CROWE, RUSSELL – THE SUM OF US
From the archives: AMBITION NOT THE SAME AS EGO Ambition gets confused with ego, Russell Crowe tells Andrew L. Urban, in a revealing interview in June 1994 (for Cinema Papers), during the making of The Sum of Us.
Russell Crowe asked me not to have him saying "I'm not homosexual" in big print, and I only mention it because it shows his perceptions and intuition to be acute. The reason he didn't want to be quoted like that is to avoid possible media headlines repeating it out of context. "I don't want it to become a defensive thing," says the young actor in reference to his first role homosexual role, in the new Australian comedy drama, The Sum of Us.
John Polson & Russell Crowe
The comment comes during one of our conversations about his role as Geoff, the loving son to Jack Thompson's character as the widower dad, Harry.
By the same token, playing a gay young man - complete with a male love interest in Greg, played by John Polson - is not a political statement for Crowe, "or any sort of crusade. The bottom line is, playing a homosexual character is a totally valid thing to do."
Perhaps the same as playing an axe murderer.
"Well, exactly. This is just another story from the human condition, and that's what the job's supposed to be, right?"
Nor does Crowe portray Geoff in the tired, limp wristed caricature mode, mincing and lisping his way to a comic piece of fluff acting. As you would expect from an actor whose rapid rise is built on a visible and tangible talent that ranges widely across the human dial, Crowe's characterisation is credible and individualistic.
The story revolves around the relationship between Geoff and his dad who is so eager to accept Geoff's sexuality he tends to go overboard and scare off Geoff's lovers. The film is at once touching and funny, sad and revealing. For Russell Crowe, it is another showcase performance.
Russell Crowe & Jack Thompson
He loves the challenge of something different: after his role as a neo-Nazi skinhead in Romper Stomper, for example, he was offered half a dozen roles with no hair. He threw the scripts into the paper bin with contempt.
To many, Russell Crowe was still Hando, the punk bovver boy in Geoff Wright's controversial film, Romper Stomper, with tattoos on his fingers, a swastika on his wall, and a huge chip on his shoulder. But his vastly different characters in The Silver Brumby, Proof, Hammers Over the Anvil, Spotswood and The Crossing or Brides of Christ, suggest an actor with plenty of range. Five Best Actor and one Best Supporting Actor Awards are further proof.
So he went off to Adelaide and played a horse trainer who falls desperately in love with Charlotte Rampling, in Hammers Over the Anvil (released in July 1994).
Then along came producer Hal McElroy and the script for The Sum of Us, which had already worked as a stage play around the world. It offered him the chance to play a complete contrast to anything he had done before.
"Playing extreme characters or characters that are hard to portray or things that challenge you personally.... that's keeping your edge. Because you don't know what you're doing. If you do things that are too easy for you, that require no real thought process or whatever, or that the script or the story has no subtlety, I just get bored. I get really, really bored.
"The more variety the better."
What better variety than his next role, for producer Jeremy Thomas and director Claire Peploe, which he has literally just finished shooting in Mexico. In Rough Magic, set in 1950 he is playing an ex-Raider Marine (tough guys like the commandos) who is working as a stringer for the Los Angeles Times, in Mexico. His co-star is Bridget Fonda "who plays a magician running away from an arranged marriage," says Russell, "and, of course, we fall in love. Well, actually, we rise in love. There is a sex scene in which we are levitating," he giggles. "That'll be something...."
A levitating sex scene with a major Hollywood star is a long way from his first leading role as the star crossed lover Johnny, just four years ago, when we met on the set of The Crossing. He had come from a supporting role in Blood Oath, where we first met and where he found a generous mentor in Bryan Brown, but it was working with director George Ogilvie that gave Russell his test by fire: and his eternal admiration for Ogilvie.
"With a director like George Ogilvie who is basically saying to you 'I'm not going to control what is coming out from you...' you have a director who is not saying to you 'here's the definitive how to do it'. You have a director who's saying 'show me how you can do it. Show me where you can find these qualities'."
The fact that Russell Crowe is Russell Crowe's most active promoter has helped him step onto the Hollywood ladder; he made several trips to Los Angeles for meetings with agents, directors and producers. They saw his work, and recognised his potential.
He had made his first big league film earlier this year, The Quick and the Dead, (for release late in 1995), co-starring with Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone.
He describes the film as "a heightened Western with biblical overtones; I'm there because I have business with Gene." For the film, Russell took on a Texan accent, tinged with a bit of Southern sibilance. "It doesn't interest me to pretend to be an American to succeed, but I have no objection to playing an American character in an American film. But I come from here. Like Judy Davis... you can play any character and they know where you come from.
For his role as Cort, the gunslinging minister, Russell got his hands torn and bloodied while mastering gunslinging; typically of him, he did not just 'pick it up' - he had to perfect it, scoring 48 out of 50 in at the Tucson competition ranges with the Sherriff's Department's SWAT team. He learnt to spin handguns, and even invented a diagonal spin they are still musing over back in Arizona.
Hackman plays Mayor Harrod in the film, who owns the small town in the American West, circa 1870. "He plays the archtypal baddie," says Russell, "and he's a great actor. Full stop. Sharon is a woman with a mission. I think I owe my job to Sharon - she wanted me to do it. Sharon's under a hell of a lot of pressure right now, but an incredibly graceful person. We had a good, tight working relationship. Discussed things. She has a lot of other things going on in her life - and it didn't stop for the film."
As for director Sam Raimi, Russell found him "a gentleman. He never lost his cool, especially with the actors. But conversations about motivation with the actors wasn't his forte. He hired you because you know about motivation. He likes to move the camera around...I had seen all his films before I went, and we had one of the best relationships I've ever had with a director."
In a later conversation, Crowe talks about the damage that his much-travelled career has done to his four year relationship with actress Danielle Spencer. "I don't know if it's surviving," he says wryly. "The trouble is the travel: there is no time to get a rhythm going and when we do, it's very painful to get on another plane. All I know is that sooner or later I've got to have some babies. I'm in baby mode like you would not believe!"
With Danielle Spencer in The Crossing
Then he adopts a mock Germanic accent and shouts: "I want issue! I want to reproduce! Will you help me?" The last is addressed not to me or my notebook, but the world out there.
The very element of fame that reflects his career advance seems to be corroding his life.
"Before, we used to be able to go to functions. Do a little bit of business, have a little bit of social fun. But now when I go to these functions, if I go, from the obligation to communicate with people, it's just a lot easier by myself. One of the main things we sorted out in our relationship, and I thought was going to be a great point to move on from, is the fact that my success was affecting her, in that she would not want to come out with me because it would tip the balance, and she wouldn't have to worry about what I was doing in my work if we didn't have to go out. But the reason why I can say that sort of stuff clearly and concisely is I do understand it totally."
It is not mandatory for actors to be complex, but this one is. This resolute lover contrasts with the bad boy image, which, he claims, has been manufactured "by people who work for the papers. There isn't a director who wouldn't work with me again," he says by way of a defence argument. But then he adds with a wicked snort, "...maybe a few producers...they get the mouth."
Now, the mouth can be used as a battering ram, and Russell has demonstrated how - but perhaps much of that is in the past. Certainly, he is more experienced now, something he feels himself is a Good Thing. But the next minute he is saying things like: "I've got people saying what is your image? Who gives a f...? I just play the role."
Yes, but not the game. While he does work hard at promoting his career, he definitely does not like to play the game; he calls it bullshitting to pander to the publicity machine, or to dress a certain way for 'image'. It is not any one thing, it is everything: he wants to retain his private, personal ethos, complete with his attitudes, and his belief systems, his relationship with his god, his fate.
Does he believe in some higher being directing things, or is his life self-directed?
"I certainly didn't create this situation. It was Bryan Brown. Ha. No. Silly joke. No, I mean, I believe in a God if that's what you're saying. But I also believe that you make your own life. My cousins Martin and Geoff, the cricket players, have a great saying. 'Success is a matter of luck. Ask any loser.' And when you put that in your mind, when you're doing your 17th 4am call or some shit on consecutive days, it sort of gets you out the door and in the car on time, you know.
"'Cause it's not a matter of luck; you make your own luck, you make your own situations that come up. You know confidence is a usable commodity if it's not coupled with stupidity, and that doesn't mean that I haven't done some stupid f...... things. I'm known for it. But at least I stand up there and say I can give it a shot, I can have a go at that.
"I'm work obsessed. No, I don't conform, but I get on with what is required. And I do have an opinion...which may be a problem. But if people take the job seriously, there is no trouble with me. And I mean taking the job seriously, not taking myself seriously."
He has been hotheaded, amusing and generous, but always Russell the unpredictable. Even overbearing: "It's not arrogance," he says, "it's honesty. I'm chameleon-like...on a beach I'm aquatic; in the bush, bush-like." He laughs. "I went through so many different things growing up (New Zealand born, Sydney bred since four, with roving publicans for parents) I didn't live in a house till I was 14, so I'm very adaptable." And, he maintains, unfathomable: when asked how people go about understanding Russell Crowe, his reply is emphatic: "It's not possible."
Tolerant "of just about everything", he admits there are a few exceptions. "People in this business try to play hidden agendas - you have to cut through that. And certain predictable, behavioural manipulation annoys and bores me." (That means he gets angry.) "If you want to ask me something - ask me. Don't try deception - I'm good at picking it up. If you want to be my friend, be honest."
Then there is the flash point temper: "I don't sit and brood - it's a flash, then it's gone. I'm also good at controlling it if necessary. But I'm a very emotional person, and passionate about what I want to do. I can have the odd tantrum, but at least people know where they stand. It's got me into trouble, I'm sure, but there are positives for every negative."
Similarly, there are positives and negatives in being an actor in Australia: "Living here you don't have the same options; here, I get one or two scripts a month. In Los Angeles, I can get 12 a week."
Russell reads everything himself, and despite the scarcity of suitable scripts, he prefers to work out of Australia. As long as the work is here. But he does want to keep working. "The more you work the better you get. There'll come a time when I won't feel the need to work continuously. But the last few years have been like final exams - like being put to the test."
Rapid indeed has been his rise: he sees it as progression. "I have to see another challenge," he says. "I've been reluctant to talk like this before, I didn't want to become a target. If I'd been direct about my ambitions....people see a bare faced admission of ambition as a threat. But you see, ambition gets confused with ego- so I step out of that game.
"The job is pretend, right? It's pretending. What you can't do is take pretend into the business. The business is real. Ego you use for a whole lot of things in this business. You got to have it to protect yourself against all the people who're going to tell you that the job means dick. Yeah, I know the job means dick. It's only entertainment. But think about the quality of life without it. But I do have a lot of other things going on. If for some reason I couldn't make another movie, I wouldn't shrivel up and die. I'd just focus my passion and commitment on something else."
First published in Cinema Papers, 1994
Published December 24, 2015