A golden member of Hollywood, the very tall James Cromwell has played almost every part in the business. With more than 150 film/TV roles to his name, Cromwell has embodied princes, majors, presidents, vice presidents, doctors, and manipulative geniuses. Despite the positions of power he usually plays, he received an Oscar nomination for playing Farmer Arthur Hodgett in Babe.
In his latest role, he once again provides working man wisdom as the chauffeur to fallen silent film star George Valentin in The Artist. Although his time on-screen is in brief segments, Cromwell's appearance in the movie provides an excellent bridge of the older days of Hollywood (his family was in the business) to the newer ways of filmmaking, in which timeless stories remain true in movies like The Artist.
I sat down with James Cromwell in a roundtable interview to discuss his passion for this movie, what he thinks of sound engineers, and what he'd say to that infamous couple who wanted a refund after finding out that this particular movie has no spoken dialogue.
The Artist is now playing nationwide. It is expected to bring some Oscar gold back to France this Sunday.
What silent film or silent film star did you study in preparation for this role?
First of all, it's not a silent film. We say lines, we hear each other, there's dialogue. It's not recorded, so you tell the narrative through your face and your reactions. I started my career as a chauffeur in Murder by Death, so I knew how to drive the car, and to keep my mouth shut.
I talked to Michel [Hazanavicius] maybe a month ago, and he said he liked sound engineers, but they are a pain in the ass.
They are. Always. Whenever anything happens on set, it's always, "SOUND! The sound f**ked up, we have to do it again."
Was it a relief for you, as an actor, to not have to work with sound?
It's a great relief. For a number of reasons. When you're a character actor, or a supporting actor, you don't have a whole lot, so you're trying to get everything into your line. Because of my shape and the animation in my face, I think it's always been what people like about me as an actor. It's really nice to know that's what is needed. The problem, I didn't have it because my character is taciturn, is to improvise a period, because people are trying to read your lips. As the film goes on, [the audience] lets that go, and they're trying to figure out because we have been so programmed into the close-up. People could be on their cell phones and texting their kids during most movies, because their stories are crap anyway - and are excuses for one explosion to another explosion. But you can't do that with The Artist. You have to watch every frame if you're going to get this picture.
So, that was different. It was wonderful that Michel could play the music during the takes, which was very helpful and very important, and very helpful for the dog trainer. And, the thing about sound engineers, bless their hearts, if you make a sound or cough, it doesn't matter [with The Artist].
What silent film era do you think you would have fit best in?
I would have loved to be in the films of Buster Keaton - I love that style. Harold Lloyd, and of course Chaplin.
I get the feeling that your character is the "wise man" of The Artist. I was wondering how you feel your character fits in with the wisdom of the film?
That's one of the questions I asked Michel when I did it. They sent me a story, and it wasn't a script. For a role of very little money, I didn't want to be a joke in this gimmick of using silent film and black and white. How does a silent movie story relate to a contemporary audience? Since I knew nothing about it. It has taken me seven or eight viewings to understand what Michel knows about the engagement of the audience, the ability to layer, the visual cues. The engagement that you feel, the wonderful irony of "I won't speak!" as the first line.
I said, "Why the chauffeur?" And he said, "No, no. The chauffeur is his [George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin] best friend." It's the loyalty of all those people, like the doctor and nurse who look at Peppy (Berenice Bejo) as if [Michel] said to them, 'Look at her as if she's the most beautiful piece of puffed pastry." And I remember seeing Burt Lancaster on the street in New York, and my mouth dropped open - I had never seen someone so beautiful. But to then have a relationship with someone like Brad Pitt, who you serve because you care about them, that there is really feeling and loyalty and comradeship that doesn't have to do with a class position of the superstar and the non-entity. It was the human race. We are the human race.
What made you want to get into acting?
My father, who was in the business, took me to Sweden to see him work on an Ingmar Bergman film. It was the first time I saw real adults acting. The women were beautiful, and they talked about sh*t and ate good food. I was like, "I'll do this!" I told my father I was going into the theater, and he said, "Don't be an actor. You're too damn tall." So I tried to be a director in theater instead for ten years. I didn't go to Hollywood until I was ready. Babe came at the perfect time, where I didn't get distracted by stupid films.
What did you think about people walking out of The Artist?
If that one couple came to you, would you give them a refund?
I would say, "I'm going to give you double your money back, but you have to sit through the picture. And if at the end of the picture you hate it, I'll give you the money!"
It surprised me, because I feel this movie is virtually unhateable.
And I was also thinking, unless you're a really stubborn ten-year-old ...
Ten-year-olds would get this. It's adults - we're warped.
Do you think even a teenager would get this?
They love it. They get it immediately.
And it's not just because of the dog?
They like putting it together. It's like saying, "Does a teenager like to read a book?" They say, "Nah, I don't like to read," but the first book that they get, it's like they can't get enough. If they get any support, that poor couple needed a little support. Well, they're English, what can you expect?
When we came in here and The Artist was a silent film, you corrected us. As an actor working on this movie, when people asked you what it was about, did you have to break them of the stigma that it's more than a gimmick?
No one would get to first base in Hollywood if you pitched a silent black-and-white film. You wouldn't get past the secretary. When people ask, "You're doing The Artist, what's it about?" They have in their heads A Star Is Born, or I don't know what the f**k. So I always say, "It's a silent black-and-white film." Because it's unheard of - it's impossible. There are established directors who can't even do their films in black-and-white because of the studios. I always preface it that way, and that's the fun of it. It so flies in the face of the conventions of Hollywood. It's up against films that cost $250 million to make, $150 million to publicize. I believe The Artist informs a young generation of filmmakers by saying, "We don't have to make films the way they make films. We can make films with our own visions." As my teachers used to say, "Dare to be an artist." The picture is called The Artist, it's not called "The Actor," or "The Star." It's not about George Valentin. It's the artist in all of us out there, from the grip, the sound person, it's demanding their vision to do it the way we see it, and then it will touch people.