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Acting vs. activism

James Cromwell, melding career and conscience, hasn't had to choose.

August 01, 2004|Mark Olsen

Known for playing reserved authority figures, in conversation actor James Cromwell is surprisingly energetic and impassioned. Born in Los Angeles, the son of classic Hollywood director John Cromwell and actress Kay Johnson, he has led an enviably adventuresome life. He's an outspoken activist for any number of causes and performed for rural audiences throughout the South in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He has hitchhiked around the world, ridden a motorcycle across the United States and is secretary-treasurer of the Screen Actors Guild.

After his Academy Award nomination for "Babe" in 1995, Cromwell appeared in "L.A. Confidential," "Space Cowboys," "The Sum of All Fears" and numerous other film and television projects. He can be seen in "I, Robot" in the role of the scientist who creates the thinking machines of the title, as well as on the small screen in "Six Feet Under" as the new husband of the Fisher family matriarch played by Frances Conroy.

Following the one-two success of your work in "Babe" and then "L.A. Confidential," it seems as if you hit some kind of reset button. Since then it's almost as if you're having a whole second career.

I didn't have a career before that. I had what I call a "careen," where you bounce like a pinball from one thing to another. My first film was called "Murder by Death," written by Neil Simon, and it didn't lead to anything. I continued to work in television, but it's tough to have a career in television. If you're lucky, you land on a show for a couple of years, but then you have a hard time getting any work after that, you're used up for two or three years. People who cast movies saw me as a television actor.

Was it a matter of never getting that one role that people really identified you with?

Most of Hollywood, after "Murder by Death," thought I was French. Then after "Babe" people thought I was Australian. Part of the reason I got "L.A. Confidential" was because the director, Curtis Hanson, had already hired a few Australian actors to play Americans and figured what's one more! He also had a character that he wanted the audience to misinterpret based on the actor's previous work, so he could get to the gag without giving the gag away and, following "Babe," I worked for that.

Through your work with the Screen Actors Guild, PETA and other organizations, you've shown a real passion and commitment to social activism as a part of your life. How does that influence the roles you play?

It informs everything I do, but I do still have to pay for the house. I have been fortunate to be able to make choices to appear in many films that have at their root something I think is important. Take "Babe." I thought it was going to be a little kids' film, but it has profoundly important things to say about the relationship between humans and other species. I didn't really understand the film until I was sitting next to [costar] Magda Szubanski at the press junket and she started talking about the underlying themes of "Babe." I remember thinking, "Is that what the film is about?" A being who wanted to be something he was not designed for, but he didn't let that bother him. And who chose to accomplish his goal not by force, not by dominating others or coming up with a better mousetrap through anger and violence, but through kindliness, acceptance, understanding of others and communication. And that's why people love that film.

With everything else you do, does acting still hold your interest? Does it still seem new?

One of the reasons I was excited about doing "Six Feet Under" is I've been doing this 40 years now and I've never gotten the girl. I'd actually said that to my acting teacher, Milton Katselas, when I told him I wanted to come back to class to stay busy during downtime between jobs. I told him at the time, "I've never gotten the girl." He said, "Are you ready to put that out into the universe?" Within two weeks they called from "Six Feet" and asked if I'd like to marry Ruth. So if you put your attention on your intention, that's how life moves forward. Life hears.

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