Source: The Times magazine (UK)
February 2, 2002
Russell Crowe: A He-Man's brilliant career
By Martyn Palmer
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 fucking 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 I'd 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 kids. 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 film, 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 I 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, likeTom 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 andAlicia 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, I 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.