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The pig changed my life

After starring in Babe, James Cromwell has gone on to make a career out of being one of the great odd-looking actors of his age. He returns to a rural idyll for his latest movie role, as Jane Austen's father.

James Cromwell. His might not quite be a household name, but the rest of him is fairly unforget?table -- lanky, 6'7" (2m) frame, with almost comically dolorous facial features. When Cromwell unsuccessfully auditioned opposite Dudley Moore for a role in 10, director Blake Edwards said, "What am I supposed to do with that?"

Cromwell went on to become one of the great odd-looking actors of his age, delivering with utter conviction such unpromising lines as "That'll do, pig" (to the intrepid sheep-pig in Babe) or "Move over, Cabbage" (to his regal bedmate in The Queen).

He was so convincing as Babe's gruff Farmer Hoggett that for ages I thought he was Australian. "You and a lot of other people," comes the serene reply down the line from New York. As a veteran protester against pretty much everything and an animal-rights stalwart who was once arrested while demonstrating outside Wendy's, he has been called worse.

Babe was a life-changing experience. "It gave me a career. Up to then, I had a careen." He's referring to the pinball momentum that produced a CV full of motel clerks, priests and aliens. Movie role highlight before Babe: Mr Skolnik in Revenge of the Nerds.

Things had been bleak. "I got so lost in Hollywood that I quit and went back to New York and theatre." His actress stepmother put him up. "She was so courageous, so dedicated, so generous that it cured me." Back in LA, his agent mentioned a film about a pig in Australia. "I said, 'I'm not doing anything. Yeah, I'll go look.' And that was Babe."

Thus Cromwell became the tallest nominee in Oscars history, and a vegan. "After the film's success, organisations started approaching me to do animal-rights work, saving pigs from the cruel treatments of the factory-farm system." A chat with Cromwell is only ever a beat away from a sermon. "If you love animals, don't eat 'em. That became my watchword!"

Career highlights since Babe: a scary turn as a corrupt cop in LA Confidential and improbably pukka roles as Prince Philip in The Queen and Jane Austen's father in the upcoming Becoming Jane. On television he has played the troubled George Sibley in Six Feet Under and Jack Bauer's dad in 24. All of which have given him new things to speak out about, from 24's role in fostering American post-9/11 paranoia to the anti-royalty atmosphere on the set of The Queen. He's fired off letters to Her Majesty, berating her for allowing bear fur to be used on guards' hats.

He does get taken for a weirdo. "Somebody on Time Warner the other day asked me if I save my waste. He says, 'I hear you're vegan and save your waste in a box.' I said, 'I beg your pardon?' I'm live on air! Are you nuts?'" But no one can accuse Cromwell of being a cause-of-the-week poster boy. At 67, he's old enough to have seen his film-director father, John Cromwell, blacklisted. In the 60s he took part in an integrated version of Waiting for Godot in Mississippi, risking more than a bad review. He sounds like he was an angry young man. "I still am."

But he's worked a lot of things out, thanks to a dogged disposition and a penchant for personal growth. He says he owes his life to Werner Erhard and his Est seminars. "And when I got completely lost in the 70s and hitch-hiked around the world, I was lucky enough to find my teacher in India."

Just as well, perhaps, that career recognition came late. "I would have been a disaster if I'd been a success earlier on. I didn't have any sense of balance. I was very reactive," he recalls, with an audible shudder. "Oh boy, the anger would come out. I had this chip on my shoulder, in fact almost a log on my shoulder ... it frightened a lot of people away."

These days his anger is channelled into bad-guy roles and his causes. He doesn't think his non-conformity has made him unpopular. Although "I notice I don't do many films with the same director," he muses. "I don't know what that's about."

If he's fallen short of anyone's expectations, it's his own. He was once asked to front a campaign to save some Californian wetlands in an area where DreamWorks was planning to build a studio. "That was the only time I flinched in my political career." Under pressure from his ex-wife and worried friends, he declined. "The person who took my place instantaneously was Martin Sheen, who did it with such joy and laughter and good humour - he didn't get arrested but they were kicked off. It didn't affect Martin."

Given the radical politics, playing Prince Philip must have been a stretch. "I know he puts his foot in his mouth," says Cromwell affectionately, as I hoot in agreement from the colonies. "He does, terribly. On the other hand, no one walks in those shoes, two steps behind his wife. This man who had talents and aspirations and dreams and training and a life was turned into a factotum."

As for Becoming Jane, Cromwell struggled again with the upper-crust vowels. "That dialect is an accommodation about their entire lives. You have to spend time to be able to do it properly." But he enjoyed the character. "I loved his compassion and support of Jane."

In a movie that portrays Jane Austen as an amorous minx (!), Cromwell was under-utilised. It was his superb George Sibley in Six Feet Under that really showed his talent. Not that he was entirely happy with that experience. He thought for once he was the regular guy who got the girl. "It was naïve of me not to understand that a nice guy is not particularly dramatic," he admits. "Now as I step back from it I realise that my marriage was falling to pieces. Then I would go to work and my marriage at work was falling to pieces. I conflated the two and it got me really confused. Otherwise I think I would have been able to handle it. Every week it was a curve ball and I whiffed on a lot of them."

George "It's perfectly normal to live in a bomb shelter!" Sibley. He was kind, pedantic, increasingly paranoid. A bit of a nut. There's no easy way to ask: James, was George based on you? "Oh absolutely!" cries Cromwell obligingly. "They knew what I had done and stood for and then they exaggerated it and found the flaw." The character is, after all, an abstraction. "What's interesting is the journey from where they are and who they think they are to where they wind up and who they become."

Indeed. Speaking of which, what does he make of recent bizarre actor meltdowns? "Celebrity does not necessarily hide a character flaw. If you get in a situation where you have either the power that Mel Gibson has or the desperation that Michael Richards has, because he can't make his career go the way he wants it to go; when you are put under pressure, often that underlying flaw exposes itself." It can be unexamined racism, sexism, whatever. "We all have them and we deal with them. You just hope you don't do it in public. You hope you do it with your therapist, with your partner, in the privacy of your own room. We've all got demons."

And last, the only character Cromwell still yearns to play? "Lear. I want to do it in a certain way because I'm powerful and I have a powerful concept and I need two people to take me on." You can only hope he gets the chance. A good man battling his demons, driven to distraction, railing into the wind - he'd be brilliant.

BECOMING JANE opens in New Zealand on May 31