A tall order: At 73, James Cromwell is moving into leading man territory in Still Mine.
Memorable for supporting roles in such movies as Babe, for which he was nominated for an Oscar; L.A. Confidential; and TV’s Six Feet Under and American Horror Story, the six-foot-seven actor plays Craig Morrison, who fights the system in order to build a home for himself and his senile wife ( Genevieve Bujold). The movie, out Friday, is based on a true story.
The native Angeleno talked about what drew him to this dogged, never-say-no character as well as his life in the showbiz game:
How would you explain this movie?
Last year’s Amour was an extraordinary film showing really kind of the dark side of dementia. Well, it never really turns out well, but in this particular instance, it’s a little less grim look into the descent into that dark night. Doing what Craig did at his age — at any age — is extraordinary: To fell the trees, to mill them all by himself, pour the foundation, frame the house, roof it, plumb it. I couldn’t do it in my prime! My father and I built a shed once, and we stepped back and there wasn’t one right angle.
What drew you to this script?
I gave it a cursory read and did it a great disservice and even went as far as to give the director, Michael McGowan, some really wretched notes. But I took some time to read it again and realized how moving it was and all my notes had been wrong. We had a long discussion to repair the damage [laughs], since it was all his original writing. Sometimes you get so used to reading scripts with car chases and explosions and mindless violence and very little dialogue, Gran Torino type of thing. To read something that is as gentle and contemplative and interior and patient as this throws you off. When you’re living L.A., everything’s going on really fast. You sort of have to take a deep breath. Hey, I almost turned down Babe, and that worked out!
You had great chemistry with Genevieve Bujold. How did you like working together?
I had a crush on her when I was in college. She was already a big star. It doesn’t happen in this town very often: to get to her age and still be viable. There are plenty of wonderful actresses who are not working — and plenty of men — but it’s much harder for women. She’s had this kind of renaissance and hopefully after this she’ll make more movies.
What was it like starring in a picture as opposed to costarring?
What’s wonderful about being a character actor is you don’t get typecast. I think when they put you in that straightjacket of being that leading man, your arc covers the entire picture. You sort of hold back and don’t want to blow it out in the first scene. Why you have to be restrained is because there’s so much going on around you. You can’t compete with it.
In your opinion, is there anyone who is a leading man who would be better off as second banana?
Someone like Ben Affleck. Not because he isn’t talented. He is. In Argo he didn’t try to take the picture for himself. He gave it away to other people. That’s what was needed.
What’s next for you?
I’m the patriarch in ABC’s Betrayal. I haven’t done much network TV, so we’ll see. It’s a completely different ballgame. It really is about selling soap and getting from one commercial to the next. That’s the whole part of the exercise. I just hope we get to do something redeeming.
Do you get recognized a lot?
In L.A. people tend to be cool, give you your space. But other places in the country, usually what I get is, ‘I like your work.’ I do a job they happen to like, and that’s nice. I still can go to the movies or shop or take a walk in the park. I don’t have the kind of celebrity where I have to take special planes, nor would I want that. I would not be a happy camper.