Russell Crowe: In Print

|| Cowboys and Indians 6/02) ||

Russell Crowe
Cover story by Eric O'Keefe
Photography by Yariv Milchan
Courtesy of DreamWorks SKG

Cowboys & Indians presents an exclusive interview and never-before-seen photography at the actor's Australian ranch.

Days have turned into weeks, yet the irony of the 74th Academy Awards has failed to diminish. How is it possible that the leading actor in the film that won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay failed to win Best Actor honors? The answer goes to the essence of Russell Crowe. The remarkable Aussie has spent the better part of the last decade creating a series of iconic characters--John Nash, Maximus, Jeffrey Wigand, and Bud White--rather than focusing on Hollywood hype. The resulting legacy is that of an accomplished artist, not the typical sort of celebrity so routinely dubbed a star.

Point No. 1: Stars don't show up for interviews on time. That would be ...thoughtful, considerate, and indicative of a schedule, which, as everyone knows, is something that A-list talent need not abide. Crowe? He's five minutes early and ready to roll.

Point No. 2: Stars require legions of handlers to look after everything from mundane chores to major career moves. Crowe forgoes such pretense, going so far as to handle everything from saddling his own horse to vetting prospective scripts. And he insists on performing his own stunt work--as a gunfighter in The Quick and the Dead, an ice skater in Mystery, Alaska, and a gladiator in some sword-and-sandal flick that did a measly $187 million at the box office a couple of years back.

Point No. 3: Simply put, it's all about the star. And this is clearly Crowe's Achilles heel. Ask him about his performance in A Beautiful Mind, and he tells you that "the success of this film is really about Ron Howard as a director. It's not really about me." Get him talking about his Australian ranch, and the conversation turns to his foreman, Tom Payton. Ask him to name his favorite Western, and not only does he fail to mention one of his own but he won't stop raving about John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder and McLintock! Will someone tell this guy what it takes to get ahead?

Let's start off with a scene from Gladiator. Crowe's character, Maximus, is getting a little pep talk from Proximo, the ex-gladiator-turned-impresario so masterfully played by the late Oliver Reed. Dazzled by the surgical efficiency of Maximus' sword skills, Proximo senses that this slave who wears the mark of the legion can storm the Coliseum, win Rome, and save Proximo from his banishment to the "flea-infested villages" of the Roman provinces. But first Proximo must convince his gladiator to lighten up on the brutality and play to the audience a bit before he goes off and decapitates a few foes. His admonition: "Win the crowd, and you will win your freedom."

Although his character achieved those ends in Gladiator, the real-life Russell Crowe has endured exactly the opposite. Winning the crowd--three consecutive Academy Award nominations, an Oscar for Gladiator, and a string of films that have generated hundreds of millions of box-office dollars--has assured him an almost complete loss of personal freedom. Much like Maximus Decimus Meridius, Crowe's talents have made him a slave to the various offshoots of moviemaking. The man is shackled by an endless series of premieres, press junkets, luncheons, and film festivals. Maybe if he settled down in the States or in Europe his schedule wouldn't be so constrained, but Crowe is committed to staying put in Australia, particularly when it comes to spending time at the Australian ranch he bought six years ago.

Crowe's initial idea was to spend half the year in Australia and the other half on location shooting overseas. "The original plan was six and six," he says, before adding, "That worked out for the first couple of years, but it hasn't been working out lately. But I take it when I can get it, mate."

The ranch is located north of Sydney along the Coastal Flats of New South Wales. Crowe originally purchased about 100 acres and has since added hundreds more to accommodate his growing herd of Brangus cattle. "I wouldn't call it great cattle country," he says. "It's not soft ground at all. The British introduced a number of species of grass into the area, which have proven to be very problematic."

The fact that the rolling terrain was once a rain forest only makes for more of a challenge. Says Crowe, We get a lot of other problems we have to deal with. We've got two of the most poisonous snakes in the world--the red-bellied black and king brown snake. We've got all manner of spiders, and we've got all sorts of ticks, from just straight ticks to paralysis ticks and shellback ticks. So you've got to be conscious of all the things that are working against the cattle being as good as they can be. But I actually enjoy that part of it."

His herd, once fewer than 25, now numbers close to 450, and he speaks about them in soft, nurturing terms. "It's more than a hobby, but at the same time, I'm not looking to turn off maximum amounts of head every year. I really enjoy the company of the cattle. I really enjoy the job of working the cattle. I really enjoy knowing them, running my hand over them."

As much as his American audiences are used to thinking of Crowe as one of their own, in person his Australian accent is as heavy as Melbourne Bitter (his favorite beer). He's quick to talk about his mates and what the other bloke had to say, and he's not the least bit hesitant to celebrate the pommel-less Australian stock saddle.

"Whereas you guys will rope off the horse, we don't," he says. "We tend to just corral them first and work with them individually once they're actually in the yards. I have a particular call, and particularly the younger heifers will respond very easily to that. We have this thing on the farm that when we work in the yards, we work in low tones. Nothing's too extreme. We try not to use the whip too much in the yards. We're not about adrenalizing the cattle. We're not about scaring them or freaking them out. We're about hands-on, care, and nudge. So that's why we can get them to come when we call them, because they're not afraid of us."

A good laugh is his initial response to my question about how running a cattle operation meshes with his moviemaking career. "At the moment my foreman, Tom Payton, is getting a bit edgy," he says. "He wants to get rid of a bunch of young steers, but I want to see them before he does that, so he's just going to have to wait until I get home. I don't like my babies to be sold off when I'm not there. I want to see, and I want to agree that for these reasons, these ones have to go. We don't run the farm based on anybody else's reasons, so I tend to be a bit of a joke in the valley with some of the other blokes because I don't do it strictly the way that they think it should be done."

The same goes for his new horse, or more specifically, his new horse's name. "Everybody else in the valley's got a horse named Lightning and Storm. Mine's name is Honey," he says with a laugh. "She's 14-3 (hands tall), and she comes out of an American sire by the name of Marquis de Frost.

Actually, the horses down on the farm, up until her, have been pretty much basic work horses, but she's a bit more of a sports car. Yeah, she turns it. She covers the eye really nicely. I mean, you just sit back and enjoy the ride."

Honey is more than just a cow horse; she is proof positive that Crowe makes good use of his solitude. "Writing songs is just one of the means of creative expression that I have, and it's something I do on horseback as well. Luckily, I've got a deaf horse," he says as he breaks into laughter.

Crow's songwriting and his musical career are a mystery to most. His band's lyrical name, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, offers little explanation. Says Crowe, "A lot of people just simply don't understand why I'm in a band in the first place. They think it's got something to do with the desire to be even more famous, or it's ego-driven and I think it's a really good idea that people should look at me. I just happen to write songs, and I've been doing it for most of my life. My first record came out in 1981 or something like that, and this band has been together in more or less the same form since 1984."

Crowe and his mates have pieced together a documentary about the band, Texas, as a way to set the record straight. "It's a very honest document," he says. "There's no overdubbing. It's very raw. It's probably one of the worst home movies you're ever going to see from that point of view. But I think it shows the band in their true light. Now, whether you think that that's credible or whether the music is your cup of tea, that's completely up to somebody else. But I thought at some point in time, a document has to be made from the band's perspective to show not only the musicians in the band, not only the reasons behind particular songs, but also the depth of the companionship. You know, when you've played in a band, when you've felt the power of the unit as you become more comfortable with each other and with the material, then it's a very addictive thing and it's something that I don't--I can't--easily turn away from."

The documentary's name developed out of Crowe's forays into the Lone Star State. "My first experience with Austin was around about 1997," he recalls. "I'd been to Dallas before that...down there in Deep Ellum, and I went to Austin and I was just walking around by myself because that was a sort of period in my life when it wasn't such a big deal for me to go out for a walk. And I just really liked the energy of the city. I liked the fact that you could walk down the street and see 10 different bands within half a mile. So I just put it in the back of my head that when my band was going to get around to recording a new album from scratch that might be a really good place to do it. So that's how we ended up there in 2000."

Crowe's affinity for Texas includes more than just music. "I've got some really good friends down there, and the very first place I ever went for a beer [in Austin] was Stubb's Bar-B-Q, with a filmmaker called Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids, Spy Kids 2). He took me out, and we sat on that balcony out back there, and I ordered three things from the menu. He just said 'Look, I know you're Australian and all that sort of stuff, but you're not going to eat all that.' And I'm like, 'Well, we'll see.'"

Survey says? The director was right.

The band developed such a hankering for Stubb's chopped-beef sandwiches that by the end of their tour last year they called in an order during a pit stop at the Austin airport. "As we were coming in to land, I was like 'Call Stubb's and see if they can deliver some barbecue out to the plane.' There was cheering and then they turned up at the plane with barbecue for 25. It was brilliant!"

As one of the world's best-known actors, it came as quite a shock to learn that Crowe once had no intention of pursuing such a career. "I never really found film. Film found me in the strangest of ways," he says. "It was something that I wanted to do, and it was the thing that I was the most passionate about. But I never discussed it, and I didn't actively pursue it. I didn't think anybody would ever take me seriously. It seemed like such a distant thing."

Despite those trepidations, Crowe has been working almost nonstop since he first made his mark in the Australian film The Crossing (1990). "The offers of work from the very first time I did a lead role have been continuous and a lot of the time overwhelming in terms of how much can I actually do in a given year," he says. In addition to solid performances, his success has been based on the scripts he chooses. Crowe himself determines his films, and he bases his picks on a studied approach. "I always make the decision the same way," he says. "If I have a physical reaction to a script, that's more
than likely the one that I'm going to do. I call it the goose-bump factor."

He also brings a journeyman's approach to the role. Says Crowe, "I take a working-class attitude into the job. I don't think that I'd ever assume that somebody's going to be successful just because you turn up. I think what makes these things special is the effort you put in. The things that you learn transfer themselves and come out in the grace notes of the performance. Film is a very elusive medium, and if you're not really focused on it, it can get away on you. But those grace notes--that little flicker of the eye at the right time in the narrative of a film--can replace four pages of dialogue."

Whether he's fiddling with his face in A Beautiful Mind while launching a stinging barb at a fellow Princetonian or sifting sand through his fingers as he readies for battle in Gladiator, those grace notes emerge in every aspect of Crowe's award-winning oeuvre. The grace notes one doesn't see--those that Crowe keeps to himself--are the rarely shared, private moments that he gets to enjoy only occasionally nowadays on his ranch back home.
FYI: ; .

(Thanks to Kitty T. and Carolyn)

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