An According to James Cromwell, Los Angeles is for dreamers. That’s precisely why he loves it. “I’m always drawn back to L.A. because it’s the city of dreams,” he exclaims. “If you want to tell dreams and indulge in them, come to L.A. I know I’ll always return here. It’s not just the work. It is the work.”
His work speaks for itself. The veteran actor has starred in a slew of critically acclaimed, award-nominated films and television shows, running the gamut from Spider-Man 3, The Green Mile and L.A. Confidential to My Own Worst Enemy, 24 and Six Feet Under. He even garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in the 1995 box office mega-hit Babe. Cromwell has been around, but he’s still taking chances. That’s evidenced by his latest role — George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s controversial drama, W. Playing opposite Josh Brolin’s titular character, Cromwell gives the role a distinct paternal balance and humanity. W. is a heartwrenching family drama at its core, and Cromwell’s portrayal of H.W. twists like a knife.
Sitting comfortably on a plush chair in the middle of his warm living room, Cromwell looks at ease.
Wearing a dark blue button-up shirt and offering a firm handshake, he brandishes a classiness that’s very characteristic of his generation of actors. He put a lot into becoming George
H.W. Bush, and he’s very talkative when the subject of W. comes up. “It’s certainly obvious when you read the script that the part is not political,” he explains. “The film is mostly about the relationship between a father and a son. Since I have a father who is very powerful and whom I have venerated and resisted — and I also have a son who is much in the same predicament as I was — I could identify with this role. Oliver’s conceit in the movie is that the dynamic and dysfunction of this relationship drove W’s political decision making. I didn’t do an impersonation with the Bush that I portrayed. I don’t think any of us did, but I did try to bring what I thought would’ve been the attitude of a father with almost unreachable expectations and a lot of guilt.” Cromwell truly felt an affinity for the role, and he completely immersed himself in it. He even drew on personal experiences to get closer to the character. “I was raised in Westchester County and Waterford, Connecticut. I understand the Yankee, New England Brahmin sensibility. I don’t know that the logic I created applies to the Bush family, but it certainly applies to me. The character of W internalizes that part of his father that’s critical. His debate becomes, not with the real father, but with the internalized father. That internalized father is the superego — the one who’s perpetually in judgment. In himself, W creates the very dynamic that would ensure the censure of the internalized father. I think it’s what held [W] down for so long and why he couldn’t succeed in anything he tried to do. I’m sure the father didn’t understand because he was from a different political time — an era of urbanity, grace, logic, expressiveness, comprehensive understanding, moderation and collegiality. Bush emerges with another idea in mind, which is, ‘Win at any cost.’ That idea wouldn’t appeal to any father.
It’s a repudiation of everything that the elder Bush tried to create out of his life.” Cromwell’s performance brings the father-son struggle to life in classic fashion. He’s an artist more than anything, and his deft portrayal of H.W. illuminates that fact. It’s important for a film like W. to be seen these days, because, regardless of political affiliations, it shows that Hollywood can still produce true Jeremiads, even in spite of the failings of an instant gratification-obsessed zeitgeist fueled by YouTube and reality shows. “Most of the audience wants that sensibility that there are good guys and there are bad guys. They love that notion that there are really no moral choices to be made and no moral ambiguity. That’s what they sell and package 24 hours a day on that frigging box called television. Sometimes, a country’s got to be led. That’s what artists do. They hold the mirror up to nature.
Cultures, individuals and societies don’t necessarily want to see their image in a mirror, because it’s telling.” However, even though so much modern film is pre-packaged for mass consumption, Cromwell still believes in the power of the medium.
“The internet poses a huge threat to this entire industry because it can’t be controlled. Cocteau said, ‘Film will never be an art until it’s as inexpensive as a pencil and a piece of paper.’ In other words, until everyone can afford to make a film and get it seen so that it’s not totally about commerce, it’s not an art. I think we have the potential for that happening, which would be vitally important.” Emphasizing that art, Cromwell rips back the pretentious Hollywood veneer in favor of truly becoming his characters. Historically, he’s played some extremely memorable character parts, giving a piece of himself to each. One that immediately comes to mind is Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential. “There’s not much difference between the person that’s talking to you now and Dudley. It’s the same guy. I have Dudley in me. I’m a character actor. I’ve always defined a character actor as the actor who doesn’t get the girl. I never get the girl, so that makes me a character actor,” he laughs. “I have a very unique physicality. I can’t hide in any way. I’m six foot six. I speak a particular way. In my work, I’ve never tried to hide any of that. I’ve always tried to find out the inner logic of the character. I attempt to present that logic in such a way that the audience can actually see why choices are made. They can see whether the choices are efficacious or moral in some particular instance or not. It’s so they basically can see themselves. How do you create a full human being out of someone that everybody else has already categorized and pigeonholed? That’s what I tried to do in W. and all of my films” Cromwell’s successful, as he brings audiences closer to the inner turmoil of that particular family than they’ve ever been.
He also posits a storytelling purity that’s often been lost along the way. “Reading confirms something very important,” he sighs.
“We are human because of the stories we tell ourselves — not the nonsence that passes for stories called ‘Entertainment’ that we’re fed communally. Real stories that have been going on since the Aboriginal times make us human. Those are what we’re supposed to be creating as artists. That’s what novelists, writers, directors and actors do. The greatest theater in Greece was right next to the John Hopkins there. When you got out of the hospital cured of what ailed you physically, you went to the theater to be cured of what ailed you spiritually.” Isn’t that what any true artist dreams of doing?
– RICK FLORINO