Crowe - The Press
|Fights Camera Action
Published: 13 September 2005
Misbehaving or just misunderstood? Hollywood's finest actor bares his soul about his work, his passions, the trouble that stalks him. And that night in New York.
Here’s the thing ...” It’s the signal Russell Crowe is about to launch. He fires the missile hard and early – HERE is the thing, THIS is the issue – and whether it’s his job, his true nature, or how he managed to secure a 725% pay rise in Hollywood, he follows that bright pulsing thought wherever it takes him. A guaranteed good ride except since the early hours of June 6, when a phone was thrown at the front desk of a New York hotel, there is just one “thing” everyone wants to know, which is what’s bugging Crowe? And – the follow-up – what’s he going to do about it?
So here’s the news flash, straight from the man: Crowe will not be attending anger management classes. There will be no baring of his soul on the psychoanalyst’s couch (“I’m basically a shitty patient for a shrink”). And if winning the public’s approval means putting everything in a box and turning himself into a different person then tough, it’s not going to happen. He’d rather not do the job.
“You tell me to piss off too many times and I probably will,” he says. “I don’t mind shrinking my professional life. I don’t mind taking those targets off my head. But you know, I’m not going to become a false thing to satisfy anybody else for any reason. I do it straight, I do it from the heart, and if that’s not good enough, then I just won’t do it.
“Maybe it’s better I don’t travel to America. Maybe it’s better I don’t work in the area of the business that attracts so many flies.”
This may not be entirely Crowe’s choice. The worst possibility, if the Manhattan court rejects his application to reduce the charge from possession of a dangerous or deadly instrument (to wit, a telephone) to something less severe, is that he’ll be jailed and barred from working in the United States. The case, due for hearing this week, has been deferred until November. The best possibility – more likely now hotel worker Nestor Estrada has accepted settlement of his civil suit against Crowe – is a lighter penalty but the complex business of getting an American visa gets that much more tedious and demanding. “Every time I apply for a visa, it’s like you need to take a suitcase into the embassy,” says Crowe. “So to add this charge, even as a misdemeanour level – it started as a felony but now they’re discussing misdemeanour – basically stops me getting certain types of visa. And it certainly stops me from getting a visa at any speed.”
Then there is the less quantifiable business of how the incident impacts on Crowe’s public reputation. Indisputably, his new film Cinderella Man, about to open in Australia, had a disappointing opening in the US. It was a crowded summer at the screens and Crowe insists neither he nor anyone involved in the film’s release blames the Mercer Hotel incident, though others have. “Only self-styled film expert wankers who go to lunch with Joan Rivers – and since when does that qualify you for anything? Unless you’re a plastic surgeon.”
What actually happened, he says, is that the box office went up the day after the arrest – a 17% unexpected rise. “We got on the front page instead of Tommy Cruise, this is just my version of couch-dancing,” he says mischievously. Which is not to suggest he’s not taking it seriously or isn’t hurting, but that there are two sides to every coin. “Of course you shouldn’t get pissed off, of course I shouldn’t have thrown something at him, but it’s a two-way street. I might have overreacted to a situation, but I was in bed trying to go to sleep. You think I want to put my pants on and go down to the foyer and go ‘What the fuck are you talking about’ to some bloke? Do you really think I want to do that? Come on.”
Crowe expressed his contrition to David Letterman, he took six weeks to focus on the situation and, for now, he says, he’s had to put it away. He’ll live with the memory of that “perp walk”, paraded in handcuffs before 150 members of the press, for the rest of his days. Was it horrible? “Lots of things in life are horrible. Doing swimming scenes in winter in Canada, that’s horrible, but you do it. And you get through it.”
What he cares about most is how it affects his wife, Danielle, and “there’s no motivation in my life stronger than not to have my wife experience that again. Certainly not to have my son see that at a time when he can understand it”. But can he promise it won’t happen again? The simple answer is no. “You front me as a bloke like that, you’d better be prepared to back it up. Or apologise, and do the thing I asked you to do. I’m going to respond like that.”
The complex answer is that circumstances change, he’s changing, and he doubts that situation will ever arise again. But who knows? “Ceteris paribus decorum tremens,” he recites, and translates. “All things being equal, keep your head.” Then adds: “If they’re not equal, do whatever the fuck you need to do to bring them to equal. It’s the tenet of my life.”
But here’s the thing: “I love my job. I enjoy the hell out of doing my job, and my preference would be to just keep doing it.” So, if Crowe is right, and it’s “hanging time in the land of cotton”, will he be able to? “If I’m not making the big-money projects, not doing a $100m film, then you’re less of a target ... If I’m an ‘international menace’ like the defence attorney is suggesting, then fine. I’ll just stay here.” And be a local menace? “Yeah, I’ll just be punished in this way.” He laughs, almost giggles, and gives a wry, what-can-you-do? smile. “It’s just so ludicrous, you know.”
It is indeed ludicrous. We are sitting on the terrace of his vast apartment on Sydney Harbour, the sun spangling the sea, his son Charlie pottering in the next-door playroom. Here is the finest film actor in the world – not one of, the – living what looks like the life of Riley. He has wealth beyond dreams and a wife and young son he adores. A diverse range of extra-curricular skills – he can box and sail, play a violin and ride like the clappers – and a cache of awards confirming how well he’s applied them. He surrounds himself with paintings, books, a collection of classic watches, rare movie trophies like Marlon Brando’s award for 1954’s On the Waterfront. He gets offered the best scripts by the most admired directors and has never failed to deliver. It is, he agrees, a beautiful life and he’s spent 25-plus years working hard to build it.
Crowe is fit and lean, about to leave for his next film – to be shot in Provence – and keen to promote his last, in which he plays Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. We talk from lunch until evening, but Cinderella Man doesn’t get much of a look-in. I should say that we’ve known each other for some years, not good friends but friendly; there have been parties, dinners, long talks at sunrise on his NSW north coast farm. I’ve always found him to be warm and funny and open, not the rampaging Russell of the tabloids but a gentleman, in both senses. Someone who respects, even yearns for the traditional values of family and country – an old-fashioned bloke, in lots of ways. And also gentle, for all the qualities which are often bundled into the familiar description “alpha male”.
I asked to see him long before the infamous phone incident, wanting to talk primarily about his acting and his movies because of the intelligence and passion I’ve heard him bring to these subjects. And yes, a little about what we might call the anger issue, given the number and nature of reported outbursts from 1989 on – though since June, a little is not enough. It’s become the great, glowering elephant you can’t ignore. And while I suspected it might be difficult interviewing someone I know – and, let’s be clear, genuinely like – it proved to be even trickier than I imagined; he has the habit of honesty which makes him in many ways his own worst enemy. A wry joke becomes a screaming headline, the self-mockery gets lost, and the explanation for an outburst can read like an excuse. The liveliness can read as swagger. If one were to sum up the public attitude to Crowe, today, it’d be along the lines: great actor, shame about the temper, and the ludicrous thing is that they’ve reached the stage of equal billing. How did this happen? What is he so angry about?
This, according to Crowe, is the first misconception. He is not an angry man, but someone who learnt very early to be a man in a particular way. “I grew up in a competitive household; my brother’s 16 months older than me. You know, my household, if you didn’t speak loudest, you simply weren’t heard.” And from age eight, at primary school, he learnt that “if you don’t have three or four inches of height then you’re dead in the water”.
He knows himself as a gentle man “but I also have grown up in this society where if you show gentleness you’re a poof”.
And he has always focused intently on his job; he does the best he can. “I was like that as a waiter, when I was a car-detailer, and I’m like that now. And that’s not going to change.” What people perceive as anger is what Crowe describes as being specific – “and when I get specific, depending who I’m talking to, sometimes you have to raise your voice. Some people think that everything you say is an option, and it’s not”. He hates to be second-guessed. “If they ask a question and my answer is red, it’s red. That’s my answer. So when they turn up the next day and say, ‘We thought you’d like blue’, and I say, ‘Fuck off, I said red’ – that’s being specific.”
Perhaps it’s why some people are scared of him. “Which I find really odd,” Crowe says. And it bothers him, because his own take on it is that he sticks up for others, that he hates seeing people bullied, which gets him branded as a bully himself. He also points to the roles he’s played: the neo-Nazi skinhead Hando in Romper Stomper, the violent cop in LA Confidential, the Roman gladiator. “It’s bound to be the destiny of someone who’s played characters like Hando and Bud White for a certain amount of people to accept that is the complete thing ... the same person that writes an article based on how aggressive you are in your real life completely ignores things like The Sum of Us or A Beautiful Mind because it doesn’t help with their point.”
Which is, he asserts, the second and most poisonous misconception: that the person in the newspapers and pop magazines is actually Crowe. And that because these stories are reported then they are true. The stories may be harmless, even benign – “the other day apparently in the paper I saved some woman’s dog. Look, if I needed to save the dog and I was there I would have helped you out, love, but it wasn’t me, very sorry.” They may be deeply damaging. They may be true in part but untrue in detail. Or true in essence, like the time he had a punch-up in a pub with good mate Mark “Spud” Carroll, but “we did what guys from our culture do and we sorted it out within a couple of hours, all over red rover”.
There are many incidents, over many years, printed too often to bear repeating. Some exist on video, or happened before witnesses. Can it all be wrong, all based on misunderstanding?
“Your question is cyclical and silly. Am I a fully realised human being, with emotions from zero to infinity? Yes I am. Am I easily irritated by people who are setting out to irritate me? Yeah.”
And is he in control of his irritation in response? “If I feel like it. And if I don’t feel like it, I give ’em a shotgun barrel. And why shouldn’t I have the right to? It’s OK for you to get pissed off, why isn’t it OK for me to get pissed off?”
Well, we all know the answer to that: because he’s a famous actor and what he does is endlessly reported and scrutinised. He lives in the searing light of celebrity, and just as a bat which flies in front of a projector becomes a giant mythic creature in the sky, or on the screen, so fame magnifies Crowe’s talents and flaws.
The common complaint about Crowe is that he carries on like a movie star, that fame has gone to his head, whereas it strikes me that the reverse is true. He’s not behaving like a movie star, he’s not playing the game like decorous box-of-chocolates Tom Hanks. If anything, he’s too ordinary by half, wilfully so. What he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that if one did the impossible, doused the light and stripped away the fame, he would still look like a man having a tantrum. An “ordinary” person would be judged harshly too, and told to grow out of it. “OK, I got myself into this situation, right. But if it was you, you wouldn’t be in handcuffs. You wouldn’t even have been taken to the police station.”
Further, he says: “Where is the article that even questions the times before that I’ve gotten into negative violent situations? Did not anybody ever think there might be an occasion where somebody just attacks me for their own reason? If you set me up continuously in the newspaper as somebody who’s negative, how long is it going to take before a drunken 19-year-old bloke thinks it’s a funny idea to smack me in the back of the head while I’m taking a piss in a nightclub toilet? There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s gone on where it’s only been reported from one aspect, and that is, that the gladiator is having a tanty. Whereas it’s a completely different thing.”
Yet you don’t get to be wildly successful and fabulously well paid without having people poking their nose into your life. When I put this to him, he sets down his wine glass with a chink, and says: “Now we know.” If he’d known sooner, would he still have gone ahead? “Probably. It’s my thing. It’s what I can do better than the other things.”
But he didn’t know. What changed everything, he reckons – his “crime” in the court of tabloids – was his relationship with Meg Ryan. She was a Hollywood sweetheart, married to fellow actor Dennis Quaid when she and Crowe connected during the movie Proof of Life. “Without the Meg Ryan situation, or if the Meg Ryan situation had been handled differently, if there’d been a different level of – what’s the word? transparency – in her situation, then people would have understood, but it became this big thing because she was not necessarily living publicly a very truthful existence. Things that people viewed as solid in her life weren’t necessarily so.
“You take the relationship out – which came basically the moment that Gladiator opened, this other thing also happened – you take that out of the equation of my life, and you may never reach this kind of fever pitch. But once you’d been given that black hat then you’re a thing, you’re a product for the magazines, and it doesn’t behove them to change the colour of your hat ... because the truly black-hatted people are really hard to find.”
This reminds me of an interview recorded before the telephone drama – which appeared, ironically, four days afterwards – in which Crowe said: “I’ve had quite a few years of being the man in the black hat, maybe I’m going to get a new hat soon.” “Yeah, or maybe I’m going to lose my head,” Crowe says now. “That’s the one thing I wasn’t counting on – decapitation.” He laughs, enjoying the line. Now everyone wants to send him to anger management classes. “I know. And they all want me to be examined by psychologists. I come from a different culture. If I’ve got something on my mind, you’ll hear about it. Voilà, mental anguish solved.”
It’s for this reason, because of this intensity, that when he first started work with Australian Peter Weir on the epic Master and Commander, he warned the director: “At some stage during the movie, you will see me get really upset with myself. Do not get involved in that maelstrom because it’s got nothing to do with you, I’ll sort it out.” Sure enough, on a day he was struggling with the violin – a two-minute piece by Mozart he’d spent months learning but didn’t play to his own satisfaction until take six – Crowe got upset and started swearing. Which deeply unsettled Weir. “It’s odd because you release a bit of that and then you draw it back in and you focus it and do the thing ... and I’m gone, I’m out of it, onto the next thing. Weir said, ‘You have no residual problem with that whatsoever?’ I said, ‘No’. He goes, ‘Well, I’m going to sit down and have a cup of tea because I think I do’.”
It’s his job, as Crowe sees it, to read the script and render the role and offer ideas – “incessantly I will give ideas” – because a director needs all the options he or she can get. “But I’m not married to any of them ... when you pick which one you want, you tell me, and that’s the one we’ll do, OK? Sweet. I’ll put just as much effort into it, even if I don’t agree with it, as I would with my own ideas.” Which works better with some directors than others. Weir came out of their months working together saying he never felt he actually knew Crowe. Ridley Scott emerged from Gladiator carrying a few bruises but a clear conclusion: “The key is that Russell is worth it. He’s worth it.” Their current project involves filming Peter Mayle’s book A Good Year about an Englishman moving to France; it sounds a little easier than Gladiator but “he’s got limited days, a really small budget and three scripts. How easy do you think it’s going to be?”
His preparation so far involves a hairstyle – “see how soft and floppy it is?” he points – and a desire to extract nastiness as well as humour from his character by drawing on the centuries-old bitterness between France and England. There are also top-secret plans for a big Australian project – but it’s not Eucalyptus, which fell apart so spectacularly just days before the start of filming in northern NSW. Crowe was star and executive producer and copped most of the blame. He doesn’t say much except, “the director [Jocelyn Moorhouse] quit”. He didn’t drive her away? “At any stage if she didn’t want me there, she could have said so. Unfortunately for her, if I go so does her money. That’s part of the situation we’re in ... if I step forward, it gets really serious, this project is elevated to a different place, mainly because of money.
“I can’t go further because I have a sense of honour but here’s the bottom line: if you invite 500 people to join in a creative venture, you don’t have a right to quit. Not in our business, when it’s so hard to get a job. When people have got to basically put their lives on hold to work for you, you don’t fucking quit.” So is it deferred or dead? “Eucalyptus will be made as a movie, don’t worry about that. And it will be really special when it’s made. We’ve just got to wait until it’s a better time.”
In the meantime, there’s the Australian opening of Cinderella Man, fresh from last week’s standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, and negotiations for a TV sale of the doco Crowe co-directed on preparations for the film. It shows how much he asks of himself: the months of running, sparring and sweating; the medical crisis when he wrecked his shoulder, the impossibly swift recovery. He screens it for me a couple of days after our interview. He loathes it when he gets described as “a knockabout bloke” – he says this more than once – because it implies someone who doesn’t care, who isn’t engaged and disciplined. “Do you have any idea the level of personal control that I have, to get to where I am? Any idea at all? This thing of being a smoking gun, this lit fuse, it’s just bollocks,” he says. “Vincit qui se vincit: he conquers who conquers himself.”
Crowe started acting when he was six years old. He made his first big feature, The Crossing, in 1989; his first American film in 1993-4 and broke through with LA Confidential in 1996. He then paused, patiently waited – knowing the value of what he’d done – and has climbed steeply ever since. He’ll horse around and say it’s just entertainment, that an actor is just a vanilla slice – “you get your dialogue, that’s your cherry topping, do your movie, right? There’s your job done” (though in his case, he’s “a vanilla slice with shit topping. I’m a very unpalatable meal, apparently”). But he’ll also say that what he does in movies is the closest to the truth he can ever get. He doesn’t believe actors should preach politics or do endorsements and has offended some major Hollywood players by saying so. And though he’s sick of breathless journalists describing him as “a coiled tiger, ready to spring”, he loves film and loves what he can do with it and knew it was right from the beginning.
“You can do this a lot of different ways. You can turn yourself into a cardboard cutout, which is a completely different thing to a vanilla slice – not edible for a start. And you can be completely plastic with all your relationships. You can basically live lots of degrees of a lie.” But a dumb thing is different to a false thing. “I’ve done some dumb things, got myself in dumb situations, and I’m absolutely fine with the fact I’m still a human being.”
Later, he contacts me worried that he has said too much. Particularly concerning the hotel incident. It took him into a very dark place of self-examination and in trying to be strong, he fears he may have fallen into bravado. Truth is, he consulted extensively with his extended family – “the psychoanalysis of my culture,” he describes it – and continues to discuss it with his wife, his mother and his bishop; people who say it how they see it. He laments we never got around to talking about his music since the songs he writes are the other truth in his life: the movies when he’s pretending, the songs when he’s not. “Everything about me you could possibly want to know is embodied in those two things.” At the same time he is an advocate of the power of a secret; no one can know him as his wife does and his son will come to. They are at the core of everything. “In fact, if anything ever came between my ability to be a father and to rear Charlie, then I would simply remove it from my life.”
He sends an email: “I am riddled with faults, I know it, but I’m not going to drown in my faults. I will rise above them and, quite frankly, use them to make a living. My forte is playing the damaged, I find that easy for reasons that are not immediately obvious.”
Almost nothing about Crowe is obvious. Not the soaring talent, not the explosive mix of ferocity and generosity and sentiment. Once, he played the stop-and-go man in a road-safety film and now he bestrides Hollywood and commands millions. He is grateful his son Charlie won’t ever hear what he heard as a kid, his mum and dad sitting round the dinner table wondering where the week’s rent money was coming from. He also wishes the price hadn’t been so high. But here’s the thing: the films, he believes, will outlast the scandals. Personal change will continue, truth will out. “What’s left over is going to be the things I’ve poured my heart and soul into.”