtney Love, his co-star in The People vs. Larry Flynt, who was upset at the way he had described her. ‘Courtney’s way of working, her way of preparing for the part was act as sexually outrageous and out of control as possible’ he tells me. She sat in the courtroom scene in front of the actors playing the jurors with her legs up and apart and you could see everything. And I mean (italics) everything (close italics). I mentioned this to someone and she got wind of it. I also said that she lived hard, by which I mean the alcohol and the drugs and, to be honest, she did. I didn’t mean these things as criticisms, however. It all played perfectly into the character she was playing. I didn’t mean to hurt her and I apologised to her. I said ‘I spoke out of turn.’’

Courtney was an exception however and mostly, he tells me, the fakeness and superficiality of Hollywood insulates him from any overtly adverse reaction. ‘Nobody has ever said to me when I walked into the room ‘what the fuck did you mean by that?’ It’s all about money. They wouldn’t give a damn what I said as long as when push came to shove I did something that was of value to them.’

But there’s the rub. While Cromwell’s quotes might raise eyebrows behind the closed doors of the big studios he knows he will only really raise hackles when it affects their bottom line. And in one instance he tells me, he ‘flinched’ when faced with a choice between something he really believed in and pissing off the big players in Hollywood. ‘We have wonderful wetlands near to where we (he and his wife) live in Southern California. A development project going to destroy them. There was a committee to save them and the committee asked me to be the poster child (for the campaign). And I agreed. And I went home and spoke to my wife about it. And she said. ‘I think that’s a bad idea. Spielberg is going to build his studio down there (on the wetlands) he’s going to have his office down there. It’s not going to be very good for your career. So I called up a friend of mine, a very successful A-List actor. And he said to me, ‘listen Jamie, there isn’t a blacklist but you don’t suppose that when they’re discussing roles for a picture at DreamWorks that someone in the room isn’t going to say ‘isn’t he the guy who protested the building of this studio?’ And I would be passed over. So I called up the committee and said ‘look I’ll march or whatever but you can’t use me as the front guy.’ And I felt terrible. The minute I had told them this and stepped back, who shows up but Martin Sheen. No problem at all to him. He was talking about it on camera. And I thought, ‘goddamn it all, Martin’s doing it because he doesn’t give a sh*t.’ I was furious at myself.’

As if chastened by this lesson Cromwell now seems now more than ever to ‘not give a sh*t’ what people think. Or even what they might consider grossly offensive. Of his co-campaigners in PETA he tells me approvingly that ‘they care more about animals than they do about (italics) stupid (close italics) people. When Ingrid (Newkirk) says that ‘even if a cure could be found for AIDS it wouldn’t justify experimenting on animals to find that cure’ she is thinking about the millions of animals who will go through torture just to (italics) possibly (close italics) benefit some human beings. And lets be real for a minute: These are people who lead an irresponsible life. I’m not talking about all homosexuals. I’m talking about those homosexuals who continue to have rough sex even though they know they’re putting themselves at risk.’

It’s a fairly shocking and confusing statement from a man who has attended AIDS benefits and starred in the award winning Angels in America (a play set in New York against the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s) and is guaranteed to cause outrage even if the reader can’t hear the almost kindly tone of voice it was said in. For all his talent, sincerity and admirable braveness in cutting through the mush of Hollywood spin, it’s pronouncements like this that you fear in the final analysis might overshadow Cromwell’s late-blooming career. And you wonder if someday he won’t be sorry he didn’t flinch just a little more often.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night will run at Town Hall Theatre, Galway from Wednesday 19 – Saturday 29 September 2007 7.30pm. Previews: Friday 14, Saturday 15, Monday 17 & Tuesday 18 September 2007 7.30pm

Tickets €25 (€20 Concession) Previews €16

For Booking call Town Hall Theatre Box Office 091 569 777

It also runs at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from Wednesday 3 – Saturday 13 October. Bookings can be made at 01 677 8899

For more information on both runs see http://www.druidtheatre.com

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~ by Donal Lynch on February 29, 2008.