James Cromwell: “Artist,” Activist and Taking on a Black and White Silent Picture

James Cromwell: "Artist," Activist and Taking on a Black and White Silent Picture
James Cromwell: "Artist," Activist and Taking on Black and White Silent Picture

One of the most talked about films this fall is Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist.” Winner of the best actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a frontrunner for many awards during the upcoming season, “The Artist” is a stunning film and deserves all the accolades it receives.

Indiewire caught up with actor James Cromwell, co-star of “The Artist,” at the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival recently, where he was on hand to pick up the 2011 Mayor’s Career Achievement award and chatted a little bit about “The Artist,” how his first film and his most recent have some things in common and a little bit about his life as an activist, outside of his life as an actor.

The Weinstein Company opened the film over the Thanksgiving weekend in limited release…

Indiewire: So your agent or manager walks up to you and says…

James Cromwell: They call, they don’t walk…

IW: Right, of course, they call you and they say, ‘So I’ve got this French director who wants to make a French black and white silent movie.’ What’s your reaction to that?

JC: They’re nuts.

IW: How did they convince you to – was it just the script or was there a lot of haranguing to be done?

JC: No there was no haranguing and there really wasn’t a script. It was more like a book, it was a bound, spirally bound short story…with photographs. And the story was…it was fine. It was a fairly straightforward story. I didn’t see any deep meaning in it. So I was concerned that if it was to be an homage to the silent era that that was just going to be a gimmick and that all these techniques would be used to no purpose and the story…I didn’t get it.

So I had a long lunch with Michel [Hazanavicius] and I mean I was attracted to the idea simply because I love ideas that don’t get any traction in Hollywood because they usually are artistic or have something in mind other than just making a buck and I applaud those and support them whenever I can. But I had a long talk with Michel and he just stressed the importance of my character in terms of the story and that although he wasn’t in every scene, his presence was really important, so I knew he had thought about my character and the support that other people gave the two leading characters.

And he told me a little bit about the story and how it was a contemporary story, contemporary to the 20s, but it was a totally natural story. And that the only difference would be that we were shooting it 22 frames instead of 24 which meant that you had to slow your takes down a little, your reactions down a little because if you went real fast they were going to miss it. So I did it basically because I liked him, I liked the way he related to me, I liked his answers. I liked the idea of doing…it was novel.

I had no idea what the final creature would look like and on first viewing I saw it in a screening with my daughter and I guess…press in New York, a very small group of people…I don’t exactly know who they were. With a small group of people I got no gauge of an audience. I looked at it and thought ‘Oh it’s a charming picture, totally charming. [But nothing more than that.]

IW: But then when you see it in the Palais [in Cannes].

JC: Well you see it there or you see it …you continue to see it. Then you begin to notice things that you missed. I missed the whole metaphor of silence and how he handles silence and the progression of that metaphor over the course of the story and how it is internalized and I missed many of the cues, the layering that goes on in the information in the frame and I missed the idea that the audience creates the narrative on the information they’re given inside the frame. So as the audience you’re working to tell the story. I knew the story so I didn’t have to work.

The second time I saw it, I thought ‘Oh, so if you look around in the frame and you watch the choice of flowers or the picture frame or the poster or something you will learn a lot about what Michel is saying…’ and then of course there was no idea of this music and every time I hear it the score gets better and better so it grows on you. The trick will be of course getting people, first of all,to come. And then to…which I think Michel does very brilliantly in the film….taking their attention off watching people’s lips and start to read the film. When we showed it at  AFI in LA, you know it’s a very…. they’re not as quick as the audience in New York.

IW: More, more jaded Hollywood types.

JC: Yeah, you know they’re used to one kind of thing. I mean you give them a really interesting script and often times they won’t even know how to read the script. But over the course of the film they got to the segment after this incredible crescendo of the music from “Vertigo” and then there’s silence and she looks around and looks at him, says a line of dialogue, there’s a card, he fires the gun, that surprises him that it’s loaded, the dog falls over, gets a laugh,… That that audience was absolutely silent and they were not reading her lips. They were creating the story. How does this turn, ok we were saved from him blowing his brains out it so it had a happy ending but where do they go. What’s the next step? How will he get out of this? Is he doomed? Is this relationship doomed. And then it suddenly turns us into the magic of that dance!

IW: As an actor, apart from the 22 frames per second, how did you change your approach to working in a silent film.?

JC: There is no difference. We see silent films and we silent film acting so we think that that’s the way you have to act in a silent film therefore you have to do something because they obviously look different than we do. But often when you look at Buster Keaton or Chaplin or Garbo, there’s really not that much difference. They carried little over because their theater tended to be a little overblown although [Garbo] never did theater. Keaton did vaudeville. So for the rest of us, it is not a silent film. It is simply a talking film that’s not recorded. It doesn’t have that much dialogue so you’re telling the story through your facial expressions and your reactions…

IW: It’s more like a dance in some respects.

JC: A dance?

IW: Like a ballet performance and you’re expressing with your face but also with your body.

JC: Absolutely. It’s funny,  no one says: “Oh, I don’t know what to do at a ballet.” I don’t know why they would say that about a film. Now for Jean and Bérénice of course, the difference is that they have 3 different styles. They have the style of the story of the film which is truth in the acting. Then they have the personas that they play because [their characters are] movie stars and then they have – they have to act within a silent film and that silent film must look realistic to the period so they’re acting in the film. I mean he never has a moment in any of his films, even when he’s being engulfed by the sand, that rivals the look that he has when he’s back looking at the gun or when he looks at her on the stairs and realizes that she’s going up and he’s going down. Those are absolutely purely realistic contemporary moments.

IW: It’s funny because your first featured role in a film [“Murder By Death”] is one of my favorite films of all time. And I was realizing that you’ve come full circle as a chauffeur!

JC: I said that in New York, Bérénice and everybody were talking about the films that they referenced and how they talked at them. I said well I did look at one film I looked at this old Hollywood film, this real tall actor played the chauffeur I thought he did rather well, I haven’t heard from him since. Nobody got it.

IW: Really?

JC: No, silence! Nobody knew.

IW: That was a hell of cast to break in with.

JC: It was a hell of a cast!

IW: What was that like?

JC: We were 11 weeks in a sound stage with all those people in every scene so it was bloody magic. I’m very fond of the relationship I got with Maggie Smith and Alec Guinness, bless his heart, Jimmy Coco and Peter Falk. The only one I really didn’t get to know was Peter Sellers.

IW: Well that’s sort of a par for the course.

JC: Yeah, par for the course!

IW: So you’re pretty outspoken on a number of political and environmental subjects. Are you becoming sort of equally well known for that to the general public as opposed to Farmer Hoggett or Zefram Cochrane which I’m assuming you must get a lot of attention for?

JC: Yeah, with the Trekkies? I made myself unpopular with the Trekkies because I said at the press thing: “Well listen, if you’d like to know whether this story about this incredible journey is in any way true, why don’t you write your Congressman to release all the people from their security oath who have made reports on contact and extraterrestrials and Roswell and boy, did they not want to hear that! I  never got invited to any of those conventions…never ever.

IW: Well I don’t know, why would they be annoyed by that.

JC: Because they like the fiction, they don’t want it to be real. They want it to be a fiction.

No, I don’t think people for the most part [recognize me for my activism]… you know animal rights people know that I do animal rights work but I don’t think anybody knows I do death penalty focus, I don’t think they know about my activism with Indians, Of course during the run up to the Iraq War, Mike Farrell and I did get on television kind of frequently but then they saw that that didn’t work. They really couldn’t bait us into being stupid, so they stopped. You know the mainstream media, corporate media, avoids every giving anyone who has anything to say a platform, if they can possibly help it.

IW: This is why I’m constantly amazed when someone on MSNBC actually really gets up on there.

JC: That’s one of the few places, I guess. I know, to be balanced, after they castigate Fox they say: “Well MSNBC is a liberal bias.”

IW: Well I don’t know what that means.

JC: Telling the truth in this country is a bias.

IW: Exactly, I don’t understand that concept. Is it you or the press that calls you an ethical vegan. I don’t really understand…

JC: [Laughs] You don’t understand what that means?

IW: No, I understand what it means…I supposed it’s as opposed to being one for purely health reasons.

JC: Yeah, that’s correct. I always say, first of all, I’m not a purist and …I say I’m a vegan, although there are times when I have an egg, when I am traveling and can’t [bring my own food]  because it’s very difficult… what I can’t bring people to understand that it’s a process. You don’t just one day say – “That’s it, I’m doing this, I’m going to throw all my shoes out and I’m not eating honey and I won’t drive my car because there are animal bones in the tires…because you’d drive yourself around the bend. It’s a process of being conscious of the world that we live in and what we have done to the planet and other species by the lifestyles that we’ve adopted and we have to change and that’s why.

IW: So do you think it’s possible to be an ethical omnivore?

JC: Yeah, I think probably, it is. I think the relationship of indigenous people to their  environment… that those were ethical omnivores. The idea that wolves take the weakest of the herd not the best of the herd, obviously, or the herd wouldn’t survive. So what they do is they cull out the weaker gene pool and allow the stronger… and we do the opposite we take the best and the biggest of everything and then all the weak ones of course we leave in the water. The gene pool gets worse and worse. We’re completely backwards.

IW: I lived in East Hampton for a couple years and for two years I didn’t eat a supermarket egg because I would just go to the chicken farm…chickens were running around everywhere. And the eggs were fresh… The farm to table movement kind of thing… I found that Southern chefs, interestingly enough are much more in tune with that maybe because they’re much less urban. But there’s a chef that has his own farm. So he raises his own food, he knows where his food comes from that he serves and that’s actually one of the more interesting thing that I’ve heard you talk about and other people is knowing where your food comes from is important because people don’t want to know.

JC: We are left with the dilemma that in order to feed the numbers of people that are left on the planet, we cannot do this if we take a resource that is not sustainable. The sustaining is so cruel, so we have to stop eating animals for the most part…I’m against it but I would understand that if it’s part of the transition, people would eat animals like they eat kobe beef where it costs $26 dollars a pound. And every once in  awhile you’d get a treat and eat a treat for a slice of beef so that the majority of the livestock don’t suffer the way they suffer under the factory farm system.

IW: Well the most disgusting thing I’ve seen recently is a sign for 50 chicken McNuggets for $10. Of course they’re going to go for that. Because they’re broke. And I don’t understand how…it’s completely contradictory. You’re eating against your self interest because besides the fact that you’re not sustainable, besides the fact that you’re treating the animals poorly, you’re poisoning yourself.

JC: That’s correct.

IW: Which to be just seems completely backwards.

JC: Really Bizarre.

IW: And the fishing… People say “well it’s ok if we run out of tuna because then we’ll move on to another fish.”

JC: That’s correct.

IW: Which…nobody understands what an ecosystem is. Oh let’s kill, let’s kill all the sharks.

JC: You know the example I use about fishing when people say, “yeah, what about fish?” is that the Japanese catch fish of the coast off Boston, take it to Boston airport, fly it to Japan, it’s on the floor of the Japanese wholesale market that morning sold through a wholesaler who flies it back to Boston where it’s served that night in a sushi restaurant. That fish has circumnavigated  the globe and left all that pollution in the upper atmosphere so someone in Boston can eat a fsih that he could have gone off the bridge and caught for himself.

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