A Master Craftsman
An interview with Russell Crowe
Jordan Riefe: How do you find the character? Do you go back to the book, or is he someone you can create from whole cloth?
Russell Crowe: It's a combination of things in terms of the research, but obviously the character is very well drawn in the books. so you look to the books for who the character is in terms of how he talks and everything. The unfortunate thing is if you take O'Brien literally, Jack comes from Dorset. But never at any stage of the twenty books did he ever write in the idiom of the language accent of Dorset, so any reader confronted with a Jack Aubrey who speaks in a Dorset accent, which is your atypical part-voice, is going to be a little shocked. So, that felt a uncomfortable.
It was weeks, actually, tracking people down, various naval officers, retired and still serving, who come from Dorset, recording their voices, listening, trying to find somebody who sounded authoritative with a Dorset accent, and we simply couldn't find it to fit. So, looking further into the books, Aubrey's father is a colonel in the army, and that completely changed the whole nature of the search. Unlike the navy where you had to have certain skills, they drew from wherever those skills came from, Nelson himself was from the North and had a very thick and rich Northern brogue.
But being the son of an army captain, the army was completely different. The army was on a patronage, and friendships and who you know and what school you went to, so that implied that Aubrey, even though he is at sea and he's a ship's captain, had a very middle class upbringing. So his voice had to be more acceptable to the court of St. James than, perhaps, O'Brien had written. But as I said, O'Brien never at any stage actually had Aubrey talking in that voice through the books. There are many different things you search from. But when you have twenty different books to draw from, you find the Jack that exists in the world that O'Brien created and that's the world that Peter is trying to recreate.
JR: Did you have to learn all the nautical jargon?
RC: Yeah, yeah, but it's movie knowledge. You spend x amount of time becoming an expert on something and as soon as you've done the last shot, you throw it all away.
JR: With all the water and battles, did you ever think, "What have I gotten myself into?"
RC: Peter Weir is a very organized man, and it's been five years building up to the point of making the film. The film actually wasn't, for me, as physically taxing as probably a half a dozen other roles that I could name off the top of my head. And probably in terms of the physical characters I've played, it would come quite near the end of that list because of the level of his organization and the mathematics involved of shooting the ship. He'd written the ocean and the wind as characters, which I found quite amusing. I really wanted to see him direct the elements. He was able to do it, what more can I say?
I did pull him aside at one stage and said, "Y'know the dusky Brazilian maiden when we were refitting the ship, don't you think the captain could have a little, perhaps, down in the great cabin, Peter? And we don't see him for a long time?" And Peter said, "Oh no, I think he's too busy." I said, "Peter, Peter I do know exactly how long it takes to load this ship. I'm sure that we could schedule a little, y'know." But he wouldn't have anything to do with it. It's bad luck to have a woman on board, apparently.
JR: Did you have any concerns about him not being accessible to women in the audience?
RC: If you look at the breakdown percentage of the people who actually read O'Brien's books, there is a surprisingly large percentage of women who enjoy the adventures of the doctor and the captain. For me, I look at it as, "Is Peter Weir going to make a fantastic movie? Is it going to be something that stands apart from not only your normal film fare, but possibly - will it be held up to the greatest of cinematic adventures in terms of what the actual filmmaker went through to make the film?" I thought that it would be. I mean, I never concern myself with the commerciality of movies.
JR: Is that your standard when choosing material?
RC: It's got to be something that people can watch in ten years and still be relevant in terms of it's story - if not twenty years. And if you go back all the way through the movies that I've made, the emphasis has always been on what is the story? I'm just here to tell a story. Now, unfortunately along the lines somewhere, all this fame B.S. came in and things got changed around a little bit, but still that's fundamentally what I'm doing; telling a story, that's what I'm here to do.
JR: How important is it to you to find a way for modern people to connect to a period piece like this?
RC: Well, I think you have to reach a balance. You can't have all the conversations completely riddled with the jargon. However, to replace the jargon with a more easily understood sentence is to then desecrate, the period, the books of O'Brien, and the whole reason for doing it in the first place. There's a balance that has to be struck. If there is a particularly unusual order given, then the visual aspect of that and it will be a lot less confusing.
JR: Back up to what you said about the swarthy Brazilian maiden.
RC: (laughs) It was just a gag, folks.
JR: In your research reading the twenty books-
RC: I didn't read the twenty books.
JR: Do we know if captain ever gets laid?
RC: You should read the books, Jack's very active, yes. Just a little unlucky on land with money matters.
JR: He seems to be a throwback. Where are the Jack Aubrey's of today?
A: I don't know. I don't like the word 'throwback.' I think what we were talking about when we describe Jack as not existing now. I think our politics have changed, or how we view politics, or how we've divided politics and how we've pigeonholed politics. Jack is a humanist. He is a consummate politician, but he's a politician that works in the moment because he's dealing with the elements and he's at the mercy of the elements. On the ship is where Aubrey is comfortable. On land is where things go strange for him because things aren't as defined and his world, The world expands possibly beyond things that are even further beyond his control. At least he feels, when he's on the ship, he has some control over what happens.
JR: Did you ever go out onto the open sea while shooting this film?
RC: Well, we did go into the open sea. At one point we found ourselves forty miles off the coast because Peter was very certain that this one particular shot - he had to keep heading west. We worked out in the days afterwards that there were other ways of doing it, but the first night was a bit hairy. After sailing all day we were forty miles off the coast and it was pitch black and we were trying to do boat-to-boat transfers in an eight-foot swell. And I think all but about 12 people threw up that day. The next day we said, 'Y'know what, we should discuss this again.'
JR: Were you one of the twelve that didn't?
JR: How did you get that shot with you at the top of the mast? Was that real?
RC: That's real.
JR: What does it take to climb up there and go out on the yardarm?
RC: (laughs) The yardarm.
JR: What does it take to actually-
RC: Well, I'm not really a big fan of heights, y'know. I was when I was a kid, but it seems to have dissipated over the years. But bottom line is Jack Aubrey wouldn't have any problem with it, so I didn't have any problem with it. There's a certain sort of mathematical thing that you have to get past. You're going to have to be 25 degrees to the water as you go through it, so you have to understand that the act of climbing will in fact overrule gravity in that instance.
JR: Are you willing to do a sequel?
RC: If it comes up. Let's just see how this one goes. There's no point in doing a second one if nobody's interested in the first one.
JR: Is there a child-like fun in shooting a film like this?
RC: I think the whole atmosphere begins with that. Right from when the men arrive on the ship, they were given three shirts, a singlet, which is a vest in the old language, a T-shirt and a long-sleeved T-shirt. In the tradition of the navy, that's slobs, your regular dress and your number ones, number one being the long-sleeved T-shirt, regular dress being the T-shirt, and slobs meaning your working clothes, being the vest, and three name badges, a needle and exactly the amount of thread you would need to sew them properly, all wrapped up in a little bundle. The next morning, they would have their name badges on.
And it's all part of creating the atmosphere, y'know. But, y'know, one of the first things we did after that, y'know, after the officers had gone around and checked if everybody has got their name badges on, is have a full master, and then just have a little conversation that begins with, "Okay, we're acting in a movie, okay, but here's the bottom line: anybody found in a whorehouse in Tijuana is off the ship." So it's kind of a combination where you blend the two things together, y'know, and you encourage your actors to be enthusiastic about their roles. For example Mr. Howell, the marine captain, he yelled and screamed and cajoled his marines for three weeks to get them to the point where their drill was just perfect. And occasionally I'd visit while he was doing it and we'd have a little conversation off to the side and be very careful to stay within the realms of the conversation that we would have had if we were actually on board, y'know. And this is all just about expanding the fancy. People say, "Who does that benefit?" Well that benefits the director when he's got a group of very tired men in the 14th or 15th week of the shoot. And they may be tired, but because they've been involved since day one, there's no wrist watches in the background of these scenes, and there's no smiling in the middle of something dangerous, y'know. Everybody's completely focused on the movie.
JR: When did you develop the chemistry with Paul?
RC: Paul and I had that from the moment we met and it was a strange meeting because I
hadn't supported his casting for "A Beautiful Mind" because I'd never heard of
him. I'd spent a lot of time working on the other castings that we'd done, twenty different auditions with different
women. Then, suddenly out of the blue, I get this phone call saying, "Oh, by the way, Charles is being played by this English fellow called Paul
Bettany." And I was like, "Who's Paul Bettany?" cause we'd been talking about all these other guys and
stuff. And Ron was like, "Well, y'know, Spielberg wanted to hire him, so I just had to grab him
quick." I was like, "But who is, man, what has he done?"
I probably went into that first meeting with Paul slightly negative cause I felt that Charles in "A Beautiful
Mind" was a pivotal character because he comes from my imagination.
However, it was instantaneous. I walked into the room and Paul was there. I
said, "G'day." He said, "G'day." You just see it flooding out of his
eyes, you see the urbane wit, sophistication and sensitivity that is the makeup of his nature.
JR: When did you connect?
A: The connection, I think, really, if-being slightly tongue in cheek, but also
there's reality to this; we've grown up with the same influences in terms of humor from Monty Python or
"Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Derek and Clive. In fact, there was one famous moment in the middle of rehearsals when the two of us just started off on this completely adlibbed sort of character
thing, basically a Derek and Clive rip off.
And just to paraphrase, it was something along the lines of he was telling me that he had all these famous women coming over - remember this is all just a gag. We were just doing it to break the monotony of what
we're doing in rehearsal. Akiva and Ron were there, and they're great people to have in audience if
you're trying to make somebody laugh. And he started off on this rave. He was
like, "Hey, that Madonna came around the other night, yeah she came
around. I told her, piss off. I said, 'piss off!' right? I tell her I don't want to see
her, she was banging on the window!" I said, "Banging on the window?!" He
says, "Yeah, she was banging on the window, I said, 'piss off, Madonna.' I was
there, right, half an hour later, half an hour, bang, bang, bang on the window, go and have a look. And who is
it? It's that Jennifer Garner!" "Jennifer who?" "What are you doing
here, Jennifer Garner!? Get off!" "What'd you tell her?" "I told her to piss off,
didn't I!?" "Oh dear." "She says, 'Paul?' I said, 'Yes.' 'Can I come and stay at your
It just came out of nowhere, y'know. And that's kind of - it's just the way it is. We share certain points in
history. I too used to busk on the streets for a living and so did Paul. So,
we've both had that shared history of the desire to be a performer, being so great and so much a part of your life that if it comes down to
it, if I have to sing in a railway station, that's what I do. And apart from
that, he's worked a lot in theater. I've worked a lot in theater as a young man. And there were just sensibilities and understandings that you
have, and he's one of the rare birds.
JR: There are questions made about Captain Aubrey's decision making. Do you feel he was in any way
RC: Not at all. But, y'know, if you want to you can wrap the two things up
together. If he doesn't fulfill his duty, that's a blow to his ego. So you can be pedantic and semantic about
it, but the bottom line is Jack is doing his job. And the person who questions
him, in that respect, is the person who likely doesn't enjoy being at sea.
It's not his officers. Now, on the other hand, if they knew that he had gone way beyond what his orders
were, perhaps they would have some problems with that. At the same time, it's the same way as I was describing
before; the way we built trust and understanding of the hierarchy, and trust within the
hierarchy, for the cast, the same thing happens on the ship. X amount of decisions that seem outlandish but come off, and
you're going to have your sailors trusting in your judgement.
I think Jack relies on in that X amount of times he's maybe had a little
luck, or whatever-pushed something a little bit harder than the next person.
That's also why he's called Lucky Jack. If you get on board with Lucky Jack,
you're going to make some money and that's what it all comes down to. These guys share in the prizes captured by the
Captain. So, you may come back from 12 months at sea and you've done some hairy
things, but you've got twenty or thirty times your annual salary sitting in the bank waiting for you to now spend when you get back.
That's the benefit of being at sea with Jack Aubrey.
JR: In the place where you are in your career, did you feel like you were the Captain of the cast as
well? We understand you organized a rugby competition and recruited cast members to play.
RC: Well, I feel there's a responsibility and it's very easy for me to do something like that as opposed to Peter doing it.
But, you have to be working with somebody of the nature and esthetic of Peter to even get the opportunity to do it in the first
place. Playing the rugby matches was about new skills, team work, a certain level of physical commitment that would be required on the final battle
We played a nine or ten week season and we went through our competition and all that sort of
stuff, and there was a champion team at the end of it. I think it was Western Samoa or
something, because we had different colored jerseys. It was either Western Samoa or Fiji that
won. The best thing about it was when the French arrived. There was a couple of hundred very athletic stunt
guys, either from France or playing the roles of Frenchmen, and they challenged us to a rugby match. And
you're talking about men of uniform size and everything. You're looking at the surprise guys that go from the age of seven up to all manners of
shape. So here it was, athleticism versus teams, and we creamed them, absolutely took them
apart, didn't even give them a look. I don't think they even got into our half of the
JR: With holidays right around the corner, do you have a favorite Christmas
RC: I tried to shave my GI Joe. For some reason my mommy got me the red-headed one. I
didn't want a red-headed GI Joe, cause in the cartoons and the comic books and stuff
he's always got dark hair. I tried to shave his head and I got really bored with it after
awhile, so he ended up just having a bald patch for years and years. I wonder where he is
now, probably running around doing some covert operation.
JR: At what point in the process do you know you have a winning picture on your
RC: I wouldn't be there at the beginning of the process if I hadn't already made that decision or thought that what we were doing was special.
It's always completely unpredictable. But if you put in X amount of effort, then you have certain things in place going in like the expertise of a filmmaker like Peter Weir and the sensibilities of a filmmaker like Peter Weir . I
don't know if anyone's going to go and see this movie, I'll tell you that straight up and down.
It's far too real. It's unrelenting and unforgiving. In a lot of aspects
there's nothing in this movie that's about the audience. It's all about the journey and the
adventure. So, let's see if people want to see that type of film.