Actor takes action: A Q&A with James Cromwell

Actor takes action: A Q&A with James Cromwell

Actor takes action: A Q&A with James Cromwell
January 7, 2016

James Cromwell’s most famous line came in his Academy Award-nominated turn as the farmer in “Babe” where he let his ambitious pig know, “That’ll do.” The pig, of course, didn’t settle and returned for another movie. Cromwell isn’t one to settle, either, winning his first Emmy for “American Horror Story: Asylum” in 2013 after almost 40 years as a character actor.

Cromwell doesn’t shy away from off-screen drama. He has been an activist his whole life, marching on Washington against the Vietnam War and most recently getting arrested on disorderly conduct charges blocking the entrance to a natural gas power plant under construction in Wawayanda, Orange County.

City & State’s Jeff Coltin spoke with Cromwell about his opposition to the plant, money in politics and acting out of character.


City & State: Why are you opposing this power plant?

James Cromwell: It affects not only my community and where I live in Warwick, but it also affects the health and well-being of the people of Orange County and to some degree, the people of the state of New York and the entire country and the entire world. It will be an emitter of millions of tons of CO2 gas along with methane and ultrafine particulate matter. The whole process, from the production of the fracked gas in Pennsylvania to its end-use – in this particular instance at the power plant – is fraught with the possibility of disaster and endangerment of local people.

There was a long struggle in New York to raise awareness and to bring pressure to bear on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking. It was successful because the movement was incredibly well-organized and supported but also because of some politics up in Albany. But they left out the use of fracked gas. It doesn’t make any sense to me or to anybody in this community why you would ban fracking and then turn around and use the product of fracking to run a power plant in New York with all the attendant downside of the fracking process to produce electricity that we, in the state of New York, do not need because we have a surplus. Knowing that this electricity will go on the national grid, it will be on the national or regional market, not for us. In other words, sticking the local community here with all the downside and providing all the people who frack the gas and transport the gas in the pipeline with a profit.

We are committing ourselves in New York, in Orange County, and in the country to a source of energy which is non-renewable, which is toxic, and which is in the process of killing the planet. So if we’re going to stop doing this and have a paradigm shift, you have to start now. You can’t mortgage your health and economic viability to an industry that’s ultimately going to close down and in the very short term destroying the ability of life to exist on this planet.


C&S: So you’re saying New York State is being hypocritical by banning fracking but allowing the use of fracked gas in the state?

JC: It is hypocritical, but you have to look at the money. It allows a number of plays to exist. Supposedly it’ll allow the closing down of Indian Point (nuclear power plant). Whether that’s true or not and whether somebody who happens to be the governor of New York has an investment interest in repurposing that property, I don’t know. But there’s always money involved. (Competitive Power Ventures, the company that will own the plant) is one of the main contributors to Gov. Cuomo and to many elected officials in New York. They do it locally. The state transferred the responsibility of the licensing of this plant from a state organization to the town council of Wawayanda, who have zero experience and who are incredibly susceptible to being bribed by having a $9 million construction project plopped into their lap. Of course they leave out all the downside, which is if anything goes wrong, if it has to be decommissioned, if there happens to be a release of methane like there isright now in California, the people who get stuck with it are the local townspeople and the people of the Hudson Valley and the people of New York. It’s always money. It’s not just hypocrisy. Somebody got in there and made them a better offer.


C&S: The main argument for closing Indian Point is the safety for the 20 million people living in the vicinity of New York City. Isn’t it worth it to build new plants to replace it?

JC: Indian Point should never have been built in the first place. The nuclear industry sold the American people a bill of goods that this was a clean technology with no downside and only an upside and that every problem would get handled. And of course, it was not handled at all, and people simply forget that we cannot reprocess the waste from this plant.

But the danger of the plant – just think of Fukushima and then think, “Well, it possibly couldn’t happen in America. We’re immune to those things, we’re too sophisticated to ever let that happen in the United States,” and then look at the disasters that happen almost on a daily basis.

What I do not think is true is that this technology of fracked gas is a cleaner transition technology to renewables. It is not. It is only cleaner if you do not include in the process of burning this fuel and releasing the millions of tons of carbon dioxide, if you do not include all the methane release, all the release of radon and other nuclear elements – U235, 236, 237, the ultra-fine particulate matter. In other words, it is not clean taken in aggregate. It is sold as clean.


C&S: Why did you feel the issue was important enough to get arrested?

JC: We’re a small, little community. We got into this fairly late. The process was already mostly handled. When the town council had hearings and people spoke up against it they were told to shut up and sit down. The whole process was rigged from the beginning. Permits have already been issued except for the use of 400,000 gallons of greywater every day in order to cool the plant, although they have the right to invade our only sole-source aquifer to get more water. So here we are, a small group of people looking to get a little attention while the pipeline issue goes on, the fracking issue goes on. They don’t pay attention to the fracking movement any longer. I was on the telephone call the public advisory board restated their report that there was no widespread systemic pollution of the water and the air through fracking. To hear the testimony of people that live near these fracking fields is god-awful. And it’s happening and will continue to happen all over the country. This is just the beginning.

These wonderful corporations who make money will turn this country so that it looks the way that New Jersey used to look back when I was a kid. And you had to close the windows on your car to drive through a wasteland. A foul, polluting wasteland of what was New Jersey right outside of New York. They have no concern. They vacation in Switzerland. I don’t know where they go, but they’ll turn this beautiful Hudson Valley – which is the home of the Hudson Valley School of painters – they’ll turn this from a green zone into a brown zone, which now allows other corporations to come in that are polluting, that produce products of no value to the community simply as a way to make money because they situate their factories here and destroy this entire valley.


C&S: What drew you to Orange County?

JC: I’ve been here now about three or four years. I came because there was a very beautiful woman and I fell in love with her and decided to marry her. I’ve known her for a long time and she’s a resident of this community for over 20 years and the place where we live is as close to paradise as I’ve ever been. I can’t imagine a sweeter place to be, and I just am sick that it is being destroyed by this industry and that they have absolutely no concern about the people who live here.


C&S: You were supportive of the Black Panther Party back in the 1960s and you’ve been involved in activism your whole career. What do you think of the modern Black Lives Matter movement? Are they picking up the Black Panther Party’s legacy?

JC: Yep. A better philosophy, it seems to me. Although the panthers were great, and what they did in the community, which was never reported, was very important to the community. They had to be as militant as they were because of the struggle of what they were up against. Very few white people realize the extent of the suppression and occupation of the black community. So when they said the police are an army of occupation in the black community, people thought, “are you kidding?” And now, from what happens almost every day, daily, people are beginning to understand that it isn’t simply a question of policemen accidentally shooting a nine-year-old boy. It is a daily assault on the lives of all people of color in their communities by a force of occupation whose purpose is to keep them in check in case they should rise up and protest the racism and the exclusion from what this country offers anybody who’s white. I think the Black Lives Matter people have got it. I love their confrontation of the candidates. I don’t think any candidate has really responded as succinctly and as clearly and as openly as they should. And I applaud them. I think they’re great. They’re the vanguard of the revolution that is coming. And it is a revolution. The paradigm shift will be a revolution and they are right at the forefront.


C&S: You’re so involved with radical politics, but many of your characters are very much a part of the establishment. You’ve played George Bush, Andrew Mellon, an NYPD captain, Prince Phillip—is it odd for you to play them when you personally don’t buy into that system?

JC: It’s interesting, nobody thought of me for any of those parts until “Babe,” where I received an Academy Award nomination as a pig farmer. The film that came out directly after “Babe,” I played Dudley Smith in “L.A. Confidential,” this incredibly corrupt cop. And I think Hollywood couldn’t find out “who is he? Is he a blue-collar farmer or is he this white-collar corrupt cop?” And since they couldn’t find out what part, they stuck me right in the middle playing presidents, bankers, lawyers, etc.

I am a character actor, I think of myself as a middle-class actor but I’m drawn to working-class people. I have been very fortunate that I have played parts like Prince Phillip, like George Bush, in films that definitely take a realistic and somewhat jaundiced view of the characters – at least my characters in those two films. You know, Andrew Mellon is basically responsible for our drug war and actually his financial policies contributed, even as this late date, to our financial crisis. And since I was educated at Carnegie Mellon, I thought it was only appropriate that I should try to portray this – I want to call him a jackanape because that’s what we used to call them (laughs). So I try and bring some humanity to the people that I play, and I try to do it in such a way that the audience doesn’t get sucked in and that they can see that the things that the character does are not necessarily the best choices that they could make and that there are other choices available. And hopefully it will inspire the audience to make other choices.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.