ABOVE: JAMES CROMWELL IN STILL MINE. IMAGE COURTESY OF SAMUEL GOLDWYN FILMS
For James Cromwell, life is pretty sweet. After years of reliable, veteran character work, Cromwell is finally starring in his first leading role. Still Mine is the true story of octogenarian Craig Morrison, a craftsman who literally builds a house with bare hands for his mentally ailing wife Irene, played with quiet grace by Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold. An actor who has played everything from a geek patriarch in Revenge of the Nerds, to a former President in W., to his Oscar-nominated Farmer Hoggett in Babe, the role of the real-life Morrison feels custom-made for Cromwell.
DREW FORTUNE: Still Mine is your first leading role. At 73 years old, was this deliberate, or were the leading roles simply unavailable?
JAMES CROMWELL: [laughs] Oh, they were unavailable. I don’t look like a leading man, whatever they look like. It’s changing a little. For my entire career, I wanted to be a director. When I was in the theater, it was very difficult to get directing jobs, and I fell into the acting by default. I got in the habit of accepting whatever came my way. Not things that I disagreed with, though. It’s not like I had aspirations—well, I did have aspirations to play Hamlet, which I ended up doing. I’m a character actor. Nobody’s ever seemed to think of me as a leading man. I’m 6’6”. I’ve got a big nose. I’m gangly. I’ve got crooked teeth. That’s certainly not Brad Pitt. I’m still around and alive, so if they need older guys, I guess they’re thinking of me.
FORTUNE: What drew you to the role of Craig Morrison? Has your selection process for roles changed over the years?
CROMWELL: No, I don’t think so. I didn’t give it [Still Mine] a very thoughtful reading. I think I missed the whole point of the script when I first read it. I thought it was a sweet little story. Very Canadian. Two nice old people going through it blah, blah, blah. The secret of the picture is in the detail. It’s in the stillness, and in the silence between the moments. It’s in the empathy you feel for these two human beings as they go through this. Both of them. You get so used to reading scripts that are full of violence and people losing their temper and shooting each other. Car chases, explosions, or whatever it is. So, I sort of missed it. But, I had the good sense to say to my agent, “Yeah, I’m not working. If they want to do the picture, there’s nothing in it to offend me.” Luckily, when I actually began to work on the script, I saw that all the suggestions that I had made originally were all completely wrong. It was imperative to go back to what Michael [McGowan, director] had originally written, which thankfully he did. As far as my selection process, I don’t really get to pick and choose.
FORTUNE: How much prep time did you and Geneviève Bujold share?
CROMWELL: None together. One day, I met her. I’d had a crush on her since I was in college. Her first picture was a French Canadian picture made by her then-husband, and I thought she was incredibly, not only talented, but very, very pretty. It was amazing to look at that face, which basically hasn’t changed. The nice part of the relationship is, this is a thing about bonding. These are people who have lived a long time together, and who love each other. They have their opinions, and their disagreements, and their moments of frustration. My personal opinion is that Geneviève probably got beat up in Hollywood. I think most women get beat up in Hollywood, one way or another. It’s a pretty unforgiving place for any actor, but for a woman it’s even worse. I think she was tentative about who I was. Would I be the typical Hollywood male actor and try and get the camera on me all the time? Would I take care of her? My compensation was to try to put her first, and to administer to whatever her needs were. To accommodate what she wanted and adjust my performance based on her. I think she got it, and I think that’s the relationship that exists between Craig and Irene. Instinctively, we both fell into the same role: Hers of appreciation, and mine of concern.
FORTUNE: Did you actually get to meet Craig Morrison? I wasn’t sure if he had passed.
CROMWELL: I met him at the end, when we were shooting in New Brunswick. I went to the house. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation. He’s an ordinary man and doesn’t know anything about actors. I don’t know anything about milling logs. We said hello, and it was cordial. I looked around the house and it was incredible that a man of his age could do that. He not only built the house, but he felled the logs and milled them. He poured the foundation and did the framing. It’s just amazing to me.
FORTUNE: There seems to be a renaissance of intelligent films for an older demographic. Amour certainly comes to mind. Is it a good time to be James Cromwell professionally? Are more roles becoming available?
CROMWELL: [laughs] It’s a good time to be James Cromwell, period, because this is it. Make hay while the sun shines. Now’s the time. Seize the day. That I’m still working means there are opportunities. I didn’t expect this film to come along. I didn’t expect American Horror Story to come along. I have my fingers crossed that Lear will come along. Yeah, it’s a good time. But, it happens. I remember a teacher of mine, Bill Hickey, later in life Richard Farnsworth, Chris Plummer, who’s been a star all his life, gets an Academy Award for a supporting role. I’ve worked with Max Von Sydow, who’s been doing it for, how long’s it been? I saw him in college. He was a grown man when I was in college! He’s still at it. If you’re lucky enough, and you take care of yourself, don’t make a whole lot of enemies, and grow to some degree, life will provide.
FORTUNE: How long have you been involved with PETA? Have you always felt a kinship with animals?
CROMWELL: I rode across the country in 1975 on my motorcycle, and I went through the feed lots in Texas where they pen the animals before they slaughter them. On either side of the road as far as I could see were animals in pens. The stench, the sound, the suffering, the fear was palpable on a motorcycle. I said, “I can’t do this anymore,” and I attempted to become a vegetarian. To more or less success, as it’s an adjustment process. When I made Babe, and I worked with all those animals, I would see the Australians eating animals. Not the same animals, but, y’know. So then I became a vegan. When I got back, because of the success of the picture, PETA called me up and said, “Listen, would you like to do some work about pigs?” It involved the 4H pigs, where schoolchildren raise a baby pig during the course of a school year. They bond with it, name it and take care of it. They take it home and learn about pigs, and experience how intelligent they are. When they go away and come back from summer vacation, the pig’s gone. Of course the pig’s been slaughtered, which is devastating for some of the kids. So I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” Then they asked if I’d like to do something about pig slaughter in the factory farm system. I said, “What does that look like?” Then they showed me, and it was appalling. I said “Put me on the list.” Then they said, “You wanna get arrested?” And I said, “Sure!” So we sat in at Wendy’s and got arrested. Then I said, “When are we gonna get arrested again?” They said, “Well, there’s something going on at the University of Wisconsin.” I got arrested again. So, I love animals. I feel for all sentient beings. Even human beings. I don’t think we can continue to live on this planet if we treat each other, by that I mean all sentient beings, including the earth, which is a sentient being, with as much contempt and disregard as we do now. I’m committed to that, and do what I can to further the cause.
FORTUNE: What’s a perfect day for James Cromwell?
CROMWELL: Every day! Every day is perfect because there’s no other day! As a friend of mine said, “Ride the horse in the direction it’s going.” When you do that, you realize that every moment, every breath, every sound, every encounter is a gift. You bloody well better enjoy it.
STILL MINE IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY, JUNE 12.