Source: The Guardian
February 23, 2001
My 15 minutes with Russell Crowe ... and a bank of photographers, journalists, groupies and other hangers-on. Emma Brockes on the day Hollywood's hottest property came to town
By Emma Brockes
Oscar nominated and fresh from a fling with Meg Ryan, Russell Crowe has entered the golden zone, what Don DeLillo called the "devouring neon" of true fame. On the second floor of London's Dorchester Hotel, people crane like meerkats for a better view. This was George Clooney three years ago, Mark Wahlberg after Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise during Top Gun mania: an actor in the jaws of the vast, public appetite.
Two hours later than scheduled, a rustle moves through the room and there he is: a 36-year-old Australian with wavy hair, a Jesus beard and the beginnings of a paunch.
I should declare an interest: the performance of Russell Crowe's pectoral muscles was a big factor in my enthusiasm for the film Gladiator. He is not classically attractive. Even at his best, he looks as if he has just stepped out of economy class after a flight from Bangkok. This, however, is beside the point. The over-egged integrity of such roles as Jeffrey Wigand, tobacco industry whistleblower in The Insider; Bud White, good cop in LA Confidential; and Maximus Decimus Meridius (breast-plated strong man who weeps for his slain wife on the dusty hills of Spain) has made Crowe the subject of mass fascination. My friend Rachel knows his star sign and has taken every compatibility test the Crowe fan sites have thrown at her. She is 31. She has bought the calendar. That she and Crowe will never marry is an occasional - but genuine - source of sorrow to her.
In his latest film, Proof of Life, Crowe plays an ex-SAS soldier working to recover Meg Ryan's husband, an engineer kidnapped by rebels (or "narco-guerrillas" as the film-makers put it) in "Tecala", a fictional South American country. It is the film Russ and Meg met on. Meg plays Alice, a cheerful hippy in the minutes before everything goes pear-shaped. Before her husband Peter is snatched, they have a big row about priorities, then it's over to Russell, who is shown to be both cerebral (working a laptop) and physical (working a grenade-launcher). And, for once, he is permitted to play one of his own countrymen.
The director is Taylor Hackford (Officer and a Gentleman, Devil's Advocate) a man who describes Crowe as a "very difficult and thorny individual, who asks a lot and gives a lot". The relationship Crowe and Ryan embarked upon in the wake of the film had, says Hackford with weird candour, "an indelible and destructive effect that overpowered the release of the film in the United States."
Twenty minutes later, told of Hackford's remarks about him, Crowe responds with equally startling frankness: "What a fucking idiot. That's what he said? What a knob." The press officers in the room reach for their smelling salts and the place erupts.
Suddenly it fits into place. This is what we love about Crowe. He can play a generic Hollywood role like Maximus, but he is not himself a Hollywood creation. For those who find Clooney too unpalatably manufactured, Affleck too dewy-eyed, Wahlberg too perfectly buff, Crowe is an antidote. He is honest and unspun. There is even a bit of lard going on under his - yikes! - much-photographed lumberjack shirt. He is the kind of star you imagine you could introduced to your neighbourhood without sending the house prices up. "I'm not driven by people's praise or slowed down by people's criticism," he says. "I try to keep a sense of humour about" - he indicates the press corps - "but there's so much bollocks, you just have to let it slide."
Eighteen months ago, when Taylor Hackford cast Proof of Life, Crowe was nowhere. He had filmed Gladiator and The Insider but neither had been released. Warner Bros told Hackford to get a grip and find someone famous. "But I had seen the unedited versions of Gladiator and The Insider," says Hackford. "I thought, 'Here is an actor who can portray a lot without saying a lot.'
You can put actors in gladiatorial armour and they'll shrink to the size of a pygmy. Russell didn't. He held the screen."
I myself first noticed him 10 years ago in a Channel 4 mini-series called Brides of Christ. He played a mechanic sent to Vietnam with the Australian army. He was cute, back then, but weedy. He popped up in Neighbours in 1987, but his character, Kenny, was shortlived. He tried for a music career, playing under the name Rus le Roq, and released a single called "I Want to Be Like Marion Brando".
His first break in acting was an Australian film called Romper Stomper, which brought him to the attention of Sharon Stone and, after starring in her self-produced western, The Quick and the Dead, he was in the right place at the right time to be cast for the role of Bud in LA Confidential, one of the most highly praised films of 1997.
So he is still fairly new to the airless, upper reaches of fame; his disgust is palpable. "That's terrible," he says, genuinely aggrieved, when a reporter asks if he would move to LA for a better sex life. "I thought it was about love." He interrupts himself a moment later to finish her off. "You really are awful."
What few Australian actors there are in Crowe's league we tend to regard as surrogate Americans: the Mel Gibsons or Nicole Kidmans. But Crowe is emphatically not American, at pains to point out his citizenship of a Commonwealth nation. The SAS, he says, is the "highest level of military service in the English-speaking world". The Baftas, ever the poor relation to Oscar, are something he hotly defends. "I'm from a Commonwealth country," he repeats. "A nomination from the British Academy is equally important to getting an American nomination."
And, in matters of lifestyle, he hasn't yet got the hang of A-list living. On the Ecuadorian set of Proof of Life, while the cast and crew stayed in a hotel in town, Crowe set up camp on the isolated, hillside site where they were shooting. "I made a barbecue out of an oil can," he says. "I stole some food from the caterers. Everyone said, 'Are you mad?' There are wildcats around here. I said I'd take the wildcats over the Ecuadorian drivers." He compares the idea of living in LA to "unrolling my swag in the office. I don't think it would be healthy."
Proof of Life is also the first American film in which Crowe has been permitted to speak in his own accent. His character, Terry Thorne, was was initially written as a Brit, but after learning that Australians and New Zealanders served in the SAS, Crowe canvassed Hackford to let him keep his accent. "What I enjoyed about having my own speaking voice was that it gave me a clean easy attitude to the character. There was no limp, no eye patch, no tricks. When I read the script, I thought he was a sentient man, a staunch fella. Hey, Maximus was supposed to be Spanish, but turned out Royal Shakespeare Company two pints after lunch."
If the film did badly in the US, Crowe says, it was because it was released at the wrong time ("I wouldn't see a hostage film at Christmas"), and because of a reluctance to confront awkward truths that kept American audiences away from The Insider. Bad publicity surrounding his and Ryan's relationship - now over - was irrelevant, he says. "The ending of Meg's prior relationship had nothing to do with me. Meg Ryan is a beautiful and courageous woman. I grieve the loss of her companionship, but I haven't lost her friendship. We still phone each other for a good chat."
Of all the pre-production training Crowe has had to do - lifting weights for Gladiator and Proof of Life, learning maths for his next role as a schizophrenic mathematician in Beautiful Mind - the most enjoyable has been that which put him in the role of Jeffrey Wigand, the middle aged, podgy businessman in The Insider. "I had a medically-controlled diet of bourbon and cheeseburgers," he says, before telling us, with a delightful disregard for etiquette, that this is the favourite of his recycled quotes.
Fame, speculation, adulation - for Crowe, it comes down to this: "I don't feel under pressure to live up to anyone. Things haven't changed fundamentally. I'm still the same arsehole I was three years ago."