Q&A: The Artist's James Cromwell

December 2011

Last month, actor James Cromwell received the Mayor's Career Achievement Award from Starz Denver Film Festival. The Hollywood veteran appeared in two films at this year's festival, The Artist, in which he plays Clifton, a devoted chauffeur and  A Year in Mooring. The Artist, a silent film which is nominated for several SAG and Golden Globe awards, is generating lots of Oscar buzz. We chatted with Cromwell about his roles in both movies, and what projects he's working on next.

What are the challenges of making a silent film like The Artist as opposed to a traditional movie?

"A silent film is only silent to the audience, it’s not silent to the performer. In this particular film, there are a number of levels of different kinds of acting. One, there are the characters in the story, but the leads have personas as stars in silent films. My character isn't acting in a silent film, it’s just that his dialogue is not recorded. But the reactions are the same. I wouldn’t play it any differently."

How did you prepare for the role of Clifton in The Artist? 

"Actually the first film that I ever made, Murder by Death, I played a chauffeur in the same period, so I jokingly said that all I did was go back and look at my work in my first film."

And the role of The Ancient Mariner in A Year in Mooring?

"There was preparation that I might have done a little better in A Year in Mooring. What threw me off was the speed—we shot the film in 19 days—and a certain lack of focus in the script. I couldn’t get a clear handle on him, so my dialect tends to be a little iffy. Sometimes it’s Scotch, sometimes it’s Irish, and sometimes it’s just me."

What similarities do you you share, if any, with The Ancient Mariner?

"Mostly he is an observer and in some sense, a mentor to this young man who’s going through this critical period in his life. And I did think about the critical periods in my life when I hid out and beat myself up, when I had done something egregiously unconscious and was unwilling to take responsibility for it, and had to sort of reconstruct myself. So I knew what that would be like, and how I should support that if I saw someone else going through the same thing."

What does receiving the Mayor’s Career Achievement Award mean to you, and how does it differ from other accolades that you’ve received?

"I have something that I want to say and communicate to people that I think will make a difference in peoples’ lives. And I do that through my art, so that’s one aspect of who Jamie Cromwell is. The other aspect is, because he has been successful doing that, I now have the opportunity to bring to people’s attention, whenever I am given the opportunity, that there is another way to look at this world, and to be in this world, than the status quo. It’s a recognition that I have managed to accomplish something in both of those fields."

That brings me to my next question, about a personal belief. How long have you been a vegan, and what led you to make that decision?

"I’ve been a vegetarian since 1975; I’ve been a vegan since ’94. It was a process, a long process. When I did Babe, working in close proximity with all those animals and trainers, and the story, and the fact that Australians never eat anything that they don’t kill... the lunch table was just every kind of thing that was killed. I thought, “This is grim. My co-stars are there on the table.” I decided to become a vegan, and when I came back, I got involved in animal rights work and learned why this was so important—because we won’t have a planet if we continue to eat this way." 

You’ve said that playing King Lear is like climbing Mt. Everest for actors. Do you have plans to play King Lear anytime soon?

"Oh yeah, soon. I start rehearsals hopefully in April."

Where?

"As of now, Toronto and Los Angeles, and if it’s good, then we go to New York. If it’s really good, then we go to London."

Any projects in the works between now and then?

"I am going to direct a film, an adapted Italian novel called Without Blood by Alessandro Barrico. I hope to direct that in Cuba and Italy. Then I hope I get a paying job to pay for King Lear, because they don’t pay you when you act in the theatre. You do that for the love of it."

The Artist opens Friday, December 23rd at Chez Artiste Theatre

—Image Courtesy of Starz Denver Film Festival