Russell Crowe is wearing dark glasses, a day's growth of beard, jeans, a work shirt and black biker boots. This is not surprising for an Australian-bred actor who has been described as having the animal magnetism of the young Marlon Brando. What is surprising are his fingernails. They are pristine, manicured, covered in clear nail polish -- and just right for a new role (opposite Denzel Washington) as a computer-generated outlaw in "Virtuosity," which is currently in production. "When you're cyber-realized," Mr. Crowe says reasonably, "you have perfect fingernails."
With or without lacquered nails, the 30-year-old actor can presently be seen as a repentant gunfighter in "The Quick and the Dead," which stars Sharon Stone, and in "The Sum of Us," which opened earlier this month.
In "The Sum of Us," based on the play by David Stevens, Mr. Crowe plays Jeff, a lovesick homosexual who lives with his widowed father, portrayed by the Australian actor Jack Thompson. Jeff's father supports his son's sexuality but intrudes on his privacy.
Mr. Crowe has been praised for his performance in the film -- "Move over, Mel Gibson," wrote Randy Gener in The Village Voice -- but he says the producers initially wanted a big-name American actor. So he waged a campaign to secure the role.
"I had to position myself politically very solidly within the Australian film industry," Mr. Crowe says, "until the producer was in a position where he couldn't hire anyone else." He gives a knowing smile. "They had to use me."
On this afternoon, in a shadowy corner of a restaurant near the University of California, Los Angeles, the actor smokes filtered Gauloises and drinks Red Stripe beer. Even though his eyes are hidden behind his dark glasses, he looks away when he speaks, and he appears jumpy.
It was while his parents were working as caterers for an Australian television series that he discovered the magic -- or lack thereof -- in acting. "I loved going to the sets and opening doors and seeing if there was anything behind them," he says. "It took the fear out. All acting was, was putting on a costume and playing."
When Mr. Crowe was 6, he won his first television role, as one in a group of orphans rescued from death by a character who happened to be played by Mr. Thompson, his co-star in "The Sum of Us." For two decades, Mr. Crowe pursued acting. "I wanted the leading role, but they never let me have it," he says.
His parents went from catering to managing hotels. "Because of our association with hotels and film" -- one of his grandfathers was a cinematographer of documentary war films -- "we've always been associated to a certain degree with performers," Mr. Crowe says, addressing a curl of smoke in front of his face. "A hotel is like working behind the scenes as a caterer: you get to see the best and the worst of people. In the morning all the glamour is gone, and it just smells of stale beer."
Before 1990 Mr. Crowe was an actor with some stage work and no movies to his credit, working as Rus Le Roc in a rock band in Sydney between stints as a waiter, bartender and bingo-number caller. He has an odd way of accounting for his sudden acceptance by the Australian film world. "I got my tooth kicked out in a football game when I was 10," he says. "I was 25 when I got it replaced, and that's when I started getting work. It's pathetic to find out how much people are tuned in to the visual thing."
It was then that he got a small part in the film "Prisoners of the Sun" (1990). He couldn't have guessed that in five years he'd be working on big-budget Hollywood films playing opposite major American stars.
Yet Mr. Crowe has an unusual ability: he can play both good guys and bad guys with equal conviction. Portraying a Nazi skinhead in the 1993 film "Romper Stomper," he underscored the character's brutality with a show of tenderness. As a gullible dishwasher in "Proof" (1992), he was the pawn to a bitter blind man. He won the award for best supporting actor from the Australian Film Institute for his work in "Proof" and was voted best actor by the institute for his performance in "Romper Stomper."
Next he will appear as an ex-marine turned journalist in "Rough Magic," a romantic comedy with Bridget Fonda due later this year.
But although he can play both Marlon Brando and Jimmy Stewart, he's mostly known for his villains, such as the cyber-outlaw he is portraying in "Virtuosity." "When I grew up, I was put in scary situations," Mr. Crowe says. "At 14 I worked security during university pub crawls. When people drink, they go to a lot of weird places emotionally. I've been in a room where 50 people are punching each other because they're drunk. I was basically a kid faced with adult fury. This is tattooed in my brain."
Getting the part in "The Quick and the Dead" seemed almost a miracle, since his two big Australian films played only briefly in Los Angeles. But the producer Josh Donen introduced Mr. Crowe to Sam Raimi, who would eventually direct "The Quick and the Dead." "I needed a catalyst, a Sharon Stone or a Sam Raimi, to pull for me," Mr. Crowe says. "Sharon made a stand."
After Mr. Crowe auditioned for a different role in the film, Ms. Stone asked that the actor try for the lead. She says: "When I saw 'Romper Stomper,' I thought Russell was not only charismatic, attractive and talented but also fearless. And I find fearlessness very attractive. I was convinced I wouldn't scare him."
Mr. Raimi says: "Russell is bold and likes to challenge people. He reminds me of what we imagine the American cowboy to have been like." And so Mr. Crowe made his American debut as Cort, a gunfighter who is manacled through much of the movie.
"What struck me when I met Russell for the first time," remembers Mr. Donen, "was that he had this implication of power and threat."
Mr. Raimi adds: "Russell's not dangerous physically. He's dangerous because he's always thinking."