In his first lead role after decades of being a memorable character actor, James Cromwell gives a heartfelt and inspiring performance in Still Mine, a deeply affecting love story about a couple in their twilight years. Based on true events, the film tells the story of fiercely independent farmer Craig Morrison (Cromwell), who finds himself facing jail time when the government tries to stop him from building a more suitable house for his ailing wife, Irene (Geneviève Bujold).
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, James Cromwell talked about how glad he was that he ultimately decided to take on this role, what it’s like to have his first lead role at this point in his career, what it would take for studios to see older audiences as viable, why this film will appeal to everyone, and that he is someone who personally resists and questions authority, much like his character in the film. He also talked about his work on the TV series American Horror Story: Asylum, the roles that he’s most proud of, and his willingness to still doing nude scenes. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JAMES CROMWELL: There was this director in Canada who had written this picture and got the funding together, and they said, “So, who are you gonna cast as Craig?” He talked to the casting director and put his thinking cap on, and she said, “So, what is Craig like? What do you want? Do you want him to look like the real Craig?” He said, “No, that’s not it.” He described somebody, and as he was describing, either he or the casting director said, “How about James Cromwell?,” and he said, “Oh, yeah, him! I like him, a lot. Do you think he’d do the picture?” And then, they ask. So, they sent the script to my agent, my agent sent it to me, I read it and, if you have any brains at all, of which I have just a few, you say, “Sure, let’s do this!” Ultimately, I did, thank god. That’s how it worked. Now, that’s not true for Brad Pitt, but it’s the way I do it.
With the career that you’ve had, does it feel crazy to say that this is your first lead role?
CROMWELL: No, it doesn’t seem crazy, at all. I’m a character actor. When you meet me, all you see is the character. Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and the leading men are on the short side to me. They have hair, they have nicely proportioned features, they have a six-pack and they’re sexy, and I am none of the above. So, they get the leading roles, and I fill in the blanks as a character actor. But, I’ve had a great career. I’m very grateful. I’ve been in some wonderful projects. I think my father would be proud of me. I know my mother is. They’re no longer here of course, but in my mind, I know that I didn’t let our side down. And so, that it finally comes around to be a lead, that’s icing on the cake.
Are you surprised that it’s taken as long as it has for studios to notice that older audiences are viable and should be recognized and catered to, in some sense?
CROMWELL: The thing is that it’s not the studios. Studios are run by those who are way too old or mostly young, who don’t think creatively. They think in terms of product and deals. And so, if the last picture to make $800 million was a film about something really stupid, they’ll want to make that picture, over and over again. And then, along comes a Canadian film or a French film. I was in a work of art that was so unique – and that’s The Artist – that it would never have been made in Los Angeles, ever. You couldn’t have gotten past the secretary. But, once they see a film – unfortunately, not like The Artist because that scares them to death – like Amour, and it’s a success and it wins an Academy Award, they think, “Gosh, maybe people will go to that.” Now, we made our film at the same time as Amour. The Baby Boomers are getting older, so they’re not interested in Godzilla and The War of the Worlds. That’s great for 12-year-old kids, but other people want to watch something that resembles what they experience in life. They will go to the movies. If you’re a courageous producer, you will do that kind of picture. It will never make you $500 million. It just won’t. This picture won’t make $500 million. That’s not the point. The point is to reach the audience that you want to reach and make a difference, and to have enough return that you can make another picture that makes a difference.
CROMWELL: You know, it took me a long while to understand what Babe was about. I missed that. I don’t often miss things, but I missed this picture when I first read it. I didn’t get it. I thought it was a nice story that would make a nice film. It was going to be shot in Canada, and I liked the director. It was a perfectly nice little film that I thought would probably never get picked up, and that it would show in Canada and at festivals, and then go to DVD. But, I misread it. When I actually got the job and started to study the script, I realized that I really didn’t know what this picture was about. I had to live it. So, that was a surprise. I have to pay a little more attention when I read a script. The quality of this picture is in the writing, and in Michael McGowan’s vision for what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. It’s a quintessentially Canadian picture, but because it tells the truth about the people that inhabit it, it’s recognizable everywhere. I think it will appeal in America, and I think it will appeal to anybody. Even in translation, I think it will appeal.
Are you someone who personally resists and questions authority, much like Craig Morrison does?
CROMWELL: Yes. My father was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee for no reason, at all. It didn’t destroy his career, but it shifted his career from Hollywood back to New York. He imbued me, even without being specific, with that sort of obduracy. He refused to apologize to the Committee because there was no reason for him to apologize. And he, quite unknowingly, sent me down to the deep South during the Civil Rights movement, as part of an integrated theater that toured Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, mainly in the black communities, while the black community was being organized by various organizations, like CORE, to guarantee black people their right to vote, which was a civil liberty guaranteed by the Constitution, of which they had been deprived by the Cracker and Jim Crow laws of the South.
And then, when I got out of the South, I got involved in the anti-war movement against the Vietnam War, and occupied Washington and got arrested. Then, I didn’t join the Black Panther party because I’m not a black, but I was in an organization called Committee to Defend the Panthers. So I have, in my way, continued to resist what I think is the over-reaching of authority, which is what the expression “resist authority” means. Authority is the assumption that someone else knows better than you. There are reasons to have rules and regulations. That I understand. Authority is a different thing. Authority is to maintain its own position by increasing its power and domination over those people it is supposedly protecting. So, any authority – the Catholic Church, the mayor, the policeman – you have to obey, to a certain degree, but then you have to resist, at a certain point. The people of Egypt are resisting. The women of Code Pink are resisting. The women in Texas are resisting. The authority is lined up against women. That’s what it looks like to resist authority.
CROMWELL: Yeah. The challenging part was that he is so horrible that you can’t really motivate and personalize any of his actions. It’s not just that he’s a rapist. It’s that he then cuts the woman’s legs off. I just don’t know how to personalize that, and I don’t think that’s what the creator of the series (Ryan Murphy) was interested in. He was interested in looking at a particular era of America, in which all those things, as bizarre as they are, did actually occur. People got lobotomies. There was abuse of psychiatric patients. There were mass murders. There was what was going on in the Catholic Church, which no one was even talking about. Now that’s a real American horror. But he said, “Look, if I write a dramatic script about any of those things, people will turn it off. So, I’ll create a horror story, and then I’ll look at all these people, in the context of the horror story.” I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I was delighted with it.
When you look back at the career that you’ve had up until now, are there specific roles or projects that you’re most proud of?
CROMWELL: Yeah, sure. The ones people talk about are Babe, L.A. Confidential, The Green Mile, The Queen, The Artist, this picture, The Education of Little Tree, Six Feet Under, Angels in America. For the most part, I’ve been lucky enough not to stupidly miss the opportunities that were presented to me. I showed up and people liked the work, and I’ve continued to work. I’ve had a great life. There’s no other way to say it. I’ve just had a great life. I’m eternally grateful to the people who made that possible, like my father and two mothers. I was tall, so I needed two. They were both great actresses and really powerful, extraordinary women. Women are the hope of the world. It’s been great, and it’s not over yet.
Could you ever have imagined that you’d still be doing a nude scene, at this point in your career?
CROMWELL: Well, my friends joke because I will take my clothes off, at the drop of a hat. I even worked a nude scene into my Hamlet. I think that’s correct, and everybody else does it wrong. I’m pretty comfortable in my skin, if it works, if it’s there for a reason and it’s not exploitative. Listen, my body can’t be exploited because who gives a damn?! But, what happens when you’re naked is that people get that you’re really just a human being. There are parts of it that are pretty appalling, and there are parts that are okay. That’s what it looks like. If you can embrace and accept what people look like in the altogether, it’s not so difficult to accept them with their clothes on.
Still Mine is now playing in theaters.