Russell Crowe interview: The goose flesh test
RUSSELL Crowe has held down a number of different jobs in his time. He's been a busker, a bartender, a waiter, a bingo-caller and a horse-wrangler. Now, it seems, he is trying his hand as a mountaineer – metaphorically, at least. The 45-year-old actor is taking on the responsibilities of a producer on Robin Hood, Sir Ridley Scott's forthcoming film of the famous British myth, and he has faced a stack of problems which, at times, appeared insurmountable. The filmmakers struggled to settle on a satisfactory script and shooting has already been delayed by several months, at considerable cost.
"I feel like I am at the base of Everest and we are looking up," he begins. "I know if we take it one ridge at a time we'll eventually finish the shoot and, hopefully, if we keep focused it will be worthwhile."
Similarly, on the upcoming film State Of Play, Crowe faced another mountain, stepping into director Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of the popular BBC mini-series late in the day when Brad Pitt, who was originally playing the part of journalist Cal McAffrey, pulled out.
"I was not predisposed to do this film at all, in any way shape or form," says Crowe. "I was back in Australia. The sun was shining. I was looking forward to a very long summer at home and I got a call from the studio. They said Brad Pitt had gone and would I please look at this project.
"I read the script, and I have a rule that I've had ever since I was a kid: if I have a physical reaction, if I get goose-bumps, if a tear comes to my eye, then that's the project that I have to do. It's being respectful of the gods of film. That's the reason I got into the job in the first place."
This rule has paid dividends, with Crowe making a succession of smart choices that have showcased his striking versatility. He has built a reputation for being a committed, uncompromising character. Unlike many of his fellow A-listers, Crowe has no vanity. He is in the business to serve the character he plays.
"People might say I'm uncompromising but really I am just a very straight-shooting man," he says. "If you look me in the eye and shake my hand I expect you to keep your end of the f***ing bargain. I do. It's simple."
Having looked Crowe in the eye and shaken his hand on more than one occasion, I believe this proclamation. He has a firebrand reputation but it's forged by his passion and commitment, something that has fuelled his career. In person, he can be brusque or he can be charming. During the morning's TV interviews he becomes increasingly irritated and retires for lunch, keeping print journalists waiting for several hours. When he finally reappears, however, he placates everyone with a hearty display of warmth and wit.
We speak late in the afternoon. He is content, if tired, and talks happily about his family as well as his work. Unlike many of his Hollywood peers, he will also offer an honest answer to an intelligent question. Sweatshirt and jeans have replaced the crisp blue suit he wore for the morning's TV interviews.
While regularly delighting the critics, Crowe, however, has not always enjoyed a friendly relationship with the press, who have jumped on a number of escapades from his life, the most notorious being the 'phone-throwing incident', which saw him pay hotel clerk Nestor Estrada $100,000 in an out-of-court settlement. It is somewhat ironic, commentators have noted, that State Of Play casts him in the role of a journalist, a profession filmmakers, and Crowe, believe is in crisis.
"There is a crisis in serious journalism and it's been created by journalists," he states. "We've been trivialising news for at least a couple of decades. The desire for new information, which we could use in a very healthy way, has been replaced by supplying trivia. I mean really, who gives a shit about what's in the handbag of LeAnn Rimes? Who gives a shit about that?" Not Crowe, clearly.
Given that so much of his working life is spent in the glare of the media spotlight, Crowe spends as much time as possible tucked away on his ranch in Nana Glen, a few hours north of Sydney. He lives there with his wife of six years, singer and actress Danielle Spencer – whom he met on the set of The Crossing – and their children, five-year-old Charlie and Tennyson, who is two.
"For me to remain fresh, being out of town in the country is just better for me. It's also a better place for my wife and the boys," he says.
Born in Wellington, New Zealand, Crowe's own childhood was nomadic, his parents relocating to Australia when he was four years old and then moving towns several times over the following decade. Now that he is a father himself, he wants to provide his sons with stability.
"My kids are growing up in a much more affluent environment than my wife or I experienced in childhood," he says. "I remember Charlie went to school one day and when he came home I asked him how it went and he said, 'They don't have a lot of toys.' That struck home so we do try and make sure they can empathise with people who are not in their situation."
That said, he is not averse to spoiling his sons once in a while. He remembers an incident during pre-production on Robin Hood. "Charlie is so excited about this film that he actually came to two costume fittings with me, and the costume department, run by a dear friend, made him a set of chain mail. Needless to say, he was very happy about that."
Charlie has only seen one of his dad's films. "It's called The Silver Brumby, a kids' film I made way back, and he's very confused by it because in the movie I'm running and galloping around on horseback, chasing a horse, but when he's with me on the farm, I just call and the horse comes." Such are the benefits of that spell as a horse-wrangler.
His international breakthrough came in 1997, with LA Confidential, and in 1999 he earned his first Oscar nomination for The Insider. In 2000 he won Best Actor for Gladiator, going on to forge a close working relationship with the film's director, Sir Ridley Scott, with whom he subsequently collaborated for A Good Year (2006), American Gangster (2007), Body Of Lies (2008) and the forthcoming Robin Hood.
"I don't want to disparage anybody else I've worked with, but I just like the way he makes a film," says Crowe.
"He takes a very working-class attitude towards it and I appreciate that. He's also one of the great visual artists of our time and I'm really lucky that he happens to think what I do suits him."
Scott clearly sees in Crowe an ability to bring characters to life. When the director chose to move out of his comfort zone to try a romantic drama with A Good Year, he went straight to Crowe. He is always 100% committed to his performance, and he chooses his projects well. There are few clunkers on Crowe's filmography.
He has also enjoyed a bountiful relationship with director Ron Howard, starring in A Beautiful Mind in 2001 (for which he secured another Oscar nomination) and the hard-hitting boxing picture Cinderella Man in 2005.
With both family and career, Crowe abides by his own code of ethics. "I have had lots of different jobs before I turned to acting and I tried to make the most of them all. You have to, otherwise you give up. The worst thing you can do is go to work resenting your job.
"This might sound trite but it's part of my personality: when I was a bartender I tried to be the best bartender and when I was a horse-wrangler, I tried to be the best horse-wrangler. Similarly, if I'm doing a film about Robin Hood, or a film about journalism and politics, I will make it the best piece I possibly can."
And that, it seems, is the essence of Russell Crowe: former horse-wrangler, current A-list actor, aspiring producer, and, given his efforts on State Of Play and Robin Hood, a determined mountaineer. v
State Of Play is on general release April 24