Actor James Cromwell on the Consequence of 'Doing Nothing'
James Cromwell, who has appeared in numerous big-budget Hollywood films, is becoming known for his outspoken activism as much as for his prolific acting career. Cromwell has made headlines in recent years for his acts of civil disobedience against SeaWorld, the Dakota Access pipeline and fracking construction sites. For him, the threat of arrest is nothing compared with these pressing environmental issues.
“For those people who don’t get involved because they think there is a consequence: There is also a consequence for doing nothing,” he tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer during this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence.” In the interview, the two discuss Cromwell’s legacy of activism and politics in Hollywood.
Cromwell explains how his activism has opened his eyes to inequities in the American justice system. “It’s very difficult as a white, middle-class, privileged individual to empathize with what black people go through every day,” he tells Scheer. “They experience this incredible oppression.”
He talks about his experience in jail:
When I was in an institution where I recognized what the purpose of the institution is—which is to demoralize and dehumanize and subjugate and confuse—the people there [were there] in order to disempower them. And they were not able to do that with me because instead of being a number, or a crime, or an individual of color that they can somehow dismiss as having no power to affect them in their job and the institution in the way it is run—suddenly when they get a celebrity, they have to take that into account.
Scheer and Cromwell also discuss the overlap of politics in Hollywood, and Cromwell recounts his father’s experience as a blacklisted Hollywood director.
Read the transcript below and listen to the full interview in the player above. You can also check out past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, famed actor James Cromwell. I actually, I’m not going to go through all your movies—
RS: —Babe, and The Green Mile, and all that stuff. And I’m really here to talk to you as an activist, a political activist who just got arrested at SeaWorld. I don’t know why I’m giggling, but you’ve served three days in jail, and you’ve been involved in anti-fracking demonstrations. And you’ve emerged, really, as maybe one of the most active people in the whole environmental movement. And I find this kind of strange, because this is the first time I’ve ever met you in person, and I had this image of you without your beard, considerably younger, in L.A. Confidential. And to this day, it’s been one of the most powerful movies I’ve watched, maybe because I live in L.A., maybe because I think it captured the seedy, dark side of L.A. and its police department at a certain point. And you played this fearsome—what was his title?—
JC: Captain. Dudley.
RS: Yeah, captain—Dudley—right. Oh, can you do it?
JC: I sure can. [Laughs]
RS: And you were brutal, you tortured people, you were mean! You were in charge of corruption—you corrupted the whole L.A. police department.
JC: That’s right. And it is corrupted. [Laughter]
RS: Well, hopefully it’s a little better than the days when you described. But the interesting thing is, and I just came from hearing you describe your days in prison because of your SeaWorld intervention—
JC: Actually, it was for the fracking.
RS: Oh, for the fracking—
JC: Yeah, we were—we were arrested, and I have to go back and face the charges for SeaWorld.
RS: OK, so why don’t you take both of those incidents, and how you came to be active in this, and why it’s important. And what you learned from your brief time in jail.
JC: Ah, well, I became involved with PETA because after I did Babe, they were looking for somebody to sort of narrate their campaign against the killing of 4-H pigs, which are given to school children to raise for a year, and then they go away for summer vacation and when they come back, there’s no more pig—of course it’s been sent to slaughter. Which is very traumatic for a lot of—and obviously, very traumatic for the pigs. And so I started very benignly, but then as PETA does, they start to escalate, and then pretty soon you’re in slaughterhouses, and then it just gets worse and worse until I finally said—no more videos, I got it, I got it, it’s really awful. Just tell me what to say. And I have done a number of actions with them where we have been arrested, and since I don’t really mind that process, they call on me every once in a while to do what we did at SeaWorld, which was interrupt the orca show, the disgrace—
RS: For those who don’t know why the orca show is a disgrace, again, I’ve heard you make a compelling argument about why it is. Why don’t you state that?
JC: These are very large—I think around 5,700 pounds, one is 17 feet long—swimming in basically a small swimming pool for them, in chemically laden water because of the amount of, you know, they swim around in their own urine, probably. They get no exercise, so their cardiovascular system is compromised, which means their dorsal fin flops over; it will come back when they are released, if they are released and don’t die. Forty of them have died, none of them from natural—from old age; they die because they get pneumonia, they get sick, because of the food and the strain. They’re separated, often from their families; they’re very family-oriented. They’re communal, which is very hard on them. And they experience a lot of frustration, and they take it out on other orcas by raking their teeth along the sides of other orcas. It’s a terrible life for an animal that swims up to 100 miles a day, that can dive deeply. And it is done supposedly for the entertainment of the 5,000 people who see the show, but really basically, it’s to support a corporation which belittles the very creatures that they supposedly introduce to the public, by making it about being able to touch sand sharks or see sea turtles or any of the—dolphins, in a small pool. Like we experience with elephants when they were confined in small pens in Los Angeles Zoo and in circuses. We don’t do this anymore; we’ve just begun to understand that these larger animals, actually all animals, don’t behave naturally, and it is not a natural existence to confine them and use them against their will. PETA is against the use of animals in motion pictures, any animal in motion pictures, because even though there are stories to be told about the interrelationship between people and other animals, that character does not get a vote. The animal does not get to be represented by an agent, to determine the working conditions, the compensation, how long they can work. They are at the whim of people who don’t have their well-being as a primary focus.
RS: But the fight against SeaWorld is one that’s about won, wouldn’t you say? I mean, it’s like the circus closing.
JC: Almost. It’s almost won. Blackfish, the film Blackfish put a knife in their heart. But it takes more to kill a multinational corporation than just one knife. You have to keep stabbing it with your steely fork, as somebody once said. And it’s the same with the gas and oil industry. That is also a dinosaur that ought to be put out of its misery, or the misery that they’re inflicting on other people. And that is going to take more than a knife.
RS: You’re using celebrity; you’re a celebrity, you’ve been honored, you’ve been in very important movies, you’re a great actor. And you, at this age—what are you now, seventy—
RS: Seventy-seven, you’re a child, actually, compared to me—
JC: Yeah. [Laughs]
RS: —but you know, I respect the young people. And you use your celebrity, and as I’ve heard you recount, you were treated differently, at least at the beginning, when you’re arrested, and your colleagues who were less known were treated more harshly. And so kind of give us the glimpse of a world that actually terrifies most people, which is why most people don’t get engaged in direct action and don’t risk arrest, because you know, it’s quite frightening.
JC: Well, for those people who don’t get involved because they think there is a consequence, there’s also a consequence for doing nothing. Which, in my opinion, is far greater than the consequence of standing up and questioning authority. Which is basically what it is: you are breaking a minor violation—ours was blocking traffic. It’s basically nothing, it’s a misdemeanor. Actually interrupting the show in SeaWorld is also just a misdemeanor; it’s a trespass and it’s also a citizen’s arrest, it’s not an arrest by the San Diego Police Department. They follow up. But what I learned is, it’s very difficult as a white, middle-class, privileged individual, to empathize with what black people go through every day—what they experience. Chris Rock actually put a camera in his car to record all the times he was stopped by the LAPD for what’s called driving while black. So they experience this incredible oppression. Now, I’m sure that Chris, once somebody walked up to his car and asked for his license and saw that it was Chris, the whole relationship changed. Whether Chris recognizes it or not, I wouldn’t have recognized it. But when I was in an institution where I recognized what the purpose of the institution was, which was to demoralize and dehumanize and subjugate and confuse the people there in order to disempower them, and that they were not able to do that with me because instead of being a number or a crime or an individual of color that they can somehow dismiss as having no power to affect them in their job, and the institution the way it is run—suddenly when they get a celebrity, they have to take that into account. The events are so slight that it’s easy to miss that it’s not just normal behavior. For instance, I would respond—they would call, and I was on a hunger fast, and they would call up, say, “Cromwell! You want to come down for your chow?” And I’d say, “No thank you.” Now, I don’t think anybody else in the institution says “No thank you.” I say “No thank you” because that’s how I was raised. The inappropriateness of that must have resonated with them—who is this guy who says “thank you”—thank you for directing me to the telephone, thank you for providing a towel so I can take a shower—because that’s not the experience that people of color have in those institutions.
RS: So what happened, actually? You were booked, and this was what, for a $350 fine that you didn’t want to pay?
JC: No, I would not pay.
RS: Yeah, and you went on a hunger strike. And you were in for, what, three, four days?
JC: It was supposed to be seven days, but they give you three days off for good behavior. But really, the point was that I knew, and they knew from the very beginning, they didn’t want me in there. They never wanted me to get to the general population, because when I would be in the general population, no matter if I was on my toes and didn’t do anything wrong, I still represent a threat to the institution because I’m a target. Anybody needing to make their chops in the general population in order not to be bullied or raped by somebody else, if they can take me down, if they can bust my teeth out, then they got props. The institution doesn’t want that, because of course the minute I get out I say, yeah, I was attacked, I was brutalized, actually, in the institution, the guards stood around—blah, blah, blah, whatever you might say. So I’m a liability, and by releasing me they had to release the two people I came with.
RS: So just take us through the booking process. ‘Cause it is interesting for people who haven’t done it. And how your colleagues, who are not celebrities, were treated also during that period.
JC: I went in with two women. We drove up to the facility. A lot of our supporters were there, they were blocked off from us by about, oh, 50, 75 feet behind a cordon. And then there were blocks and there were lots of cops. And very nice cops, allowed us to say goodbye to all the people and address them, then escorted us very gently to the back door—not the front door, didn’t come in through the front door—where a correctional officer takes down your name—
RS: What’s the name of the institution?
JC: It’s the Orange County Correctional Facility.
RS: In New York.
JC: Yeah. It’s actually, it’s not a jail; people say you go to jail—jail always sounds like the Monopoly game to me, you know, or Jailhouse Rock. This is prison. This is really a prison. So you go in through a garage area so that they can then, if a guy is out of control, they have a totally neutral place where they can neutralize that person. Then they bring you through another locked door—every door is locked. Usually they’re double doors, so you get somebody out of a larger space into a smaller space where they’re controlled, then somebody else from the outside comes once you have control, as the officer, unlocks that door and you go into the next one. So you go into this room which is antiseptic in its—that everything human, everything normal has been expunged, and you have only the relationship of the thing to authority. Us being the person charged, convicted, is the thing, and the authority, even though in the great scheme of things they are just doing their job—they have a certain job to do. There are inconsistencies in the job, there are conflicts in the job. So you get in, you have to strip, you have to line up against the wall, you have to spread your cheeks. Then they give you this prison uniform. You sit, you wait. Everything takes a long time. There was an emergency ‘cause some guy came in, he’d gotten in a fight, his eye was very badly messed up. Then you have an interview with the nurse, takes your vitals, gives you a tuberculin test for drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is why you’re in quarantine for the first three days. Then you answer questions, you sit in a chair very, very low, and the duty officer is very high, so he looks down on you to emphasize your insignificance, and asks you questions like, “Do you have any anxiety that you will be raped in this institution?” I thought it was a ridiculous question. I said “No, not unless they’re a lot hornier than I think they are.” No smile. Then he said, “Do you have any anxiety that you will rape somebody?” Now, the reason, rape, to them—they understand that rape has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with humiliation and debasement and power, the same way it does in the outside world, only this is man-to-man. And the same thing applies. So they understand—so, are you afraid that you will be dominated in some way, violated, more than we are violating you already, or will you in order to protect yourself or for some bent reason of your own, will you violate somebody else? That is the relationship that exists in there, both between prisoner-to-prisoner and prisoner-to-authority. They are there to enforce the rule, and then not to enforce the rule; to create a gray area which allows them to manipulate with the least amount of force on their part, an order that has no bearing to the life that should be lived by any normal human being or that anybody lived outside.
RS: And you’ve said that the treatment that your non-famous colleagues got—and they were your, a similar age, right?—
JC: One was a 77-year-old grandmother and the other was a woman of color, who’s the head of our organization, very smart lady; she got off the worst, because she was a woman of color. And they had no idea who she was. She had committed a crime, she was in there. She—
RS: The crime was a misdemeanor, though—
JC: The crime was blocking, blocking the entrance to a power plant—it didn’t, we didn’t even block off the road. So it was absolutely nothing, which is why we refused to pay the fine to justify a ruling by a judge that flies in the face of all reason. That it is more important to obey a statute than to address an imminent danger caused by this power plant to all humanity.
RS: The danger being?
JC: Well, we are basically engaging feedback systems in the natural world because as we put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the temperature of the Earth rises. When it rises above 1.5 degree, it will be like a runaway train. When it gets above 2 degrees, then that’s ballgame over. We have no way of stopping the natural processes, the feedback loops that will occur when we start melting the Russian steppes, which have trapped methane, which now are in these great bubbles of methane, which explode. And the methane trapped in the ice sheets. And once that gets up into the atmosphere, methane is 86 times more greenhouse effective than CO2. Our plant is putting out 2.1 million tons of CO2 a year, but then that’s not including, they don’t include in that the fugitive methane released in the process of transferring the gas from the fracking fields to the plant. So it’s basically 4.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. When you do that, you are having an effect on the planet. This one plant produces, raises the greenhouse gas emissions in New York by over 10 percent.
RS: So let me—it’s interesting that you, because you’re an actor.
RS: And there was always a tradition, going back to Shakespeare’s time, that actors weren’t very bright [laughter], didn’t know—and it was a group denigrated, really. And my experience, and we have a lot of smart actors, but listening to you, and I’ve heard you before on this question of environmental issues, you really are very well informed. And you actually have something of a background, having studied engineering, right, and architecture.
JC: Oh, you know, I didn’t. It’s a theater department at Carnegie Tech. I had nothing to do with the engineers. [Laughs]
RS: Oh, OK. But you don’t seem intimidated by the information; you don’t seem, ah—the way we disenfranchise people, whether we’re talking about nuclear weapons, we’re talking about global warming, climate change—whatever we’re talking about, we tell them there are experts who know this stuff, and the rest of us can’t quite grasp it and shouldn’t get into the debate. And it seems to me whatever your background, you’ve got it. You’ve got it, and I’ve learned more listening to you lately than I actually picked up from, you know, reading The New York Times and the LA Times lately.
JC: That you would.
RS: Yeah. And so it is quite interesting. We accepted an actor, Ronald Reagan, being president, and I did interview him a number of times, and he wasn’t well informed on most issues, and certainly not the nuclear weapons issue, which he ended up being able to control. But let me ask you about where you got—first of all, I’m sorry; I dropped the threat of what happened to your co-defendants, who were not celebrities, when they spent this time in jail. I just want to get—
JC: Well, for instance, the 77-year-old woman, sweet lady—she was freezing. They turn the temperature down to probably 68 degrees; you can’t control the vent. That cold air is just coming in. There’s no fresh air. And she was freezing, and she asked for a blanket; and they summarily said, we have no blankets; there are no more blankets. Then my friend, the woman of color, an Indian woman, went down to take her shower and said, “But I don’t have a towel.” “There are no towels,” she said. So she said, how do I dry myself? They said, use a sheet. You had a spare set of sheets. But it meant that she couldn’t get herself dry, she couldn’t get the clothes on, so she used up here time—she had also to make a telephone call, one telephone call a day—so by the time she got on the phone, she had no time. She was so distraught by this that she was actually weeping on the phone. These kind—then she went out, she was taken to, she had a guest, and some—she said to another guard, “I don’t have a towel.” He said, “Oh, I’ll get you a towel.” She went to talk to her visitor, who had arrived; on the way back, surrounded by two officers, she saw the man again and said, “Did you get the towel?” He said “No, no, no, I’ll get it for you.” And the two officers said, “We don’t have any towels.” And the guy said, “No, no, I’m going to get her a towel.” “We don’t have any towels!” In other words, they were jerking her chain. That’s what they do. To throw you off balance, to make you insecure, to disempower you, to make you less likely to confront authority, they take the props of normal human exchange out from under you, so you’re left basically with nothing, totally dependent on the system. That’s what they do in this world now. We are totally and completely under the thumb of a system which pretends that our survival is dependent upon maintaining that system exactly as it is for the benefit of the people that it does benefit, which are the rich and powerful. And not that we are in control of our own destinies.
RS: I’m talking to James Cromwell, who has a considerable record of activism and concern with the environment and other issues. Very well-known actor. [omission] And I want to continue this narrative of how you went from being an actor, successful actor, to being also an activist. And the reason I raise that is, I—my own experience teaching in a university and elsewhere is that as opposed to the time when I went to school, back in the late fifties and early sixties, there was a lot of discussion about integrity and not selling out. And then people say, well, you had more opportunities for jobs and everything. But you’ve had a successful career, and yet you feel the need to have some integrity in your life. And I think we need role models like that, because my experience being around universities and so forth, is that generally people just want to know how to sell out. And we actually assist in that—you know, learn this social app, or present yourself this way, or write your resume this way, and so forth. And it’s inspiring, really, to have someone who gives a damn at your age and is doing this. You could relax, you don’t have to be doing this. And then I noticed in all of the biographical material about you that your father was one of the blacklisted in Hollywood, and that your mother was also in the industry. So tell me about the making of James Cromwell.
JC: I never understood what my father went through until much later, when he talked about the cost of the blacklist experience on him personally, where he actually vowed never to go back to Hollywood again.
RS: Give us a little background, the name of your father—
JC: Oh, my father was a director in Hollywood. His name was John Cromwell, and he came to y Hollywood in the late twenties, ‘29 I think, actually. Because as they transitioned into sound, they didn’t have directors that could deal with actors who could talk. They didn’t, silent directors didn’t understand that dynamic, the dynamic of scene and dialogue. And so my father, you know started out learning to edit, and then started to direct pictures, because he was a wonderful director. And very much a studio man, always the thumb—never very self-promoting, unlike Ford and Hawks, who had publicists who positioned them, which is why they got the projects that they got, and my father basically got—good pictures, but studio pictures, definitely under the thumb. He worked for Selznick. He had had a party at his house, and he was talking to a group from the Moscow Art Theatre about how they take the graduates from the, basically college, and they send them out into the provinces. So the provinces get the best young actors, and then as the actors mature, they move in closer and closer, from smaller city to bigger city, until they get to Moscow. At which point they are seasoned to be able to handle the pressure of being in the Moscow Art Theatre and playing before a very sophisticated audience. And my father said, ah, that’s the way it should be done. What do we do in this country? We take the best and brightest, we take them to New York and take them to LA, we use them up in a couple of years, and then they’re ruined. They’re gone; they’ve been completely overwhelmed, they’ve had a failure, it’s destroyed their spirit. And Adolphe Menjou happened to be there. Later, he, and along with other people, had testified the first time HUAC came. HUAC was just about to lose their mandate—
RS: HUAC, for those who don’t know, is the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sort of spearheaded a lot of the witch hunting.
JC: Yes, it was, it was. My father was, we had a house in Oregon, he opened Life magazine. There’s a sequential picture of Adolphe Menjou testifying before HUAC, and the quote was, “And the biggest communist in all of Hollywood is John Cromwell.” So they call my father in; my father has nothing to say to the committee. He came way before the communists started to manifest in New York. Was fine, he was let go. So they came to my father’s agent Sam Jaffe, very famous agent at the time, and said, “No problem with John, we just want him to come in and apologize.” So Sam Jaffe said, “You’re not going to get John Cromwell to apologize.” So my father had signed a very lucrative contract at RKO with Dore Schary. And Dore sold the studio to Howard Hughes; Howard Hughes was a rabid anti-communist. He wanted to fire my father because my father had been called, but he couldn’t, so he gave him a film to do which he knew my father would object to, which was called “I Married a Communist.” My father understood it, so he said, “Well, yeah, I’ll shoot the picture, but I can’t shoot this script; this script is crap, so you have to rewrite it.” They got writer after writer after writer, until it got to the point where they had to double his salary, and they settled—it was a million-dollar contract, this was 1953—they settled the entire million dollars; my father bought a building in Beverly Hills, went to New York, got in a play with Henry Fonda called Point of No Return, and won a Tony. And kept on going, wound up at the Guthrie, had the life that he should have had, but swore that he would never go back to this—he called it a cesspool. But that dynamic in this community, the betrayal of people of principle, by those with no principle at all, is a climate that I believe still exists. It may not—I once was asked to be sort of the poster child for the Ballona Wetlands that were going to be developed basically by Spielberg so that he could be closer to LAX so the helicopter flight wasn’t so long. And my then-wife was very upset with me, because she thought that would somehow impact my career and our lifestyle. So a friend of hers, Richard Dreyfuss, called me up and said, “Jamie, there isn’t anything like a blacklist anymore, but don’t you think when your names comes up, you know, over Dreamworks and they say yeah, what about James Cromwell for this project,” that somebody’s not going to say, “Isn’t that the schmuck that’s standing in the way, trying to protect that Ballona Wetlands thing?” So I thought, oh man, ah, I shouldn’t, maybe that’s not—I’d never done this before. So I said, “Listen. I will give you money, I will march with you, but I cannot be the poster child.” I think a week later, who do I see on television chained to a fence? Martin Sheen. Martin didn’t flinch. Martin didn’t care. Martin was there because he’s a man of principle, and I said, “I’ll never do that again. I’ll never back away from an issue because somehow it’s going to impact my supposed career.”
RS: Today when we’re doing the interview, at the end of July, Jeff Bezos was, I saw in the paper, he’s now the richest man in the world. And he got that through Amazon, was a big project of selling us stuff, maybe more efficiently, but also putting a lot of bookstores out of business, and a lot of other small stores out of business, and Jeff Bezos now owns the Washington Post personally, and he’s someone who is building the cloud with all of our information for the CIA and NSA and intelligence agencies and so forth. And so this is sort of the modern figure—and then you have Donald Trump being president. Where are we in the state of civilization, James Cromwell, and could you do it with your accent from LA Confidential? ‘Cause there was—
JC: [Laughs] Oh sure, boy-o, I’ll tell you what’s going on. I’ll tell you. No, um—
RS: No, do that, because that was brilliant, because he actually was of a philosophical, deep-thought bent, the character, right?
JC: Absolutely. Because I had a backstory—it didn’t get in the film, but I had it—which was, he came as an immigrant. And when he came to New York as an Irishman, as a boy, the Irish were being chased around the street and beaten, and sometimes killed, because they were on the lowest ladder. And they decided, if you’re going to rise, where does the power reside? And they looked around in their neighborhoods, and it wasn’t to become part of Tammany Hall; the power was in the police. They controlled the neighborhood, and they took whatever they wanted to take, so they became the cops. Nothing basically has changed. It doesn’t change, because we have lost—we’ve lost our connection to the world. We’ve lost what native people understand, which is what the people out in Standing Rock understood. Water is the essence of life; it not only sustains life, it is life. It flows through every creature, it makes up the majority of our being. If you don’t have a spiritual connection to that, and you are an outlier, than what you see has no value. The only value it has is the value you give it for what you can sell it for. And when you do that, and you take away spirit, you take away humanity; you take away what our responsibility is to the world, which is to preserve this world, to be the guardians of this world, to be humble, and to be compassionate. And that’s lost.
RS: That’s a good point on which to end it. But let me try to get, snatch a little positive inspiration here. Because at the age of 77, you’re out there fighting the good fight. And you’re not doing it because you expect to lose, you’re doing it out of hope because you expect to see some progress.
JC: We will win.
RS: Thank you so much. I want to thank our producers, Rebecca Mooney and Josh Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW, Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And over here at NPR West, Peter Sentell. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.
–Posted by Emma Niles.