Actor James Cromwell’s defense of his ethical vegan lifestyle is unapologetic, unabashed, and indefatigable. Mostly, though, it is genuine—a palpably authentic stance that stays with you long after the tallest man ever to be nominated for an Academy Award leaves the room.
“They’re not pets,” says Cromwell of domesticated dogs and cats. “ ‘Pets’ has the connotation that we’re a superior species and they are an inferior species…they are companion animals, hopefully, if they choose to be. We certainly do not own them.”
Most recently seen on the silver screen as a devoted chauffeur in The Artist, Cromwell says that he has used his veganism “as a way of trying to raise the level of conscious awareness about the system that is in place that is so inimitable to our survival and the survival of this planet.”
TakePart sat down with Cromwell for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from his recent foray into the world of racehorse advocacy to why he believes that adopting a meatless appetite begins by understanding Shakespeare.
TakePart: You’ve been a vegetarian since the mid-1970s but became an ethical vegan in 1995. Why the upgrade?
James Cromwell: I was doing a picture in Australia called Babe, working with a lot of animals and animal trainers. I cared about their welfare and then of course you have lunch and it’s all there in front of you, and I thought I should go the whole hog, so to speak. So I made that decision and kept that during the shooting. When I came back, I got involved with PETA, and of course the film opened and it was very successful. [PETA] was doing a program to save pigs that were raised by schoolchildren in the Four-H program. At the end of the school year—in which the kids had learned about pigs and fed and taken care of them—the pigs were slaughtered. So when the kids came back in the beginning of the school year, there were no more pigs. So I get involved in that, and that led to narrating some footage on the factory farm system, especially around pigs. Then it went to chickens, and then I got involved with an organization called Farm Sanctuary.
What I understood from becoming a vegetarian in 1975 is that it didn’t happen overnight, although the inciting event was very dramatic. I went through the feed lots in Texas on my motorcycle for what seemed like an entire day, and I was on either side in pens as far as the eye could see.
TakePart: What would Babe’s Farmer Hoggett say about the shocking anti-factory farming short film you narrated earlier this year, Farm to Fridge?
I think the character I played had an ability to see animals as sentient beings, with as much a destiny and a drive and aspiration as he had. That dichotomy is true of everybody. People eat unconscious of what goes into the making of the food that is in front of them.
I have used my veganism as a way of trying to raise the level of conscious awareness about the system in place that is so inimitable to our survival and the survival of this planet.
TakePart: A few years ago you said: “Making the movie Babe opened my eyes to the intelligence and inquisitive personality of pigs. These highly social animals possess an amazing capacity for love joy and sorrow that makes them remarkably similar to our canine and feline friends.” Why don’t you think that more people own pigs as pets?
James Cromwell: First, I disagree with two of those words—“to own” and “pet.” You can’t own another creature. That concept was developed in 15th and 16th century England and probably other places where they kicked people off the land and created a price structure for everything. That’s where this thing began that everything can be commoditized.
They’re not pets. “Pets” has a connotation that we’re a superior species and they are an inferior species. We’re here to take care of them because they can’t make it on their own. They are companion animals, hopefully, if they choose to be, and we certainly do not own them. Now what was your question?
TakePart: In your opinion, why don’t more people have companion animals that are pigs, living with them?
James Cromwell: We don’t have pigs because people think they’re dirty. It doesn’t fit. It’s not an accessory that is condoned. It seems like it would take too much care, and we don’t know what it needs. We only know that with a dog you just buy something from the grocery store, put it in a bowl, and the dog takes care of itself.
We have factory farming and the destruction of billions of animals here, and then you continue and get more consciousness and get to dogs and cats and get lots and lots of people dog and cat lovers and less and less pigs and parrots and boa constrictors and then wolves and then lions and whatever. It’s just a continuum of consciousness, into how we see ourselves in the world and what we want to have mirrored back to us and how we feel about ourselves in the world, because to deny an animal its right to self-determination, and live out its right to live out its life as it chooses in its natural habitat, that is an aggression; it’s an aggression against the planet and all other sentient beings.
TakePart: Each year, a thousand former racehorses are sent to slaughter plants in Canada and Mexico. You’ve recently tried to stop this by advocating for 360 life-cycle retirement funds. Tell my audience what that is and why it’s important.
James Cromwell: A lot of people don’t understand the nature of horseracing, I didn’t, and I’m not an expert on it. I did a film called Secretariat, and as I was leaving for it, one of my dear friends in the animal movement, Karen Dawn, said to me: “Do you know anything about horseracing?” And I said, “No.” So I started to talk to people, to jockeys mostly.
A horse race has eight, ten, 12 horses in it. You know they’re not all going to win; they don’t ever win. Who owns the losers and what conditions do they live under? What happens to those animals when someone cannot afford to feed them anymore? These animals are abused, neglected, destroyed needlessly. Plus the fact that horseracing itself is incredibly dangerous to the horses and to the jockeys. There are hundreds of hundreds of horses that are destroyed.
My understanding is that it is an opportunity to take these horses that have fulfilled their usefulness and save them from being destroyed. And give them a place to live and rescue them from the abuse that we have put them to.
Farmer Hoggett and his best friend, Babe. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)
TakePart: What is one thing a person can do for five dollars or that takes less than five minutes to fight factory farming?
James Cromwell: If you care about the planet and you care about yourself and your own personal health, and you care about the life you are going to leave your children, it doesn’t take a cent. Start with one meal a day, then up it to one day a week, then one week a month. Work your way into not consuming animals and animal products and inform yourself. It doesn’t take anything at all, and it’s very easy to do.
Then you start to think, “What else?” This process begins your consciousness. It has been this way since the Greeks and Shakespeare: “Know thyself.”