Russell Crowe has never been an actor to suffer fools gladly, both on and off the screen. With his sense of humour perennially intact as he greets the media in a Beverly Hills hotel room, there is no mention of bad behaviour, as both actor and press generally remain on their best behaviour. We first met 17 years ago and even then there was a sense of ferocious ambition.
Back then, he was up and coming, now he is an Oscar winning star, who doesn’t select material based on a payday or commercial viability. While not drawn on how he has personally changed, the New Zealand-born Aussie, in town to promote his extraordinary performance as charming bad guy Ben Wade in the 3:10 to Yuma remake, Crowe says his criteria for choosing a new project has not really changed in the past near two decades. “It’s the same as it’s always been, in terms of the story and character, which are my primary focus when I read a script,” Crowe explains, thoughtfully. “I don’t think that I’ve become more selective over time, but I think I came into it being selective. I just did things that appealed to me and they’re not always going to be things that the head of a studio thinks will appeal as well.”
Crowe, whose characters range from a reluctant gladiator, to a brilliant mathematician and now leader of a gang of outlaws in 19th century America, says despite the plethora of diverse characters he has played, the charismatic 43-year old concedes that good characters have always been a challenge to find. “It’s always been that way, especially in my life in the movies. You get a lot of opportunities that come with a big pay cheque and all that sort of stuff but don’t necessarily appeal to you. There are also a lot of people who are absolutely dead set certain that this is something that you would love to do, then you start reading it and it’s not something that turns you on, so I think you’ve got to stay true to yourself in that way. I read a script, and if I get goose bumps, if I kind of like what the potential of it is, then that’s the thing that I do.”
3:10 to Yuma, a western drama chronicling the complex relationship between an outlaw [Crowe] and an impoverished rancher [Christian Bale] appealed to the Australian country boy who played pretend as a kid growing up in New Zealand. After all, while the film is a dark character-based drama, it’s still a Western with all its mythological trappings. “Look at the list of what you get to do: Ride horses, play with guns, speak in a funny voice, and wear pointy boots,” Crowe says, smilingly. “It’s a good list in terms of what you’re talking about and you would approach something like this probably thinking ‘This is going to be a bit of fun’ “
This is not the first time Crowe appeared in a Western, recalling his first experience shooting The Quick and the Dead a decade earlier. “That was pleasant, being warm during the day, a little cold late at night, nothing much. So I thought this would be fine and then I realised once I’d gotten there, that Santa Fe’s actually 7,500 feet above sea level and it’s now going to be significantly colder,” Crowe recalls on the Yuma shoot. “So Peter Fonda actually started a scale and said that he couldn’t act on location in period costume at below thirteen degrees. So I thing the Screen Actors Guild should look into this,” says Crowe, laughingly.
A passionate horseman himself, Russell brought some of that into his love for this film, but it was more than that. “I really enjoyed the thought of the story. The main thing is reading the script, seeing the dynamic of the characters all of which looked like it was going to be fun, so that’s why I did it.” It also gave the actor a chance to practice his gunplay, something that he familiarised himself with while preparing for Quick and the Dead. “On that I met this guy Phil Reid, who’s an armourer. Coming from Australia, I didn’t have any experience with the gun culture, so I’d never actually held a handgun until I was on the set of Quick and the Dead. That gave Phil was a complete blank slate so he could sort of put the information in my head that you need to do that sort of thing over time, and it’s been a long time now that I’ve known Mr Reid and I’ve probably done half a dozen or more movies with him and he just sort of keeps giving me tips. We’ve actually done silly things a long time ago gone off and done shooting competitions together as a team, but that’s a very specific skill. You don’t get to use that very often, so it’s good when a western comes around then you can use it.”
Russell Crowe remains as passionate and as complex an actor than he was at our first meeting over a decade ago. Yet it seems, despite his extraordinary success, his feet still remain planted on the ground.