A breathless reverence creeps into veteran actor James Cromwell’s voice when he discusses “the Artist,” his silent film from French director Michel Hazanavicius that’s earning rave reviews from festival audiences around the world — and generating Oscar buzz. And that reverence makes it the experience of doing press for “the Artist” a good one for Cromwell “It is so delightful, when you have to do these things, to do it with a film that you are in love with and that you think is important, really has something to say — which I believe this film does,” he tells Metro. But when it comes to the current state of the film industry and his work on “24,” he’s far less affectionate — and he doesn’t mince words.
This is a very unique project. What was your initial reaction to it?
I talked to Michel for a long time to try to get my questions answered because I really didn’t want to do a film where it being in black and white was just a gimmick and that the story had no relationship to a contemporary audience, so that they’re sort of watching a historical recreation, which was of no interest to me — even if it’s a homage. I don’t particularly like homage films if they throw it in your face. I like it if it’s as subtly done as it is here — I think it’s very subtle and beautifully referential.
How was being in and seeing the film as an L.A. native?
Well, subliminally of course, it’s the Hollywood that I grew up in. I was born in ’40 and my father came here in ’26, so all those areas — Hancock Park and the backlot of Warner Bros. — I’ve seen them both as a child and then as a working actor. My father saw them and he used them, so it’s a very sort of sweet continuation in my family of our relationship to this town and probably the nicest things in this town.
You had some displeasure working on the series “24.” Could you go into that a bit?
I had never seen the show before, and I took it because my agent said it was important to do, that it would be a good thing. They paid me a lot of money to do it. And then I’ve taken my son captive and I’m torturing him, then I was going to take my grandson captive and threaten him. So I went to the producers and I said, “Look, are there any redeeming qualities to this character?” They looked at me as though I was nuts, I was asking something bizarre. And then on the floor of the set I saw this two-star general and asked him what he was doing there, and explained that he had come to talk to them about the presentation of torture, which I thought was eminently reasonable and necessary. And their reaction was flip, to my way of thinking. And to me they missed a great opportunity, which they could have done in the last season, to rectify what they had done — where he becomes disillusioned with this and makes every effort to change his techniques. It could’ve been a great contribution, but they didn’t have the imagination for that.
One of your films, “A Lonely Place for Dying,” was released on torrents when it couldn’t find distribution. Are you open to ways to get things to the public outside of the Hollywood system?
You know, we would all miss if our films did not open somewhere on the big screen. It ultimately is going to have to be every platform. Some people will want to watch it on their iPhones or their iPads or their computers or their own home televisions, and we have to get used to that. We can’t have this thing anymore where, “No, I want them to see it in the theater so they get the full effect.” I would hate to lose the theater. We wouldn’t lose the theaters if the industry and the distributors were not so greedy that they are suppressing these platforms — which they are, to my way of thinking, by not supporting Net Neutrality and by trying to introduce legislation about piracy and limit things like BitTorrent. You know, the industry did a study of BitTorrent and found out these terribly people who download these films actually buy more DVDs and more tickets at the box office than the normal theatergoer, and they suppressed the report. Because of course the MPAA wants to go back to Washington and get legislation which will limit these platforms so as not to face the competition from independent films who do not need a publicity budget as large as the cost of the film in order to compete in the marketplace. It’s what happened to the music industry with Napster. That was a big overreach and a mistake and knee-jerk from that industry, and they got bit in the ass for it.
You have to wonder why the movie industry wouldn’t look at the music industry and learn something from that.
Do you ever notice that this industry ever looks at anything rationally and learns something? Not as far as I can see.
Approach without caution
James Cromwell has played a number of commanding, often unpleasant characters. So does that mean people are often intimidated when meeting him? “Not anywhere but in L.A., but I don’t think it’s because of the roles I’ve played,” he says with a laugh.
But outside of Hollywood, he does get stopped by “a lot of parents who have had to see ‘Babe’ 50 times because their kids won’t turn it off,” he admits. “And a lot of people like ‘L.A. Confidential.’ There are trekkies, a lot of people like ‘the Green Mile’ because it’s such an evocative story. Every once in a while, it’s ‘All in the Family’ or ‘Last Days of Lehman Brothers,’ which a lot of businessmen saw, who watch MSNBC.