James Cosmo: Story is always more important than scale
The Hollywood actor talks about his Tamil debut with Dhanush-Karthik Subbaraj's Jagame Thanthiram
There were many attractions for veteran Hollywood actor James Cosmo, when he decided to do Jagame Thanthiram (JT)—among them, his love for Indian food. “It is the National food of Scotland, where I grew up. Everyone there loves Indian cuisine. I have it every week and I thought I had sampled it all, but when I came down to Rajasthan, I tried the meals. All I can say is, my family missed out on it!” says James, laughing.
Connecting over a video call from Budapest, Hungary where he's shooting for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, James says he didn’t really know what he was signing up for, when he took on JT. “Things just happen in my career. I have always been fascinated by the process of filmmaking across the globe, and I've worked with actors from America, Europe, Japan… I wish I were able to work in India for a couple of months to get a feel of the place. Nonetheless, it was a great experience,” he adds.
There were rumours that your agent wasn't keen on you doing an Indian film.
The agent always has a better plan, and mine deals with UK and America clients all the time. When JT came around, she asked why I would want to do an Indian film. My reply was, "Why not?" I wanted to know about another industry and how they interpret storytelling. It also gave me the chance to visit India.
Karthik came down to London and met me at my club in Soho. As many Indian directors do, he had written the story himself. He narrated the film shot by shot, from beginning to the end. He also had a storyboard that was quite unlike what we get in the UK—this was detailed and like a work of art. I wanted to buy and frame it on my wall (laughs). I remember thinking that the film would surely look amazing. He had sat on this story for almost four years; it’s very close to him. My character, Peter, is this horrible racist gangster. He's a nasty guy but something within him makes him like the character played by Dhanush. He sees a bit of himself in this other guy and they share this warmth.
How important is this subject of racism in today's world?
Let me tell you a story that I haven't told many people before. A few years ago, I went to a restaurant called Mother India in Glasgow. A middle-aged Indian came up to me and said, "Can I have your order, James?" I thought he recognised me as an actor. He then asked if I didn’t remember him. When I said I didn’t, he identified himself as Vijay from Shish Mahal in Glasgow, a restaurant I used to frequent 30 years ago. Vijay was the main waiter there back then and I used to see him twice a week at least. He surprised me by remembering my home phone number from 30 years ago, from where I would call and place my takeaway orders.
We got to speaking and he said he had just been a waiter all these years. His daughter, I learned, is a cardiologist in Manchester and his son, a surgeon in London. “You are not just a waiter!” I told him. This man who came to my country, has left a legacy that is incalculable. It moved me.
Now that you have worked in the Tamil film industry, how did you find it to be different?
It's more utilitarian and labour-intensive. In the West, technology, to some extent, has separated the actor from the director. Directors today sit in what we now call a video village, with cameras and monitors, and are away from you. In Indian films, it feels more hands-on. The director is very much part of the process. I got treated so well that it was embarrassing sometimes (smiles).
You must have been the big celebrity actor on the sets?
Oh, there’s Dhanush too. He is a lovely young man and we got on really well together. We had a few laughs, and it was great fun. I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing to be the senior actor in the film (laughs). Perhaps being the second or third senior actor might have been better.
Michael Madsen, your co-star from the first Narnia film, made his Indian film debut last year with Silence, and now, you have made your debut as well. Is the distance between all these film industries reducing?
Did he, now? I have another friend who was about to start working in an Indian series, but it has been postponed because of the pandemic. There are so many stories to be told and they are all crying out for collaboration. I'm glad to hear about Michael Madsen; he's a great actor. It's like a door being opened: first, it's one person, and then, another. This is good, not just for the film industries, but also for our countries and cultures.
My favourites in your filmography are your action films: Braveheart, Troy, Ben Hur, and there’s, of course, Game of Thrones. Is action a genre that excites you?
When you are young, big, and strong, you get typecast and it's hard to get out of that (smiles). I'd rather be on a horse for a scene in a film than be in the driving seat of the car. I have enjoyed action films and mythical stories. Joseph Campbell, writer and philosopher, was big into the myth of the hero's journey, which, of course, is now the basis for any story. I have been comfortable with that arc in my films.
With a new prequel series being made for GoT, is there a chance for your character, Jeor Mormont, to return?
(Laughs) I don't think so. I don't know if I want to reprise that part. It was wonderful and a privilege to play that character; he is a man of absolute integrity, honour, courage, and decency. We all need such courageous figures.
In a career spanning more than 50 years, you have done TV shows, films, web series and now, been part of a direct OTT release.
I have seen huge changes since I first entered the industry. I was talking to John Krasinski (actor and director of films like A Quiet Place) about Braveheart and how it has a timeless quality to it. I think an important reason is how it was one of the last films to not rely on CGI; we had 3,500 extras for the battle scenes. In today's industry where video games are being made into films and vice-versa, there's something unworldly... Perhaps they don’t have the same impact. Technology has to be used judiciously.
After finishing Jack Ryan, I will be heading to work in the wilderness for six weeks, with a Finnish director for a project that wouldn't even cost a week's budget of Jack Ryan. But the idea is to tell a story and share the human experience. That is most important.