Russell Crowe hates the film business, so how will he cope if he wins an Oscar for The Insider, asks GARTH PEARCE
Main photography by Colin Bell
It takes Russell Crowe less than 10 seconds after shaking hands to make himself clear: "This will be a bullshit-free zone, mate." The New Zealand-born actor then launches into a breakneck gallop through his story so far: from child performer in Sydney, through rock'n'roll days as Rus Le Roc, then small-budget Aussie movies such as The Crossing, Proof and Romper Stomper, and on to Hollywood and The Quick and the Dead, followed by global fame as Bud White in LA Confidential. It is a breathless tale of ambition, delivered plain and simple, intensified by generous use of the f-word.
But there's another side to Crowe's bruising aggression, according to Michael Mann, his director in The Insider, for which he now has a best actor Oscar nomination. "He puts on this tough redneck act," he says. "The reality is that he's one of the most intelligent, sensitive actors around."
Either way, Crowe delivers a big punch when it comes to talent and talking. He is 35 and on his 20th film, but it still seems as if he's sneaked up in the inside lane. He lives in a caravan on his farm in New South Wales, Australia, while he renovates the main house; he would prefer to work with his herd of cattle than attend a premiere, any day of the week. Although he's wearing an immaculate dark blue suit when we meet, in a London hotel suite, there's an edgy, restless energy he is just about managing to contain. He sits, hands on knees, crouched forward, smoking ("I never consider myself to be smart"), drinking tea and making dry, ironic remarks that Americans just don't seem to get. A passing journalist asks for his autograph: "Have you got cash?" he asks. When another tells him, with much gushing, that he deserves the Oscar, he says: "Gee whiz, thanks very much. Can I have it now, then?"
Truth be told, Crowe is rightly in the frame after delivering a finely tuned performance in the real-life story of Dr Jeffrey Wigand, the whistle-blower on America's tobacco industry, whose evidence left it settling a $246 billion (£150 billion) lawsuit in 1998. Wigand, a top scientist and a former head of research and development at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, revealed how the industry was ensuring that nicotine was being scientifically altered to increase its power as a drug to hook smokers. The investigative reporter Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for CBS's venerable 60 Minutes current affairs programme, set up an interview between Wigand and the seasoned journalist Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), which delivered the truth. But infamous hesitation by CBS and an initial decision not to broadcast the explosive interview led to a smear campaign against Wigand. He was sued, pursued by private investigators, received death threats and faced a possible jail sentence. He was nearly broken, following divorce from a wife who no longer wanted to live under such pressure.
Crowe seemed an unlikely choice as this particular hero. He is lean-framed and bullish, with sharp, inquisitive blue eyes. Wigand in the film is 53, plump and softly spoken, with an accent tinged by living in the Bronx and Kentucky. Crowe shaved his head to fit a grey wig, copied Wigand's waddling walk and put on 48lb. "I was aiming to gain 30lb, but a certain thing happens when you take on a sedentary lifestyle, and I ended up enjoying myself too much," he says. "I had a strict, medically controlled diet of bourbon and cheeseburgers. It took six weeks to take its toll. I thought, 'Six weeks on, six weeks to get off,' but once the film was over and I started to diet, it took five and a half months. I had my cholesterol checked at one point and I was in dangerous territory. I was surprised my body was taking it so seriously."
He listened, again and again, to a six-hour tape of Wigand to get the voice spot-on. "I can usually make a decision on behalf of any character I play, because it's fiction," he says. "But this is completely different. The full emotional impact of Wigand was not really there until I met him. He was saying how all the things he knew and relied on in his life - his house, wife and children - were no longer there. Not until I saw the damage in his eyes was it really clear. He was impotent. How was he going to fight back? If he had reacted in a contemporary American way, he would have probably got a gun, gone into the tobacco company and started shooting people. But he is a true American hero, while remaining slightly bewildered by it all."
Although Mann insists he has stuck to facts, there has been a backlash in America from some critics of the film, itself up for best picture, who say there have been changes in the order of events. Mann, a veteran of successes such as The Last of the Mohicans and Heat, shrugs and says it is impossible to achieve perfect chronological order: "Such things would be better served by a documentary, not a piece of cinema," he observes.
Crowe, on the other hand, shoots from the lip. "What a load of bollocks," he declares. "If we made movies in real time, we would be sitting in a cinema for four and a half years. I heard them saying, 'Do you realise, in The Insider they compressed time?' What was all that about? Okay, so Wigand was not on a golf driving range when he discovered people were following him. Stiff shit. Was he being followed? Yes. Were they doing it all the time? Yes. Did he feel pressure, which changed his life for ever? Yes. It incenses me in America that they can wave a red herring and people say, 'Oh, I never believe in Hollywood movies.' This is not Oliver Stone and his paranoid delusions of JFK. This is the truth. This is how corporate America operates, and it has to be cleaned up."
It is little surprise, given such a robust attitude, that Crowe prefers to view Hollywood from the other side of the Pacific. "I like certain parts of America, and there are plenty of places where I'd take my boots off, no problem," he says. "But I don't like the pervasive desire within this business to make you move into the office with them. It makes them feel better. It is like, 'We have the money.' That is the very reason I have no desire to go and roll my swag there. I think it's really unhealthy to live in Los Angeles full time. But it is kind of fun these days to pop in and see these freaks." His formula for dealing with hype seems as straightforward as the rest of him. "I've got to keep my life apart from Hollywood, mate," he says. "I am committed to acting and get great satisfaction from it. But I don't take it too seriously, and realise that it is not rocket science."
So how has Crowe got this far? He was born in Wellington and moved to Sydney with his parents, who managed pubs, at the age of four. He started acting at six, on a television show for which his mother, Jocelyn, was the caterer. He dropped out of high school in his final year to become a pop star, under the name of Rus Le Roc, and even now plays and sings for his rock band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts. Other jobs so far include street busker, waiter, insurance salesman, fruit-picker and bingo caller. In between, there were performances in musicals: Grease, The Rocky Horror Show and Blood Brothers. He discovered he could act almost by accident.
"From my early twenties and first professional musical, when there was some acting stuff required, I realised I was good at it," he says. "I am a virtuoso in my job in that there's not an actor I can't go into a scene with and be absolutely confident that, whatever is required of my character, I can do it. If it had been that way with my music, I would have never gone near acting. But I am a mediocre guitarist and have a so-so singing voice. If I could sit with Eric Clapton, play guitar and get him to give me a little wink, that would be perfect. I know it is not going to happen, because the talent is not there."
But his screen skills were plain to see, whether as the ambitious artist in the coming-of-age story The Crossing, for which he was nominated as best actor by the Australian Film Institute in 1990 or, more violently and memorably, as the skinhead leader in Romper Stomper. He was finally chosen for a Hollywood movie, The Quick and the Dead, in 1994, thanks to Sharon Stone. "She stuck out for me as a leading man against the studio, who wanted someone well known," he says. It was an eye-opener. "I had never been on a set or stage show surrounded by people with so much fear," he relates. "They feared for their jobs because it has become traditional that the director fires some of the crew in the first couple of weeks. That is not how you should deal with creative people. It was a strange environment, and I felt very much like the meat in the sandwich between Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone, plus a whole bunch of actors who had never heard of me and didn't know what the hell I was doing there."
After suffering a succession of meetings in Hollywood over a two-year period to get such a break, Crowe accepted low pay and returned home, after 16 weeks' filming, heavily in debt. "I was always feted and patted on the back in those LA meetings," he says. "You think you're loved and respected, but that is bollocks. The job is not real until you are in front of the camera, doing it." He still smarts when fellow Australian actors grandly insist they would have never accepted such low terms for a Hollywood debut. "I say, 'What are you doing now?' And it's something like public theatre in New South Wales. They don't realise it took two years out of my life to get that role, for which I got no money. Nothing you want to do is ever easy."
The door, always shut tight, was finally ajar; he has since kicked it down with LA Confidential, chosen by the director, Curtis Hanson, as the hard-hitting cop audiences would not automatically assume was a good or bad guy. When his heavily battered character drove into the sunset with Kim Basinger, it did not matter either way: he was a clear winner. Before that, there were American movies such as Rough Magic with Bridget Fonda, Virtuosity with Denzel Washington and Breaking Up with Salma Hayek. After The Insider, he will be the star turn as a Roman soldier in a forthcoming $100m epic, Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, which promises much.
What if the rather conservative voters of the Academy Awards allow him to beat the hot favourite, Denzel Washington (The Hurricane)? "I am not trying to be cool, and realise it is the ultimate peer-based accolade," he says. "But I do my shift, go home at the end of the day and most days feel good about what I do. There's no point in bullshitting." That is the last thing Russell Crowe seems capable of. If he wins, luvvies beware.
(Flawless fan site; even Russell's Uncle Dave pitches in)
© London Sunday Times, March 5, 2000
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