Born to be bad

"People are always comparing me to Mel Gibson," laughs Russell Crowe, the New-Zealand-born actor who costars in the current technothriller Virtuosity, as Sid 6.7, a vicious humanoid computer program who escapes from the boundaries of virtual reality to wreak no end of real-world havoc. "I've started to aske them, why don't you ever compare me to Judy Davis?"

A boyish, blue-eyed, self-amused bloke, Crowe, 31, has already made his mark down under: He won the 1991 Australian Film Institute's equivalent of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing an amiable dishwasher in the idiosyncratic comedy, Proof. The next year, he earned an AFI Best Actor award for his fierce performance as a tattoed racist skinhead in Romper Stomper. Then he defied expectations by playing a gay plumber whose dad pressures him to settle down with the right guy in the heartfelt, The Sum of Us.

Crowe made his United States debut earlier this year as a reformed gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead. But even before the Sharon Stone shoot-'em-up opened, director Brett Leonard (The Lawnmower Man) was arguing to an initially resistant Paramount Pictures that Crowe could play an amalgamation of the greatest villains of all time: Virtuosity's Sid 6.7 is a composite program drawn from a rogues' gallery of history's most ruthless killers, from Hitler and Mussolini to Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer--all packaged in a sleek, pompadoured charmer whom the actor facetiously likens to pop star Bobby Darin.

"Brett was a bit of a fan. He began writing me letters, which was a little annoying because he's a director and should have more pride," says Crowe, who can't resist a gibe. "But right from the first screen test, we knew Sid had to be a bit of a rake. He doesn't have any human conscience or guilt. You take away all of that human responsibility and you only have those areas where he finds terrorism to be excruciatingly funny. If Sid didn't enjoy terrorizing people, he wouldn't do it."

Arriving on Leonard's futuristic set, Crowe plunged into an F/X-heavy project that was a technonerd's dream. On the first day of rehearsal, Denzel Washington, who stars as the embattled ex-police officer determined to crash the renegade program, asked the director a question about the movie's computer-driven technology. "Seventeen, 18 minutes later, we were all nodding our heads and stealing glances at each other as it to say, 'Are you following any of this?'" says Crowe. "But it all became fascinating and very collaborative."

Working as a team player is nothing new to the actor. Growing up around movie sets-his granfather was a cinematographer; his parents were both set caterers--Crowe has a perspective that keeps him from worrying about Hollywood histrionics. Although he has two thrillers in the can--Rough Magic, costarring Bridget Fonda, and No Way Back, with Michael Lerner--his expectations are in check. "I'm not anticipating anything," Crowe insists. "I'm just too used to being a member of the circus."

--excerpted from Entertainment Weekly, August