We sit down with James Cromwell, star of silent film
It’s a story so bizarre you couldn’t write it: a silent French comedy cleaning up at awards ceremonies across the globe, and now tipped to sweep the board at the Oscars next week (The Artist has an impressive 10 nominations, including Best Picture). Ahead of the ceremony on Sunday February 26, 72-year-old US actor James Cromwell, who plays loyal valet Clifton, explains what it was like filming a modern silent movie, and what he really thinks about the Academy Awards.
How did you play this role? My job as an actor was to invest this role with some humanity, and then to listen to what the director wanted to do and to use my imagination and creativity. I didn’t see any difference [between this and a regular movie] because I wasn’t in a silent film: I was supposed to be a real person who had a job as a chauffeur for a big Hollywood star who happened to be in the silent films. That’s all I had to do. Now Jean Dujardin, who plays George Valentin, had a different problem: he not only had to be a real person, he had to be a movie star, and he had to perform in silent films. So he had three different kinds of acting to do and keep straight. I didn’t have that. I wouldn’t say it was a piece of cake, but it was pretty close to it.
You’re known for your words and your voice: how do you tell a story if that’s taken away? You have to rely on your intention to tell the story. You have to know what the story is, what you’re trying to communicate. You have to allow yourself feelings, and you have to express them openly. My problem is that this person you’re watching right now rarely gets a chance to be on film. The kind of guy I have to play is George Bush or some supporting character where I have to be another guy. And you don’t see me. So what I’m trying to do as I reach the twilight of my career [laughs] is I want to show up as me. I want to express myself.
Do people ‘get’ this film? They are getting it. They’re getting it all around the world. The French are getting it, the people in Telluride in Colorado got up in the aisles and danced at the end, they were so excited. We got the New York audience to stand up and cheer at the end, which they’d never seen at the New York Film Festival – it’s usually very polite. It got a 12-minute standing ovation in Cannes, from all those people in that meat market, who saw this beautiful film and the joy of it. The fact that a French director and two French stars had made a film that could communicate to the entire world, that there’s content and a concept and an intellectual acuity as to the nature of filmmaking in the film… every image of that film is brilliant.
Even without words? Now it’s always hard, because Americans, like most people, don’t like to read subtitles. They don’t want to bother. Maybe they can’t read, I don’t know. So you have to create a story in which the emphasis is not on dialogue. And that is possible. There are title cards – title cards are a little different. You can get Americans to read one sentence if they don’t have to look at anything else. But if they have to watch the action and then read at the same time, oh no – now you’ve got a conflict! [Laughs]
Do you think The Artist will start a trend? Take us back to Old Hollywood? I don’t think it’ll happen in Hollywood because they’re too cynical there, but in the rest of the world somebody asked whether I think this will influence young filmmakers. I hope it influences them to the degree that they don’t have to make a film that looks like a Hollywood film – it doesn’t have to have sound, it doesn’t have to be in colour it doesn’t have to cut the same way. These kids can realise they can fully express themselves the way they want to by making a film that is completely different, and find people who want that.
The Artist has been nominated for 10 Oscars. Think you’ll win? I believe it has a very good chance.
Do you want to win? I paid US$60,000 [Dhs22,000] for my Academy Award nomination [for Babe], because the studio had no interest in supporting me, and I’m not a big enough star to have in my contract that they have to. I didn’t know that, but you have to do your own. I had to pay for my own trade ads. My mother did a wonderful film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams called Awakenings, and somebody came up to her at one of the openings and said, ‘Listen, that’s an Academy Award performance. I think I can get you a nomination, and it shouldn’t cost more than US$25,000.’ My mother was appalled! You don’t understand that it’s all politics.
So the films aren’t picked just because they’re wonderful films? To my awareness, they send out the ballots and the big stars, their personal assistants get together in groups and say, ‘Who should we give it to this year? Oh come on, let’s give it to Denzel, he didn’t get it last time.’ And that’s the Academy Awards. [Laughs] For me it’s not about those prizes. The Academy Awards were started as a way of getting an event to create heat for the industry, created by the Academy. It really had nothing to do with merit. Now there have been wonderful films, but of course there have been wonderful films that didn’t get the nominations, wonderful actors with wonderful performances, that’s the selling part. I’m interested in the making part. I’m interested in using this medium to leave this world a little better place than I found it.
So how do you know when you’ve made a good film? What’s your measure of success? People. People come up to me on the streets everywhere now and say, ‘I like your work.’ A number of people said they always enjoy going to my films because they know if I’m in the film it’s going to be a film they’ll enjoy. I think that’s stunning. The fact that they know I’m a working actor and that I do a job, and people believe the characters I do and understand that I bring a craft to that work, thank you. That’s the best.
This isn’t your first time at the Oscars: you’ve mentioned you’ve been nominated before. Has it changed anything for you? Well, once you get an Academy Award nomination you get into a different category. You don’t have to audition any more, and you get on what’s called ‘the list’. So my list begins with Michael Caine, [Robert] Duvall, [Kiefer] Sutherland, [Gene] Hackman. I’m at the bottom of the list. If they’re all working, then I get the part. Otherwise they’re going to give it to Duvall because, it’s a no-brainer, they don’t have to think about it. Everybody will know Duvall, they know exactly what they’re getting, and they’d have to worry about me. And then, I don’t know, I probably have a little bit of a reputation as being – what am I? Difficult. And tall! Difficult and tall!
We know you’ve done many many fantastic things during your career, but please, for us, can you do the line from Babe? ‘That’ll do pig, that’ll do.’
The Artist is in UAE cinemas now. The full 84th Academy Awards ceremony will be screened on Monday February 27 from 10pm on Fox Movies.