Is Russell Crowe schizophrenic--or is he acting? Either way, you're compelled to watch. That's why he's the new toast of the Australian cinema, the first real movie star from Down Under since Mel. Crowe is imminently watchable but it's not always like watching the same person. He plays American in his new and biggest film, Virtuosity--a cyber- thriller with Denzel Washington as the hero. And if that weren't schizy enough, Crowe's digital virtual reality villain Sid has 183 twisted personalities. Crowe has a few himself. And like the guys he's played in his native country--the brutal skinhead in Romper Stomper, the kindhearted gay son in The Sum of Us, the nice guy in Proof, and in America--the gun-fighting pries in The Quick and the Dead-- some of them are very sweet--and some of them are darker than midnight in the Outback. Extremes are his turf, the only place he feels remotely comfortable. And it's going back and forth between the two at a very high velocity that really gets him off.
Maybe that's why the 31 year old actor, originally from New Zealand, actually likes the 13 hour commute from Sydney to L.A. that seems to kill everyone else. "I've been doing it for three years," he says in his house in L.A. where he's come to take meeting on some new projects. "And it's not really that bad. You have to adapt. Sydney's three and a half million people; L.A. is 12 million. But you can get used to anything--and that's my job. You can't be faint-hearted. If you're doing a swimming scene and it's five degrees tthat day--it's bad luck, you have to do it. I've grown to enjoy this aspect: I need to pretend there's depth in what I do for a living." Crowe's alterable states are really in evidence at the photo shoot to accompany this article. He insists on picking out all his own clothes without the aid of the stylist, then hates all the outfits. In the end, he picks only the most garish clothes he can find. He won't speak to any of the crew, but blows cigarette smoke in their faces, including his hairdresser while she's combing him out. When told he can do whatever he wants before the camera, he replies, "Then I'd be sleeping right now." He downright yells--loudly--at the photographer when the man tells him he can't break down the camera to follow Crowe around the room at a clipped pace. "When are we going to do what I want?" the actor moans. Crowe then demands masking tape to bind his wrists, and goes into a Stanislavskian rage before the camera, hurling obscenities and breaking the tape. Later, he demands his mouth be taped "now!" He calls one female stylist over to the side and offers to show her "the hand of God." It turns out to be a small piston with a cross embossed on it when he brandishes with bravado, ignoring the question of it being loaded. All in all, it's the scariest shoot anybody can remember. but when he leaves, he shyly thanks everyone and slinks out. "I'm not a model," he explains later of his bizarre behaviour. "They're just good looking. I don't like sitting there as Russell Crowe and smiling. I want to have fun and keep moving. I figure, if I keep moving, no one will notice." Notice what? "I've lived with this head for a long time," he says. "It's just the way it is."
Well, Russell Crowe may not embrace the way he looks, but luckily he's not the final authority. So he's not chiseled, groomed or particularly sinewy: he oozes that tough, wild, macho-with-persona that male Australian stars get famous for: Bryan Brown(his hero), Mel Gibson, Sam Neill. "They're harder on you down there," Crowe says, "You get a bit well known, and they have you go through a 'threshing machine.' They call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome at home--Australians like to put each other down. You're constantly having to figure out who your mates are. Mates are really important there. You don't rely on your mates the way people rely on each other here--that's why they're your mates. You only rely on your family. In Australia, there are no requirements. And in America, people are so abstinent. I went to a dinner with Bruce and Demi; there was no alcohol, no cigarettes. It really is the most puritan of progressive societies. There's what's done==and what's said to be done. Even the Germans know how to have a good time, tell a few stories and have a few drinks." Crowe's figured out the Hollywood game well enough to land a few good roles, but he draws the line at hitting the party circuit. "Hollwood parties are not my vibe," he grumbles. "My agent, George Freeman, organized a party for me at his Hollywood 'pad.' It was a very short party: I split. I'm into the more traditional Australian party: beer in the bathtub and you have a good sing!"
In the last year there hasn't been a lot of that. But while he's spent a lot of time in the U.S. shooting Virtuosity for Paramount, a love story called Rough Magic with Bridget Fonda, and a film called No Way Back with Michael Lerner, his name has only gotten bigger in Australia. "It all happened in my absence," he laughs. "Suddenly all the customs people want to say hello. And people there are saying, 'He's put on an American voice!' Well, you do if it's and American movie. But Australia's had a good last few years of films, hasn't it? In the 70s, lack of money got in the way. Since the 80's, there's been a new wave of filmmakers that are telling more urban stories, not about Australia's glorious past. Americans don't realize 90 percent of the population there lives in the cities."
Crowe grew up in the Australian cinema; his parents were movie caterers. He wanted to be an actor early on, but at the age of 16 found himself homogenized into a pop star named Rus LeRoc, and recorded a single called, "I Want to Be Like Marlon Brando." That turned out to be rather prophetic. He didn't actually land a film role until the age of 25, but once he did, he worked his way up to Romper Stomper, the film that made Sharon Stone want him so bad for The Quick and the Dead, she pushed production back a month to allow for his shooting schedule on The Sum of Us. That murderous thug in Romper Stomper, a hit on the indie film festival circuit, also made him number one choice for every part as a pyschopathic kiler. And these days, that's a lot of parts. "I was offered about 50 after that," he confirms, "but you've got to have a well drawn one. I like villains because there's something so attractive about a committed person--they have a plan, an ideology no matter how twisted. They're really motivated." Virtuosity's Sid is on of the really good bad guys: a computer generated killer who chases Denzel Washington to cyberspace hell and back. "He does have a good time. When I step aout of the computer, I look at human society and get the impression that people don't want to live--I say, 'I'm only helping you.' Then when I think of all the cigarettes I smoke," he says, laughing for the first time, "I think there's a lot of truth to that!" But in Rough Magic, loosely scheduled for fall release, Crowe plays the romantic lead opposite Bridget Fonda in a New Age spiritual story. "On page it was lovely," he says quietly. "I've done romantic leads at home. I mean, do I want to have the lead role in movies? Yeah! So I like to keep the roles diverse. Repetition gets really bad for your head."
He's had an Australian girlfriend, an actress named Danielle Spencer, for the last four years, but he's finding the constant work and travel not exactly healthy for their relationship. "It has to have a looseness to it now; I railed against that for a while, but I was the one who was always leaving, getting on a plane. Now it's got that ring of the 'progressive relationship' to it, which I always thought was bullshit. But why should she quit doing things she's good at just to hang out with some dumb actor? On the other hand, in L.A., it's hard to find like-minded people. I do find Angelenos a bit conservative; if your say something slightly risque, they get scared. I try to spare them my trauma. They're not up to it."
Right now, wrapping up an articulate civilized conversation, one almost forgets the fear of God he struck on the set of the photo shoot. Is this the same person from a few days before? "I can manage to be a nice person during the day, too," he smirks. "Even when shooting Virtuosity, I could just click into that mentality then click out. It's kinda easier for me to draw on the dark side, because of all the years having to do that--I ran a club, I was a waiter, bartender, car washer, I was a bingo caller at a resort. But I'm not always a frenzied beast; I'm not always that dark. But I guess we all have a little bit of a death wish. We all have a little bit of Sid in us." Some more than others.
--from W Magazine, July 1995