The tinkling sounds of a piano ring tone go off just as James Cromwell and I sit down in the lobby of his Streeterville high-rise. He has recently relocated to Chicago, where he is filming the new ABC drama "Betrayal," set to debut this fall. On the line is his assistant. "She was making sure I wasn't still upstairs watching the Tour de France," he says.
Are you generally into sports, I ask? "No, but I used to cycle competitively. I used to play tournament tennis too, but there wasn't going to be a future in that." Also in the "used to" column: marathons. "But running hurt like nobody's business."
He has brought his bike to Chicago, however, and intends to use it despite his assistant's pleas to the contrary.
"She's worried because I like going fast and I yell at cars and I do terrible things. I'm really asocial on the bike." I tell him about the frequent dodging and weaving of cyclists on the lakefront path that can often make for dicey goings. "Ah, sounds like my kind of place," he says. "Don't tell the production company."
For the bulk of his early career, Cromwell was primarily a creature of television, where he remains a regular presence — "Six Feet Under," "24," "American Horror Story," "Boardwalk Empire" and now "Betrayal." He didn't get many film roles until 1995 with his Oscar-nominated performance in "Babe" as the Most Endearing Farmer Ever. As unlikely a movie as they come to generate a catchphrase — "That'll do, pig. That'll do"— I was always partial to that brief moment, which you can find on YouTube, of Cromwell gently coaxing the little guy to feed from a bottle.
He plays a different sort of farmer in his latest film "Still Mine," a small indie out of Canada. Set against a seductively undeveloped landscape, it is based on the true story of Craig Morrison, a self-sufficient, Ron Swanson type in his late 80s who finds his plans to build a cottage for himself and his wife, without help from contractors, stymied by red tape and local officials. His neighbors and adult children — wry, stoic, eyebrows perpetually knit— have doubts of their own. "If you cut your hand off with a circular saw in a fit of geriatric stupidity," his son quietly jokes as he accedes to the old man's project, "my sisters, my wife, they're not going to let me forget about that."
At 73, Cromwell doesn't look much different these days than he did in "Babe." He is still long and lean, his body language looser than that of the characters he tends to play.
"Still Mine" is a reminder that he is unique among actors for his gaze — directed at his co-stars, be they pig or human — and capturing the look of a man utterly smitten. "I have always defined character actors as the guys who don't get the girl," he says. "You don't often get a chance to express that side of yourself. The romantic side. And in this film I do. The story is really their love relationship and his effort to protect it."
Cromwell's droll, stubborn performance is reason alone to see "Still Mine." As an actor, he tends to generate that kind of response. "James! Hi!" a passer-by yells to us at one point during the interview. "You don't know me but I love your work!"
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: When I try to explain "Betrayal's" complicated infidelity/murder trial/family dynasty premise to people, I usually just give up and tell them "James Cromwell is in it" and suddenly they're interested. I wonder if ABC is underestimating you as a draw, because you're barely in the three-minute teaser.
A: Barely, yes! I don't think they know I'm in it!
Q: I have a hard time getting my head around show's narrative, so why don't you explain it.
A: From my point of view, of course, it's about a patriarch of a family. But from the network's point of view? It's a story of a love relationship that involves infidelity on both parts, which is a betrayal of something. I am the adoptive father of one of the participants, the male, he's a lawyer and sort of my consigliere — this is very confusing, isn't it? I play a real estate magnate. I build high-rises and developments, and because this is Chicago — although if I was a Chicagoan, I might object to this — there's always something going on underneath, some kind of politics, somebody gets their back scratched.
It's very confusing. Soap operas are like that, ya know? I can tell you about "King Lear" in three words, but this one, you sort of have to say "it's a little of this, a little of that." It's based on a successful series on Dutch television ("Overspel") that's been playing three years, so obviously the story has an arc that the network and writers are aware of. I haven't seen it, I don't know. The producers told me that it's a Lear story, but I think the focus is going to be on the younger people — the very attractive ladies and the very attractive men doing what attractive people do. And then there's this old guy, and I'm the old guy.
Q: You'll be living here for the next several months, maybe longer if the show is successful. Where is home when you're not shooting a film or TV series?
A: I'm sort of transitioning out of LA and into the East Coast. It's a place called Warwick, NY. I would say "War-wick"; they pronounce it "Wor-rick." It's about an hour and 45 minutes north of New York City. It's a small little town, and it just happens that my lady lives there and she has a house, so we're trying to figure out how we can be together in this most peculiar of all professions. It's very rural. Onion fields. So lots of farms.
I'm looking for any excuse to get out of LA. I think it's dysfunctional. It's not for me. It's a huge place with a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I live with mostly, almost the have-nots. I live in the Russian-Jewish section, which is West Hollywood. Perfectly nice. Nice little California bungalows. I live in somebody's guest house. It's small. My entire house is no bigger than this lobby we're in now.
Q: Do you watch a lot of TV?
A: No, none. Not network. I actually don't watch cable either. My life is really full and I know there are wonderful series like "Breaking Bad," but I just think the form of network television mitigates against it being, to me, satisfying. And I am allergic to commercials. I know you can have DVRs and zip through them. I prefer, if I was to watch "Breaking Bad," to rent it and watch it all in one sitting.