Interview: Russell Crowe in ''Virtuosity''

BY MAL VINCENT, The Virginian-Pilot Copyright 1995, Landmark Communications Inc.

SHARON STONE claims that ''Russell Crowe is the sexiest guy working in movies today.''

Stone says she knows what she's talking about because she filmed an ultra-hot scene with the Australian actor in his American movie debut, the Western ''The Quick and the Dead.''

Studio heads agree on his bankability as plans rush forward for three new films starring Crowe, even though ''that'' scene was cut from the Western. Crowe makes a major step forward when ''Virtuosity'' opens Friday. In it, he co-stars with Denzel Washington in a scene-stealing exhibition -- even though his role is that of the villain, not the hero.

Told of Stone's comment as he entered the room, Crowe laughed and said, ''Sharon said THAT?

''Well, mate, that's a real compliment coming from her. She's a real expert on those scenes. We rehearsed that scene a number of times and, then, had to do it over and over. I urged that we try it again. The fact that it was eventually cut from the film didn't bother me at all.''

Born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, Crowe has already won the Australian Film Institute's honors as both ''best actor'' and ''best supporting actor.'' His reviews for ''The Sum of Us,'' an Australian film which was a surprise hit in America, were ecstatic.

''Virtuosity,'' a cyber-thriller set in a futuristic computer age, features Crowe as Sid 6.7, a computer-created guy who is no less than the most diabolically created villain of all time. He's a mixture of Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and all the other criminal minds of history -- described as ''an unnerving composite of humanity at its worst.''

Denzel Washington stars as a former police officer who is, in the year 1999, serving time for revenging the death of his wife who was killed by a terrorist. Sid 6.7 is created for use in training police officers. In virtual reality training, the officers come up against Sid in simulated conditions. The idea is that if they can best this superpowered criminal, they can take anyone. Things get murky when Sid 6.7 has too much intelligence pumped into his programming. Suspicious that he's about to be terminated, and equipped with human, but not moral, emotions, he escapes from the land of Internet and into the real world. A senseless killer who literally can not be stopped by gunfire, it is only the character played by Washington who might have a chance to stop him.

A face-to-face conflict is in the making -- backed by all the technological movie wizardry of the computer age. (Director Leonard debuted in movies with 20 minutes of dazzling computer graphics that helped popularize the concept of virtual reality in the movie ''The Lawnmower Man.'')

Crowe prepared for playing the most evil villain in history by reading books about serial killers. ''Ultimately, though, I had to just go for it. An actor has to play the role. You can't depend on research. There was no way to research Sid. No one like him ever existed. There's a little of Adolf Hitler in him and a little of my dentist. I think there might be a little of Bobby Darin there, too.''

Leonard admits that the style of Crowe and Washington are exactly opposite.

''Denzel likes to prepare a great deal,'' he said. ''He comes on the set with everything thoroughly researched and is deadly serious about it all. Russell is a cut-up. Russell is a fun guy -- a bit of a nut. I relate to that kind of human. I like actors who are collaborative. It's more fun. But, to Russell, it's not just playing around either. When he gets down to work, he's totally focused. It helped, too, that there's a sense of menace about him.''

Crowe had high praise for his co-star. ''This movie has 500 times more depth to it because Denzel Washington played the hero,'' he said. ''Denzel watches and he waits. When you play a scene with him, you've got to be ready. He's going to wipe you up if you're not careful. Of course, his job in this one was to be the hero. The villain has a real advantage because he can go over the top.''

Among the ''cut-up'' things that Russell liked to do on the set was ad-lib. The director encouraged it.

''Within the point of the scene, I think things should be very open,'' Crowe said. ''You can't retire a character's development. It's an ongoing search.''

The actor claims that, on the other hand, he loses himself in a role when the camera is turning.

''I think it's the thing to do,'' he said. ''It's why I'm being paid. My life isn't damaged by being suspended while I work. I cut everything outside the job out and allow myself to be totally focused.''

''Virtuosity's'' post-production period, with the inclusion of all the special effects, took longer than the time spent shooting the film with the live actors. Colored lights and explosions take place everywhere. Crowe admits that he was surprised when he saw the finished film at a preview screening the night before.

''Yeah, I was often playing to things that weren't even there,'' he said. ''Only now, that the film is finished, do I know what they look like. It was a matter of playing to empty space and they add it in later. I know nothing about virtual reality, and I still don't know much, but I knew what the requirements of my part were. Making a movie like this doesn't mean that you can move about and expect the camera to follow you. You have to be on the spot every time, and still manage to say your line. But it's a lot of fun. It's a unique kind of movie.''

Already finished are two other movies: ''Rough Magic'' in which he stars with Bridget Fonda and ''No Way Back'' with Michael Learner.

Asked if he would follow in the star-footsteps of fellow Australian Mel Gibson in ''going Hollywood,'' he said, ''My home is Sydney and that's going to remain my home. It is a great privilege to make movies here, in the States, but it's primarily because I don't have a good script, at the moment, back home. I'll always be Australian and my real goal is to be able to raise financing to make movies back there.''

As for his emerging ''star'' status, he doesn't acknowledge it, or care.

''If you're bloomin' desperate for it, it's going to kick your butt,'' he said. ''Making movies is opening up my life, not shutting my life down.''