Pipe Bender-From Playing Nazi Thugs to Gay Plumbers, Russell Crowe is the Man for the Job

Russell Crowe is about as het as they get. Not that I can vouch for him personally, but--despite hailing from Sydney--I'd guess he likes a beer with the Sheilas. Now, though, he's joined the figwagon of straight actors(Antonio Banderas, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Baldwin, Linus Roach and Tom Hanks) taking on gay roles.

As if playing a gay man wasn't challenging enough, Crowe has to play a gay plumber. In The Sum of Us he plays Geoff who lives with his widowed father(played by Aussie legend Jack Thompson) and just can't seem to find Mr. Right. Dad is not only aware of his son's homosexuality, but positively encourages it--with alternately hilarious and heart-rending results. A low-budget Australian film based on the award-winning play by ex-pat Brit David Stevens, The Sum of Us has won a plethora of prizes at film festivals around the world.

Only five years ago, at the age of 25, Crowe won his first starring role in the low-budget Australian feature The Crossing. Since then, he has achieved recognition for a diverse range of roles, including his portrayal of the sicko Nazi Hando in Romper Stomper(19991).

Sharon Stone had seen a tape of Crowe in that feature and thought his performance "riveting and incredibly brave". She brought him in to audition for the role of Cort in The Quick and the Dead, an outlaw who has renounced violence and found God. The Crowe who arrived was not the one she had anticipated. "He wasn't this cold, isolated tough guy. He was a vulnerable, funny goofball, with this beautiful head of hair and beautiful blue eyes. I thought, 'Wow! This guy's going to be a movie star.'"

The Quick and the Dead performed poorly in the USA--the fact that Sharon Stone is mostly fully clothed may have been a factor. For the international release, Crowe can be seen ripping Sharon Stone's shirt open and engaging in some handcuffed near-sex. And he'll be doing much the same with Bridget Fonda in Rough Magic, (but not with Denzel Washington in Virtuosity).

Despite the lack of a big-name actress-cum-temptress playing opposite, Crowe is thrilled with The Sum of Us. So what attracted him to the part?

"Well, it's just a great movie. Very warm and funny. It's about the love between a father and son, shifting responsibilities in the generations. That's basically an age-old subject for movies, but a lot of people will think, 'Oh, yes, The Sum of Us--it's about homosexuality, therefore it's got to be about AIDS, with people arguing and crying and stuff.' I think that's the great thing about this film: there is no anger between the father and son."

Despite working in an industry brimming with luvvies of a non-hetero persuasion, Crowe says he drew largely on a gay relative for inspiration.

"The way we approached the character is the normalcy of homosexuality--I mean it's not shocking or surprising. The whole perspective of the movie is that sexuality is not the thing that makes you what you are."

He still found the role extremely challenging.

"Oh yes. Thinking about that change of sexuality in terms of myself was actually one of the most difficult things I've portrayed. But that's cool. I really enjoyed it."

Crowe shares the view of most heterosexual actors on the vexed question of whether these roles should be played by them at all.

"The point of being an actor is taking on whatever the role is. If the director has chosen non-gays to play these roles, so what? My attitude really is what's expressed by my character in The Sum of Us. He doesn't want to shut himself down and simply close off in a community. He doesn't think, 'Hey, I'm homosexual so I'll only go to gay clubs and only read gay magazines.'

"I'm not condemning anybody at all for having that lifestyle if that's what they choose. But in my opinion, it's not about gay rights--it's about human rights.

Lesley O'Toole

The Quick and the Dead opens on September 29. The Sum of Us opens in the new year.

Note: the photo accompanying the article is in the image gallery. It's the blue-shirt, gazing skyward one)