It's 8am, and Australian actor Russell Crowe has lost his beloved leather jacket somewhere in Austin. His outbound flight back to Los Angeles is scheduled to leave in a matter of hours, and during the past couple of days, while in town for the Austin premiere of his new film Breaking Up at the Austin Film Festival, the leather has vanished. While his publicist frantically places phone calls to the various radio and television outlets he's visited to track down the missing garment, Crowe saunters into the Four Seasons suite, grabs a quick coffee, and immediately pulls out a pack of Marlboro reds, lighting up the first of several that will ash out over the course of our interview. Those piercing green eyes, half-hooded by the sleepy, thoughtful brow, are the first things you notice about Crowe. That and the wiry, muscular, fighter's physique that is on prominent display in his current film, L.A. Confidential, as well as his most notorious, Geoffrey Wright's ultraviolent skinhead epic Romper Stomper. In person, his earthy good humor belies the imposing, shotgun rage he exposes in so many of his film characters. You get the feeling, all things considered, he'd much prefer to be at home on his farm outside of Sydney instead of making the interview rounds. Still, he's gracious to a fault, and it's easy to see why so many people are convinced the actor is on the verge of cinematic superstardom -- the type that could rival that of another notable Aussie, "Mel... whatsisname" (as Crowe so charitably puts it).
For an actor who's made 18 films in the last seven years (his first was The Crossing in 1990 and, most recently, he wrapped Heaven's Burning in Australia), he seems remarkably, well, sane. That's a hellish schedule by anyone's measure, but Crowe keeps getting better at it. Jocelyn Moorhouse's 1991 film Proof, in which he played a gentle dishwasher caught between a blind photographer and his manipulative housekeeper, attracted the praise of many critics, but it was Romper Stomper, in 1992, that proved utterly that Crowe was a force to be reckoned with onscreen. As Hando, the vicious, tattoo-bedecked leader of a group of white supremacist skinheads, he was a marvel of concentrated evil. That film was a tremendous success in its native Australia and netted the actor international acclaim as well as, unfortunately, the unwanted and entirely unwarranted attentions of various real-life skinhead groups, who erroneously viewed the film as some sort of Aryan call to arms.
After that, Crowe went on to land roles in various American films. He has played the gunslinging priest opposite Sharon Stone in Sam Raimi's surreal western The Quick and the Dead, the computer-generated serial killer SID 6.7 in Virtuosity, and Salma Hayek's fickle photographer boyfriend ("He's a dick, really...") in Robert Greenwald's Breaking Up.
(Austin is one of two U.S. cities to open Breaking Up for test-market theatrical runs this Friday, October 17. It will play at the Village Theatre.)
After a few more harried phone calls, the lost leather is located intact, and Crowe, noticeably relieved, sits down to chat about his career thus far. But first, another Marlboro.
Austin Chronicle: Romper Stomper was a huge success for you Down Under, but was released only marginally here in the States. Let's talk a little about how you got involved in the film.
Russell Crowe: Geoff Wright [the director] had seen Proof, in which I was playing "a gentle dishwasher," as he called it. There's one scene where this fight begins in a drive-in movie, and I think I read somewhere that Geoff Wright cast me in Romper Stomper because I was "the most vicious gentle dishwasher" he had ever seen.
There was somebody, another actor, that was up for the part [in Romper Stomper], and part of what he did, in terms of the audition process, was actually shave his head. Well, some people, when they shave their head, it gives them a certain power and a certain look, but this guy was one of those people who had a skull that rose to a sort of point, and so by shaving his head he kind of got himself out of the job.
The first question that I asked Geoff when I read the script, though, was if he was a Nazi. But he's a very, very intelligent filmmaker, Geoffrey, and even down to the music that was used in the film -- all of it was composed by a really well-respected classical composer in Australia. He went "oi!" for a while. There's nothing about the film that's even remotely Nazi, even down to when I was quoting from Mein Kampf, we didn't really quote, we sort of paraphrased. Nobody that believes in that kind of ideology received any kind of benefit from that movie.
AC: Was there any kind of backlash from Romper Stomper? Skinheads showing up in theatres or things like that?
RC: Well, the skinheads definitely went to see the film, yeah, but in Australia Romper Stomper was a big hit movie, it was a "blockbuster," for want of a better expression. What it did, in Australia, was to put racism on the breakfast table, and it made everybody examine their own bigotries, which was a very healthy thing. It was certainly divisive, in terms of film critics and stuff. One of the major film critics in Australia said something to the effect that the negative should be burned, which just made the filmmaker shake his head very sadly, you know?
The characters who believe in that Nazi ideology are either dead or in jail at the end of that film and so it very clearly makes its point. But Geoff Wright is a very powerful filmmaker, and so at a certain point in the movie the audience realizes that they have become so steeped in the gang life that they are now making decisions from within the gang. What it comes down to at the end of the day in Romper Stomper is it's just a very harsh and strange place to find a very simple love triangle.
But never in any way was Romper Stomper associated with or in support of any organizations that hold those beliefs.
AC: How was it working for Sam Raimi on The Quick and the Dead?
RC: Well, Sam's a lot of fun. He's kind of like the fourth Stooge, you know? He's obviously gone along now and made a whole lot of money doing these TV shows, you know, Hercules and Xena, but he's getting ready to start making feature films again.
That was my first American film, and there was a lot of pressure on it. Coming into a big-budget situation like that, it was definitely Sam's movie, but at the same time he's also a director for hire on it, you know? There was a lot of pressure going into that film because on paper I'm supposed to be the third lead, and you've got like 20 well-known actors there going, "Who is this guy?" I think only Sharon [Stone] and Leonardo DiCaprio had seen any of my work when we started the film.
AC: You've done a tremendous amount of films in a relatively short time. Is that because of good offers or was it a conscious decision to get out and work your ass off?
RC: Well, there are many, many more offers now. This year has been the first time since I started making films that I've actually stood back for a while and had a real look at what I wanted to do next. Not that I don't consider everything really strongly before I make a film. What I mean is I'm not making the same decisions this year that I would have made last year or the year before. At first, I think it was about a body of work, about discovering a new medium and then doing a whole lot of work in that medium in a short period of time, in Australia. But then, very quickly in Australia I got all the recognition that there is to get there, in terms of awards and stuff. And so I suddenly had to look overseas and look at expanding where I was going to work. In Australia, once you get that level of recognition you're supposed to sit down for 10 years and they'll rediscover you in your forties, you know? But I wasn't satisfied with that because I was only just starting to work. Even after 18 films, there's still no easily explained technique involved in what you do.
AC: Can you tell me a little about how working in Australian cinema differs from working in Hollywood?
RC: For the most part, the Australian film industry operates off government grants. There's a thing called the Film Finance Corporation that's set up to assist directors with their first and second features, though it can work with people who have, say, made 10 movies as well. What it's mainly about, though, is giving people who have been to film school a real opportunity to make themselves a calling card. And generally, if they achieve any success on a national basis, in terms of film festivals and so on, after that the financing for their third and fourth and fifth film should take care of itself.
We've got two really big studios in Australia, we've got Warner's in Queensland and Fox in Sydney. But every major center has television and film facilities and every state has its own film board and also a state investment arm of the federal investment arm. It was all designed in the early Seventies by a guy named Goff Woodlawn who wanted film to be a medium that would be used to chronicle the culture. And basically since the Seventies, the government has taken a very positive view toward supporting what is the most expensive medium of the arts, really.
AC: Do you prefer working in Australia to, say, Los Angeles?
RC: I like being at home, for sure. The job is exactly the same, though, whether you're doing the work in Australia or Canada or Guatemala or wherever, the job is pretty much the same. The available technology is different, you know, when you're dealing with a $35 million budget. But for all the kind of automated dollies and 360-degree panning cameras that someone like Sam Raimi uses, Geoff Wright can strap his DP on the back of a motor scooter and get the same effect, you know? When there's a problem to be solved, guys like Robert Rodriguez and Geoff Wright step up to the plate.
AC: L.A. Confidential... did they approach you outright for that, or how, specifically, did you become involved?
RC: Actually, Curtis [Hanson] sees that in a slightly different light, because he'd seen Romper Stomper and he had me on a list. The very first time I heard about it was from my agent, who for once in his life did some work and read a script that was good and then sent it on to me and said, "What do you think of this?" No, actually, he's a great guy, but... I read it and I was really impressed by it and thought, you know, it's a great script, but it's never going to come our way. So he called Curtis and Curtis said, "I'm glad you called!" We had a couple of long-distance conversations and then got together and did some scenes, and then the hard part started because at that point there was nobody else cast in the film.
AC: Had you read James Ellroy's novel before you got the part?
RC: I hadn't, no. I knew of Ellroy from his book The Black Dahlia, but it wasn't until after reading the script and getting involved in the project that I started to look through his other books. Obviously L.A. Confidential but also White Jazz and his book of short stories called Hollywood Nocturnes.
AC: Have you read My Dark Places yet?
RC: I haven't read it -- I've got like seven or eight copies that people have given me. I know the story intimately though, because he was writing it while we were shooting L.A. Confidential, so it was one of the things that we talked about, you know, pretty much all the time. I know the detective Bill Stoner, who did the project with him, also, but I haven't actually gotten around to sitting down and actually reading it yet. For a while there, every place that I went, somebody would give me another copy of the book, and I'd be like, "Oh... thanks," because, you know, I'd gotten a copy directly from Ellroy himself before it was published. I don't know. It just seemed like everyone thought it was a really good idea to buy me this book.
AC: So you got to hang with Ellroy on the set then.
RC: Absolutely, yeah. One of the greatest things about Curtis Hanson as a filmmaker is that he just operates on a level of intelligence and sensitivity that the next man (or woman) doesn't possibly possess, or would care to possess, you know? Curtis was turned on to this whole idea by reading a book by a novelist called James Ellroy, so it was still very important to Curtis that he preserve Ellroy's voice within the movie. By the time you start principal photography, most novelists who've sold the rights to their books in Hollywood are feeling somewhere between steamrolled and raped, and that's mainly because the filmmaker or the producers don't care to preserve that voice. To them, it was purely a business transaction.
And so, just before we shot the film they showed Ellroy the script and the fact was that he liked the script but he was still suspicious of the whole Hollywood process. I think he's gone on record as saying that when they gave him the advance money forL.A. Confidential, the film, he just took it and he laughed, thinking that there's no way in the world that anybody in this town will ever be able to convert this book into a movie. Because he doesn't write for the cinema, he writes for the individual's imagination.
Having that kind of consideration -- of trying to preserve the original feeling in the book -- meant that Ellroy was available to talk to you, and he was a goldmine of information. There are many, many questions, and I think that the technical term for what I do in a rehearsal period is "become a pain in the ass." I'll ask question after question because you never know where you're going to find that one little bit of information that's gonna drive a certain part of a character. And Ellroy's absolutely enthused about these characters, so you could call him about any aspect of the character and he gives the answer straightaway. That was the first time I'd experienced that.
Ellroy actually went on the road with us to support the film, which is just totally unheard of. We were up at a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival, and, the great thing about having him at a press conference is that he kind of establishes a "no limits" understanding between the journalists. So the first question was something like "James, do you think you'd like to direct a film now?" Because that's what most novelists want, after they see Hollywood's treatment of their stories. But he said no, and so the reporter says, "Come on, James, how do you know you don't want to direct a film until you've directed a film?" and Ellroy replies, "Listen, pal, I've never fucked a porcupine, either!"
When you start a press conference off like that you can pretty much go anywhere you want.
AC: The new film, Breaking Up, is essentially a two-person dialogue. Did that pose any problems for you seeing as how it's not what you're usually doing?
RC: Well, what I've tried to do since being invited to make movies in America is not just take safer large studio and budget options. I've done some of those but I've also done, like, multiple co-production things with French, English, Spanish money -- things like that. I've tried to make smaller films, as well as the larger ones, because I'd like to look at the American film industry from many different levels and not just from the big one.
Breaking Up had a small budget and it was a very complex script in terms of what it asked from performance. Mainly, it was a series of really late nights -- just trying to cram those lines into my brain, you know? Because of that low budget there was no real rehearsal period. It was like "here's the script" and you're off. At the time we made it I was coming off Virtuosity with Denzel Washington, which was a very strange filmmaking experience in itself because of all the blue-screen work involved. I mean, you're in this blank room grabbing stuff out of the air that doesn't exist, and then three or four months later you've got a rose in your hand or you're playing the piano or something like that.
So Breaking Up was about getting down and doing something a little bit more basic and real and performer-aligned. It was a really fast shoot, something like 28 days, really intense. Part of the shoot was in New York City, and we were there at the same time as the Pope and the chess championship and the president, you know? I mean, there's bad enough traffic as it is, but when you bring all those clowns in... it was pretty rough.
Day to day, just working on it, was pretty challenging to try and tell that type of a story, which is really uncomfortable subject matter for most people anyway. Trying to stay true to the reality of those characters, you know, because they're both in their own ways sort of charmless people, copping out by taking a secondary option, right? They've met the person who is the passion of their life, but it's kind of too difficult. Trying to find the core of that love so that the people in the audience, when they see the movie, can say that "even though I might not necessarily like this guy, I know absolutely that he's really in love with this woman," and for all that character's faults, he can be forgiven because of that essential fact, that love.
It was funny playing that character, because to me -- and Robert [Greenwald, the director] doesn't really like it when I say this -- I just saw him as such a dick, you know? To me, he just doesn't have a handle on the things that are important in life. So it's interesting playing a character like that.
Austin Chronicle, October 20, 1997