Sincerely Yours

by Susan Chenery

Hot young actor Russell Crowe will do just about anything for his craft--he'll starve, shave his head, or fly to Wales to perfect his lilt if required. What he won't do is suck up to anybody.

Film-maker George Ogilvie, who directed RC in The Crossing, said, 'Russell reminds me of James Dean in that he has the same charisma Dean had.' Anthony Hopkins, eyeing him on the set of Spotswood (later retitled The Efficiency Expert in the U.S.), said, 'Inwardly, he makes me smile because he reminds me of myself as a young actor. It is almost like watching my own reflection.' What Hopkins omitted to mention was that as a young actor he had been, by his own admission, belligerent, alcoholic and neurotic, with a pugilistic attitude towards directors. RC may not share these qualities, but he does have Attitude. For him, the performance is everything and he is not about to schmooze to anybody.

'I don't like people telling me what to do,' says RC. 'The worst thing I've ever heard is that all you need to succeed in this business is sincerity and that once you can fake that that you've got it made. I don't give a s@#$ about smiling and being nice to people. This is my performance and you can take it or leave it.' Sitting in a Sydney coffee shop, chain smoking, hair flopping over his eyes, jiggling his fingers on the table, RC, cleft-jawed and granite faced, has the appearance of a nervy Clark Gable. A speedy, method-acting Clark Gable with a brain and a grudging sensitivity.

But while he may have the face of a matinee idol, RC, an escapee from New Zealand, is fuelled by a burning and uncompromising passion for his craft and an agitated energy that seems to churn around inside him. Dedicated, obsessive, talented, ambitious are the words colleagues use to describe him. Apart from his poignant performance as Johnny, 'a ball of primal muscle,' in The Crossing, movie-goers have rarely seen him in a romantic mode and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future.

Nor are they likely to recognise him. RC, the serious actor, looks for truth in his work. 'I never repeat myself. I always take a character who is totally different from the one before. I change how I walk, how I feel. You have to wait around and be patient. Sometimes you have to starve. I was out of work for five months at the beginning of this year, and it becomes absolute hell, it really does. But, eventually, the right role will come if you keep pushing for it.' And the roles do come. In the soon-to-be-released Spotswood, he plays a parody of ambition, 'Kim', 'an extremely slimy character;' in the highly acclaimed Proof, his Andy the dishwasher, alongside Hugo Weaving's superb blind photographer, is a frisky ball of contradictions. In the recently completed, The Great Pretender (later retitled Love in Limbo), he plays 'soft, pudgy littler Arthur,' a Welsh immigrant whose accent he travelled to Wales to perfect.

'There is a scene where Arthur and his mate drive to a whorehouse. But Arthur can't bring himself to go inside, he just sits out there and waits for his friend to finish. That is what attracted me to Arthur. I see it as a sense of nobility that he doesn't want to have his first sexual experience in a whorehouse. My attitudes mirror Arthur's in that respect.'

For Romper Stomper, a film about neo-Nazi skinheads currently in production, RC gets his head shaved and a chance to be vicious and mean. 'The scary thing about my character, Hando, is the marriage of ultra-violence with ideology. Plus, the unpredictability of it being just plain, f@#$ing mad. Racism is one of the most evil and heinous thought patterns that a human can get into.'

The child of location caterers, RC's first celluloid appearance was at the age of six in Spyforce. 'All though my childhood I was acting. I wanted to be a pirate or a Roman gladiator or Robin Hood. Actually, I'm pissed off that I'm not. But what I am doing now is simply an extension of working my way up from being an extra. People see things like Proof or The Crossing and think they are glamorous, but I've done unglamorous things as well. I've hung around for weeks on a war movie as an extra and I've worked as a bingo caller on a resort island. But, for me, acting is not just a matter of 'Oh, they are going to pay me money so I'll go and act.' It doesn't work that way. I have to be committed and I have to be passionate about work before I can do anything.'

Crowe's innate desire to perform put him onstage with a rock band in his early 20s, on the rollicking New Zealand pub circuit. 'I was a singer and I played guitar. But singing,' he laughs, 'is a loose term. I still write songs and perform them but they have become so personal that I generally just play them to friends whom the song is about. As I've become older, the desire to have an audience has waned slightly, when put next to the cerebral involvement and attention to detail in a film.'

As one of an ascendant group of intelligent and highly individual young male actors (including Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelosohn) who may well signpost the future of Australian film, it seems that Crowe is unlikely to face many more agonising stretches of unemployment. But he has a contingency plan nonetheless. 'I have bought a 130-year-old piano to restore between jobs. I don't actually play the piano but I wanted something to keep me occupied.'

But ask him the old chestnut whether he would like to direct and he looks as if a fly landed in his coffee. 'I'm just a baby, I've only made five films. To get to the point of being a director you have a heart, an intelligence and a sense of love the size of George Ogilvie's. If I get to that level I'll canonise myself.'