James Cromwell is an impressive man: physically, emotionally, and especially with an umbrella in his hands. The 67-year-old actor stands six foot seven inches tall and his weathered face defines the pillars of a varied film career, whether as a kindly farmer (Babe) or a crooked cop (LA Confidential). Now he attempts to snare the complexity of patriarch James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a play he has directed but never acted in. So he sits in the Saturday quiet of the Druid Theatre Company’s Galway base as the rain pummels the street outside. Cromwell, who has visited the west many times, doesn’t seem to mind. In any case, he is armed with that umbrella and it’s difficult to imagine anything putting him off his stride.
Eloquent and entertaining, Cromwell is formidably travelled and dramatically opinionated. He believes in extra-terrestrial life, hates George Bush with a vengeance, has been married twice, subscribes to the controversial self-transformation regime EST and can fit a conspiracy theory to just about any situation. He has also been arrested four times: the first at an Anti-Vietnam war demonstration in Washington in 1971, and most recently in 2003 outside a Wendy’s hamburger joint (animal rights). Has he mellowed? “No, no,” he laughs at the notion. “Well, it depends how you mellow. I find it difficult to read the New York Times every day because I get so angry. But it’s always been the same. I don’t give a s**t about getting arrested for certain causes.”
Cromwell recalls his life in vivid synapses: each one linking or influencing the next. The first and most significant happened when he was six years old. His father, the film director John Cromwell, left his mother, the actress Kay Johnson. He remembers being taken from the sun of California and being dropped off in the snow at a preparatory school in Deerfield, Massachusetts, four days later. “That moment continually comes up in my life as an adult,” he says. “In Erhard Seminars Training (EST) it’s called the stack. That’s where you stack other experiences on top of the initial one, which was leaving my father, going to a place that was totally alien, and then watching my mother drive off. For the first time in my life I realised that I was alone. That became a motif I kept recreating in my life in order to experience the feelings that I had shoved down as a six-year-old.”
In 1960, at the age of 20, he visited his father, who was shooting A Matter of Morals, in Sweden. Captivated by the carnival of filmmaking, he told his father that he wanted to become an actor. The response was immediate and unequivocal. “He said to me, ‘don’t be an actor, you’re too damn tall’.’’ So he opted to direct – in competition with his father. “I did have issues with my father being as successful as he was,” he says. Those issues were to resurface and for a long time he sought a sense of equilibrium with his old man.
In the jungle of 1960s America, he became a political animal: anti-Vietnam and anti-government as he hung with the Black Panthers (at one time he even hosted the organisation at his unwitting father’s Fifth Avenue apartment). “I was as involved as I could get,” he says. “It was an extension of my own rage at my own sense of personal injustice, at losing my father and being responsible for the divorce. I was an angry fellow, so to be able to focus off my father and on to the war made it very compelling for me.”
At the age of 31, utterly disenchanted with the US, Cromwell struck out for Europe (truth be told there was also a girl involved). He ended up in Berlin, and then spent the following 18 months hitch-hiking around the world. In Uganda, he came very close to meeting Idi Amin; in Lagos, Nigeria he hit rock bottom and briefly contemplated suicide. Why? “Have you ever been to Lagos?” he asks in response. It’s a flip answer, but something happened in Nigeria – he discovered the book Be Here Now, it saved his life and eventually took him to a resolution with his father.
In his first ten years as a director, he moved camp regularly. Each season was with a new company, a move sometimes sparked by his own indiscretions (sleeping with the director’s girlfriend “among other things”). It set out the stall for what he describes as his ‘careen’ (as opposed to career) – moving “from pillar to post” until Babe came along. In that movie his performance as Farmer Hoggett was only beaten by the pig. He forked out $60,000 of his own money on the Oscar campaign to get a nomination and succeeded in winning a Best Actor nod. “Maybe if I spent some more I might have won,” he says with a laugh. “Sure, it’s all about the money. The Academy is nothing but self-promotion by the industry.”
His next movie was LA Confidential. Cromwell fought to play the part of a corrupt police office and delivered a terrific performance. “After LA Confidential, instead of the industry pigeonholing me as a pig farmer, now they had to deal with this anomaly,” he says. “Am I that guy (Babe) or am I Dudley (LA Confidential)? As I’ve always joked, they picked something in the middle, which was the President of the United States!” (The Sum of All Fears). He has been especially prominent in TV in recent times, playing in Six Feet Under and in 24, a show with whose politics he never felt especially comfortable. “Kiefer (Sutherland) is very pleasant but he’s the producer of the show and I don’t feel it’s my position to go to him and ask ‘what the f**k are you doing?’. I’m just a hired hand.’’
Recently, Cromwell moved to Los Angeles from upstate New York after the relationship with his long-term partner Joan ended. Yet another twist on a long and winding road. “A very smart Israeli woman once asked me if I ever saw a pattern to my life,” he says. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’ And she replied: ‘who do you think is responsible for it all?’” He laughs. Cromwell knows the score better than anyone, but he’s unlikely to change now. “It is the way it is written,” he says of his life. “Everything is written. The thing is to stop resisting. As (EST founder) Werner Erhard said: ‘Ride the horse in the direction that it is going.’ I spent most of my life facing the other direction.”
* Long Day’s Journey into Night runs until September 29 at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and from October 3 to October 13 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.