by Wade Major
Following breakthrough roles in "L.A. Confidential" and "The Insider," Russell Crowe is now aiming for the big-time as star of Ridley Scott's monumental Roman-era epic, "Gladiator." A throwback to the days of Ben Hur and Spartacus, it's arguably the role of a lifetime for the New Zealand-born star who cut his teeth in the Australian film industry. So just what makes Russell tick? The following transcript from the recent press-day tells the story better than any one account possibly could:
SETTING: A room full of journalists, twenty or so. Russell enters.
Crowe: G'day everybody!
All: Hey, Russell!
Crowe (shaking hands): How you doing mate? Don't get up. Good to see you.
Female Journalist: You love this, don't you?
Crowe (sarcastic American accent): Shit, yeah! I love this!
Male Journalist: Is it easier to do this with the press than to go and sit at something like tonight's SAG Awards for three hours with a worldwide audience?
Crowe: Neither thing is a pleasure. And that's got nothing to do with you folk. But sittin' around, chin-waggin' and blabbin' about this thing over and over again, saying the same fucking thing until your own brain is saying, "I don't like you any more!" It's a very strange process, folks. You just imagine it, all these conversations about the same thing. It's a very inhuman and strange thing to do. There's got to be a better way about it. Maybe I should just do one interview and then you bastards can fight over it!
Crowe (mocking): "I want the thing about Jodie Foster!" "No! I want the Jodie Foster quote!"
Female Journalist: Okay, then! You started it!
Male Journalist: Give it to us!
Crowe (to male journalist in back): Next time you ask me a question based on something your friend wants to know, I don't want a fucking cover-page story on an Australian tabloid! I used to like you!
Female Television Journalist: How has your life changed in the past few months?
Crowe: Didn't I talk to you yesterday?
Female Television Journalist: For TV. Yeah.
Crowe: What the fuck are you doing here?
Crowe: I've already answered all your silly questions! I don't need your silly questions again. I've got all these other peoples with silly questions to ask me. So you can shut up, alright?
Another Female Journalist: Okay. So how has your life changed in the past few months?
Crowe (Laughing): Nothing deceives you bastards! Uh how's my life changed? Well, golly, gosh. I'm the king of frequent flyer miles. I don't get to spend enough time with the people I love in the place I love. However, I'm an actor and I've done it for a long time. And there's a certain amount of a gypsy in the job. And it's the change of perspective and the change of geography that actually makes my life interesting. Otherwise it would be the same series of cow bums in a cattle yard. It's funny, because you get accused of being "arrogant" by some people because I seem to, in some people's viewpoint, expect success. Thing is, I never actually expect success. But it doesn't surprise me when it comes because I know how much work I put into what I do. And in order to do complete the fantasy of my life, which is to work at the highest level in the art form I've chosen to work in, that means I've got to keep getting on planes. And that means I've got to spend X amount of time away. But look at the people I'm getting to work with? Look at the experiences I'm having. Look at the diversity of characters I'm getting to play. So I don't have any complaints.
Canadian Journalist: Where do Oscar nominations fit into that?
Crowe: I'll tell you what. An Oscar nomination to me is a very important thing. It's a great privilege. I know lots of people who have had very stellar and long careers that have never had the benefit of being acknowledged by their peers in that manner. So I don't have any funny line. I don't have a cynical opinion on it. I'm really appreciative and very thankful.
Canadian Journalist: Richard Harris told me last week that he thinks it's all bullshit, but he wants you to win anyway.
Crowe: Well, Richard's a cracker of a bloke, man. And I really enjoyed the time I spent with him. In fact, every time I go through England, I see him now. Within thirty seconds he had established that I, too, was a Rugby Union fan. And that was enough for him. That meant I was a real man. And we talked - we've argued about the history of the last thirty years of Australian/New Zealand rugby as it pertains to that useless team called Ireland. Apart from that part of our personal relationship, the scene we played together was a magnificent experience. This was is the guy from "Sporting Life," man! This is the "Man Called Horse." You know? Mate, the winning of it, that's a completely different thing. That's something I'm not going to go anywhere near and touch. I'm very thankful to be living right at the moment. I'm an Academy Award-nominated actor for the rest of my career, no matter what shit I do from here.
Female Television Journalist: Why don't you expect success, though? You're such a great actor?
Crowe: Well, that's your opinion. And didn't we talk about how you can't have any questions?
Crowe: We did talk about that, right?
Female Journalist: I couldn't hear the question. What was it?
Male Journalist: Let's talk about fortune and fate for a second. You made this before "The Insider" earned you the nomination, and now you're in the great situation of having a perfect follow up film that will benefit from your nomination as well. Do you see this as good fortune or do you chalk it up to the way you select roles?
Crowe: It's a combination of both things, isn't it? I'm pro-active in the choices. And in this particular experience, pro-active and responsible for certain parts of the narrative. When they first came to me with this project, they didn't have, in their words, "a script that I would care about." But they said, "Russell, we've got a concept. Ridley Scott. 185 A.D. You start the movie as a Roman general. Do you want to talk to Ridley? "Yeah. Yeah." 'Cause that got into my imagination and I couldn't let it go. And when they gave me the script, they were right. It was not very good. It was too modern, too cynical, had gags about advertising in it. It just didn't make any sense to go to that place with such a facile set of dialogue and scenes. So what this was about was a leap of faith. This was about deciding to get involved in a huge collaboration between the studio, the producers, Ridley Scott and myself, and, of course, the other actors - Connie Nielsen and Joaquin Phoenix. And I don't usually do that. I like to have the script, I like to know where I'm going. If you're going to do a Tennessee Williams play, you know where you're going to go, where you're going to be by the third act. And that's a big part of the job, man. Being able to know the lines and hit the marks, that's pretty much 95% of the job. But if you don't know what the lines are going to be, nor where the marks are, if you don't even know what fucking country it's going to take part in, it's different. But if you're ever going to take this kind of leap of faith, DreamWorks is a company that, even in their short history, the money that they spend, it ends up on the screen. Ridley Scott, over his career, is a director who, for better or worse, finishes on time and on budget. He's also a straight-talking bloke. And so am I. So if you're going to take this kind of leap of faith, that's the group of people you should do it with.
Male Journalist: You had a worldwide breakthrough with "L.A. Confidential," going from this promising young Australian actor to becoming a sex symbol. Every woman I talked to about this press day said, "Oh, can I take your place?"
Crowe: Then what the fuck are you doing here, then?
(LAUGHTER - CROWE STARTS TO LIGHT A CIGARETTE - CANADIAN JOURNALIST SIGNALS TO HIM)
Canadian Journalist: Could I ask you not to . . .
Crowe: Oh, that's right, mate. I forgot you were weak of constitution.
Canadian Journalist (laughing): Thank you, as always!
Male Journalist: Did that one role hamper your career, as Bud White in "L.A. Confidential"?
Crowe: Obviously, that's going to happen sooner or later. The reason I got "L.A. Confidential" in the first place was because I'd done a lot of work that could be appreciated and evaluated. Nobody could pin me down in terms of, "Who the fuck was that guy?" And that was the benefit for (director) Curtis (Hanson). He didn't want that moment when you saw Bud White setting out of that house - he didn't want any information in the audience's mind, or what he considers "audience," which is domestic U.S.A.
(LAUGHTER - CROWE GRINS)
Crowe: If the things that you're talking about come to fruition and if the expectations are met for this film, then that possibly could change. But that will depend on my choices. Now, I've made it very hard on myself with the choice that I'm doing at the moment. It's a movie called "Proof of Life," directed by Taylor Hackford with Meg Ryan. I'm playing a hostage negotiator with my own speaking voice and no bells, no whistles, no masks, no nothing. So, then, I will have to use that as a base-point from which to disappear again . . .
Male Journalist In Back: But will you then . . .
Crowe: . . . Hold on a sec. I'm still talking. Excuse me.
Male Journalist In Back: Sorry.
Crowe: Those of you in the cheap seats.
Crowe: The role I'm going to do after that is being directed by Jodie Foster and it's set in the 1930s. It's called "Flora Plum." Claire Danes is Flora and I play a beast in a freak show. And it's probably only going to be a set of eyes that you see. So that might be the last movie I ever do. Who knows.
Female Journalist: You didn't answer the "sex symbol" part of the question.
Crowe: You noticed that, didn't you?
Female Journalist: Well, I'm a woman.
Crowe: You're not! Really? (to male journalist) What was your question mate?
Female Journalist: Oh, c'mon!
Male Journalist: What governed your decision to do the Taylor Hackford film and what will then govern your decisions going forward from here?
Crowe: I really loved "Officer and a Gentleman." I really loved a documentary about Chuck Berry called, "Hail, Hail, Rock and Roll." And I really loved the Academy Award cut of "When We Were Kings," which Taylor is not acknowledged for, but it's his cut. So you've got to pay the guys that have given you the thrills. You've got to pay them out. And Taylor's a strange cat. He's by no means an easy bloke to work with. He's learning about humor, now. See that's the thing - whenever he says something fuckin' weird, I go, "Helen Mirren loves him. Helen Mirren loves him."
Female Journalist: You specialize in weird directors.
Crowe: She does?
Female Journalist: No, you do. Michael Mann . . .
Crowe: No, well, "weird" might be your word. But what I've been doing lately is working with a whole lot of blokes who know how to make a movie. And maybe they haven't made all the movies in the past that they've wanted to, maybe the movies they've made haven't fulfilled them as well. So I've been working with guys who are absolutely ready to get down in the dust and get involved. Not just shoot a film, but tear the thing apart. Have a look inside what they're doing. And Taylor's right there as well. He's made a couple of films in recent times that, perhaps, didn't fulfill what he set out to do or whatever. And I can just kind of sense it from him. You know? When people are dead serious about the subject matter that they're exploring, that's when I want to work with them. Not just because they may have done something cool in the past. Maybe they're not ready for it.
I had a chat with Lawrence Kasdan last night. And it's so funny. He's talking to me and I'm thinking, "He's talking like he's never met me before." We met on this other project years ago and he can't even fucking remember it. When I was talking to him, I knew he wasn't concentrating so I didn't want to work with him. So I didn't do that gig. When I talked to Neil Jordan with his production partner Stephen Woolley, now me and Stephen became friends out of that conversation. Because I was sitting there telling Neil what was wrong with that "In Dreams" movie: "Yeah, that opening sequence was fantastic, but what the fuck was the rest of it?" And I could tell that he really wasn't committed to it. He was making the movie for whatever reasons, but they weren't the reasons I needed him to make a movie. So I started taking the piss out of him in front of him and he didn't even get it. It's like, "Mate, I'm not working with you." But, as I said, I became mates with Stephen Woolley who really appreciates that. And he's explained more of Neil's personality to me. He said the greatest thing about Neil Jordan is that he says the funniest things, does the funniest things without realizing it. He'll go into a restaurant with a group of people to have dinner, pick up the menu and go, "Oh wow! They've got tomato soup!" And then later, the waiter comes around and says, "I'll have the chicken quesadilla."
Crowe: So, anyway, I try to judge the person that I'm going to work with as well, on top of the script. I know it's all very complicated, but sometimes it's right that you should work together, and sometimes it isn't. And these guys that other people call weird or intense or whatever. Weird and intense is fine with me, mate. Absolutely. If you're really into the job and you want to do it as right as you can possibly do it, that's where I want to go. Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Taylor Hackford - these are guys who know how to make a feature film, all right? So if we can make something just a little bit more special because of their collaboration and because of their input, then that's what I want to do.
Male Journalist: You were not Curtis Hanson's first choice?
Crowe: I was approached by Scott Rudin, you know, Mr. Ten-Messages-A-Day . . .
Male Journalist: Not your kind of bloke?
Crowe: Don't know. Never met him. But it was kind of strange. I read the script and at the time Curtis wasn't on. Somebody else was on it, and when I read it I uncovered many, many holes. And the thing that went through my mind when they said that Curtis was going to do it was, "All right. Now you've got a bloke who's going to find the holes and fill them up. Because that's what Curtis does. His process is one of discovery and solution. However, I just didn't think it was a role for me to play and the original choice of Michael Douglas was actually pretty magnificent. Curtis is a great filmmaker, man, but he knows where that film stands and pretty much predicted the critical and box office response to it. When I was talking to him about five weeks ago, after he rang me up to congratulate me on the nomination, I thought about this. Curtis has an immense capacity, man. I was very and still am very enthusiastic about playing Bud White a second time.
Male Journalist In Corner: Oh?
Crowe (looking over at Male Journalist In Corner): Hello? That's one of those things you're supposed to think, not say.
Male Journalist In Corner: People have been telling me that all my life.
Crowe: So I was talking to him about it one day and he agrees. He thinks there's another great story in there. And that character is a very rich character. But he said, "We've got fifteen, twenty years. We don't have to do it next year. Wouldn't it be great to play a crusty old Bud White, limping out of the smoke, gray and wrinkly?" And I said, "Abso-fucking-lutely!" Wouldn't that be great? You know, Curtis is a bloke who, when I worked with him, I learned quite quickly if I asked him a question, and I needed an answer on the day I asked it, it wasn't going to be a good answer. If you give him time, his own time that he needs to consider and process, and he will always give you an answer. But you've got to work seven or eight days ahead of the schedule to give him the time to go through it. So when I work with Curtis Hanson again, it will be because he absolutely needs me to play that role, in the same way he protected me from the studio who tried to have me kicked off that film right up until the last second before we started shooting. They stopped covering my hotel bills and stuff like that, trying to make it very obvious I should just fuck off.
Crowe: And he protected me because he believed, 100%, that I was the fellow for the role. And I don't want to work with him on any other level but that.
Male Journalist: I heard this thing happened in Australia where these men were trying to blackmail you and you went to the police. Is that one of the worst things that's happened to you being a celebrity?
Crowe: Let me just clarify something for you. I didn't go to the police. The police had a series of men already under surveillance, and I'm not going to talk to you about it.
Male Journalist: Is it still in the courts or something?
Crowe: (leans over and places his hand to his ear)
L.A. Journalist: Let's talk about being a "straight shooter," which you said you were and which Ridley is. One of the things that endears you to the press in general is that you do come without that pretense and baggage, you are who you are. But that has to be handicapping to a degree since so many people get ahead by being whomever they need to be, not who they are.
Crowe: Just break that down for me, mate. Take out all the compliments and all that crap.
L.A. Journalist: What's the importance for you of integrity, of being yourself and not being who you need to be just to get a role?
Crowe: I auditioned for "The Shawshank Redemption" quite a few years ago. But I never got to meet the director. There was this female producer and I went in and talked to her. This is post-"Romper Stomper," post-"The Quick and the Dead," after "The Sum of Us." I'm in the middle of what I do. It was for a small role, but I really, really liked the script. I really fucking liked it. So I'm sitting there talking to this casting director and the producer, and I stated my case and left the room. And this producer pursued me down the corridor. And she said, "You've got to get smart, kid. You can't come into meetings and be this honest. Because nobody's going to care. Look, this is my advice, when you go into meetings here in Los Angeles, go in with an American accent. Talk as an American and never let the director or the producer question that you are not from Idaho or Iowa or wherever you choose to be." And I said, "You know, lady. I'm an actor. I take on different characters and different accents. It's what I do. I'm an actor. If I walked into a room and played the game to that level and conned a director into giving me a role, then I wouldn't be able to get up in the morning and go to work with him. Because I'd believe he was too fucking stupid. So I'm going to do it the way I do it. And when I meet a director who understands what the job of acting is, then I'll probably work in America. See ya." That's a story more than an answer, but . . .
Male Journalist: You just came 180 degrees from playing Jeffrey Wigand to playing Maximus, the Roman general. What did you do to get into this character's head?
Crowe: (with a southern accent) Well. Let's see. (back to normal voice) I just filled my head with the things I thought Maximus would know. A knowledge of the military, a certain dexterity with certain weaponry. Both hands, as well, because I believe that if you're a sword fighter and you can only do it with one hand, there are going to be times when that's a problem if somebody comes from the wrong side. I tried, physically, to simply make the body that can do the things that Maximus can do. There is a lot of available research on the Roman Empire. However, a lot of it is purely opinion. But there are some great books to read. In fact there's a book by a husband-and-wife team called, "A Day in the Life of Rome," which is fascinating. It covers everything from systems of banking to social graces. So I focused on Roman history, on the geography, obviously the physicality. But I was given one great thing that connected him to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, even though Maximus is a fictional character and Marcus Aurelius is a historical philosopher. Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called "The Meditations." And I made that the backbone of Maximus because if you're indentured in the army at the age of nine with a bunch of other kids; if you, through natural attrition, are seen to be the leader; if you are taken on by the emperor to be constructed into a soldier, a non-factionalized, non-partisan, non-political soldier with one loyalty to Marcus Aurelius, if he is your teacher, then you're going to be full of his teachings. Just like we all are influenced by our parents. So in the film, where the opportunity arose and where it was credible, I used lines from "The Meditations." "The time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end." That's a line from "The Meditations." So that was the great thing that the historical figure Marcus left a volume for me to learn from. That's basically where Maximus sits.
Female Journalist: Did you like Marcus Aurelius' "Stoicism"?
Crowe: It's okay. I think it's very limited, though. But there are certain kinds of personal philosophy things - it's very Eastern, very Buddhist in a certain section of it. I think that's what we did with Maximus and with Djimon Hounsou's character and their spirituality. Even though we're dealing with Pagan gods, we tried to make Maximus as much of a bloke who thinks and understands that the world is much, much bigger than him and that he doesn't affect the world. He is affected by the world and the world can take him out at any given second. But if he respects the gods and thanks the gods for their considerations, then it comes down to, "What you give out, you'll get back."
Male Journalist: What Roman epics do you remember growing up?
Crowe: I'll tell you, it's funny, because we've been talking a lot about gladiator movies. And one of the greatest gladiator movies that nobody's brought up in the last few days - I've been waiting for a smart person to bring it up - is "Cleopatra." If you're talking about swords and sandals, baby, there you go.
L.A. Journalist: We brought it up in here earlier.
Crowe: You did?
Canadian Journalist: We're smart people here.
Crowe: Well, I've been sitting here for twenty minutes and I haven't seen any indication of that.
Female Television Journalist: Oh!
Crowe (to Female Television Journalist): Especially from you!
Female Television Journalist: What? I didn't say anything!
Crowe: I liked them all, mate. "Spartacus," "Ben Hur," "The Fall of the Roman Empire" with Christopher Plummer as Commodus. Great. The thing about those movies is they didn't just stop at the bangs and crashes. They gave you a story you could really follow. "Spartacus" gets really complicated, man. So does "Ben Hur." It doesn't peter out to a finish. It goes on and on, more characters and more information comes up. I think we tried to get somewhere close to those kinds of epics with this film. But that's what I was talking about before, with the responsibility of the narrative. Because that's what we all knew going into it. We didn't have a story that we were confident about. We had to find the story. And Ridley was very lucky to cast such clever and intelligent actors as Connie and Joaquin who would just not let their part of the narrative be the bit that didn't make sense. So it was a grand collaboration. But all those films are like that. Any film where, as it's coming toward the end, you go, "Don't stop. Don't stop, man. Just go on . . . oh, Maximus! Get up you motherfucker!"
Female Television Journalist: Do you share his views of an afterlife?
Crowe: Yeah. I do. I've had a couple of experiences in my life which indicate to me that there are many, many things beyond what we run around and do.
Female Television Journalist: Do you have one that you can tell us?
(A PUBLICIST IS GIVING CROWE SIGNALS THAT HE'S RUNNING VERY LATE)
Crowe (to publicist): Calm down darlin'.
Publicist: You're going to be so late (to the SAG Awards).
Crowe: You know what, if I have to miss the press line . . .
Publicist: You're already going to miss the press line!
Male Journalist: That's the happiest he's been all day.
Crowe: My grandfather's name was Stanley Wemyss. He was a cinematographer. He was honored by the Queen of England for his war photography services to New Zealand. When he died I was living in Australia. He'd come over about six months earlier to try and explain to me that he was dying. But I was a young kid, ,very much involved in what I was doing. And I ended up electing to go to a Japanese restaurant. And that meant that he got even further inside the normal reticence that he had Because he couldn't eat rice, the smell of soy sauce and stuff like that, from what he experienced, it was something that brought other things back to him that he didn't want to go near. But I was so caught up in what I was doing - I was essentially starving myself, I was living in this hotel, I was probably spending $3.50 a day on fried rice and cigarettes. So when my grandfather says, "I want to take you out to dinner," I said, "That restaurant! I pass it every fucking day. Here!" I completely forgot his connection to the Japanese and the war. The day he died, I'm in the kitchen of a flat in Woollahara, which is an eastern suburb of Sydney. So I'm standing in the kitchen and a bird which is no longer prevalent in that area landed on the window sill of the kitchen. And they're big birds. It's of the king fisher family. And he stared at me. And I looked at the bird and I thought, "Fuck. My grandfather's dead." I went to the phone and rang my mother. She was crying and she said, "Yeah. How did you know?" Just the other week, this woman who was in business with my grandfather and who had not been in contact with my the family since he died, through my brother decided to come and stay with the family for a couple of days. Now, I'm in England during all of this. But I had an incredibly sleepless night where between every dream I had a vision of holding my mother. So I finally got through to her and said, "I had this dream. . ." and she said, "Darlin', this is what happened.!
This lady who knew was in business with Stan, she stayed here and we were talking about Stan and talking about his death. And she said on the day that Stan died, "I was standing in my lounge room and this bird flew to the window." My mother just lost it. So all of the people my grandfather couldn't explain things to while he was alive were visited. And that sent me off. Perhaps, angels? The gift of flight? Perhaps it's just birds and we've manufactured it into this other thing. So maybe the next stage after walking on the earth is the gift of flight. Ah, it's all bullshit. But it's something to think about, isn't it?
Entertainment Today, May 5, 2000
(Thanks to Jenna)
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