May 8

Source: The Daily Mail (UK)

May 8, 2010

Russell Crowe on Robin Hood and assaulting Prince Andrew
By Martyn Palmer

He based his English accent on Michael Parkinson, filmed battle scenes in agony with an injured Achilles tendon and assaulted Prince Andrew with a log. But can Robin Hood match his epic Gladiator?

It's midnight in the woods near Windsor Castle and Russell Crowe is about to assault Prince Andrew. A casually dressed Duke of York has turned up to watch Sir Ridley Scott film his latest epic in Windsor Great Park - standing in for Sherwood Forest - and Crowe as Robin Hood is rehearsing a fight scene that involves grabbing a campfire log to fend off a band of brigands.

It's the first time a production has been given permission to film among the park's ancient oaks - some are more than 600 years old - and the prince watches intently as the actor demonstrates a move that will see him parry a blow from one of the attackers before spinning around and striking another.

Suddenly, Crowe throws the log at the prince at waist height and there's a collective gasp from the British crew before Andrew, swift as you like, reaches out and catches it with timing worthy of a wicket keeper. The prince seems momentarily stunned at what has happened before his face breaks into a big grin. Royal protocol, presumably, does not include using the fourth in line to the throne as a stand-in on a film set. But then Crowe has never been a man who gets bogged down by convention.

"I'm happy he caught the log," Crowe says later. "It was an instinctive thing - it's like when you are playing sport. I threw it where he had the best possible chance of catching it. The thing is, if I'd thrown it too hard I'd have made a complete jerk of myself, and it wasn't about doing that. It was about showing a group of Englishmen, who were a little bit overawed with their prince being there, that he's a bloke and is ready for a bit of fun. I really liked him. He's smart, knowledgeable and very inquisitive. He told a funny story too.

"He said: 'I was having dinner with my mother, and I asked her if it was appropriate that I wear a suit when visiting the film set.' And his mother, who is the Queen after all, said, 'No Andrew, if you turn up in a suit people will think you are a ninny.' Whatever I thought I knew about him changed completely. He was charming.

"He said: 'Can you imagine if I'd come here in a suit when everyone else is in chain mail, people have blood pouring out of their heads, it's freezing and the crew are all rigged up and everything?' Her Majesty was right: if he had turned up in a suit he would have looked like a ninny. But he didn't, and he was a good bloke - I liked him a lot."

It's almost 5am before Crowe's night is over. He shuns the offer of a car to take him the mile or so back to his trailer, preferring to walk through the woodland to the main production base, a mini city of trucks and trailers parked on a field nearby. The crew have nicknamed his section Russell Square.

There's a mobile gym, an office, a wardrobe trailer and his own personal Winnebago complete with flatscreen TV and a fridge full of Guinness. Inside, the trailer is strewn with two Gretsch guitars, CDs, books (two works on Ulysses S Grant, the American Civil War general, a biography of the late comedian Bill Hicks), and on the wall are drawings by and photographs of his two sons, Charlie and Tennyson. Dawn is about to break but for Crowe it's the end of a long, exhausting working day.

"Help yourself to a beer," he says. "And get me one while you're at it."

Crowe has a reputation for being a tough interviewee, but I've met him frequently over the years and he's friendly and open, if sometimes combative. In the past, his temper has got him into highly publicised trouble - he pushed a producer up against the wall at a Bafta party back in 2002 and was fined for throwing a phone at a hotel receptionist in New York in 2005. He's calmed down a lot since.

He looks in good shape - his hair is cut short and combed forward in much the same way as it was when he made Gladiator. But we're here to talk about Robin Hood.

Crowe, 46, has loved the story since he was a boy, growing up first in New Zealand, where he was born, and later in Australia.

"I watched the Richard Greene TV series when I was a kid," he says. "When you see the episodes now, they're a bit creaky, and it's basically the same story every week. I saw the Errol Flynn version and the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. one when I was really young. But I really disliked Prince Of Thieves (Kevin Costner's 1991 take). I thought it was like a Jon Bon Jovi video clip - all the mullet hairdos.

"I still think there has never been a cinema Robin Hood who could have really existed. When you do the research you discover that the Robin Hood story is probably based on 24 to 30 different real people who were born in lots of diff erent places. So you can take the time period, use the core message and put a different take on it."

Like Gladiator (which was filmed at many of the same Surrey locations), the new Robin Hood uses real historical events - the death of Richard the Lionheart as he returns from the Third Crusade in Palestine, an England left nearly bankrupt and on the verge of civil unrest as the people are forced to pay the price for that war - as the framework for the story of how one man of action comes to symbolise a yearning for justice and is prepared to fight for it. It's a gritty, dirty and believable tale, and is studded with spectacular action sequences - there's not a pair of green tights, a feathered cap or indeed a mullet anywhere to be seen.

Crowe has been involved in every aspect of the production - he is credited as a producer for the first time - from the script to the costume that he wears, in this case a battered tunic and chain mail over worn leather trousers.

"I wanted to take out the fairytale, superhero aspect," he says. "Part of the recalibration of Robin Hood is to put him into a place where he's a real man with a real job. He's got at least ten years of military experience behind him. Our attitude was that all the politics, the philosophical aspects, the romance, all grow out of the story of a real person."

The political subtext - Robin Hood essentially tackles the aristocratic fat cats who are exploiting the workers who keep the country going - couldn't be more timely, of course. There's even talk of a Robin Hood tax on those banks which have used billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to get out of the big hole that they dug themselves into.

"Does the story have a political relevance? Absolutely. It examines the politics of the time and if that resonates with what's happening today, then great. The guys who came up with the idea for a new Robin Hood were sensing something in the air and when the idea came to Ridley and me we felt the same.

"We don't overindulge the whole robbing from the rich and giving to the poor thing, we take that idea in a slightly new direction. It's not like, 'Here are ten gold coins, go and change your life', it's more about rights and privileges being redistributed."

Crowe got himself in to peak condition for the part. His daily routine included bike riding, gym time and hours learning archery on his farm near Coffs Harbour in New South Wales, one of three Australian homes he shares with his actress wife of seven years Danielle Spencer - and when we meet again after the film has wrapped he reveals he's still hooked on the sport.

"Archery is a beautiful thing when you get it right. I love it and I've continued with it. I have a collection of bows from the film and I go out back and drag out the target and shoot off 50 arrows or more for relaxation."

Crowe is exacting about the detail of his film roles. When he played a boxer in Cinderella Man he trained with Angelo Dundee, Muhammed Ali's trainer during the glory years, to make sure that he moved like a pro fighter. For Robin Hood it was more about getting the accent right - a South Yorkshire twang. Crowe worked with a dialogue coach and listened to tapes of his friend, former chat show host Michael Parkinson.

"If you look at the early ballads about Robin Hood he's connected to Barnsdale and generally historians argue that Barnsdale in Yorkshire and Nottingham are the two places he could have come from. So yes, I listened to a lot of Parky - that was a great help!"

Crowe did most of the action scenes himself. There's one spectacular sequence where Robin Hood leads his band to repel an invasion by the French. Filmed on a beach in Pembrokeshire (which is meant to be Dover), it was a nightmare to film. The tides are fast-moving and potentially treacherous. Scott had to marshal 130 horsemen on the beach - including Crowe - and a landing craft disgorging French fighters on to the shore under a cloud of arrows. Crowe clearly loved it.

"It was all anarchy, violence and adrenaline," he says. "You're in a cavalry charge with 130 horses going as fast as they can and you smash into 500 men on the ground and have seven or eight fights. And it has to take place at exactly the right time - if you slow up the guy behind you is right up your backside, so you can't make a mistake."

Were there injuries?

"I think they took about 15 people from the field. Some of them went to hospital but they were all OK. It was intense."

Making Robin Hood was a challenging physical test for Crowe, not least because he went into the film carrying an injury to his Achilles tendon that has troubled him for ten years, since he made Gladiator, and has grown steadily worse over the past three years.

"Earlier this year I was in a park chasing my son Tenny and felt that if I really put the hammer down and tried to catch him my tendon would come off the bone. At the beginning of Robin Hood we nearly wrote an injury into the script, just in case the limp came back," he reveals. "And actually I was having a terrible time with it while we were making the film."

Indeed, three weeks before the end of the production, things reached crisis point when Crowe was filming a scene that involved him jumping from a castle door.

"It was a 12ft jump and normally you would land on your toes and take the shock out of your body. But because of my Achilles I was trying to land somewhere between the balls of my feet and my heels. I over-jumped on the first take and crushed my heels. I was in agony. I was walking like an 80-year-old. People were going: 'What's the matter, Gladiator?'"

He struggled through the last days of the shoot and has now started radical treatment in a bid to fix the problem. Crowe has been having a series of painful weekly treatments where blood is taken from his arm and injected directly into his Achilles tendon.

"The rationale is that tendons require blood to repair themselves. Does it hurt? Well, it's like somebody taking a sledgehammer to the back of your heel. The tendon swells up to a couple of times its normal size. I have to wear a moon boot for 48 hours afterwards, so the kids make fun of me. But if it can get me back to the point where I can play sport that will be sensational. It's been a big thing missing from my life for the past few years."

Sport is one of Crowe's abiding passions. In 2006, along with a business partner, he paid £2 million to take a controlling interest in the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the rugby league team he has supported since he was a boy. As soon as Crowe took control he instigated a major overhaul - bringing in new players, a new coach, kitting the team out in club suits designed by his friend Giorgio Armani and organising new sponsorship deals.

In a few weeks, Robin Hood will have its world premiere as the opening-night film at the Cannes Film Festival and Crowe recalls how his life has changed since he first went there, as a young actor with the Australian film Proof, back in 1991, virtually penniless.

"I was broke. I had to get a loan to pay for the flight and I stayed on the couch in a teeny-weeny place rented by the director. The audience was about 40 or 50 people for our thing. It poured with rain and I had a hole in my boot. That experience is still very clear in my mind."

Since then he has made nearly 30 films, coming to international attention in the gritty Australian drama Romper Stomper (1992), cracking Hollywood with the excellent LA Confidential (1997) and rocketing to the A-list with ... well, we hardly need reminding.

Although Crowe and Ridley Scott have made three other films together A Good Year, American Gangster and Body Of Lies), all anyone seems to want to talk about is the sword-and-sandals epic that won him his Oscar. Surprisingly, he doesn't mind.

"No, I don't. A lot of people have tried, to varying degrees, to emulate Gladiator. These movies are hard to make. They require a lot of physical effort - and that's all good, because that's the kind of thing I enjoy doing. Originally, when Ridley and I talked about Robin Hood, the film was going to last about seven hours. We still have another five hours to go."

If they do make a sequel, it will give them a chance to actually visit Nottingham.

"We planned to go there and pay our respects during the shoot," he says. "We even hired a van one day, but we didn't get off set until about 8pm, so we ended up in a pub instead. The best laid plans, you know. But at some point someone will mention that we never went to Nottingham - and we're going to look like idiots...."