James Cromwell as Cranky in Acorn TV’s Operation Buffalo. Credit: ACORN TV
Winter in upstate New York, it’s cold comfort to find James Cromwell in a farming town: “Not Warwick, War-Wick,” the 80-year-old actor explains when The Big Issue calls, “in isolation, like most everybody else, trying to get through this pandemic with my head still intact.”
It was on a farm most of us first met Cromwell, as Farmer Hoggett in the 1995 classic Babe. Since then he has been on call whenever an intimidating, towering (at 6ft 7in he’s the tallest actor ever to be Oscar-nominated), often grouchy presence is required, from hard-boiled detective in LA Confidential to Prince Philip in The Queen and countless others: The Artist, The Green Mile, Six Feet Under, Boardwalk Empire, Jack Bauer’s dad in 24, The Young Pope…
But his main role is that of activist rather than actor. Apart from the first three letters, what do the two have in common?
“Well, you know Shakespeare?” he asks, slipping into Hamlet. “The purpose of playing, wasn’t it ‘to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’?
“As an actor, all I can do is hold the mirror. If people will look, they will see the image of who they are. Is that the image that they want – anger, fear, grief, distrust, animus? No, I don’t think so. If in any work, we can show anything that we can call and agree on as truth, that will make a difference in the world.
“So as an actor, I try to be an activist. And as an activist, I try to be an actor.”
I know what you’re thinking. Another actor using their privileged position to pontificate on politics… but Cromwell has a long history of actually taking action.
His father, John Cromwell, was a Hollywood director blacklisted by McCarthy who ended up directing theatre in New York. He helped his son get one of his first jobs, a production of Waiting for Godot that toured the American South playing to black audiences at the height of the civil rights era in 1963 where armed guards would be on hand to prevent theatres being firebombed. By the late 1960s, Cromwell was a member of ‘the Committee to Defend the Panthers’, he became heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam protests – “I think we convinced Nixon not to pursue the war. I think he thought, ‘I can’t win this war this way, I’ll lose the entire country’. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Babe prompted an increase in animal activism – head to YouTube to watch him being arrested in front of an orca tank at SeaWorld, just one of many run-ins with the law. In 2017 he was imprisoned after refusing to pay a fine connected to a protest at the planned site of a gas-fired power plant.
When were you last arrested?
“About a year ago in Texas for interrupting a meeting [at the Texas A&M University], which evidently is a Class A misdemeanour – a year in jail, I don’t know what the fine is – for trying to rescue these beautiful Golden Retrievers.
“They had given MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease to these dogs to see how they would handle it. We got them to stop the experiment, but they wouldn’t release the dogs so the last years of their life could be spent someplace where people actually cared about them and loved them. And for that they want to stick me in jail.”
Youth has a way of insulating you from thinking about what the consequences might be, what’s really at stake
Cromwell was protesting before he had any platform after discovering what he believes is the meaning of life.
“The system has us worrying about our mortgages and our car payments and the breakfast cereal we eat in the morning, focused on all the things that don’t count. What do you really care about, what it is you really want? When you get down to basically everybody’s motivation in life, it’s how can I be of use, how can I make a difference?”
But what would your younger self have thought if he knew 50 years later not much will have changed and you’d still be having to fight against an injustice so clear as racism?
“Youth has a way of insulating you from thinking about what the consequences might be, what’s really at stake. I was down South when a friend of mine was killed in Mississippi and buried in a levee along with two other civil rights workers [in 1964 Michael Schwerner and his co-workers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered by the Klan; the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is based on the case]. I guess I had an innate sense that well, it may not get better, but it won’t get worse if all of us do something… Now I’m not so sure.
“We’ve gotten to the point where if you go to a demonstration in the United States of America, there’s a very good possibility you will be beaten by the other side or by the police, a high likelihood that you’ll be shot by some 17-year-old right-wing nutjob who has an AR-15 that he bought online and feels that it’s his prerogative to shoot anybody because he thinks he’s at the forefront of protecting everything he cherishes from the horde of ‘progressive communists’.
“My country is divided, almost 50/50, between people who were only mildly deluded and those who are completely insane, driven to that insanity by their ignorance. They certainly are fearful. They certainly are angry. They certainly need to be listened to, there needs to be a conversation.
“Unfortunately, the medium through which we converse, is controlled by people like Murdoch. And they have no interest in us working out our differences, expressing our compassion towards those less fortunate than us.
“So they are the insane, and we are the deluded on our side, because we won’t call a spade a spade – we live basically in a kleptocracy, our whole political system is flawed.”
Back to Murdoch for a second. Cromwell appears in TV sensation Succession, as Ewan Roy, the older brother of Brian Cox’s Murdoch-like patriarch Logan Roy.
“It’s about a group of people that I really don’t give a fuck about,” he says. “It’s wonderfully written, there is an appreciation of irony. In my country, we’re not very subtle. I wonder if the point is getting through that those who run our country, who run the world – with five or six houses, flying by private jet – are these miserable, small-minded, glib, immoral assholes.”
Immoral assholes are also at the centre of Operation Buffalo, a series set against the British government’s testing of nuclear bombs in the Australian outback, another shameful, conveniently forgotten chapter in our history.
Cromwell plays General ‘Cranky’ Crankford, an ageing stooge of the empire put out to pasture on the remote military base. The area is supposedly miles and miles of deserted desert, but that’s only if you don’t count the indigenous population, which neither the British or Australian governments did in the 1950s when they detonated atomic bombs.
Cranky finds redemption after attempting to protect the Aboriginal community: “I think for the first time he gets that the other is always us. And that’s revelatory to him.”
Every episode of Operation Buffalo begins by stating: “This is a work of historical fiction, but a lot of the really bad history actually happened.”
Is there any point looking to the past if it’s not to guide our future?
“Where would you like to start?” Cromwell asks. “We could start with the Peloponnesian War, we could go through the Crimea, into the First World War and the millions who died in the trenches for what was basically a family spat.
My country is divided, almost 50/50, between people who were only mildly deluded and those who are completely insane, driven to that insanity by their ignorance
“Do we as human beings ever learn anything that doesn’t fit within our narrow, selfish, greedy view of what this world is supposed to be? I don’t believe that war teaches anything at all. Or the lessons that it teaches are so assiduously ignored that all that suffering is just for naught.”
Are there any reasons to be optimistic in 2021? A new president at least.
“No, the United States government is devoid of opportunity. Just because Biden is the lesser of two evils, he’ll be a one-term president too.
“The only thing that gives me hope at all is Greta Thunberg, Black Lives Matter, movements all over the world of indigenous people, people of colour, women, trans people fighting for justice. People give me hope. Politicians give me no hope at all.”
Cromwell knows something of presidents, having played at least four: Lyndon B Johnson, Bush senior in Oliver Stone’s biopic of junior, W., a fictional one in Jack Ryan film The Sum of All Fears and one of Jed Bartlett’s predecessors on The West Wing.
“Our democracy is supposed to be one man, one vote. Now, it never has been one man, one vote but that’s the illusion. The Electoral College was put in for one reason only, and that was to protect the southern states and slavery from ever being voted out of power, which ultimately led to the Civil War. We have a system that is antiquated and there’s no hope in the system, no hope for Mr Biden.
“And I gotta say, although I’m no expert, it doesn’t look like England’s doing very well either.”
Operation Buffalo is available to stream now on Acorn TV UK
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