Interview: James Cromwell Talks ‘The Artist’, Auditions and the Best Perk of an Academy Award Nomination
Any day I can talk to James Cromwell, I consider a perfect day.
James has had such a wonderful career. He had his first TV appearance on a 1974 episode of The Rockford Files followed by a recurring role on All in the Family (which he auditioned for and “had a great time,” he told me).
Dozens (and dozens!) of TV and film work followed when, in 1995, he got a part in Babe as Farmer Hoggett. The role only had 16 lines but he was so memorable in the part that he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. 16 lines!
As you probably know, The Artist was just nominated for 10 Academy Award Nominations, most notably for Best Picture, Actor (Jean Dujardin), Supporting Actress (Berenice Bejo) and Director (Michel Hazanivicus).
Cromwell was a big part of the success of that film. As I told him in the interview, I saw a lot of The Artist through the sympathetic eyes of his character, Clifton, George Valintin’s (Deaudrin) devoted chauffeur.
The Artist is absolutely one of my favorite films of the year. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?
We talk about his work on the film, auditioning and his career. And check out the advice he gives – it’s great!
James Cromwell: My agent called me up and said there’s some French director who is doing a black and white silent film with two people you never heard of. I thought, “the guy has to be nuts.”
Then they sent me, not the script, it wasn’t a script, it’s a short story. Printed on very nice stock, it was spirally bound. Photographs of Jean and Berenice in costume, you know, in front of Paramount or whatever, and I thought “Wow, somebody has put a lot of thought into this and they are here doing it, you know? The least I can do is meet with the director.” I had a lot of questions. It was a very long lunch. I didn’t want to be in the film, especially not being paid very much and I didn’t want to do a character that was just in the background… I’ve done my 16-line character. It got me an Academy Award nomination but, you know, I thought, “Well, why do it?”
So, I wanted to know whether he was just using the silence and the black and white as a gimmick and that the story might not have any relevance to a contemporary audience, just be a sort of an homage. Because I’d just seen a not very good silent film prior to working on The Artist and I thought “Well…” But when you meet with Michel, of course, besides the fact that he is charming, he knows exactly what he wants to do and he is very clear about it. He’s not at all pretentious. I think, when you audition a director because that’s what you do, they think they audition you, but you audition them as well.
In your category, you audition. I’m the one that is been begging for the roles.
James Cromwell: Well, you always have to remember, it’s sort of Even Steven. You mustn’t give up all your power. If you do, it’s to your detriment. But he was delightful and I think I got him. I liked his sweetness. I liked his certitude. I liked the vision that he had. I liked the fact that he was an artist and not only was he gonna get to do his art – because somebody else believed in him – but he had the courage to be an artist and not compromise it. I thought, “Yeah, I want to be a part of that.”
Before you left the meeting, did you say, “Yeah, I’ll do it” or were you kind of coy about it?
James Cromwell: Oh yeah. I said “Yeah, let’s do it.” John Goodman said “yeah” in about five minutes. I’m a little slower than John. No, no. When I choose, I choose. I don’t do coy.
How did you prepare for your character because there wasn’t a lot on the page.
James Cromwell: Well, my first role in film, the first film I ever did was Murder by Death and I played the chauffeur in a similar period, and I said, “What else is there to do?” I mean, I didn’t have to prepare for that one except for the French accent and it is where there was no dialogue so I didn’t have to do anything. So what was there to do?
Other than Jean and Berenice, and to some degree, Missi Pyle, the rest of us are just normal people. The film is not silent to us. We’re talking. It’s just not recorded. So, really, you look at it the way you look at any other part. There is no difference in my mind between a character in a contemporary film and a character in a 20’s film where they were just normal people. We tend to look at the acting style as different but Michel convinced me that it wasn’t a style. We weren’t trying to recreate the silent films. We were doing a contemporary film, a very available story but it happened to be told silently and in black and white. So I said, “Oh, that’s fine.” I know how to drive a car. I know how to support somebody. I know how to care about somebody so there is no preparation for me. I didn’t do any.
When you guys are preparing your scenes and when you have your dialogue, did you guys improve that or was it prepared beforehand what you were going to say or was it different each take?
James Cromwell: Well, they took the short story and they made it into a shooting script so you got sides and you had dialogue like in any other film.
My particular instance, I had very little dialogue because the character is on the taciturn side and doesn’t have a whole lot to say. Whereas John Goodman, he improvised a lot. John is very comfortable with improvisation. I love improvisation but the problem is, of course, you want to be able to improvise in the period. You don’t want to put anything in that might sound contemporary because should somebody read your lips and you say, you know, “Well, that’s bitchin,” it wouldn’t work. Really, what comes out of your mouth is not what propels the story forward. It’s your reaction facially and in your body. That’s the narrative and your reaction creates in the mind of the audience, the narrative. They are telling the story to themselves because they can’t drop down and text their babysitter on their smartphone and hear the story through their ears. They have to watch every frame in order to be able to get the story, and they do. So that when they get to the end of the film and the narrative as far as they are concerned has ended because he has been saved, she is in the room, they are embracing, but the story is not over because where can it possibly go from there? The audience has no clue as to what the next element will be, and that’s where the surprise of the sound comes in. Sound, which has been up until then the antagonist in the film, then becomes a co-creator of the narrative and suddenly there is sound and there is a place for him in sound, and we are transformed into another paradigm. It’s pretty brilliant, this film.
James Cromwell: Well, yes and no. The first time I went to the set and I saw just a small, little snippet of a scene with all the producers and directors waiting outside of John Goodman’s character’s office and it was lit and costumed and peopled in such a way that it could have been right out, I mean I’ve seen that picture in a movie magazine. It was so accurate. And I thought, “Well, that’s incredible. They are really getting this look.”
Now, you never know however, how the story will hold together. Can you actually tell a love story in contemporary terms because you can’t just tell a love story in the silent era vernacular because we don’t have the same assumptions? They are different. There are more sophisticated assumptions now, it seems to me. And then will you be able to tell a story without cynicism, without the sort of aloofness and coolness that sort of characterizes a contemporary relationship, you know, Harry met Sally. You’re just always too hip and that would spoil this picture so he got a performance out of Uggie and he got a performance all of us which is sweet and innocent, and present and engaging, and delightful.
Did you read about the UK moviegoers who wanted their money back because they didn’t realize the film was silent?
James Cromwell: Yeah, they are always coming up with these things. Who do you think phoned that in? Do you think the theatres owners said, “Wow, what a great story. I’ve gotta call the Daily Mail.” I really don’t think so.
And anyway, why didn’t the theatre manager say to them, “Listen, I’ll double your money back but I want you to go back in and watch the entire picture and if at the end of that picture, you still want your money, I’ll give it to you.”
I think that there’s an effort on the part of some people who shall remain nameless to find a way to cast a little ca-ca on the response that people have to The Artist because their multimillion dollar films can’t generate that kind of response.
Yeah. What was the worst audition you’ve ever had?
James Cromwell: Oh, they were all the worse. I loathed auditions from day one. The only audition I ever liked, I went for a theatre audition for this theatre communications group and my friend and I got up and we sang a song. That’s all we did. We went in and we just sang a song.
That was it?
James Cromwell: Yeah, that was it. We didn’t get the job either but I’ve had auditions where I actually cried out of frustration and pain, and had a casting person say to me, “Do you have a cold, Jamie?”
So, I always, I’ve had a big chip on my shoulder because of my father, you know, and I missed a lot of things. I got the first things that I auditioned for. All in the Family, I did audition for that. I had a great time. Murder by Death, I auditioned for that. But as time went on, I got to resent it more and more and finally a director said to me, I said, “What did I do different in this audition that you gave me this job?” He said, “Jamie, it has nothing to do with your audition. It’s just whether you fit the picture that the person has in their head or not.” So I’ve always loathed it and that was wonderful thing about getting an Academy Award nomination. You never have to audition again.
That would be great, just that alone.
James Cromwell: Just that alone! One of the perks.
What’s your advice to actors?
James Cromwell: You know, I tell everybody, I speak a lot at schools, not a lot but I’d like to speak more but when I do get a chance to, they always say to me, “You know, I’m going to go to Hollywood. How do we get an agent?” I say, “Man, I can’t tell you. If I could tell you what a snake pit that place is for young actors. You get off the bus. There are 150 people just like you. It’s impossible and it’s so hard. Stay at home. Get a group of you together in your own hometown. Find out the stories that need to be told about that particular place and that you can tell about yourselves. Do your own work. Create your own work. Find a way to get it on Youtube, get it on Facebook, you know, or show it in people’s homes.
Learn your craft by creating your craft as an artist not as a supernumerary or a flunky in some television show that doesn’t give a crap about your aspirations or your artistry. That’s what I tell them.