As this reporter can tell you firsthand, the story led to some newsroom debate about whether Cromwell, 82, is better known for his role in “Babe” or “Succession” (or even “L.A. Confidential”). It also led to conversations surrounding the Starbucks policy, the upsides of nondairy products and Cromwell’s history of activism, which dates back to the civil rights movement. He took up animal rights as a cause in the 1970s and became vegan after shooting “Babe,” a 1995 Oscar-nominated film about an orphaned pig.
‘Babe’ star James Cromwell superglues hand to Starbucks counter
We caught up with the actor on Wednesday in a brief phone call to ask why he feels so passionate about the issue and how he thinks those so inclined can help out.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: So nice to speak to you. How are you doing today? How’s the reaction been [to your protest at Starbucks]?
A: The reaction seems quite incredible. It’s great because I think it’s an important issue. Not the surcharge, but everything behind the surcharge: the thinking, the corporate mentality, the hypocrisy, the exclusionary policies. Everything that’s going on with Starbucks is sort of exemplified in their corporate policy of charging more for something that is really just an option.
Q: I’d love to hear more about why this is an important issue, and if there is a particular reason you decided to do this yesterday.
A: I did it because [PETA] asked, and I think it’s an exceptional organization, exemplary, and if I can contribute that way, I know I’m really addressing something of importance. They don’t do things slapdash. There’s a lot of thought and planning that goes into it. It was effortless, didn’t offend anyone. The staff understood, and they continued [working]. And we got our point across.
Q: What do you think your average person doesn’t quite understand about the issue that you wish they did. I’m sure there’s a lot of misconceptions and general ignorance out there. What would you like people to know?
A: Well, I think it would be unfortunate if the framing of the action was around the fact that Starbucks charges an extra amount for, basically, people who are lactose intolerant. Ninety-five percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant. Eighty percent of African Americans and American Indians are lactose intolerant.
They don’t charge [an extra fee] in the U.K. and they don’t charge in most places in France. … If they don’t charge in those places, how are they charging in America, is the question. … It’s definitely hypocritical. If they say they are for diversity, if they say they are for inclusion, then excluding people who need a nondairy cream because [lactose] makes them ill seems to be disingenuous.
I think the larger issue is animal agriculture at an industrial [scale], and trying to get people to understand that the reason cows produce milk is the same reason that humans produce milk, which is to feed their young. Except that the young of any dairy cow is taken from the mother almost immediately. The females are either slaughtered or are raised to produce other dairy cows, and the males are often turned into veal. Which means within a day they are taken away and put in a little stall and they stay there for up to 18 months, or they can, and they’re fed a diet low in iron. And then the dairy cow itself is reinseminated.
These cows actually have feelings for their offspring. They grieve. They express that. They even weep. … In other words, you have a sentient being struggling to reassert its dignity and its primacy and its individuality, and you have a mechanism that treats them as though they are property.
I think the larger issue is the treatment of dairy cows in an industrial context is inhumane and is deleterious to the planet. These animals require an incredible amount of water. They produce more of smog-inducing chemicals than a car over a period of a day. They produce 18 pounds of manure, which seeps down from the waste pools and pollutes the streams and lakes and drinking water.
The whole system, by the way, is subsidized by the federal government to cover any shortfalls. Nobody does that to a car dealership: If you don’t sell your quota of cars, the federal government steps in and says, “Oh, that’s all right. We’ll buy all the cars and make it right with you.”
Q: You have a long history of activism and fighting for causes. … How do you keep going? How do you look at this massive issue that people aren’t paying attention to, and that a lot of people who aren’t particularly sympathetic to, and feel you can make a difference?
A: Yesterday, after the action, the man who sat next to me on the counter and glued his hands to the counter told me about his organization called LION, which is on Long Island [and works to save] avian birds and other animals. And the amount of wins that he has had to force them to stop slaughtering Canada geese and ducks that escape from the live market … everywhere there are wins we don’t hear about.
[On the other hand] there are people who are involved in the environmental movement who are incensed at the apathy and ignorance and disinformation that surrounds that issue. They’re very concerned, and then they go out and eat meat! I always say, “Hey, try to get your principles aligned. If you’re for the environment, you can’t go be unconscious when you start filling your stomach up. You have to think there’s a consequence to the way I eat.” There’s a consequence because it’s a manifestation of the system that we live under and the system we live under has created the problem that we’re ultimately going to have to deal with or it is going to destroy us.
I don’t change anybody. People change themselves. … Because of my limited celebrity, I get a chance to have a microphone put [in front of me] or do an interview with you, and I try to speak for ordinary people who don’t realize that every gesture, every thought, every feeling, every action that they take makes a difference. We all make a difference. That’s the empowerment that we need if we’re going to change the world, if we’re going to have a world to change.
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Q: To bring it back to yesterday, what would you hope people do? If someone wants to take action today, what can they do?
A: In the small term, just demand Starbucks that they not charge extra. … They should provide the alternative for free. That seems like a small thing to do.
They can also try to be vegan for a day, just one day and see how it goes, see how they feel. See even if they feel a deprivation because they don’t have what they usually do. [Or] do they feel better because they’re making a difference, because that does have an effect on the numbers of animals killed. That’s how to save a life. That’s how to make a difference.