James Cromwell believes the American public ultimately knows little about the relationship between George Herbert Walker Bush and his eldest son. That lack of knowledge allowed him to play the elder president in Oliver Stone’s “W.” as a concerned father, more than a familiar politician.
“They can’t really make judgments about whether the performance is accurate except, do they understand the various dilemmas and do they empathize?” he says.
In Stone’s film, that amounted to communicating a patriarch’s worry for a straying son whose indiscretions were threatening a dynasty, an emotional palette that had more to do with family dynamics than politics.
“Bush is only a politician to us citizens who don’t experience these people privately. As a son, his father is a politician only tangentially. You want to believe he’s a human, that he has feelings, regrets and desires.”
Cromwell has long been associated with far-left politics, and he says Stone — no stranger to antagonizing the right himself — was initially concerned it would interfere with the performance.
“It’s very difficult to play a character you can’t respect,” he says, “but I don’t think the performance denigrates him in any way. I certainly don’t mean to. A lot of people seem to appreciate that the conceit of the film is that the policies and decisions made in the White House are to some extent framed within the context of a relationship with a father.”
From his research and talking to Stone, Cromwell got the notion that George H.W. Bush, himself the son of a powerful father, had been raised to discount feelings. It lends a strangely affecting poignancy to the moment when Cromwell’s Bush chokes up in a televised interview over the intense criticism leveled at his son’s leadership abilities.
“My opinion was that he’s cut off from his emotions, so that when they come up on him, he has no control over them and he becomes absolutely inarticulate and distraught,” Cromwell explains.
He was never more aware of the differences in his and Josh Brolin’s Bush junior than the ballfield scene where they walk together.
“I didn’t work on the walk, but what I liked about it and didn’t even consider is that he looks off-balance and frail and vulnerable, as opposed to his son,” says Cromwell. “Sometimes what’s best is what happens spontaneously on the set.”
Coming attractions Cromwell will co-star in “A Lonely Place for Dying” and “Flying Into Love,” the latter for first-time director Chris Raymond. In “Flying,” which examines the Kennedy assassination from different perspectives, the actor will once again play a president: Lyndon B. Johnson.