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“We Have No Right to Do What We’re Doing to Other Species on This Planet”

Conversation: James Cromwell

Photo by Joshua Pickering, courtesy CTG Media and Communications

Actor-activist James Cromwell – who is now appearing in the absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot — has some profound ironies in his career that playwright Samuel Beckett would likely appreciate. The man who supported the Civil Rights movement and Black Panthers — a 1960s group known for its “Off the pig!” slogan, was launched into stardom by a talking pig. And in Godot he’s playing a brutal tyrant who calls the slave he leads around by a rope around his neck “pig.”

Cromwell portrayed Clifton, the chauffeur in the black and white silent film The Artist, which won five Academy Awards this year, including for Best Picture. He rose to prominence in 1995 when he played Farmer Arthur H. Hoggett in the talking pig comedy Babe, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The gangly, 6’6” actor went on to play a series of authority figures — presidents, princes, popes, politicians, millionaires, and media moguls. This is another supreme irony: His father, director John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, Algiers, Abe Lincoln in Illinois), was persecuted by the Hollywood Blacklist during the 1950s McCarthy era.

Despite portraying rich, powerful, and often, conservative, characters, Cromwell is actually one of the entertainment industry’s most outspoken progressives. He uses his Hollywood celebrity to support various causes, such as animal rights (In 2001 he was arrested during a People for Ethical Treatment of Animals protest at a Wendy’s outlet in Fairfax, Va.), marching in anti-Iraq and Afghan War demos and appearing at Occupy sites in LA and Manhattan. Recently, he personally challenged President Obama at the White House about a failed campaign promise. Off-screen and offstage, the thespian who played Babe’s farmer is a committed vegetarian and vegan, who is vocal about environmental issues.

I sat down with Cromwell in LA recently for a wide-ranging conversation about his views on the state of things in the US, the environment, and about being an ethical vegan. An excerpt:


What do you think about the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas and Obama’s putting it on hold and then more recently approved part of it?

He approved the part of the Keystone pipeline that needed no approval; it’s already been done. So, it was simply grandstanding. He didn’t have to do anything; it’s already going through. The Republicans pointed that out right away; it’s just a stunt. He put the top part [on hold] because they had an oil spill, and have had many oil spills. It’s the most corrosive oil and toxic oil you can pump. And it is not going to be used for domestic consumption; that’s not the idea. So we are endangering the pristine heart of this country to inevitable catastrophe — inevitable catastrophe — for the profit of oil companies who will sell this oil abroad, not in America.

We do nothing basically, or very little, to handle our energy problem. Obama is putting everything possible [all energy options on the table], including nuclear energy, which even idiots – idiots – have to know now it’s death. It will not work, cannot work – it’s not economically viable. Without the $8 billion they gave to the two plants in Georgia, those plants would never have been built. You could never get insurance policy for those things, you could never get investment for it. So that’s not happening. It’s only happening because the federal government is giving the money.

We could save 50 percent of our energy simply through conservation, if you would educate people, but we don’t have an educational system [in California]. Because California’s governor can’t afford to put any money into education because he doesn’t have any money, because we’re in the middle of a recession. Why are we in the middle of a recession? Because they cancelled Glass-Steagall, and they allowed these banks to gamble with their money and our money, and then we bailed them out, and we’re still bailing them out, and the compromise is a bailout.


What do you think about fracking and mountaintop removal?

Oh, god. You know that just went through? They just got a court order for mountaintop removal, 2,300 acres. The judge who made the original ruling stated what would happen if they did it. And it will happen. And fracking — you know that they’ve been fracking in California for years and years… back into the 1950s… with no regulation at all. None! They even suppressed investigations into whether this was contaminating wells because, of course, we don’t set our water on fire, like they did in Texas. But we’ve had fracking – we have no idea what we’ve done and are doing to people.

Capitalism is sick, capitalism is finished and capitalism is cancer. And you have a choice: You can either use surgery, or radiation and chemotherapy — in other words, more of the same that got you ill in the first place — or you change your diet, start to exercise, breathe, change your mindset, start loving yourself, really loving yourself in every possible way, what you put in your mouth, what comes out of your mouth in what you say, what you teach your children, what you do with other people. That poor schmuck who shot Trayvon. If we’re going to be saved from this cancer we’ve got to go to the cure.


Is the cure some form of socialism?

…After having experienced Occupy LA and Occupy New York [Wall Street] and Occupy Denver, I believe in the idea of the creation of a system that evolves out of communication, cooperation, community, sharing, mutual support, the wholeness, the lack of emphasis on the individual, that leadership should grow organically out of the movement, that the system will develop organically… Look, socialism is the end. They call it “socialized medicine”; they don’t call social security “socialism.” And none of the people voting against it want to end their social security — god forbid! But when you say “Medicare for everybody,” that’s when they begin to say “socialism.”…

That you could from any position of leadership in this country impose socialism, it ain’t ever gonna happen. But what happens in Tahrir Square, in Libya, what the people of Syria and Aden are trying to do — if it springs from the people they will develop a system of equality, justice and hopefulness that I don’t think we even know. I don’t think those of us who have been educated in this system and lived in this system — I went down there and watched it and thought, “Wow, man! I don’t know that I could do this. I don’t know that I have the patience, the magnanimity, that I’m willing to go through all the permutations it has to go through.” This is for the young, texting each other; they created a new language. [Makes hand signals.]

…This country is not a democracy. This was never a democracy; this was always a republic. It was designed as a republic… The Federalist Papers is anti-democracy. We have to create a democracy…


What does the actor who played Babe’s farmer eat?

Well, I’m a bad vegan. I believe in veganism. I think it’s necessary. As you can see I just ate eggs. My friends at PETA would kill me if they knew I was eating eggs. I didn’t get my protein, so I’m going to wean myself off of eggs, because eggs are the worst.


Are you generally vegetarian?

Oh, completely. On the other hand I wear leather shoes and have a leather belt. I think it’s a process. I support veganism, and the work of PETA, Farm Sanctuary and Animal Acres because I believe we have no right to do what we’re doing to other species on this planet, and that’s part of our sickness and we have to end it. Part of that, of course, is battery cages and massive egg laying farms, where most people’s eggs come from. Hens lay eggs regardless; so you can get ’em. But you just can’t get ’em in the quantity required to feed Americans — we have an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in this country because we don’t know what the frig we’re putting into our mouths.


When did you become vegetarian?



Before you did Babe.

Yeah; I became a vegan when I did Babe.


Did you have an epiphany?

I came across the country on my motorcycle in 1975 and went through the stockyards in Texas for a day. All day long, as far as you could see on either side of the road, pens of beef waiting to be slaughtered. And I thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” Then, when I did Babe, I worked very closely with those animals, and the Australians only like to eat things they have to kill, so the lunch table was every animal we worked with in the morning was on display to be eaten. So I thought, “Wow, man, I should just stop this, too.” So, I did.


What do you think about the presidential race?

I don’t believe in electoral politics. I believe we have a right to vote and it’s important to exercise that right. I do not think the right is exercised when you have no choice. When the two parties have become one party. When the policies of the president, as a Democrat, are indistinguishable from the policies of his predecessor, a rightwing Republican. More whistleblowers have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration than in all administrations combined since enacting the Espionage Act in 1917. That Obama is supporting TALON and the other abrogations of our privacy and civil rights through the National Security Agency, which these whistleblowers are addressing – so, to say: “Oh, I couldn’t possibly have Santorum or Romney or Gingrich as president. I’ll vote for Obama again.” To me, that’s not a vote. So I’ll vote for the Peace and Freedom or Green Party candidate. Does it make any difference? If Santorum gets in, 100 million Americans will be out of health insurance – but I hope they’ll be out in the streets. And if Obama gets in, maybe only 32 million people will be out – but I hope the kids make so much noise during the convention. I’d imagine, and I pray for them, because I think the repression — which will be condoned by the Democratic National Committee — of their rights, like the last convention I went to. They were in pens, topped by barbed wire, under an overpass. 


It’s the second class First Amendment.

That’s correct. The two-party system doesn’t work. Electoral politics doesn’t work. What works is participatory democracy, the Occupy movement, resistance, participation, informing yourself, and speaking out.


(James Cromwell is co-starring in Waiting for Godot through April 22 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90012. Click here for more information.)

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Earth Island Journal, Rampell is co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. The book’s third edition will be released by April 2018.

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