Source: Entertainment Weekly
May 12, 2000
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Cover Story | Russell Crowe: Chairman of the Sword
Crowe conquers the spectacular arena of Gladiator - but shooting this big-budget epic was anything but a Roman holiday
By Chris Nashawaty
Sometimes even the most inspired ideas sound ridiculous at first.
At least that's the way Ridley Scott saw it one June day in 1998, when DreamWorks' production head Walter Parkes and producer Douglas Wick paid a visit to his West Hollywood office and pitched him on directing a Roman gladiator epic set in A.D. 180.
A gladiator movie! Had his career come to this? Hadn't gladiator movies been used as a Peter Graves punchline in Airplane!?
Scott was well within his rights to laugh the pair out the door. After all, it had been 35 years since the decline and fall of those old-fashioned sandal-and-toga Roman spectaculars. And for good reason. For every Spartacus, Hollywood had cranked out a dozen fiscal sinkholes like Cleopatra or embarrassments like Barabbas. Horrifying images of a loincloth-clad Victor Mature sucking in his gut must have flashed through Scott's head.
Then Parkes pulled out the one thing he knew might sway the visually minded director behind Blade Runner and Alien. ''It was a reproduction of a 19th-century painting [Pollice Verso, by Jean-León Gérôme],'' says Scott. ''It depicted a gladiator standing over another gladiator who he was about to kill. And he was looking up to a crowd that was giving the full thumbs-down.'' At that moment, the ridiculous was transformed into the inspired.
''They really had me,'' laughs Scott. ''I hadn't even read the script and I was sitting there begging and thinking 'Shit, why hadn't I thought of that?'''
Now, nearly two years after Scott and DreamWorks tapdanced on the fine line between clever and stupid, the advance buzz on Gladiator-and especially on Russell Crowe as its badass warrior-hero Maximus-is so overwhelming that the only question seems to be how big a blockbuster it's going to be. But getting to this point has been one of the bumpiest chariot rides since Ben-Hur. For starters, at $103 million, Gladiator is the six-year-old studio's most expensive movie ever-and it wasn't even directed by in-house sure thing Steven Spielberg. Also, there was Scott's track record: It's been a rocky decade for the 62-year-old British auteur, who followed his last critical hit, 1991's Thelma & Louise, with potholes like White Squall and G.I. Jane. Then there was the script...or lack of one. Scott began shooting without a finished screenplay to meet a summer deadline, while last-minute writers were brought in to hash out a completely new second act. There was the shock when one of the film's stars, British actor Oliver Reed, died suddenly on location in Malta last spring. And finally, there was the movie's star: With brilliant performances in L.A. Confidential and The Insider, Crowe was definitely an actor on the rise. But whether he was ready to carry a summer action movie on his shoulders was another question entirely.
It's two weeks before Oscar night, and Russell Crowe seems the exact opposite of the tuxedoed sourpuss that the TV cameras caught in the audience of the Shrine. That night, Crowe looked like a guy who was weaned on a pickle. And in reality, on the set and off, the 36-year-old actor is a notorious bad boy-combative, hard-living, but most importantly, he insists, dead serious about his work. Today, though, over a couple of beers at a dude-ranch-themed bar on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, Crowe seems more laid-back and funny than brooding and hard-boiled.
Sipping on a Red Stripe, Crowe nods toward a mechanical bull in the center of the room. He drags on one of an endless carcinogenic daisy chain of Marlboro Lights (The Insider smokes? "I'm a great fan of irony," he says). Then he riffs in his molasses-thick Down Under accent: "You know what the saying is, mate? If you want to be a bull rider, you get a handful of marbles-glass ones, preferably-and put 'em in your mouth. Then you get a hammer and smack yourself on the back of the head. And every time you smack yourself you spit out one of the marbles. And when all your marbles are gone you get on the fucking bull."
What the hell does that mean?
"When you've lost your marbles, man. You know that saying?"
Crowe is flush with these kinds of colorful, byzantinely Aussie epigrams. At one point a starstruck waiter virtually begs Crowe if he can get him anything, to which Crowe replies, "If I could get another Red Stripe, I'd be sweet as a biscuit."
Sweet as a biscuit.
The fact that Crowe's hotel is right across the street from this joint with the mechanical bull is also "sweet as a biscuit." And whenever you happen to say something Crowe likes, he'll smile, nod thanks, and say, "Rock and roll." It's not even humanly possible to keep track of how often he says "mate."
Crowe was always Scott's first choice to play Maximus-the Roman general who's betrayed by the emperor Marcus Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and exiled, only to fight his way to Rome as a vengeful gladiator. "I noticed him way back in Romper Stomper," says Scott of Crowe's 1993 turn as a menacingly realistic neo-Nazi skinhead. Asked what he saw in Crowe in that film, Scott utters one word: "Animal."
Crowe, however, had to be talked into accepting Maximus; for one thing, he thought the script needed a serious overhaul. On the Mississippi set of The Insider, Crowe wasn't sure he liked Gladiator's "semi-cynical take on life in ancient times" at the expense of a fleshed-out hero's journey. "The concept was really interesting, but I was deeply into The Insider." Then one morning Insider director Michael Mann "comes in while I was getting my makeup put on and says, 'I know you're focused on this role, and I appreciate it because it's my movie. But I just want to stick something in your head-and that is that Ridley Scott is one of the top 2 percent of shooters in the history of cinema.'" Crowe laughs. "So after that I was like 'Shit, I better get on the phone and move this monkey along.'"
Crowe soon had weightier matters to worry about. To play The Insider's Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, Crowe packed on 38 pounds of Method flab thanks to a strictly unstrict diet of cheeseburgers and whiskey; he now faced the challenge of shaping his doughy physique into the body of a Roman warrior. "I didn't think it would take that long," he laughs. "But after five weeks of working out I'd dropped only five pounds.... My blood pressure and cholesterol were at dangerously high levels and it occurred to me that what I was doing was probably quite silly because my body was taking the weight gain seriously. My body didn't say, 'Oh, it's just a role.'"
Fortunately for Scott, Crowe was already pretty experienced riding horses - he lives on a 560-acre ranch seven hours by car from Sydney, and considers it a sacred haven from the pressures of Hollywood. Still, even after he'd lost the weight and had spent a chunk of the five-and-a-half months between the two films working with a sword master in Australia, Crowe wanted to make one more change. In the film, Maximus comes from the Spanish part of the Roman Empire-so Crowe told Scott he wanted to adopt a Spanish accent. Scott wasn't having it. "So we went from our first conversation where I said I'd like to play this character with Antonio Banderas' voice, but with better elocution, to Royal Shakespeare Company two pints after lunch," Crowe says of the British growl he ultimately adopted.
Crowe's desire to go the Banderas route is exactly the kind of chameleonic extreme he gets off on. "It's quite amazing when you see the physical transformations he goes through from film to film," says Connie Nielsen, who plays Lucilla, his duplicitous love interest. "He has a whole change even in the way he walks. I saw The Insider after we finished shooting and I was shocked."
It's this kind of commitment that just might make Crowe a new and improved breed of action star-the antithesis of the old-school, red-meat-and-steroids he-men of the '80s. "I think our idea of what an action hero is has changed," says Joaquin Phoenix, who matches Crowe snarl for deliciously hammy snarl as Maximus' nemesis. "Now we care about heroes with flaws and humanity. I think that's what's so key about Russell's performance. He's a wonderful physical force, but there is such depth to his character-I was so fucking impressed."
Still, the last thing Crowe seems to want is to become the next American action hero. Consider the unpredictability of his two upcoming roles: First he'll play a hostage negotiator opposite Meg Ryan in Taylor Hackford's South American drama Proof of Life. And then he'll segue into playing a hair-covered circus freak in Jodie Foster's Flora Plum. In other words, Crowe couldn't care less about stardom. When it's brought to his attention that one agent who recently saw Gladiator predicted that Crowe would jump into the $15-20 million payday club right under Cruise, Carrey, and Gibson, Crowe scoffs. "It depends if you're just going to take anything that comes along, doesn't it, mate? I don't really care about all that. That's somebody else's idea of cool."
While Gladiator's $103 million budget sounds decadent enough for Caligula, it was stretched to the last Roman sesterce thanks to Scott's desire to "throw a gauntlet on the ground." After working on a derailed big-budget Arnold Schwarzenegger project called Iron Legends following G.I. Jane, Scott was itching to breathe new life into epic storytelling with the help of high-tech F/X. "I thought we could set a new standard," he says. "Battle scenes used to just be wide shots like a ballet. But now one fight scene can have 400 shots. You can take audiences inside the battle like in Private Ryan." Realizing that he's comparing himself with his DreamWorks sugar daddy Spielberg, Scott laughs: "Actually, I get on pretty well with Steven. He'd pop into the editing room, make some suggestions, and have a cigar."
Then again, maybe the boss was just keeping an eye on his investment. In fact, DreamWorks was so concerned about Gladiator's budget that as with most of its costlier ventures, it ended up taking on a coproducing partner, Universal. "We went in hoping that we would make it less expensively," says Parkes. "But as soon as we went into preproduction we realized that just the size of the movie had certain requirements."
Those requirements included a third, unexpected location. The first two drafts of Gladiator's screenplay by David Franzoni had only two "acts": one in which Maximus starts off as a general kicking Teutonic butt in Germania (shot in the English countryside), and one in ancient Rome (re-created on Malta). But when a middle act, chronicling Maximus' slavery and gladiator training in the Middle East, was added, Scott chose to shoot in Morocco, sending the budget soaring. "As scary as it was to go forward, we knew that it was unique," says Parkes. "Yes, it's risky, but I'll tell you what's riskier-spending $80 or $90 million on yet another generic action movie."
After shooting in remote Ouarzazate, Morocco, Scott headed to Malta, the film's most ambitious and physically challenging locale. Besides a still-intact 17th-century fort, Scott's main set was a breathtaking replica of the Colosseum-a set he says took two and a half months and over $1 million to build. "The original Colosseum held 50,000 people, and it's 157 feet high," says Scott. "We couldn't do that because it's four tiers, like a giant wedding cake. But I could build two tiers and about 40 percent of the Colosseum full scale and add the rest with CGI."
According to Jonathan Mostow, the director of U-571, who was shooting his submarine thriller on Malta at the same time as Gladiator, the non-CGI results were pretty mind-boggling too. "Driving to our set every morning, you'd pass by these tigers in cages, so I was real anxious to take a peek. And as amazing as our sets were, when I went over to see the Gladiator sets, I-well, let's just say I couldn't wait to see the movie."
Despite its sheer size and cost, the Malta location also turned out to be the most seat-of-the-pants part of the shoot. Scott says he tapped screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands) to become the film's third screenwriter (after Franzoni and John Logan) and flew him in to serve as the resident Mr. Fix-It, reworking the script as they shot. "He came in and came out," says the director (who insists, incidentally, that the film he's now shooting-the Silence of the Lambs sequel, Hannibal-has had a finished script for months). "Sometimes there would be a block that didn't work and he'd come in and do it, but the unusual thing is, I started to enjoy it."
Crowe apparently didn't. In a recent TIME piece, an unnamed DreamWorks exec branded him "not well behaved" and "unreasonable" on the set. Parkes disputes this assessment: "Russell is a perfectionist and very outspoken...a very involved, collaborative kind of actor. People who characterize him as intimidating or difficult probably don't seek input from actors. Ridley likes that kind of actor."
"It was very difficult, writing things on the same day or right before the scene," says the actor. "But we didn't stop production. Ridley made his schedule. He made it for exactly the amount of money he said he would make it for in the beginning."
Well, not quite. Due to an unforeseen tragedy, Gladiator's budget crept up yet again. On May 2, 1999, Oliver Reed, the British veteran (Women in Love) whom Scott had cast as Proximo, Maximus' gladiatorial instructor, died of apparent heart failure at 61. With three weeks left to work, the hard-boozing Reed keeled over while drinking in a Maltese pub. "I got quite a shock when I heard it," says Richard Harris, who plays the emperor Marcus Aurelius. "This movie would have revived his career-because his career was in the dumps. It's a shame, really."
Adds Crowe: "Oliver went out the way he lived his life, mate, you know? I've known a lot of pissheads in my time, and maybe that sounds lacking in eloquence to some people, but quite frankly, that's what he was...a lot of great actors have been.... I'm just glad he'd done enough of his part that they didn't have to get another actor-so this can be a memorial to him. I think it's one of his best performances in the past 10 years."
With only a few of Reed's scenes left to shoot, Scott was forced to work some sleight of hand in postproduction. He spent a reported $3 million to digitally scan Reed's face on a stocky body double, and rewrote Reed's final scene. "It was like a CGI jigsaw puzzle," says Scott. "We reorganized three shots of his close-ups from three different scenes." Then, he says, "I had the double walk up [to the camera], stand, and talk, and then I put Oliver's CGI head on the body." In the end credits, Scott added a postscript: "To Our Friend Oliver Reed."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch-or at least that L.A. bar with the mechanical bull that wants so desperately to be a ranch-Crowe nurses another beer and reminisces about the scent of jasmine on the real ranch he calls home. His reverie of homesickness sounds almost identical to a particularly sentimental scene in Gladiator where Maximus tells Marcus Aurelius about the home he misses and hasn't seen for more than two years because he's had to lead the Roman legions. When the similarities are pointed out, Crowe laughs: "I actually wrote that speech. That's the way I feel about missing my home too."
After the bruised and battered Crowe finished his last day of shooting, he flew home to Australia and set off on a 6,500-kilometer motorcycle ride to unwind from the shoot. Not that he's complaining. In fact, the general is thrilled with the way his campaign came out. "All the hard work and late nights and heavy weeks and no rest between fight sequences-when I saw the film, all of that meant nothing. I've never had that much fun watching a movie that I'm in."
In other words, sweet as a biscuit, mate...rock and roll.
Russell Crowe Recalls Getting His Feet Wet at Cannes - Literally
By Eunice Oh
May 12, 2010
Russell Crowe once had a public wardrobe malfunction - a wet one.
Recalling an early trip to the Cannes Film Festival when he was 27, the Oscar-winning actor says he wore an old pair of black zip-up boots and discovered one of the soles was completely worn through - only once it started raining.
"With the rain on the red carpet, you know, every step I took - slurp, slurp - a little more water got sucked up into my sock," Crowe, 46, who returned to the French Riviera Wednesday to premiere Robin Hood with Cate Blanchett, tells Entertainment Tonight.
"I have a definitively clear memory," he says, "of sitting in that screening of that movie with a sopping foot."
This time, Crowe says he's taking the dry road.
"Things have changed a little bit," the actor says. "[I] never actually [wear] a pair of Armani shoes to the point when the sole wears out." Instead, Crowe says the Italian designer just "sends me more shoes."
But other things, in addition to fashion, have changed in the Aussie actor's life both personally and professionally. "I was here [at Cannes] in 1991 with a little indie film (editor's note: Proof), then in 1997 with LA Confidential," he says. "Life has come a long way."
"In 1991 I left [my wife] Danielle's parents house to fly to the airport," he continues. "And then in 1997 I talked to her about it on the phone. This time around we've got kids and we're married - and now she's here."
May 12, 2010
Cannes, France - Oscar winner Russell Crowe might be promoting his latest blockbuster Robin Hood at the Cannes Film Festival, but his thoughts are still on football. Crowe, who owns the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league club, spent a few minutes during his press conference for Robin Hood on Wednesday giving a cheeky run down on his tips for the soccer World Cup in June to hundreds of journalists. Fresh from meeting star players from La Liga superstars Real Madrid in late April, Crowe said he believed Spain, England and Portugal all had a good chance of winning the world's biggest sporting event - but not as good as Australia's own Socceroos.
"I'm really looking forward to the World Cup," Crowe said. "I believe in my mind that maybe Spain, maybe Brazil," Crowe said. "Portugal has the great opportunity of (striker) Cristiano Ronaldo, if he's in good form. England always come up with a good team, but there may be a defence issue there, there may be a goalie issue. Maybe (striker) Wayne Rooney, who's going to partner him up front? And (David) Beckham's injured. And of course, really, they have no chance against a resurgent Australian team." Crowe is in the French Riviera resort town with Aussie co-star Cate Blanchett to open the 12-day film festival with a screening of Robin Hood on Wednesday night.