James Cromwell and Star Trek seem to go hand-in-hand. The Oscar-winning actor is a five-time Star Trek guest star, as he portrayed Prime Minister Nayrok in The Next Generation hour “The Hunted,” Jaglom Shrek in the TNG two-parter “Birthright,” Minister Hanok in the Deep Space Nine installment “Starship Down” and Zefram Cochrane first in Star Trek: First Contact and again when he turned up, briefly and uncredited, in the Enterprise pilot, “Broken Bow.” He also appeared, in archive footage, in the Enterprise episode “In a Mirror, Darkly.” But the connections don’t stop there. His ex-wife, Julie Cobb, guest starred as Yeoman Thompson in the TOS episode “By Any Other Name,” while their daughter, Rosemary Morgan, played Piri in “The Chute” episode of Voyager. And we won’t even get into the many other fascinating overlaps, which include his working with William Shatner on Barbary Coast and with Genevieve Bujold, who, for a minute, played Captain Janeway before ceding the role to Kate Mulgrew, on Still Mine.
Cromwell’s current project is The Promise, a film that depicts the Armenian genocide and its deeply personal toll. The story follows the intersecting lives of an American reporter (Christian Bale), an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac) and a worldly Armenian woman (Charlotte Le Bon), as they engage in a love triangle amidst the final, brutal days of the Ottoman Empire. Cromwell tackles a key supporting role as a real-life figure, Ambassador Henry Morgenthau. The film opens today, and StarTrek.com sat down with Cromwell, a most-thoughtful and tall figure, earlier this week at a New York City hotel. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation, he talked about his career, The Promise, other upcoming films and his Trek work.
Your credits span more than 50 years. When you started out, what were your aspirations? Did you want to be a star, did you want to be a working actor, or maybe something in between?
Stardom is something that I don’t even conceive of. I’m a character actor. I would like to play leading roles. I think I could play leading roles, but I was never offered that opportunity until very recently. My father started in the theater in 1910. My stepmother was in the Group Theatre, and my mother was an actress in New York. I believed in the theater. I was trained to be a theater director. I got into acting because getting work as a director was very difficult. So, I considered acting a job. I did my job. I learned to do it the best I could, and I love it, but I never – and I still don’t, to this day — take it all very seriously, because I know that people are influenced by a star-making machine, which has nothing to do with the work that I do.
Star Trek has come in and out of your life several times over the years, and it somehow became a bit of a family affair…
It has. My ex-wife was on The Original Series and my daughter, Rosie, was on another Trek show.
Right. Rosie had the makings of a very nice actress, and her mother was a wonderful actress, so it’s not surprising to me at all. I enjoyed my experiences, but I have to be honest and tell you they were a long time ago and they’ve kind of blurred together, though I do have some vivid memories of First Contact. So, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember all the details.
Your first appearance was as Nayrok in “The Hunted”…
I’d played the head of some planet, I remember…
Yes, you were the Prime Minister of Angosia III and you had a very prominent mustache.
Right, I did (laughs), but it’s the episodes with the makeup that have stayed in my mind.
Which brings us to “Birthright, Part I and II,” in which you played Jaglom Shrek.
Michael Westmore and his team loved that makeup. Creating that look, it was so involved. The life mask was a very odd sensation because it wasn’t quite as quick-drying as it is now. So, it took a lot more time, and I was breathing through a straw in my nose. And then the making of the mask, and then the… how meticulously it has to be glued when it’s put on, so that the face itself can still move. Then, what hair I had, they curled it up and put a pin in there, and it was very tight. After about, oh, I don’t know, five or six hours, man, it’s like somebody is taking your head, and they have it like this (he gnarls his fingers), like squeezing it in a vise. It was very intense. But it was a great look.
A couple of years later, you were back in front of Michael Westmore to play Minister Hanok in the DS9 episode “Starship Down”…
That was another crazy makeup, with the long nose, and I worked with Armin Shimerman. Armin, bless his heart. I just remember how much I enjoyed working with him, because I think he’s a lot of fun, and he loved that character.
Next, you played Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact. Apparently, you auditioned for the role after Tom Hanks was unable to play the character due to another commitment.
I was not aware of that. Is that true? Tom Hanks? All I know is I had a delightful time. They were very supportive of me. I really enjoyed Jonathan (Frakes). I allowed myself to have as much fun as I possibly could with that character. I loved his cowardice and his way of avoiding everything, and he was a delight to play. The film was very successful, and I am always amazed by the intensity of the loyalty of the people who enjoy Star Trek. It’s amazing.
How did they rope you in again for Enterprise, when you made your cameo as Cochrane in “Broken Bow,” the pilot?
I’ll be danged. I don’t remember a freaking thing about it. My attention now, lately, has been on so many other things besides the work. The work, it comes and it’s nice, and I don’t have to make as much of effort as I did before Babe to get work, so I tend to sort of do them as well as I can and then walk away. The continuity of my life is really my politics.
Photo Credit: Jose Haro Copyright: © 2016 Survival Pictures. All Rights Reserved
Your politics and life as an actor really seem to intersect with your latest film, The Promise. Why did you want to be a part of this project?
It’s important to me, first of all, to do something that has an element of truth in it, that educates and informs, and hopefully inspires instead of just entertains. And I’m really pleased to play such an extraordinary part as the ambassador, because he’s extraordinary.
Heading into The Promise, how much did you know about the Armenian genocide and about Ambassador Morgenthau’s role in the events that transpired?
I knew a lot about the genocide itself. I didn’t know very much about Morgenthau, so I was delighted to learn, and I was incredibly impressed. I think he should probably have a movie of his own. There’s a scene in the movie where he’s asked by Talaat Pasha, “Why are you, a Jew, so interested in what’s happening to Christians?” But of course, Jews are noted for that, because they went through so much, and he had helped people who had suffered in the pogroms, and did so later in Poland. So, I’m impressed with his courage, his compassion and his outrage at what he saw, and how he persisted in trying to get Wilson and the administration to support the Armenians. I think Wilson’s hands were tied, the same way they were in getting into the first World War, by… interestingly enough, apropos of today, a Republican legislature that was isolationist and reactive, and totally and completely unhelpful.
Photo Credit: Jose Haro Copyright: © 2016 Survival Pictures. All Rights Reserved
How satisfying is it that, A, this movie actually got made, and B, that it will have a chance to be seen on a big screen?
Well, the purpose of the industry is to make money. The way to make money is to repeat what you did before, which made money, to have as little imagination as possible put into the thematic content. They’re just vehicles for CGI, explosions and mindless entertainment that confuses and disempowers people. So, Hollywood doesn’t want to take a chance that any subject it might bring up with some importance and shine light on would offend some ticket-buyer somewhere, and that they might lose the $15. That’s anathema, and they don’t do it. So, I am very happy this movie was produced.
Another reason why I’m happy this movie was made is that we don’t acknowledge our genocides. People say this was the first genocide of the 20th century, but when you think about what Leopold did in Belgium, that’s completely unknown in this country. Somebody said, “Well, where did Belgium, where did Western Europe get all their money?” They got it from basically pillaging Africa. Not only that, the slave trade, the gold that came out of South America, and then slavery, and diamonds, and whatever else, rubber, and everything that came out of Congo and Africa, that’s where Europe became the powerhouse that it was, because it looted every place else. And part of that looting, of course, is that you develop techniques of dividing people. The Belgians began it, but the Germans completed it, about setting the Hutus against the Tutsi. They arbitrarily chose the Tutsi because they were tall and the Hutus because they were short, and started what turned out to be the Rwandan genocide. We continue to repeat our history until we learn from it, and you only learn from it when it’s presented to you, and you must confront it and make a choice.
So, what’s next for you?
Marshall is done, and it’ll come out in October. I play the judge in a court case that Thurgood Marshall was involved in. He was not allowed to question witnesses or make statements or anything, so he had to just go through the local lawyer, and it’s when he was, of course, one of the lawyers at the NAACP, just a couple of years before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. I’m also doing the next Jurassic Park movie. We’re halfway through that. I’m playing the continuation of the Richard Attenborough part, because Mr. Attenborough, Sir Richard, is no longer with us. So, I’m playing his partner, who developed the process of cloning. And there are ramifications. That’s all I can say. And I have this production of Lear, King Lear, that I want to do. I’m getting close to the age he’s supposed to be. I have two directors in Canada, one to shoot it, and the other one to direct the actors. And, by God, I hope we raise the money and do this bloody thing as a film. It’s on my bucket list.
To learn more about The Promise, visit http://thepromise.movie/