PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with James Cromwell

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with James Cromwell Actor James Cromwell, currently starring in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love at the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, is an active actor. Nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 1995 film, "Babe," and currently appearing in such films as "The Green Mile" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," Cromwell has always distinguished himself -- both onstage and off -- with action. He runs the Hecel Oyakapi Foundation [www.lakotastory.org] to benefit the Lakota (Sioux) Tribe in South Dakota and can trace his activist roots back to the civil rights movement of the '60s when he witnessed many of the dramatic changes that took place in this country firsthand. On one occasion, in the Deep South, Cromwell recalled an audience that was involved in a post-performance question and answer period on Waiting for Godot. Cromwell remembered how a local woman, possibly visiting the theatre for the first time, raised her hand to answer the question, "How did you know Godot wasn't coming?" "She said, 'I knew it because he wasn't listed in the program,'" Cromwell said. "It was remarkable because even though these people were trying to come to terms with what the play was all about, they refused to be intimidated by it." The anecdote reflects on the actor himself; in many ways, James Cromwell has embraced many difficult challenges in his acting career by refusing to be intimidated -- whether it was demonstrating (and being arrested) in the American civil rights movement or coming to terms with his role in Tom Stoppard's new play at San Francisco's A.C.T. Playbill On-Line spoke with Cromwell about the challenges involved with his new role and his future plans in theatre.

Jason Butler Harner and James Cromwell in The Invention of Love.
Jason Butler Harner and James Cromwell in The Invention of Love. (Photo by Photo by Kevin Berne)

Actor James Cromwell, currently starring in Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love at the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, is an active actor. Nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 1995 film, "Babe," and currently appearing in such films as "The Green Mile" and "Snow Falling on Cedars," Cromwell has always distinguished himself -- both onstage and off -- with action. He runs the Hecel Oyakapi Foundation [www.lakotastory.org] to benefit the Lakota (Sioux) Tribe in South Dakota and can trace his activist roots back to the civil rights movement of the '60s when he witnessed many of the dramatic changes that took place in this country firsthand. On one occasion, in the Deep South, Cromwell recalled an audience that was involved in a post-performance question and answer period on Waiting for Godot. Cromwell remembered how a local woman, possibly visiting the theatre for the first time, raised her hand to answer the question, "How did you know Godot wasn't coming?" "She said, 'I knew it because he wasn't listed in the program,'" Cromwell said. "It was remarkable because even though these people were trying to come to terms with what the play was all about, they refused to be intimidated by it." The anecdote reflects on the actor himself; in many ways, James Cromwell has embraced many difficult challenges in his acting career by refusing to be intimidated -- whether it was demonstrating (and being arrested) in the American civil rights movement or coming to terms with his role in Tom Stoppard's new play at San Francisco's A.C.T. Playbill On-Line spoke with Cromwell about the challenges involved with his new role and his future plans in theatre.

Playbill On-Line: In the production notes for The Invention of Love, the play is described as "the most emotionally powerful and enthralling play of Stoppard's career." Do you think the work has any special meaning for you and your career?
James Cromwell: Well, Tom Stoppard is a wonderful playwright. I don't know if the play has any particular "meaning for my career" in that sense. There are reasons why I'm doing it -- I thought it was wonderful play and a great role and I wanted to get back to the theatre.

PBOL: What is it that draws you back to theatre after all your success in film?
JC: There's a lot to it. To put yourself through what it takes to do that, meaning eight performances a week. First of all, you have to deliver all the lines. Then to come to terms with the character and the concept, which was developed by this consummate playwright who has written a play about something enigmatic and powerful. You try to come to terms with all of this in four weeks of rehearsal, which is dictated by the exigencies of commercial theatre -- and believe me, doing something eight times a week has nothing to do with the creative process. But, what it means for me is that hopefully I will grow, and understand more from the reaction that I get. You grow with experience and the older one gets the more willing you are to be right in the moment. It is about coming to terms with the knowledge of who you are. I'm in the process of learning who I am. If one of us said, "I'm gonna climb a mountain," then you would learn what your limits are and you might conquer the challenge -- but you would certainly discover more about who you are. For many years, I used to resist this and lay things off on others saying, "It's not a good play, this is not a good production, we're not getting paid enough, there's no purpose to this." All of those statements were just about disappointment and disenchantment. But at this point, it's all working and I've got an opportunity to be in a play about an extraordinary man, in a wonderful theatre, with sweet people. It's a delight.

PBOL: You worked with Tom Stoppard rehearsing for The Invention of Love. Have you ever worked with other playwrights this closely and how does the experience compare?
JC: Given my history, I've never been in the position to actually work with the playwright because I didn't work on new plays. I did resident theatre, but no new Broadway plays. And after all, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill are dead, so the playwrights were sometimes just not there. On the other hand, their work has, to some degree, been digested. So, I guess it'd be wonderful if I'd done say a Pinter play and he'd explicated it -- though I'm sure he wouldn't, it being a Pinter play. In many ways, Tom Stoppard doesn't either. I'm very, very admiring and impressed and overwhelmed by Tom's brilliance as a writer in terms of his use of language, his sense of theatre and the things he grapples with. He does it all with such consummate skill. I'll tell you a funny story about working with playwrights. I was working with Neil Simon and I came to him and said, "Neil, because I'm doing this in dialect, it would be easier if it was written like this." And Neil looked at me and just said, "Jamie, change the line." And it was changed. Just like that. Then there was another line, the next day. So, I went back and approached him with a suggestion and he said, "Jamie, just the one line."

PBOL: Did you find it easy work with Stoppard?
JC: Now, Tom's funny because Tom knows exactly what he wants to some degree and he writes it fully, but he understands that not all of it is going to go into the play -- it may be in one production, but not necessarily in another production. I spent a lot of time on this play, and the play is not as complex as it first appears. Then you get into it and see the meticulous balance between the inner and outer life. The outer life is an intimidating study of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The work is articulated and it's all about how the story is felt by agile and deeply focused minds. But on the other hand, underneath it all, it's just a love story. PBOL: Did the two of you have the chance to establish a personal relationship?
JC: Well, I'm there in a room with Tom Stoppard and I can't tell him anything about the classics I studied but, on an emotional level, I consider myself an equal -- just as I would with anyone else about love. It's sort of strange to talk about a playwright as your equal; "No, no, this is what's meant here." I would like to have a relationship with Tom, to be a friend, and to share as much as possible in that process, but I can't really. In the theatre, a playwright comes in a working relationship. He comes to listen to his play and to see that it's served. He helps make progress and serves those who work in the production by explicating and making suggestions about ways that things might work better in its presentation. He helps people understand how he thinks it should be -- that's not a personal relationship. Personal relationships happen or they don't. We've been very cordial and I am very fond of him. I wanted to discuss ideas with him about other things besides work, you know, and the theatre. And maybe that will come some day if he is available. I tell you, he has a wonderful eye. I always felt as though my father was in the room -- my hackles would get up and I had to catch it, but I think I brought him around, and I think he may be protective of his own work to some degree.

PBOL: How so?
JC: John Wood did the production in London and he did it unlike I ever could -- because he does what he does and I do something else. I think Tom looked at ours and thought, "Oh, shit, I'm gonna lose all those colors." But in the end he saw that I had managed to interject intelligence and feeling in a way that served the play and the character.

PBOL: Exactly how do you sway a playwright like Tom Stoppard?
JC: I was like me, I suppose, in that I didn't fold and go into adolescence. I think you can tend to regress as an actor and by regress, I mean that they often blow up and blow off, or they don't take direction or they completely give up their power and then the performance is lifeless up there on stage. You watch it and think, "What the fuck is that? " But this time, I was able to be in a room with Carey Perloff, the director [and A.C.T. artistic director] and Tom Stoppard, at a national theatre with a certain amount of expectation as they listened to my reading of the play going, "God! Oh, Jesus!" And the whole trick was to be in that room and not fold, and to stay within myself giving the performance I wanted to give, to the best of my ability. I owe them both for their generosity, their specificity and their acknowledgement.

PBOL: How have the A.C.T. audiences responded to the play?
JC: There's lots of enthusiasm and warmth, but this is one they have to work for as an audience. They have to be able to approach ideas and they have to be able to get to the story and respond and care about something, which is something people are not always asked to do. I know they leave with something. If they allow it in, it will probably alter their view of how one behaves in life. The more willing and open the audience members are, the more likely they are to get their money's worth. I remember seeing Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and thinking, "This doesn't make any sense at all." Then, in the second act, things began to drop in place to form an interconnected sense of fabric. If you imagine looking at a formal garden, then suddenly walking around and seeing new colors, or taking an individual flower and appreciating its symmetry, you get a sense of what the gardener was trying to do, and that's sort of what Tom gives. Sure, I would rather be in something where people yelled and screamed at the end of the performance but, in my heart, I think that to be in something that I was not really proud of would be just horrible.

PBOL: Have you ever just stormed off a stage or a movie set?
JC: I don't know about storming off, but there was one Arnold Schwartzenegger film that I did one day's work on. The set was so full of tension. Vanessa Williams was fine and really nice, but the piece was just caca. I just did what I had to do as strongly as I could.

PBOL: Are there plans to bring The Invention of Love to New York and, if so, would you consider doing the play here?
JC: I haven't heard anything and there is nothing in my contract about it. There are an incredible number of factors involved with who decides these things and who knows whether James Cromwell would do it or someone else. I have done this play, but it's not as if it's a new play. No one has ever put that to me. I have played Broadway and to me it's not a lot different than Boston or San Francisco. I have a certain amount of ambivalence about it. I think the play should be seen in New York and that it probably deserves it. Whether I'm part of it depends on a whole lot of other factors.

PBOL: What are some of the things you would have to consider before making that decision?
JC: It has to do with the nature of theatre and I have a lot of problems with theatre economically. I love theatre and I love New York City. I love the people who work in the theatre. But it's incredible that it's even a commercial enterprise when they are paying actors what they can't afford to live on. This not to say I wouldn't want to be on Broadway, but what do I do with my family? I love performing, I love this play and I hope a lot of people see it, if just because of this one issue -- the incredible complexity and poignancy of male love and the cost of repression and prejudice. As far as I'm concerned, I would come, but I would have to have done a large picture right before because I have four kids in college -- one in private school -- and I have a life that I want to maintain.

PBOL: Are there any projects that you would like to do in the near future?
JC: I would love to open a play on Broadway sometime and take my chances getting whacked. I've got some experience with that because my father [John Cromwell] opened a number of extraordinary plays. I'd like to see if I enjoy it. My mother [Kay Johnson] loved it. She performed with Andre Gregory in Uncle Vanya for three years and she was in love with the cast, with Andre, and every day to her was magic -- as was she when she performed. All of that was a unique experience for me. So, yes, I'd do that in the drop of a hat. Another project that I have my eye on is that I want to do a Lear, and I say that knowing that I am not even aware of what the cost would be and what it takes to push that every night, meaning eight performances a week. It puts me in mind of a scene from the film, "The Dresser." As he's prepping for performance, Albert Finney asks, "How may times have we done this? Is it 287 times we've put this together?"

PBOL: And how do you approach a role in order to keep it fresh?
JC: I'm going to do it again tonight. I'm going to set up my instrument and get to those "places" tonight. As an actor you might have a couple of bad days, and maybe you have one scene killer, but you have to concentrate and remember it isn't like it is in film, where it's in the can. I've made all the mistakes, but I've also had the chance to say some of the things no one else every has.

PBOL: Who were some of the most influential theatre influences in your career?
JC: I think of my parents, who got and gave an inordinate amount to the theatre and to their coworkers and I look back on it all and say, "That's a life." My father started in theatre in 1910 in New York. His humanity on the stage was awesome. I never had the chance to work with my stepmother, but I worked with my mother because I lived with her and with my mother, everything was a performance. She was a work of art, the best of the best, as was my stepmother. To watch them, and to assay that life and their roles on a daily basis, made the most profound effect on me.

PBOL: Are there any great actors that you would like to work with?
JC: I had a rare opportunity to work with several great actors in my first picture, "Murder by Death." I was surrounded on the set by Truman Capote, Eileen Brennan, and the dignity of David Niven and the consummate generosity of Sir Alec Guinness, who went out of his way, as did Tim Curry in his own way. I wish I'd had the chance to work with my father in-law, Lee J. Cobb, that would have been a privilege. There are many actors I would love to work with now like Gerard Depardieu, Al Pacino, De Niro, Brad Pitt and I'd love to do a scene with Ed Norton.

PBOL: Do you think you will always return to the theatre?
JC: It's funny, people say "Why do it again?" But that's why we do it. Sure, it's all been done, but not by Jimmy Cromwell. In movies you notice it, at least I do, where a part resonates with an actor's breath, his voice. So, to see Jamie Cromwell and how he behaves in a particular role is always an opportunity. No matter how well it's been done, you ain't seen me do it."