James Cromwell interview in The Age (Melbourne) focuses on animal
KarenDawn at DawnWatch.com
Mon Jun 23 10:20:43 EDT 2003
(The Age takes letters at: letters at theage.com.au )
The Age (Melbourne)
June 23, 2003 Monday
A3; Pg. 4
To The Rescue
James Cromwell, who played the farmer in Babe, is a man of many causes. He
talks pigs and politics with Chris Beck.
Lanky American actor James Cromwell was a natural for the role of Farmer
Arthur Hoggett in the pig-friendly movie Babe. When he trained the gun on
Babe we knew he wouldn't pull the trigger. And when he danced to cheer up
the little pig, there was a genuine sense of joy. His softly spoken
affection for Babe came from the heart.
As he sits on a bench in a suburban backyard, stroking Edgar the pig, the
animal activist exhibits a sensitivity that can turn to anger and dismay
when he discusses the treatment of pigs.
There is something a bit oppressive about anybody who is passionate about a
cause. I inadvertently had a ham sandwich just before we were due to meet.
Would he be insulted? Terrified, I brushed and flossed my teeth like they
have never been cleaned before. I also chewed gum during the interview.
"I don't try and bully people anymore," Cromwell says, "My wife told me it
doesn't work. On film sets I get a special vegan meal and people ask about
it. I start saying, you know 'Are you aware about what happens and what this
is doing to the planet and what it's doing to animals? Would you do this to
your companion animals?' Some people slink away but some people get the
message. It's called raising consciousness."
Cromwell became a vegetarian in 1974 after riding through the stockyards of
Texas and experiencing the "smell, terror and anxiety". Arriving on the set
of Babe 20 years later, he upgraded to vegan.
"It was hard in practice," he says. "It seemed that Australians would only
eat things that they killed - there were six different kinds of meat and two
fish every day. I ate salad and potatoes."
In the absence of a real talking pig, Cromwell has become a spokesman for
the rights of animals, and pigs in particular. When Babe opened he was
approached by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in the US
to help with the cause. He talks with a gentle force about the way pigs are
treated in America, describing their conditions in terms of great abuse and
pain, including being skinned alive and used as punching bags for
Cromwell is in Melbourne to play a priest in the film Salem's Lot. While
here, he has hooked up with BOAR (Ballarat Organisation For Animal Rights)
to publicise its objection to the suffering caused to pigs by confinement in
He has inspired most of the film crew, including actors Rob Lowe, Donald
Sutherland and Rebecca Gibney, to sign postcards depicting suffering pigs in
stalls. These were sent to Victorian Agriculture Minister Robert Cameron.
"Babe made a big impact on a lot of people," he says.
The film, with its talking animals, was promoted largely as a comedy but it
was a moving allegory that sent a message about harmony, compassion and love
better than anything on two legs. There was pride, misunderstanding, grief,
passion, envy, and conquest. And Babe, who started his journey with no
tribe, battled ignorance and bigotry and triumphed in a surprising way.
"Babe is about the compartmentalisation of people (represented by animals)
based on what you think they are capable of doing," Cromwell says. "So that
anybody who tries to do anything else, they say, 'Oh you can't do that,
you're too tall to be an actor'."
At a well-postured, scrawny, two-metres tall, Cromwell has had his share of
rejection and bias for not fitting in. When he auditioned for 10, the fact
that the star, Dudley Moore, met his waist was duly noted.
"I was embarrassed by the director, Blake Edwards, who looked at me and
said, 'what am I supposed to do with THAT?'. I was a little hurt to be
referred to as an inanimate object at an audition. I was told by my agent
that a number of big stars won't work with anyone two inches (five
centimetres) taller than them and most of them are under six feet
(1.83metres), so you have to be prepared to have trouble."
Cromwell has a pedigree in political protest. His father, John, a theatre
and film director, was a member of a harmless political group, the Hollywood
Democratics, in the 1950s when he was called before the House Un-American
Activities Committee to apologise - for no discernible reason.
"They didn't care whether anybody did anything," Cromwell says. "They
already had the names. They wanted people to crawl on their knees. He
wouldn't do that. So (producer) Howard Hughes and (studio) RKO gave him a
picture called I Married a Communist, which couldn't be done."
Cromwell is a board member of the Screen Actors Guild, works with Lakota
Indians, promotes animal rights and has been involved in protests against
the war in Iraq.
He might be a little obsessed, but not about himself. So when he admits to
actively seeking an Oscar nomination for his role in Babe, it comes as a
surprise. This is a man who speaks with passion about everything but
personal reward. But just because he cares about life issues doesn't mean he
isn't a pragmatist.
He says, casually, that he paid $US60,000 ($A89,480) for his Oscar
nomination. After a disagreement with producer George Miller over the sequel
to Babe, Babe: Pig in the City, Universal refused to financially support a
nomination for best supporting actor. So Cromwell made a business decision
to promote himself.
"You get to do things that you wouldn't get to do if you win an Academy
Award. I probably would not have got the audition for LA Confidential unless
I was a nominee." (Cromwell played Captain Dudley Liam Smith in the 1997
In the early '60s, fresh to acting and largely unpolitical, Cromwell,
answered an ad looking for actors to work in America's South. The job turned
out to be with a political theatre integrating white and black actors.
"I was thrown out of a restaurant on my first night for being with a black
person. It (the theatre) played to primarily communities in the rural South;
Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia."
After his experience with political theatre, "down South", Cromwell found
more causes to fight for throughout the 1960s. He was involved in the
anti-Vietnam War movement and the black rights group the Black Panthers.
"I never had to become a conscientious objector. I was 4F - which means the
army thought I was nuts," he says. "I may well have been nuts."
Cameron scored only a couple of film roles, including The Cheap Detective,
with Peter Falk, and Tank, with Naomi Watts, before landing the part of
Farmer Hoggett in Babe. He worked on several television shows, including a
regular role in All In The Family with Carroll O'Connor, who removed him
when his character became too popular.
"Norman Lear, who created All In The Family, told me a long time ago,
'Celebrity is to spend; if you hoard it and don't make use of it, it will
destroy you'," Cromwell says. "Because it is very seductive and costly.
Almost everybody is working on a cause - Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Kevin
Spacey. Nobody does anything strictly for the money or the power. They do it
because they want to make a difference to the world. They want to
The big pig issue
* "The code of 'accepted farming practice for welfare of pigs' provides that
adult pigs can be kept in a confined space measuring two metres long by 0.6
metres. The industry dictates that pregnant sows can be confined in small,
barren, metal-barred cages with a concrete and slatted floor for up to the
entire 16 weeks of their pregnancy. These stalls deny sows means to satisfy
their natural instincts.
"It's not maverick stuff we are asking for, sow stalls have already been
banned in Britain and Florida, and they are being phased out in the European
Union and New Zealand.
- Pam Ahern, spokeswoman for the Ballarat Organisation for Animal Rights'
sow stall campaign.
* "The organisation does not recognise animal activist groups as an
authority and will only cooperate with the RSPCA.
"The code of practice is up for review next year and we will fully
participate with the Federal Government and its official consultative
groups. We don't endorse animal cruelty. If a pig farmer is seen to be doing
the wrong thing then it should be referred to the RSPCA." - Kylie McKinley,
public affairs manager for Australian Pork Limited, the peak industry
* "We are terribly concerned about 'intensive industries' (and that the
animals should have sufficient space in pens/stalls to express normal
"At the moment it is common that there are only stalls. Breeders are
technically complying (with the code) but we are not happy with only stalls
because it restricts the animal in its
"Next year at the industry and government consultative review we will
recommend the pen/stall combination, which allows the animal to come and go
as it pleases while still maintaining protection for the sow against
aggressive behaviour by its companion."
- John Strachan vice-president of RSPCA.
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