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James Cromwell: King Lear, Babe and the Black Panthers

Actor, activist and self-styled philosopher James Cromwell has starred in everything from 24 to Shakespeare. Nicky Woolf talks to the man himself about bringing the Bard to life and fighting for justice for the innocent, whether human or porcine

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Actor, activist and self-styled philosopher James Cromwell has starred in everything from 24 to Shakespeare. Nicky Woolf talks to the man himself about bringing the Bard to life and fighting for justice for the innocent, whether human or porcine

James Oliver Cromwell has enormous hands. His handshake is crushing, certain and intense, and goes on for slightly longer than is usually comfortable, giving me the feeling I'm being weighed-up, considered. "Shall I send you a script, James?" a brazen but ambitious student playwright asks, jokingly, and for a moment he feels the force of Cromwell's gaze. "Yes," says the Hollywood star loudly and deliberately. "Yes, absolutely do so."

The room, previously filled with the low buzz of conversation, momentarily quietens. "Oh... ok." says the student, nervously, as Cromwell fixes him with a look his namesake might have fixed on a traitorous cavalier. There is a momentary, awkward pause before Cromwell's face cracks into a mischievous grin. "Always looking for more work," he drawls, "acting pays peanuts, didn't you know that?"

James Cromwell - Jamie, as he swiftly has everyone in the room calling him - has acting in his blood. The son of a successful big-screen actor and director and an equally successful actress, he was transplanted from Los Angeles to Manhattan when very young. He has an expansive East-West American drawl, which slightly blindsides me. A Jamie Cromwell with an American accent is unfamiliar and incongruous to a British audience who associates him with the immortal Yorkshire growl of, "That'll do, pig."

Cromwell is an imposing figure. Six feet seven inches tall, he towers over me as I retrieve my slightly crushed hand from his grip. His height gives him a powerful stage-presence, even when he isn't acting, which hints at a lifetime of treading a variety of boards and studio floors. His eyes have an almost trademark twinkle to them.

He is here at York accompanying a friend of his, fellow American and York Theatre Royal's Playwright-in-Residence, Donald Freed. Freed is running a series of master-classes in York, and on campus, on writing and performance, and Cromwell is magisterially in attendance. When Freed has finished his monologue, Cromwell stands up and makes an impassioned speech about Shakespeare's words in Hamlet from an actor's point of view. "When he's in the room," he begins, meaning Shakespeare, "his ideas, his words reverberate, they ping off us like skipping a stone across the water. They come out, because those notes, that chord..."

He pauses and breathes deeply, like a preacher waiting for an "amen". His gestures are exuberant and expressive, but also awkward and halting; the gestures of a tall man who perhaps has never become truly comfortable with his size. He speaks with arms out and palms upward, and his metaphors are almost entirely musical, of Bach and of Mozart, of chords and of notes. He talks of a bad Shakespeare performance in terms of a Mozart recording played on a bad gramophone, but then implies that the fault lies with the listener who cannot hear the genius beneath the "crackling static".

"You may be only playing the simple melody because that's really all we're capable of as actors," he goes on. "We're pretty straightforward. You have your feelings, you have your instrument. If you're really good at your instrument you can know where to pitch it, what the various tones mean. If you're very, very good as an actor you can begin to breathe with the audience. If they begin to inhale when you inhale, and exhale when you exhale, they'll begin to feel as you feel."

He talks as if educating a child. He radiates an air of caring paternalism, which may go some way to explaining how often he plays the wise father. He played Jack Bauer's father in season six of the TV drama 24, was a father figure to the world's best-loved pig in Babe, and father again to the love-interest in Blackball. He was father of the American nation as a former President in The West Wing, and to the British nation as Prince Philip in the movie The Queen with Helen Mirren.

But Cromwell is haunted by visions of another father. He once told a CNN reporter: "It's like people say, 'Why would you ever want to climb Everest?' But those that do, those that climb, those that have... that's the deal. To have gone up Everest." His Everest? "For an actor, there's no greater climb than Lear. Lear is the ultimate mountain. You're not going to make it, but it's OK."

Shakespeare is of vital importance to Cromwell. He is the ultimate exception that proves every rule about theatre and performance art. In his speech after Donald Freed has introduced his master-class series, Cromwell explains the meaning of acting, as he sees it, to a room of amateur actors, directors and producers. "It's not about meaning," he begins expansively. "It's about full self-expression. It's about who you are as an artist. Your instrument, your breath, your life, your passions, far exceed any text you will ever deal with." He pauses for effect. "This... is not necessarily true of Shakespeare."

Cromwell is not a man who shies away from such a challenge as Shakespeare presents, however. A man who seems to accumulate causes as fast as he accumulates acting parts, he even became a member of the Black Panthers in 1969 when he joined the 'Committee to Defend the Panthers'.

This group was set up to free the 'Panther 13', 13 members of the radical civil rights group that had been imprisoned in New York on conspiracy charges. The campaign was successful in winning freedom for the interred activists, who were acquitted of all 156 charges against them in 1971.

I ask about his work on the Committee. "Yes, I did work for the Panthers," he says, with an air of finality, then turns a fierce gaze on to me. I take the hint, and move on. I suspect that Cromwell feels there are more causes that define him than this single, high-profile case almost 40 years ago.

Indeed, Cromwell has nailed his colours to a forest of masts. A former treasurer of the left-wing actors' union the Screen Actors Guild, Cromwell became a vegetarian in 1974 after witnessing the "fear and horror" of a Texas slaughter-yard, and an ethical vegan after making the film Babe in 1995. He is also a campaigner and patron of the SaveBabe campaign in Australia, which "highlights the suffering of factory farmed pigs in Australia."

"Making the movie Babe opened my eyes to the intelligence and the inquisitive personalities of pigs," says Cromwell in a press statement for SaveBabe. "These highly social animals possess an amazing capacity for love, joy and sorrow that makes them remarkably similar to our beloved canine and feline friends. In fact, the scientific advisor to the British government says that pigs are smarter than dogs and even do better on intelligence tests than 3-year-old human children."

My impression of Cromwell is of a man with a very active conscience. He talks to me of lofty ideas, reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of the mundane and the lacklustre. He refuses to acknowledge the concept of playing a part in a 'true' story like The Queen. "Art is always a fiction," he says insistently, "because it's not happening. It doesn't co-exist in the same space at the same time, therefore art is always an abstraction." I think I understand. So often, a so-called 'true story' will bend the truth, even lie, to retell history the way the writers want.

I ask if there is a danger that people will take the story for history, but Cromwell reacts violently to the word. "History!" he exclaims, "History is only the record of those people who won, and most history is just... a bloody lie. The more you dig," he says, his contemptuous sneering tone betraying a very personal grievance, "the less you know about what actually happened. It's only the history of those very wealthy individuals that history chooses to point out."

"What happens to the guy who fought the war?" he says, waving his long arms about his head in a gesture of frustration. "What happens to Joe Blow, who fought the Irish campaign under Cromwell?" Ah, and the namesake returns. I begin to wonder exactly how Jamie Cromwell feels about the man who killed a king, with whom he shares a name.
If, as Cromwell suggests, time and death are relative things, and through thoughts, through art, a man can live again, then surely there is a twisted symmetry to Cromwell's critically acclaimed portrayal of Prince Philip on the silver screen?

Cromwell seems at his core to be in a state of ideological flux. He is grasping for a set of ideas, about truth, about leadership, about right and wrong, but is confronted at every turn with problems and paradoxes. He is tangibly proud of his homeland, yet berates it for having "a very classist theatre that mostly puts on crap.

"In America there was no tradition of the theatre. They tried to impose one, but America is polyglot. You couldn't take immigrants from Germany, Poland or even Ireland and show them a work - mainly melodrama and mainly crap - and hope to develop any sort of theatrical community," he says sadly.

Unlike Europe, where for the most part Cromwell observes a class system in decline, "America was actually stratifying into classes. We don't have a literary tradition. We're anti-intellectual." He catches himself, and his left hand twitches upwards, as if to catch the statement before it can reach me. "I mean in terms of popular culture. I don't mean to say that we don't have some wonderful intellectuals and some wonderful writers, but they tend to be more for the cognoscenti than to be understood and appreciated by the general public."

This is the duality of Jamie Cromwell. His hope that everyone can understand the truth and art encompassed in theatre is set violently against his almost paranoid doubt that the general public is capable of understanding it. In fact, a little while after I met him, he had a shouting match with a particularly stubborn student who had asked him to whom exactly he kept referring to by a sinister "them".

I think I have pinned down what I?find so intriguing about Jamie Cromwell. Like a preacher losing his faith, there is a barely detectable sense of melancholy to him. His on-screen character has all the answers, all the wisdom, and in person you can almost buy into that for a while. It's only when you go back and look at what he's actually said that you realise that this is a man who can feel himself coming so close to understanding - an understanding that he has translated into Shakespearean imagery; the perfect Lear, the perfect Hamlet, the bard "speaking directly to you from the ether".

But in a very human way, Jamie Cromwell finds himself unable to reach this understanding or, at least, unable to truly vocalise it to himself or others. He speaks in very definite terms, every sentence constructed vehemently and with conviction, and loves to set challenges.

"Make something of that, I dare ya," he says with a grin at the end of our interview, as if he's left me a puzzle. But Cromwell is tortured by the puzzles he sets himself. He is a genuinely fascinating man, and a genuinely wise one. However, I am left feeling somewhat saddened. Jamie Cromwell is a puzzle, and I don't think there is an answer.

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