Russell Crowe: A He-Man's Brilliant Career
By Martyn Palmer
February 2, 2002
RUSSELL CROWE IS EVERY INCH THE HOLLYWOOD HE-MAN - TALENTED, RUGGED AND SEEMINGLY IRRESISTIBLE TO WOMEN. MARTYN PALMER INTERVIEWED HIM 11 YEARS AGO AND BECAME FRIENDS WITH THE SUPERSTAR-TO-BE.
HERE HE REVEALS THE DOWN-TO-EARTH MAN BEHIND THE GLADIATOR MYTH AS HIS LATEST INCARNATION - PLAYING TORTURED MATHEMATICAL GENIUS JOHN FORBES NASH - HITS THE SCREENS
DRIVING FROM SYDNEY BACK TO HIS 750-acre farm in northern New South Wales recently, Russell Crowe pulled into a roadside takeaway, in the "middle of nowhere", to grab a bite to eat. Nothing unusual about that, of course, at least not for him. For those queuing alongside him it was a bit different. After all, you don't expect to see an Oscar winner standing in line for a hamburger. Jaws dropped, elbows were shoved into ribs, stares were fixed and there were a few nervous giggles. But, as is often the way when celebrity collides with real life, nobody said a word (apart from "Do you want fries with that, Sir?") to the man himself. "Except for this one truck driver who started up a conversation," says Crowe. "And he said, 'Hey, it's funny I wondered what would happen if I talked to you, because everybody round here's just f****** looking at you."-
With Crowe's reputation it is, perhaps, understandable that most might have been a touch apprehensive. After all this is a man known to fire off an expletive-loaded rebuke (mostly to intrusive paparazzi, to be fair), and you might be forgiven for believing that if you catch him on a bad day he's likely to bite your head off. Not so.
"We had a little chat and he was a really nice bloke," says Crowe. "He was telling me about his job, then he said, 'listen, mate, it's been really nice to meet you. And I'm glad I can tell my friends I have. And do you know what I'll tell them? That you're just a bloke who's good at his job.' And then he shook my hand, wished me luck and off he went. And you know, in simplistic terms, that's the way I look at it, too. A part of me says you go to work, you do your best and you get your pay packet at the end of the week. I mean, obviously the pay packet is a bit distended these days but the philosophy is the same."
That much has always been true and will remain so, despite, as he says, the pay packet which needs to be delivered by armoured car. It was true when I first met him, some 11 years ago in Sydney. He was 25 and at the start of his Australian film career and Id been sent to interview him. We became unlikely friends. For reasons which neither of us has ever really analysed, we just got along. When he was in the UK, he'd camp at my place. When I was in Australia, I'd stay in the spare room, on a mattress, with a piano he was renovating and various guitars.
The friendship has deepened over the years. People often assume that if you interview famous people, many of them become friends. In fact, it's very rare: most celebrities are guarded to the point of paranoia in their dealings with non-celebrities. It's a running joke that we've shared a beer together in more than 20 cities now. He became, and remains, a kind of godfather figure to my two lads. He sends them presents, messages and pieces of priceless film memorabilia from all over the world. Once, on the set of Gladiator, a muddy Surrey wood doubling as a German forest in the days of ancient Rome, he plonked them both on the director and producer's chairs so that they could get the best view of him fighting the hordes.
When the fame, the really big-time stuff, began to happen, he shared it like a bag of sweeties. In Cannes where L.A. Confidential was premiered in 1997. He dragged me -- the journalist aka the enemy -- along to parties in private yachts. He organised a meeting between me and the writer James Ellroy because he knew I was a huge fan. Over the years, he's been more generous and fun to know in ways he probably wouldn't even like me to share with you. He once, for example, chartered a helicopter so that he could see my daughter on her twelfth birthday. The stories are endless.
Through it all, he's remained, in essence, an ordinary bloke. Given half the chance he's still perfectly at home with farm hands and truckers, talking sport, playing pool and sinking a beer. But he's also very much at ease at Hollywood's top tables, sipping champagne with the film world's great and good.
Some seem to think he made one blockbuster hit, Gladiator, and was virtually an overnight success. In reality his progression from theatre to film, from New Zealand to Australia to America is one fuelled by hard graft, sacrifice, a formidable talent and a hefty degree of self-belief. "I'm still on the same journey that started 13 years ago when I made my first film he says. "Sure, luck is part of it. But I believe you are the master of your own destiny. A lot of people go, 'OK, I'm born in Wellington and I'm not supposed to go and make feature films in Hollywood. What's the chances of that? Pretty damn slim. They accept that and maybe I didn't accept that."
When I first met him, in 1990, he had just finished that first film, The Crossing. Even then, it was obvious that this was a young man -- he was 25 at the time -- who wouldn't settle for second best. He was ambitious, although he didn't talk of Hollywood and Oscars, he wanted the good roles, he told me, the best ones he could get, but then most young actors will say that. But even then, he would stand up for himself where perhaps other rookies might have kept their mouths shut. "When I did The Crossing the costume people wanted me to wear a leather jacket and pretend I was James Dean. I said, 'This is Australia in nineteen-sixty-fucking-one and it's in the bush, right, I'm a shearer, I've never been out of this town. How the fuck did I get a leather jacket?"
Now, all these years later, there have been two Oscar nominations -- he won Best Actor last year for Gladiator, of course -- and every chance that he could be up for a third, for his portrayal of John Forbes Nash, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who battled with schizophrenia, in A Beautiful Mind, for which he has just won a Golden Globe. Life has indeed changed but his working methods haven't. It's still in the details, he will tell you. "With Nash, I wanted to find a couple of things that would help me. One was that I decided to grow my nails. He has long fingers and I thought if I grew my nails it would make me use my hands in a different way I was writing on a blackboard, picking up paper."
Way back when in Sydney, he lived in a two-bedroom flat which he shared with a hardy population of cockroaches and the crates of empties which made it difficult to reach the kitchen sink. These days, there's the farm -- with its 350 head of cattle, 20 outbuildings including a gym, two pools and an array of guesthouses, his favourite horse, a bay called Honey -- and a newly acquired townhouse in Sydney. There are cars and motorbikes (including his beloved HarIey Davidsons), guitars and mixing desks and goodness knows what else -- and a life, post-Gladiator, lived in the headlines. Or so it would seem.
If playing Maximus in Gladiator was to be the role that brought him mass recognition, his relationship with Meg Ryan, which started when they made Proof of Life together, kept him firmly in the spotlight. All that attention hardly helped either of them, or their romance, he says now. Ryan was fresh from splitting with her husband, Dennis Quaid, and Crowe was cast as the villain of the piece. "The situation with Meg was simpler and at the same time more complicated," he says referring to tabloid stories of the time. "But all the accusations that were levelled towards her and this residual reputation that I now have, all of that was undeserving. It was a much more simple and human situation, and sooner or later people won't need to talk about it any more."
That "simple" and human situation was, I saw for myself, two people in love with each other. Recently, he said that he blamed himself for the break-up and implied that work commitments got in the way and that he should have been "more flexible". He said later, "I don't think we were 100 per cent ready for what being with each other was going to bring. It wasn't a plan, it just happened..." I do know that they are still very, very close. They e-mail and talk frequently, but he prefers not to discuss the whys and wherefores of what exactly happened. "I think Meg is a fantastic woman, I value her friendship immensely and for all of the silliness that came up later, it was an incredible thing."
One thing does still annoy him -- the implication that their relationship somehow damaged the film they were making. Directed by Taylor Hackford (who is married to Helen Mirren), and filmed in Poland, Ecuador and England, Proof of Life followed two of Crowe's best performances, as Maximus in Gladiator, and Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco industry whistle-blower, in The Insider, which won him his first Oscar nomination.
Proof of Life, although an enjoyable enough action flick with Crowe playing a former SAS hostage negotiator who falls for the wife of the kidnap victim, didn't really match up to those two. At a press conference last year, Hackford implied that Crowe and Ryan's romance had overshadowed the film. "Just for clarity" says Crowe, "apart from a few kind of strange situations -- mainly because of the conditions we were working in, you know 14,00Oft up in the Andes where the weather patterns change every quarter of an hour, every day on that film was about the intensity of work, and Taylor didn't know I was in a relationship with Meg. It was only through people informing him during the course of interviews that he found out about it. Our personal relationship was separate to our working relationship. We went to work, we did the best job we possibly could for the director."
People often get the wrong idea about Crowe. It's easily done. He's prone to fits of honesty which must drive his publicist nuts, and he's likely to bark at you if you ask him a dumb question. But, really, although he can be gruff, he is very funny and has the ability to laugh, especially at himself. Last year, at the premiere of Proof of Life in Madrid, he waited in the wings while Hackford introduced his films, in fluent Spanish. Outside, a crowd of hundreds were going bonkers, chanting, "Roooseell! Gladiator!" It had taken him 20 minutes to get through them and into the cinema. As the director finished his speech, introducing his star, all heads swivelled to get a good look. Crowe bounded up on to the stage. "Thank you, very kind. I've been learning Spanish too, and if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to say a few words: "Dos cervezas, por favor! " With that he gave a quick wave and was gone.
Now, of course, since his break-up with Meg more than a year ago, the tabloids would have it that he's Hollywood's resident Romeo. He is supposed to have dated Sharon Stone. Not true. She gave him a big career break, and a role in his first American film, The Quick and the Dead, but they were never involved. He is supposed to be an old boyfriend of Nicole Kidman's. Not true. He's close friends -- nothing more -- with Kidman (and her ex-husband, Tom Cruise). Even he finds it hard to keep up with all of the gallivanting he's supposed to have done. The latest, just a couple of weeks back, had him paired off with Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife in A Beautiful Mind.
" It really bugs me," he fumes. I have a great working relationship and friendship with Jennifer, and we were at an awards ceremony the other night and the next thing there's a story saying I'm going out with her. It's just silly. I have a lot of good friendships with people I've worked with but it doesn't mean I've gone out with them. But it doesn't worry me as much any more. It's funny, and frankly ridiculous. There was a report the other night that I was in a New York strip club with five strippers. I was in Australia at the time. The day after somebody had the newspaper and looked at me as if 'I wonder...' and I'm like, 'You idiot, I'm right in front of you. Do you think 1 can be in two continents at the same time?"'
This is not to say that Mr Crowe doesn't enjoy a good time. He certainly does. And the company of beautiful women. Oh yes, I can vouch for that. And they certainly seem to enjoy his company, too. But if half the escapades he's supposed to have had were true, he would have had little time left to make movies.
In London recently, where we last met, he had a suite at the Dorchester. Mostly he worked -- endless interviews and meetings -- and in between, went for walks in the park, did some shopping. When he does party, however, it does tend to be worth turning up for. Each year, just after Christmas, he throws a party on the farm for friends who fly in from all over the world. This year there were more than 200 guests for dinner who were entertained by a swing band and an Irish comedian before a midnight barn dance. "Once a year, regardless of what else is going on, I get to see all the people I love," says Crowe. "And this thing, that started off as a one-night party every year, has become a kind of mini festival."
The farm represents the home he never had as a kid. His parents, Alex and Jocelyn. ran hotels -- pubs -- in New, Zealand and Australia and had a spell as location caterers. They moved frequently, and neither Crowe, nor his older brother Terry, look back on one particular house as their childhood home. "I didn't live in a house until I was 14. My dad changed employment once every 12 months, and that usually meant a change of apartments or hotels. Now I look at people who grew up in one house, one bedroom, and I'm jealous, Do I still yearn for that? Yeah, and what I've done with the farm is constructed around that. The place is big enough so that mum and dad and Terry -- and me, when I'm there -- can all live in it without being in each other's pockets. And I can pamper myself there, I can rest up, or I can do physical work. Or I can wander off into the bush and have absolute serenity."
The farm will, one day, be home for the Crowe kids. "I certainly hope so," he says. They will, of course, have a childhood vastly different from his own. It's the one thing that seems missing from the utopia he's created. He'll be a good dad, too. I'm sure of it.
Crowe first acted as a six-year-old with a couple of lines in a series called Spyforce. As a teenager, back in New Zealand by then, he was keen to leave school and see if he could make it playing music and acting. After a series of dead-end jobs -- including one as a bingo caller from which he was sacked for being rather too colourful with the rhyming numbers he won a part in a production of Grease. By 19, he had moved to Australia and over the next few years he concentrated on the stage. There were other "pay the rent" jobs, too. "I did a training film for the New South Wales Roads and Safety Commission. I was the bloke who teaches people the correct procedure for the use of the 'stop and go' sign." More importantly, he began to get good notices for stage productions such as Blood Brothers and The Rocky Horror Show. In 1989, he was cast in The Crossing, alongside Danielle Spencer, who became his long-term girlfriend. In the early Nineties, he was in just about every Australian film worthy of note.
Awarded several AFIs (the Aussie Oscars), America was the obvious next step. He recalls sitting down with his Australian agent, Shirley Pearce, and talking about the future. "Shirley said, 'What is it you want to achieve?' And I said, 'Well, have you seen Rain Man?, which had just come out. And she said, 'Yes...' and I said, 'Well, that sort of work...' and Shirley said, 'What, like Tom Cruise?' and I said, 'No, the other fella. . . "'
Crowe began to build his American career, and the film that really proved to be important was L.A. Confidential. His explosive performance as violent cop Bud White won him plenty of recognition, and many felt Crowe should have been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But for that, he would have to wait another couple of years.
In 1999, nominated for The Insider, he lost out to Spacey (for American Beauty) but was back again last year, for Gladiator. His latest performance, as Nash, could easily win him a third nomination. Back home in Australia, where winning is a national obsession, they are already counting on their boy to do it again. "Yeah, now I know how the Australian cricket team feels," he laughs.
He may play down his chances, but many feel his performance is one of the best of the year. Directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13, The Paper), A Beautiful Mind is based on Nash's life story. When the eccentric, brilliant John Forbes Nash Jr. arrived at Princeton in 1947 he is awkward, shy and hardly fits in the competitive world of Ivy League graduate school. At first it seems as if he will fall by the wayside, but Nash invents a game theory -- the mathematics of competition which contradicts the doctrines of the economist Adam Smith, and he is hailed as a genius.
After college, in the Cold War era, he begins to work for the US intelligence services, as a code breaker, and he meets a beautiful physics student, Alicia, falls in love and marries. A few years later, Nash's life falls apart. As he descends into madness, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia and disappears off the academic map. But his wife stands by him, and gradually he begins to regain some kind of control of his life. Eventually, in 1994, Nash is awarded the Nobel Prize. It is, as Crowe points out, a very powerful love story. "For me, the relationship between John and Alicia was so compelling," he says. It wasn't just a film that dealt with mental illness or this genius, it was a great romance, this wonderful, committed relationship that lasted through it all''
During filming, he hardly had one decent night's sleep. "I had nightmares, lots of them. No matter what I'd done over the weekend, no matter how I'd tried to relax, 1 could not sleep the night before shooting. But I think that's part of the process -- you delve into this stuff and you can't help but ask yourself how you'd feel in this situation."
The transformation was not just psychological but physical, too. He has to play Nash from a student to a man in his early seventies. He'd done it before, of course, in The Insider, when he was barely recognisable as Jeffrey Wigand, a man 20 years his senior. On that occasion he looked in the mirror and saw his own father looking back at him. "My dad looks like Wigand," he says. "Actually, Dad was at the premiere in Los Angeles and he was being chased by photographers. And my dad is just a bloke, you know. And after the fourth one came running up taking his picture, he turned round and said, 'Look, fuck-off! I'm not him!"
Now you can see where he gets it from.
24 HOURS WITH RUSSELL CROWE
by Martyn Palmer
Glamour (UK, March)
On the top floor of one of London's top hotels, The Dorchester, actor Russell Crowe is contemplating another day of interviews with all the relish of a trip to the dentist. His American publicist Robin Baum, is cajoling "Just one more day and then it's over" which is and isn't true. It will be over for the London leg but then it's on to Los Angeles for more of the same. Russell's new film "A Beautiful Mind is about to be released and there's plenty to talk about. His performance as tortured Nobel-prize winning mathematics genius, John Nash, could well earn him a third Oscar nomination (at "Glamour" press time, it had already netted him a Golden Globe nomination.)
He won Best Actor last year for Gladiator and is due to present the Best Actress award this year. Nicole Kidman, a close friend, is a hot contender for Best Actress.
"It would be great if Nic won" he says "But I'd have to be careful if it was somebody else not to show any disappointment. I did a joke at an awards ceremony in Australia once. I read the names and went 'Oh dear, its....' It didn't get a laugh. I thought it was funny."
He was born in New Zealand 37 years ago, raised in Australia, and home is a 750 acre farm in New South Wales. When he's not working he spends time there riding his beloved Harley or his horse. That's when he's happiest. Today, I am with my wife Daphne, and our two children - they love "Uncle Russ". They've known him all their lives, ever since I first interviewed him 12 years ago. Back then, I'd kip in his spare room in Sydney. He was just an actor, I was a journalist. Now he's a film star. He hasn't changed much, if at all. He always was intense, but if I had to sum up one thing he values most of all, it would be loyalty.
"London is great this time of year" he says. He can be critical of the city but mostly just likes to wind me up. He like to call England "Bleaksville" because of our poor weather and is convinced the beer comes straight from the Thames. But he likes it really (the place, not the beer) especially if Australia beats us at sport. He's sports mad (his cousin Martin Crowe, used to captain New Zealand's cricket team) and is a bit of a Leeds United fan, for some unknown reason.
We leave The Dorchester via a crafty route to avoid any paparazzi. Russ's bodyguard, Tony, comes along. He's highly efficient and very necessary. Last year Russell received kidnap threats which the FBI took very seriously. He doesn't like to talk about it and was furious when the story leaked. Ironically, some people thought it was a publicity stunt because it parrallelled the plot of his film "Proof Of Life" but I was around when the threats were made and they were very real. Bodyguards have become a fact of life when he's on the road.
We're in a cafe in Hyde Park and the girls behind the counter pretend not to recognise him. We sit down and Russell drinks English tea, which he can't get enough of. He's due to start work at noon so we have to walk back to the hotel and a few passers-by do a double take. His attitude to fans is sweet, especially if it's the right time and place. I remember a time on set in New york for "A Beautiful Mind", when he'd arranged to have a group of young kids to visit because they'd written saying how much they'd loved "Gladiator". They were all from a very deprived area of The Bronx and were thrilled to spend the day with him. In between takes he was glued to their side, looking after them When he was called back to work he would say, "Excuse me, I've got to go and be mad for a minute..."
Back at The Dorchester Russ has changed into jeans and a checked shirt. And with a brief break for lunch (chicken soup), he's ushered from one room to another to meet the waiting members for the press.
Back in the suite I ask "How was it?" A couple of journalists tried to get the low-down on the Meg Ryan affair. You may have read she and Russ dated for a few months last year, during and after making "Proof Of Life".
"I just really don't see why they have to go into that. I think the world of Meg, we still talk, we will always be friends. I mean, come on, what do they want me to say?"
He's a ladies' man, there's no denying it. Young, free and single, he's always been a hit with the women. But some reports go over the top.
"Its' garbage" he says. Anyway, I suspect he's got a certain someone waiting back in Australia. He's dying to start a family. He'll make a great dad and dotes on his neice, Chelsea, 13, who was his escort to the Oscars when he was nominated for "The Insider".
"Oh, you bet I want kids, if I'm lucky enough. In the meantime I'm surrounded by my friends' children. But explaining why you want children is a bit like explaining why you want to live - you want to pass things on, watch them grow, they make you laugh. It's one of the best things in life."
Tonight there's a special BAFTA screening of "A Beautiful Mind" and he worries that if he goes to watch, it'll put people off.
"I'm not sure they want to see the film with me there, it might make them feel a bit strange don't you think?"
He decides he will turn up at BAFTA for the Q & A session after the movie. He asks if I want a beer. I'm fine "What's with you? Are you sick?" This is rich. He's not had a beer for 22 days after a particularly heavy night at the farm, celebrating his parents' wedding anniversary. "It was only beer, but it was a late one and I had a lot of it. I felt like shit afterwards and I decided to have a break. It's good for you. You should try it."
We head for BAFTA, Picadilly, on foot.
Tony has been warned there are fans gathering outside the cinema and one, apparently, has a sword that she would like Russ to sign. "A sword? You must be joking" I hear Tony say into his mobile. He moves into action. He spots the lady in question and immediately puts himself in front of Russell. He ushers him inside and tells the woman, politely but firmly, that swords and film stars are best left to the silver screen and not a great combination on a London street. Mini crisis over. Russell is inside firing up a quick Benson & Hedges in the foyer before he goes on stage with the film's director, Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman.
Russell's "G'day, folks how're ya doin'?" puts everyone at ease and has them laughing instantly. When Ron is asked a question about his leading man, Russ turns to him and says "Do you want me to go? It would probably be a lot more entertaining if I just went outside for a fag..." Lots of laughs. But don't be fooled. The gags, the bluff and bluster, mask a really ferocious intellect. It's a cliche, but he really doesn't suffer fools gladly.
The Bar, Dorchester Hotel. Post gig euphoria.
"I thought it went really well" he says. "Do you think they liked the movie?"
I think they did. That same kind of euphoria marks the end of his booze-free period. Then Kylie, (who has been friends with Russell since they met in Australia 10 years ago) and her fella James Gooding, arrive. They have just seen the film and loved it. "Oh good" says Russ "Let's talk about something else. I've been talking about it all day."
We head for the Dorchester Club downstairs. A few minutes after we settle down, the DJ is playing Kylie's "I Can't Get You Out Of My Head"
"Who the f*ck is this by?" asks Russ with a huge grin. "I like it." Another couple of beers and James and Kylie are off home.
Two very beautiful girls are eyeing up Russ from the next table, but he doesn't seem to notice. I want to go home. Russ is having none of it. We head back to his room to watch a DVD but he can barely keep his eyes open and we call it a night.
A Mercedes waits outside The Dorchester to whisk Russell and Robin to a helecopter pad in Battersea. From there, they'll fly to Stanstead, where a Gulf Stream jet awaits to take them to Los Angeles. He's bright and cheerful. I'm hungover and knackered.
"Another ten days or so before I go home" he says. "Do you want to come down to the farm for a few days?" Prior committments sadly mean I have to decline. Not without a degree of regret I can assure you.
(Thanks to Budsbabe)
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