by Trevor Johnson
Photography by Jasper James
Time Out London (March 1 - 8, 2000)
At 33, Antipodean actor Russell Crowe was hardly an obvious choice to play a paunchy, 52-year-old research scientist in 'The Insider.' But director Michael Mann was convinced he was right for this real-life story of corporate cover-up, and his gamble paid off with a Best Actor nomination.
It took Michael Mann to look at Russell Crowe and see Jeffrey Wigand. Crowe was 33 at the time, the very definition of hale and hearty, and the New Zealander was fresh from making a Hollywood stir as Bud White, the bruiser of a cop in 'LA Confidential.' Mann wanted him for Wigand, the 52-year-old, overweight, bespectacled research scientist who paid a heavy personal price for blowing the whistle on the methods used by US tobacco manufacturers Brown & Williamson to make their cigarettes more addictive.
No wonder Crowe's first reaction was a characteristically straight-talking refusal: "I didn't think it was smart. Film is a very hard medium in that respect, because you can only pull a certain amount of tricks. I told him he should be talking to any number of fifty-something American actors who would do a better job for him."
Two years later, and Crowe's astonishing transformation in the role has garnered him a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. He put on 48 pounds for 'The Insider' thanks to a steady diet of bourbon and cheeseburgers, and dyed his hair seven times to get Wigand's stressed-out grey, so Crowe's physical immersion in the role is startling enough. Yet the way he's captured the essence of a complex individual -- not only the shambling diffidence of white-collar middle-aged spread, but also the steely determination to stick to his principles and not let the buggers grind him down -- is just one more milestone in a screen career of such confident diversity it seems as if there's very little Crowe can't do. So you're looking to cast a ferocious skinhead in full Nazi regalia? Crowe's your man ('Romper Stomper,' 1992). A gay plumber ('The Sum Of Us,' 1994), a Western gunslinger-turned-preacher ('The Quick And The Dead,' 1995, his American debut), or even a computer-generated psycho-droid ('Virtuosity,' the same year)? No worries, mate. Oh, and he's just done a second-century Roman general in Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator,' epic mayhem promised for later in the year.
Today, though, he's given up his Sunday to be in London for international press interviews for 'The Insider' and, to be honest, he looks about as happy as a grizzly bear to be prodded from suite to suite in The Dorchester. Back to his fighting weight now, in person he exudes the kind of simmering volatility he showed the camera in 'LA Confidential' and 'Romper Stomper.' There's no doubt this guy could look after himself in the clinches, but when he so much as scowls at you, it leaves a dent.
For all his bristling irascibility, he gives considered answers. It was Mann who persuaded him to take on Wigand with one simple gesture. "He said, 'I'm not talking to you because of your age,' reached over and put his hand on my chest, and told me 'I'm talking to you because of what's in here.' It took a heck of a lot of intellectual certainty to say that, and I really have to be thankful for the opportunity he gave me."
Mann didn't insist that Crowe had to look like Wigand, but the actor reckons you don't play Napoleon at 6'7". "I began to think that if I put on weight it would help me with the age, then if I added a couple of inches on my collar, it would help the make-up people. I'll tell ya, I'm more comfortable in a fictional world because you make your own decisions about the part. It's certainly easier without the responsibility of honouring that person and what he went through. He was followed, they put together a 500-page dossier of misinformation to destroy his credibility, his wife and children left him, the whole basis of his life changed completely, and it's all down to a tobacco company called Brown & Williamson."
Having spent a couple of days with Wigand during pre-production, Crowe confesses that he was very reluctant to watch the results of his own labours. "I didn't want to sit there for three hours and not see Jeffrey Wigand. If that had happened, how could I ever do my job again?"
So have you seen it now?
"Yeah, Michael Mann's idea of democracy: 'Get in the fucking cinema and watch it!' "
And . . .?
"I saw the reality of that man on the screen, totally divorced from myself."
This is probably as close as Russell Crowe gets to self-congratulation. Everything about him, not least his impatience to get his afternoon's promotional chores done with, suggests a get-on-with-it attitude, and then some.
"People accuse me of being arrogant all the time," he admitted to the LA Times last year. "But I'm not arrogant, I'm focused."
Indeed, you get the sense you're looking at someone who's bloody well into whatever he's into. Whether it's playing middle-aged scientists, tending cows on the 560-acre farm he owns seven hours north of Sydney (now home to his parents and older brother as well), or taking a three-week spin around Australia's coast with biker pals. He even finds time to gig and record with his rock band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, whose Billy Bragg-influenced storytelling songs (lyrics, vocals and guitar by Crowe) can be downloaded from www.gruntland.com.au. All four members have day jobs, but they still drew a celebrity crowd to The Viper Room, Johnny Depp's notorious LA club, at a showcase gig last year.
For all his travels, Crowe's never lost his broad Antipodean accent, while his downhome background has militated against too many airs and graces. His mum and dad ran pubs and did film-set catering, which got young Russell work as a child extra, though when he moved to Australia at the end of his teens he started again at the bottom of the entertainment industry, busking on the Sydney streets. Instead of drama school, he did his training in the theatrical trenches -- four years on the Australian touring 'Rocky Horror Show,' taking turns at the principal roles. 'The Crossing,' a 1990 drama of troubled youth, won him his first celluloid lead, and it was his scary yet subtly nuanced work as the Swastika-tattooed Haddo [sic] in 'Romper Stomper' which caught the attention of both director Curtis Hanson, who cast him in 'LA Confidential,' and Sharon Stone, who fought hard for him to join herself, Gene Hackman and a certain Master DiCaprio on Sam Raimi's Western burlesque 'The Quick And The Dead.'
"I've been doing this job since I was a little kid, and when I was a kid I lost my fear for it," is Crowe's no-nonsense reflection on his craft. Having made a few seemingly wayward choices since his arrival in Hollywood -- the sci-fi tosh of 'Virtuosity,' for instance -- he remains a firm believer in the work ethic. "It's confused some people in the business that I didn't want to live in America, didn't want a Green Card, and that I've always felt that work begets more work. You can't stand back saying [affects plummy English accent] 'I can't possibly do that.' You've got to be realistic. You're not offered everything, but as long as you're good at what you do, people will want to work with you."
With his publicist looking at her watch, and a cold beer at the bar now within hailing distance, he even lightens up a little. "I mean, if you even look at just my last three parts, and not the 18 films before then, there's a sheriff who plays ice hockey, a guy with a bachelor's in endocrinology, and Maximus Decimus Meridius from the Roman army. You've got to think I've surely got some sort of mental disorder, and I'm just very lucky to have found gainful employment."
© Copyright Time Out London (March 1-8, 2000)
Crowe's spirituality takes wing
By Louis B. Hobson, Hollyword
London Free Press, March 18, 2000
Russell Crowe believes that when people die their souls take wing.
"I definitely believe in an afterlife. I've had a couple of experiences in my life that confirm it for me," says Crowe, who is nominated for a best actor Oscar for The Insider.
Crowe's grandfather, Stanley Weans, was a cinematographer who received an MBE from Queen Elizabeth for his service to New Zealand as a war photographer in Japan.
"Six months before he died, my grandfather came to Australia to try to explain to me that he was dying.
"I was a young kid, very much into myself at the time. I was busking on the streets just to make enough money to pay my rent," recalls Crowe, who began his career as a rock singer and in touring productions of such musicals as The Rocky Horror Show.
"There was this Japanese restaurant I'd always wanted to eat at, but couldn't afford, so I suggested we go there."
It was an unfortunate choice. In Weans's weakened condition, the smell of the rice and soya sauce brought back memories of the Second World War.
"We couldn't have the talk he wanted to.
"The day he died, I was in the kitchen of a flat in Woollahra (an eastern suburb of Sydney). Suddenly a kookaburra bird flew in the window. It just looked at me. I knew my grandfather had died. I phoned home and my mother confirmed it.
"I insisted the bird was my grandfather's spirit, but my mom would have nothing of it."
One day last year, Crowe had a dream in which he was holding his mother and she was crying. He phoned home immediately.
"My mother said a woman who had worked closely with my grandfather had come to visit and, without prompting, had told her that on the day my grandfather died, a bird visited her as well. Learning this had reduced my mother to tears."
Crowe says he believes that "With all this talk of angels, maybe they are just birds sent to us by those who have crossed over."
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