James Cromwell doesn't care if you call him "the guy from Babe." Sure, he's been killing it lately in American Horror Story, and his performances in The Green Mile and LA Confidential are pretty legendary too. But the 75-year-old actor's life was completely changed by Babe, the story of a talking pig who escapes slaughter when a kindhearted farmer discovers he can herd sheep—a movie released 20 years ago this week.
Not only did Babe become a blockbuster that scored Cromwell an Oscar nomination, and move his headshot to the top of central casting's "Tall, British-Seeming Americans" pile, it was also the movie that made him a vegan.
The factoid is common knowledge: He'd been a somewhat casual vegetarian for years, but on the set of Babe, he had a change of heart.
Somewhat less well known is the fact that he's a really hardcore vegan. He narrated Farm to Fridge, one of those vivid animal rights documentaries that plunge you into the nightmarish, blood-geysering hellscapes of the slaughterhouse floors where America's meat gets created. He was also arrested during a protest against experiments on cats.
We got in touch with the very serious James Cromwell to find out how it feels to have your life completely changed by a movie about a talking pig. He was pretty adamant that Babe is not a kids' movie, and also that animals have unalienable rights that humans need to recognize.
VICE: It's been 20 years since Babe. How does that feel?
James Cromwell: Well, I'm not very good with time, but I suppose I feel it when I try to do some of the things I used to be able to do 20 years ago, and now can't.
Like that dancing scene in Babe?
Yeah, dancing is one of them. You know, it's a truism but it goes a lot faster the further on you get.
Does it bother you that Babe sorta defines your life in a way?
Listen: That film was a turning point in my life and in my career, and in fact, it gave me a career—up until that, I had a careen. So if I can trace back all the many blessings that exist in my life, it all began with that one film. It's been 20 glorious years.
Is it true that you didn't want to play Farmer Hoggett because he didn't talk much and you wanted more lines?
Well, yes, in the sense that when I told my dear friend Charles Keating that I was considering this, he said, "Hey, listen man. It's a free trip to Australia! If the movie stinks, it's the pig's fault. You don't carry the picture. The pig carries the picture!"
So was the shoot as easy as it sounded?
I felt I could just show up. But when I got to Australia, showing up involved, probably up until that point, the most generous and open and communal expression of my work in the industry. I mean, I loved Australia. I loved the director. Magda [Szubanski, who played Farmer Hoggett's wife] was adorable. The crew was great. I felt like, wow, I can just show up every day and enjoy every moment of this, shooting in this beautiful place, and I'm staying in this really nice place, I really like this country.
Tell me a little about the transition from vegetarian to vegan.
I had made the choice to become a vegetarian because I came across the country on my motorcycle and went through the feedlots in Texas for like a whole day, and just said, This really sucks. I can't do it.
Then, was there a particular moment with an animal on the set of Babe that really stands out?
We had a little pig that was brought out for the last scene, during the pig contest. It had gone through the training that all the other little pigs had along the line. When that little pig was put down on that big pitch and saw the blue sky and the green grass and the sea, that pig just took off, and said, I don't want any part of this. I am out. I support that! And it was funny to see all the men in Wellingtons running after a pig.
Wouldn't you say that little moment was the movie in a nutshell?
The film is about what we do to each other by pigeonholing us and other people into certain categories that protect our own sense of entitlement and position and power. The little pig questions that and finds a receptive consciousness in Farmer Hoggett.
Does Farmer Hoggett, in your opinion, eventually come to vegetarianism or veganism?
Well, in real life, Farmer Hoggett did!
What's the moment when Farmer Hoggett makes the switch?
The moment when he feels he has made a snap judgment—that the pig is somehow responsible for the dogs getting in and killing his sheep. He doesn't even know about the dogs. He thinks that Babe has done this. So he gets his shotgun out and he is going to shoot the pig. At that moment, something intervenes and he withholds it. He has the opportunity to readjust his point of view and learn something. Farmer Hoggett's consciousness and our consciousness—if you'll allow yourself to take the time—will arrive at the same conclusion: that we have no right to usurpation of another sentient being's destiny for our own needs and self-interests.
So he's a vegetarian when we see him in Babe: Pig in the City! Why'd that movie vanish? I think it's great.
[Babe Director] Chris Noonan's gentleness, evenness, and that love informs Babe. That's why those two films are so different. And that's why the second one—although it's a wonderful film—[Babe: Pig in the City Director George Miller]'s personality, and the antipathy that he created in the higher echelons of the industry, led to that film being obliterated, just obliterated.
I've known plenty of people who went vegetarians after they watched Babe, and people make fun of them because it's a kids' movie—
No, I disagree with you there. It is a movie shot in such a way that kids can relate to those characters, and do what adults do: project their imaginations onto the characters that they see, and to imbue those characters with the aspirations that they themselves feel. Kids can do that at four, but the sophistication of Babe is that it analyzes, in parable form, the circumstances that people find themselves in when people are prejudiced against them.
In terms of persuading people, what would you say is the difference between your slaughterhouse documentary Farm to Fridge and Babe?
If you feel that there is a pressing need for people to understand the culture that they live in, and its cost to other beings, then you have to sort of whack them over the head. You have to show things that they really don't want to see because people don't feel that a subtler approach is efficacious. Babe is understood by children and dismissed. It was trivialized as a pig movie for children. How dare they put this film up for Best Film, and this actor up for Best Supporting? This is a children's film! Well, they miss the entire point because they're so jaded. Those people, you have to rub their noses in it and then you can say, OK, now let's forgive each other and now let's talk about it.
Do you have 20 years worth of pessimism about this stuff?
What makes me doubtful is the corporate mentality bred by a financial and economic system that puts profits before people, and creates—in the people that work for them—the very narrow, limited, inhumane routine. And that they are stuck in it.
Has anything made you optimistic?
There's so much evidence of the rise of consciousness! Just the fact that I can go to restaurants now and say "I'm a vegan," and have the chef say at one of the best restaurants in New York "Great!" and fix me this extraordinary meal.
Could there be more Babe movies?
[Original author] Dick King-Smith wrote 75 other stories about pigs. I had one that Chris told me about where a future relative of Farmer Hoggett has this pig and he takes it to a bar and they drink beer together. He gets in the newspaper and somebody calls him and says, "Oh, you should come to Sydney and get on television." And while the pig is on television drinking beer and everybody is laughing and having fun, the pig opens his mouth and talks to human beings and, of course, they're poleaxed. But the fact that none of these get made, that there isn't a Babe 3 and 4 and 5, and yet you have Halloween 15...?
I'd love to see a Babe 3.
Oh! It would be great. If you get George Miller to produce it and write it, and Chris Noonan to direct, it would be something.
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