as crowe flies

by Howard Feinstein

A staple of Australian films and a sporadic presence in American movies (a fact that will surely change), Russell Crowe is a man of unlimited self-awareness. Sure the 33-year-old _is_ an actor, in fact, like fellow Aussie Judy Davis, he's one of the best working in movies today. And yes, this assured, compact, muscular man with the fleshy face marked by a wonderfully imperfect mole, oozes animal magnetism (especially unshaven, as he is on this May morning in Cannes), even if it is tempered by the breathiness of a husky voice and hypnotic, marbled, grayish, blue-green eyes. But Crowe goes for balance-- not always successfully-- between the demands of leading-man visiblity and the existential position of being just one little person in a big, troubled world. His vocabulary is suffused with terms we know from groups like EST. And according to his colleagues in Australia, Crowe is an avid student of self-help groups, especially "Own Your Own Life," an Australian "school" to which director Jane Campion also subscribes. Crowe, however, denies any involvement.

"Burning the pedestal" is the way he describes his monologues between numbers when his band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, tours throughout Australia. (He plays guitar and sings, "if you want to call singing what comes out of my gob.") "If people want to inflate me or put me up on somewhere I don't belong, it's a matter of torching it-- bringing it down to earth again, saying, 'Listen, I have exactly the same family structure, exactly the same problems, exactly the same levels of observation as you. Divide my characters and divide the cinema from who I am.' The thing about performing with a band: There is no safety net. If you want an exercise in bringing yourself back to earth, go on a rock-and-roll tour."

In his quest for stability, Crowe has given up on urban life, He lives a fairly isolated existence with his American girlfriend in a rural area seven-and-a-half hours by car northwest of Sydney. "It makes you really kind of examine things in a very deep fashion, you know?"

"I have no need to live in Sydney anymore," he explains. "The danger for me there is that I can walk out to get a newspaper and come home three days later, because I know so many people, and there are always so many things going on. And I really don't want to fritter my time away. Being on a farm, I read books, I structure my day around the needs of my animals, not my animalistic friends," he says with a laugh.

"Where I live used to be a rain forest. Half of my place is cleared pasture, and the other half is tall trees. It's the bush. It's not really that isolated if you want to commute every day to the shops, but it's totally isolated if you want it that way. I'm actually living in the middle of a valley, so from where my shack is, it stretches away on both sides of me, and I have a range of mountains in front of 48 cows, a horse, three dogs, and five chickens. It's a simple existence, but it's also extremely time consuming. If you're going to look after the animals they way you should, you can do 10, 12 hours of work a day, easy."

Crowe is highly driven, both professionally and personally. (They are called self-help prgrams, no?) One legendary Crowe story that every actor and actress in Australia knows is the one about an alleged sexual encounter between Crowe and a young actress, who was shocked when, during the act, he began cheerleading, "Go, Russ, Go!" Another actor, upon hearing that a Russell Crowe website exists, mutters, "Figures." And one Sydney film exec told me that Crowe refused to be hooked up with the other talent to do publicity for the gay-themed 1994 film, The Sum of Us, in which he plays the son of a loving but meddlesome father, because he didn't want to jeopardize a role he was up for in The Quick and the Dead. Yet, today he is comfortable saying, "I remember joking with the director [of The Sum of Us] one day, 'You know, if I was homosexual, I'd be a screaming queen. That's where the fun is."

But Crowe sees himself as a team player. He raves about that studio rarity, the ensemble piece, and the collective spirit on the set of Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, which was in official competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

"In Australia, if you make movies, man, you've run away and joined the circus," he says. "You're outside of society on lots of different levels, including financially. You do it because you love to do it. Everybody needs to be getting on with each other, because we're doing very long days, shooting into the night, every single night.

"It's more of an industry here [in the U.S.], more big business, you know? Generally, you're in your corner, the other actor is in his corner, somebody rings the bell, and you come out and do your stuff. But that's not the basis of performance. In order to get true emotional levels, true levels of sexuality, you've got to be emotionally close to your co-star, your fellow performer. And you know that relationship is only for the movie. I'm blown away here, where people don't even sit their actors down in the same room and have a reading.

"L.A. Confidential was the first full-cast reading that I've been involved in in the States, which is unbelievable," he continues. "It's essential to have all your actors read the story together so they can see where they are at any given time. The ensemble nature of relationships between actors was totally evident on the set every day."

In this neo-noir, based on the James Ellroy novel and set in the early '50s, Crowe is Angeleno detective Bud White, who works with an assortment of policemen of questionable conscience. Fellow Aussie Guy Pearce( the best-looking drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) portrays a noble newcomer whose opportunism begins to rear its ugly head; Kevin Spacey is a cop in cahoots with sleazy tabloid journalist Danny DeVito; and James Cromwell (Babe's Farmer Hoggett) is their leader, a man with huge skeletons in his closet. Filling out the ensemble is Kim Basinger as a hooker, who is a dead ringer for Veronica Lake, one of several girls carved into the likeness of big stars who are employed by David Strathairn's entrepeneur/pimp/poseur.

An example of unusual collaboration:"David [Strathairn] and I sat in Curtis's trailer a couple of nights before we played our scenes together. I laid out for David where I would be coming from in my investigation of him. It's those kind of conversations that get the thing moving. OK, this is my base position. Your base position is whatever you tell me it's going to be. We could do it this way, we could do it that way, we could do it upside-fucking-down. Let's try it. Let's take it upside-down and turn it around, and then when you do it for the camera, you haven't limited yourself in any manner--you've actually opened up all the possibilities, so you can go anywhere. See, those sorts of things that come out and seem so effortless, they take work. Effortlessness takes preparaton.

The production of Sam Raimi's The Quick and the Dead is an altogether different memory for Crowe. Sharon Stone, who co-produced the movie, helped Crowe get the part. "I did Schedule F for that movie, so I got paid less than anybody who was an extra for the whole film," he says. "Finally, the only thing between Sharon getting me in the movie and me doing it was money. She pushed so many studio prerequisites out of the way in order to have me in that movie, based on the fact that she thought I was good. It was like, well, there's no consideration there. Forget money. It's not about that. I'm coming for the work." According to the rumor mill, the set was fraught with tension between Crowe and co-star Gene Hackman. Crowe responds to the allegation indirectly, but as honestly as possible for anyone who plans to continue working with Big Stars.

"Here's this young Australian guy coming in to play what is, on paper, the third lead in a $35-million film," he says. "And nobody's ever heard of him--except for Sharon. So I wouldn't say it was easy for any of these guys to accept that they should give over any kind of respect or consideration at all.

"I had a good kind of elder-brother relationship with Leonardo [DiCaprio]. But, you see, I was playing Gene's adversary. A lot of it had to do with the simple relationship of the characters. I was quite surprised that there was very limited contact, outside of actual scenes between myself and Gene and Sharon. I think I made a joke about the permed hair." Sharon's support clearly bound Crowe to her, but his innocent honesty sealed the rapport. "We'd had a conversation right when we first met, and she was considering marriage, and she was talking about a prenuptial agreement. From my naive perspective, I said, 'If you're going to have a prenuptial agreement, isn't there something wrong with the person you've selected for your marriage partner for life?'

"Man, I'm a big supporter of hers," he continues. "I think she's a great person. On the set, she says to me, 'What are you doing Christmas Day?' And I said, 'Well, nothin'.' I mean, we're in Tucson, Arizona! I don't live here, haven't got any family down the road. She says, 'Why donn't you come with me to the Salvation Army?' So we spend Christmas morning serving food at the Salvation Army. And from there we went to a home for battered children. We just played with the kids, gave them presents. You look into the eyes of a woman like that, and what she could be doing on Christmas Day, and you realize what she is doing on Christmas Day. And she is still in that single percentile of actresses who know what glamour is, and know what being a fucking movie star is all about."

Lately, Crowe is high on Mexican actress Salma Hayek, his co-star in writer- director Robert Greenwald's Breaking Up, a story of "universal themes about being in a relationship, about the death throes of a love affair, and--everybody I know has been through it--where you have to be apart, but you can't tear yourself away."

Of Hayek, he says, "She's got to be one of the greatest performers I've worked with. She's fantastic. She's really, really cool in the movie. I think a lot of opportunities have passed her by, maybe because some people can't see through race and color. She can really turn it on, man."

Depending on the role, Crowe can become an angel or a demon, sometimes both at the same time. He's a credible blend of sensitive and macho as a gay plumber in The Sum of Us, and a reformed gunslinger in The Quick and the Dead; he's a gentle-looking megalomaniacal killer from virtual reality in Virtuosity; a drunken ex-Marine journalist with a soft spot in the disastrous Rough Magic (opposite Bridget Fonda); and in Australian films, a kitchen hand who reaches out (with latently homesexual overtones) to an emotionally stunted blind man in Proof, a stockman with a spiritual bent in The Silver Brumby; amd a hired robber with a conscience in Heaven's Burning. (His photographer in Breaking Up is more even-keeled, as are four Aussie roles: a virginal lightweight in Love in Limbo, a heroic horseman in Hammers Over the Anvil, a fatherless young man in The Crossing, and a skinhead leader in the grossly underrated Romper Stomper--a true tour de force.

Bud White in L.A. Confidential is Crowe's most contradictory character to date; he's playing a good cop-bad cop all by himself. White is a man with a soft spot for battered women, but he ends up beating a woman himself. "He's a racist," says Crowe. "He's self-righteous. He's foul-mouthed. He's a son of a bitch. However, in the course of the movie, you get an indication as to why he's taken this attitude in life. He doesn't realize just how much he's looking for live and affection and confirmation of his good points, buried as they may be. He finds a woman strong enough to deal with the posture that he's taken, so he finds within himself the ability to open up to her. I think he is a good man--but he's very much a product of his environment and his job.

"I rang [James] Ellroy and asked, 'What branch of service did Bud work in in World War II?' and Ellroy said, 'He didn't go to war. He had a battle plan since he was 10 years old, and his battlefield is the city of Los Angeles, and his enemy domestic abusers. That is his war. That's the battle he was fighting. He went out of high school into the LAPD training program. End of story.'"

But Crowe himself is a complex man. He has a reputation in Australia for occasional violence, though he qualifies the allegation. Yes, he and some members of the Romper Stomper cast were arrested near a Melbourne housing estate while in full skinhead regalia, but it amounted to nothing. Slightly irriated, he says, "Are you asking if I have a violent nature that I have to go out and fuel? No, I don't. My father was a hotel manager [Crowe's parents were location caterers for films], so I've been exposed to the foibles and quirks of public-bar life since childhood. So I've certainly been in a position where I've had to defend myself, or other people, at certain times. Historically, I'm on the losing end of any kind of violent confrontation," he says with a laugh. In fact, he defines himself by "the relationship between myself and my animals. If you want to train horses or dogs, contrary to the beliefs of some people, it's not about dominance. It's about teamwork."

To understand what makes Crowe tick, it helps to understand the differences between New Zealand and Australian cultures, especially as he defines them. "The catch phrase in Australia is, 'No worries, mate,'" he says. "Things will be the way they'll be. New Zealanders don't seee it that way. There are mountains to be climbed. Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to climb Mt.Everest was a New Zealander. If there are things to be done, New Zealanders will get them done.

"I'm kind of caught between cultures a bit. I'm one-sixteenth Maori: I'm registered on the Maori voting roll in New Zealand. I went back there as a teenager to finish high school [he left at the age of 4], because my dad never intended us to have been away that long. He's very much a New Zealander. But for me, the formative years in Australia set my attitudes toward life, and they're vastly different from your average New Zealander's attitudes."

He then, perhaps not so strangely, shifts to the topic of violence as a way of further contrasting the neighbouring countries.

"If a fight starts in an Australian hotel, or in a bar, everyone will work on stopping it, everyone gets involved: 'Come on, mate. Calm down.' An hour later, you're most likely to see the two protagonists having a drink together. Whereas if a fight starts in a New Zealand hotel, someone's going to get seriously hurt, an ambulance will be called before the end of it."

Perhaps one can find a clue to Crowe's sense of self versus everybody else in his attitude toward Sydney's famed NIDA (National Institute for Dramatic Arts), which boasts such graduates as Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, and Jacqueline McKenzie. Crowe opted not to go ("I was a child extra, and had 19 years of apprenticeship").

"The people who make a big splash after NIDA are the people who are given the spear-chucker roles," he says. "The amount of bodies on the roadside from going to NIDA is a hell of a lot more than the stars. A lot of people's dreams and ambitions have been destroyed by going there. I probably would have been one of those people. I'm not a student for anybody else's agenda. I go out and find the answers to the questions that become apparent to me in life, not from somebody else's list."

End of story.

Detour, October 1997