CROWE - From growing up in his father's pubs to brawling, bristling
Russell Crowe's relationships with both the movie Industry and the trappings of fame have been unorthodox by modern standards. He has won awards. He has been begrudged awards. He has brawled in bars. He has bristled at critics. He lives in Australia, far away from Hollywood, and would appear to whittle away his days writing music, tending to his farmhouse, and cultivating a reputation as a" determined performer with a distinct vision for the movies that he is a part of—and the nearly unprecedented power to will them into being.
But when it comes to acting, Crowe, the consummate contrarian, has been a classicist through and through, bringing a collection of fallen men, flawed geniuses, and tragic heroes to the big screen, from brutal cop Bud White in Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (1997) to tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in Michael Mann's The Insider (1999) to schizophrenic mathematics maverick John Nash in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001). Crowe snagged Oscar nominations for the latter two roles—as he did for the one sandwiched inbetween, as the Roman warrior Maximus in Ridley Scon's Gladiator (2000), for which he won Best Actor.
Next month, Crowe reteams with Howard for Cinderella Man. Set in the early '30s at the height of the Depression, the film charts the life of boxer James J. Braddock, who, with the support of his wife (Renee Zeilweger) and manager (Paul Giarhatti), rose from the extreme poverty of the New York City slums to win the world heavyweight title, defeating Max Baer as a 10-1 underdog. But while the Wellington, New Zealand-born actor—now 41, married to long-time girlfriend Danielle Spencer, and a father of one—may have settled down, he certainly has not mellowed out. Here, Crowe talks to his Cinderella Man co-star Giamatti about where it all comes from and where it's all going.
PAUL GIAMATTI: Oh, for God's sake. We're together again.
RUSSELL CROWE: Those crazy people.
PG: Look at us. I'm in Brooklyn, and you're on the other side of the planet, in Sydney, Australia. How is it down there?
RC: It's actually a gray day today.
PG: So you're just lounging around your home?
RC: No, I'm actually at a recording studio. We recently wrote a bunch of stuff and recorded an album up at my farm (in Coffs Harbor, Australia). Now, there's a guy down here called Nathanial Kunkel, who is mixing it. He just finished doing his first song, so I was having a squiz at that. Then, just for fun, I'll walk-back to my house, which is probably about 5 or 6 miles from here. Hopefully it won't rain, though.
PG: You're going to walk 5 or 6 miles? I think the last time I walked that far, it was because my car broke down. You couldn't pay me to walk 5 or 6 miles, [both laugh]
RC: It'll be a long walk. You must have had an interesting year with everything that was going on with Sideways.
PG: I guess it was—you've been through that kind of thing a lot more than I have. Are you comfortable with awards and stuff like that? Does itmean anything to you?
RC: I don't know if it's because our job is really public, but in an odd way, until you get that kind of attention, it sort of feels like you've been working in secret. Then that recognition suddenly takes it to a different place. That thing that you just went through, that experience, I suppose it gets easier over time.
PG: But didn't you like working in secret before? Did you prefer working that way?
RC: A whole part of my creative life has been ruined by becoming famous. 1 was the prime observer. I was the person who could just slip intoany situation, see what I needed to see. and take the information away. But that way of working has been taken away from me. PG: So how do you compensate for that?
RC: You can't. But there are still ways of walking down the street without being recognized—and without getting a false nose or moustache. If you just change your energy, you can sort of get away with it. But you do go from being an observer to being the one who is observed. That's when that whole theory falls apart. But, on the positive side, you get access to better minds. That's one advantage, I think, in the way things have come down for me.
PG: The level of people you start dealing with definitely goes up.
RC: And dealing with those people is a choice too. Some actors will make decisions based on things like money, but that's not going to get you the solace of collaborative companionship, which is what I want. I want the experience to be the same as it was for me when I was a young actor. I want to be part of an ensemble that is making something great. I definitely felt that way working with you and Ron [Howard] and Renee (Zeilweger) and everyone on Cinderella Man. It was also, physically, the hardest thing I've ever done. It was three or four times more difficult than Gladiator. I was in massive pain pretty much on a daily basis, whether it was my shoulder or my back or my Achilles tendon, or just the sheer fact that some idiot was punching me in the head quite a lot. But I was enjoying the hell out of it because I loved the guy that I was playing, James Braddock. It's not a requirement for me to actually dig the character I'm playing, but I really dug this one.
PG: Are you one of those people who say, "Don't make a judgment about the character"?
RC: Well, the English theater thing is that you have to love the character you're playing, but I think what you really have to love is the job of acting. When you fall in love with a character, you forgive a lot of things. So you're playing Adolf Hitler, and you've fallen in love with him—are you going to make him a little less bad? That's dumb. You've got to be in love with the job, and your job as an actor, for the most part, is to expose the human condition of a particular character completely. I think it's realty important to have that level of objectivity about what you're doing. But on this particular occasion—and it's very unusual for me—I really liked Braddock. Everything I read about him made me like him a little bit more, and his legacy became important to me. He was a guy who boxed because, at that time in history, it was the best working man's job you could get. But Braddock didn't turn into an alcoholic or some sort of drug-addled restaurant host in Vegas. He went to work straight after his boxing career ended. He had a restaurant, worked on the Verrazano Bridge. He accomplished all these things in his life while his children were growing up and getting married, and he died in the house he bought with the winnings from the world championship fight—still with his marriage intact, and his family healthy and progressing. To me, that is a great American story.
PG: I remember that you did a lot of physical stuff for the role. You had a bit of a prosthetic nose, you altered your hair line, you had fake ears, you did stuff to your tooth. How important is all that to you? Do you believe in the difference between the external and the internal and all that kind of crap?
RC: Well, I've never really examined it in a formal way. But over time, I've come to realizations about what I need to do. When I was about to play Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider , I was just coming off an ice hockey film [Mystery, Alaska, 1999], so I was really fit and had big muscles. But the director, Michael Mann, said: "You don't have to look anything like Jeff Wigand. You can have red hair and wear square glasses and have a limp—I don't care because you're the Wigand of the movie, so you should be as free as you can be." I found, though, in preparing for the role, that I reached this sort of place where I was ready to drive the character internally, but where I wasn't going to do it unless I looked like him. So I went: "Shit. I suppose it's very basic: If you want to be a pirate, grab an eye patch." Little things, like my hair, would be really annoying. My hair wouldn't grow like Wigand's. It wouldn't be combed like his. We dyed it gray seven different times. We bleached it four times. They cut 60 percent of the volume out. But somehow, in the morning, I would still wake up with young man's hair. So they started making this wig, and I put it on, and it just changed my whole thinking. It was like, "There you go—now I'm getting closer." So I had the wig and the glasses, and with a strictly controlled diet of bourbon and cheeseburgers, I probably put on an additional 35 pounds—which increased to about 55 pounds over the time of doing the movie.
PG: The idea, though, of physically transforming is an amazing thing. You have said that you have a compact to do it—in other words, you feel that the audience expects you to transform, right?
RC: Well, I believe that is true for any actor. If you're just going to walk up onstage and be your pretty self, you're going to bore my tits off. I want you to get inside of the job, which is storytelling. Now there are lots of different levels of that, and I can dig a persona actor like Steve McQueen the same as I do someone like Marion Brando.
PG: What do you think about guys like McQueen or Cary Grant? Do you dig what they were doing?
RC: Well, those guys adjusted small things from film to film. Listen, I'm not saying that everybody should play the Elephant Man. But from my personal point of view, I like the privilege of being able to assume another person's life and all of the experiences that go along with that—and I do see it as a privilege rather than hard work. So I just feel that with the Cary Grant or Steve McQueen thing, I think we're past it.
PG: It sort of seems like we are. Now the idea is to change as much as possible.
RC: But to me, when you're dealing with somebody's legacy, when you're dealing with a guy like Braddock, who actually did rise from nothing and win the heavyweight championship of the world, then that's a big responsibility. I want James Braddock's grandchildren and his great-grandchildren to be able to watch Cinderella Man with pride, and also know that, in our little game of pretend, we've tried our best.
PG: So you're out there in the recording studio, and you put down some music. Are you touring with your band [30 Odd Foot of Grunts] at any point soon?
RC: Well, the band has totally evolved. I started to feel a little bit limited by the confines of it, so this album I've done just by myself, but some of the musicians from the band play on it.
PG: You've known those guys for a long time.
RC: I have. The band itself pretty much started in 1984, so we're past our second decade. But I also think there's kind of a safety thing that happens. We get together to write songs, and it doesn't excite me as much as it used to. While I was in Toronto working on Cinderella Man, I found a different type of collaborator in this fellow, Alan Doyle, from a Canadian band, the Great Big Sea. We wrote some songs together. They're just a step above, in grace and clarity, the things that I had been recently doing with the band. This record just feels really cool, man. It just puts a lot of things out there about fatherhood and understanding what my wife has to deal with because she's married to a nuf nuf like me.
PG: When you were growing up your father owned a hotel, right?
RC: My dad was a pub manager. He didn't own a hotel until I'd left home, but he'd run pubs for other people. My parents got into hospitality, oddly enough, through catering for movies and TV. When there was a bit of a lull in that at one point, they started cooking in a garden bar for this guy who taught my dad a little bit about the pub game. Then in '72 a guy offered my dad his own pub to run, so for six years solid we lived in the pubs where my father worked. We didn't live in a house again until 1978.
PG: You would live in the basement or in a place attached to the pub?
RC: Yeah. We usually lived above the pubs, with the smoke and the noise rising.
PG: Did you ever work for your dad?
RC: Oh, for sure. My brother and I thought that if we knew how to do certain things behind the scenes, like change a keg or whatever, it would just make his life a little bit easier. I was a short-order cook at most of the places. We shifted back to New Zealand in '78, and after that we didn't live in the pubs anymore, but he kept running them.
PG: You started acting as a kid, right?
RC: Yeah. Mom and Dad were caterers, so there was always information about castings and stuff. And it just so happened that they were working on a TV set, so in order for us to spend time with our parents, we would be on the set and walk around locations and play with props, or see half a submarine built inside a building. You'd get a different perspective on the whole thing because you'd know that it was manufactured. I was just very interested in it all. It took me from the age of 6 until I was 25, though, to get a lead role, so that was a hell of a long apprenticeship. People always say to me, "So, you were a child star?" And I say, "No, I was a child extra."
RC: Yeah. I could get a lead role in a professional theater production, but I'd be, like, the 10th banana in a Bryan Brown movie.
PG: Would you ever do a play again?
RC: I'm not sure. Every now and then I get sort of romantic about it. But I've also got that cynical part of me where, when I read somebody saying, "I'm going back to the theater. I'm going back to my roots," I'm like, "Oh, can't get a job, hey?" When theater is great, there is virtually nothing better than the experience of being told a story in that way. But I find that there is an anachronistic part of it that we've kind of gone past with what we can do in movies. It's so hard to convince people to spend their money on a theater ticket that I think most city councils should have bylaws where, if you bore somebody in the theater, you're fined, or maybe incarcerated. Or maybe you should have to go and do Ibsen in Scandinavia for a year. [both laugh]
PG: You'd kill theater so fast doing that That's a way to wipe it out once and for all. But I do remember you talking about doing Macbeth once.
RC: You can't say it like that, man.
PG: What? We're on the phone. Nothing's going to happen to us.
RC: Dude, you've got to stand up and turn around three times now.
PG: Okay. I'm spinning around and doing everything. Are you a religious man? Were you raised religious?
my mom and dad were both baptized, but I was never christened, which
was a pretty big deal in New Zealand in 1964. When it came time for
christening, my mom said, "Look, I was christened in the Church
of England, and my stepfather forced me to go to a Catholic church.
My husband was christened in the Church of England. But we think that
our sons, when they're old enough, should make that decision themselves."
Growing up, we always had this odd relationship with the church. Though
we didn't really go as a family, my mother was totally fine with the
idea of me going to church on my own, so I'd go and have a look at
a Catholic service or a Presbyerian service or an Anglican service.
I went to a temple. The Baha'i faith is something I looked at as well.
Although I wasn't brought up in a religious household, I'm a very
inquisitive person about it, and, just the same as with my acting,
I've taken things from various sources that mean something to me.
I couldn't tell you that I follow a particular doctrine, but in terms
of spirituality, I think there's a karmic cycle, which is very, very
obvious: You run around acting like a dick, and you get your ass kicked.
The world just works that way.
RC: I just have this thing where I look at the Ten Commandments and think to myself, "That seems like it was written by somebody other than a human being." There are things in Buddhism that I agree with as well, but it just seems like if we adhered to those 10 really basic rules and applied them to everything—even traffic rules and parking fines-we could take thousands of laws off the books. There are some pretty fundamental things in there: respect your parents; don't kill people; do to others what you'd like them to do to you. That, to me, sounds like a foundation on which to build a society.
PG: I tend to agree with that philosophy more than a lot of others.
RC: Some people say when it comes to religion "Well, that's bullshit. You should make a choice.
PG: Why? Why should you have to choose?
RC: You shouldn't. That's not what it's about. There's no way that there's going to be a day when God comes down and says: "Hey, the Anglicans, they had it all spot on, you fools." [both laugh]
PG: Or the Sclentologists.
RC: Well, that's a self-help organization.
PG: But aren't all religions basically self-help organizations? I mean, I'm not going to start crapping on Scientology, but—
RC: You don't want Kirstie Alley lining up you. [both laugh]
PG: Yeah, that's all I need right now, to be pursued by Scientologist hit men because of this interview. But people go, "Oh, it's just this made-up religion." Well, they're all just made-up.
RC: See, I looked at Scientology, as well. I read Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard, I got a couple of videos and I took it all in. It just seems like a religion that is perfect for people who feel like they need a grounding, who feels that the world has run off on them. I've discussed this with Scientologists, and they don't disagree. So, for a certain type of person, that's great. With any of these religions, as long as the heart and soul is positive, then to me it's all good. Finding a way of discussing what's going on inside you is healthy, as is finding a way to forgive yourself for stupid shit you do—and a way to acknowledge that you've done something stupid. If religion means anything to me, it's about that.
PG: So, how's your kid?
RC: My child is fantastic. He's running around. He's got probably a dozen words now. He's getting more and more willful every day, but also, at the same time, more and more affectionate and loving.
PG: That's exactly it, man. The affection thing is commensurate with the will thing, so it only gets more confusing. How old is he now?
RC: He's coming up on 15 months in a week or so. You can say to him: "Charlie, go get the phone for Mommy," and he'll walk across the room, pick up Danielle's mobile, then walk back across the room and hand it to her. The amazing thing is just watching the little fissures in his brain open up. One day stacking a block is a difficult thing, and the next day he's got 10 on top of each other.
PG: That really doesn't stop. Ifs still going on with my kid, and he's 4 now. But just the speed with which the neurons start firing faster and faster and faster—it's wild to watch.
RC: I took Charlie
to a football game. We even bought him a
PG: That stuff is amazing. I took my kid to this little diner in my hometown, where four generations of my family have now gone. Of course, he promptly threw up right after he'd eaten.
RC: Is that also a family tradition at this particular restaurant? "Four generations of Giamattis have thrown up here." [both laugh]
PG: Oh, it's ridiculous, man. But it's great, that kind of thing.
RC: Well, Charlie hasn't spent much time at the farm yet, which is a bone of contention. But I do understand Danny's attitude; the bush can be dangerous, and there's not a particular place set up for him there yet.
PG: So you're living in Sydney now?
RC: At the moment, yeah, unfortunately. That was a move that happened when Danny got pregnant because, of course, she's pregnant, so she's in control 100 percent. She wanted to be near doctors and hospitals, so what am I going to say?
PG: No. Right. It makes sense.
RC: But I thought when he was born that we'd go back to the bush. I've built a park for him up there. We've cleared some stuff, just some bracken and low growth, and put some new grass in. I put a fence around it, so we can plop him in there, and he can go crazy. It's just a big play area. I look at it and think, Man, if I was a kid, I'd be building forts in here.
PG: I live in Brooklyn so there's no place for my kid to build forts. He has to build them in the living room. But it's a good time.
RC: Are you working at the moment?
PG: I'm about to go work in about a week. I'm doing a movie in Prague.
RC: I have been told that there's only one thing worse than working in Prague.
PG: What's that?
RC: Having a day off in Prague, [both laugh]
PG: Thanks. I'll have a good time.
RC: So you're not available to come to Charlie's christening?
PG: You're christening him?
RC: Isn't that funny? A generational difference. I have no problem christening him at all because I see it in a broader sense. I see it as a celebration of his life, blessing him with a sort of communal spirit. I think it's a great idea. Though I do wonder what he'll think of it: Some stranger splashes water on you.
PG: So what are you doing with yourself now?
RC: I was going to do that little movie down here, Eucalyptus; but it fell apart, so I'll spend a bit of time this year seeing if we can't ream out that production. I've got a couple of offers to direct little things down here, too. I'm going through this thing right now where every man and his dog is sending me stuff. But if you're after what I'm after, which is the goose-bump factor, then those projects don't come around every day—Cinderella Man, as an example. I read that script in 1997.
PC: It's such an archetypal sort of story.
RC: Yeah, it's going to be interesting to see how people feel about the movie. I knew that we did our best, so I left the set feeling fine. Then Ron, like the rocket that he is, had the movie edited five or six weeks later, so I got to see the film in November and I was like, "Wow, this is very special." But now I think we're all at that point where we're asking, "Is it really as good as we think it is?" You start questioning your instincts.
PG: When is that ever going to stop? Does it ever?
RC: It just doesn't. It still takes me about 40 minutes after I finish the last shot of a movie before this little voice goes, "Will you ever work again?"
PG: Oh, absolutely. "You will never work again you're a fraud, sir." That's what I hear.
RC: Unbelievable, isn't it? You'd think that after all this time and everything that has happened, that that sort of working-class desperation would get shaken loose. But it hasn't. I think it comes from so many years of working in theater, picking up bit parts here and there, and putting your foot down about other things and saying, "Well, that's bullshit." And them saying, "Well, if it's bullshit, then there's the door." But all of that stuff, it all adds up I often sit back and think about how it is that I still hear that voice 40 minutes after the last scene. It's like a little cold tap on the shoulder.
PG: The simple act of acting. It just never stops feeling scary. But I guess that's also a good thing.
RC: It's also fun, though, man. The bottom line is that if people watch the movie, and they get lifted from their seats, then we've done our gig.
PG: So man, it's good to talk to you again.
RC: Cool, man. Regards to wife and child.
PG: Absolutely. Be well.
RC: Sure you can't make Charlie's christening?
PG: I don't think I can. But I appreciate it. I'll be shooting in Prague, having a good time.
RC: So when I see you, I'll be able to play you some songs.
PG: Oh, please. I look forward to it. Take care.
RC: Bye bye.
Thanks to Chattles