When you think Russell Crowe, the genre of light romantic comedies don’t really come to mind. The 42-year-old Oscar-winning New Zealand-Australian film actor made his name both in Australia in his 20’s and America in his 30’s as a serious dramatic actor. His performances are methodical, nuanced and always dedicated.
Yet despite those intense on screen performances, and some controversial off-screen behaviour, in interviews the man is usually quite relaxed and jovial about his work.Now that softer side finally gets to be seen on film in Ridley Scott’s romantic “A Good Year”. The film marks the first time the pair have worked together since their Oscar-winning collaboration on 2000’s “Gladiator”, and this time the subject matter couldn’t be more different.
Crowe plays a somewhat sleazy British investment banker who inherits a vineyard and its villa in Provence. Headed to France to sell the place off quickly, he ends up discovering himself and learning to enjoy the quieter things in life. Recently Dark Horizons spoke to Crowe about the film, his next work with Scott and his future.
Question: So you’re doing light romantic comedies now.
Crowe: I’ve done them before. People talk about the physical comedy [in “A Good Year”]. Well, didn’t we have a conversation a few years ago when I was doing “Mystery, Alaska,” flopping around on the ice like a dead fish? A lot of people told me this morning in talking to me, “It’s so different from what you usually do.” And I said in reply, “Let’s just take it from a handful, let’s go: “Romper Stomper,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Insider,” “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Master and Commander,” “Cinderella Man,” which of these movies are similar? That’s not what I do. I do what’s apparent to me and usually what’s apparent to me is something I haven’t done at all.
Question: What attracted you to this character?
Crowe: I liked the fact that Max was so taken up with his day-to-day life, but underneath there was this wealth of knowledge that had been put in his head. At some point in time, he’d subjugated a lot of it for the simple end of it, which was that competition is what life is about. He’s taken it to a point where there’s no joy in the competition. He’s so good at it and so good at adjusting the rules for the competition that he’s never going to lose. There’s no joy in that, I think it’s the situation of his uncle dying, a man who, by rights, he should have spent a lot of time with in the last decade, but in actuality he spent no time with at all. That’s a very sharp mirror to put yourself in front of and Max realizes just how absolutely shallow he’s become. I think any movie that begins with a 14-year-old drinking red wine, smoking a cigar and cheating at chess, this is going to give you a smile.
Question: Did you feel that Max represented a part of your own self-image?
Crowe: No, that’s just a bunch of silliness because obviously the deal to do this film pre-dates anything that would have come up in my life in between those two points. Was the movie enjoyable to make? Absolutely. Working with Ridley, working in a beautiful place like Provence, working with such a great fellow cast, it was all really good. It’s just the next character I decided to play.
Question: Could you relate to the character’s need to leave the rat race and get back to the simpler things in life?
Crowe: Oh, I think for sure. I had a very intense decade where everything about my life came down to what happened between “action” and “cut.” Whereas, I absolutely understand my need to establish that there were no parameters on the limits on what I could do as an actor and that’s fine and dandy. That’s been established. Now I can just focus on the part I really enjoy, which is being on a film set, working with other actors, inspiring and terrifying a crew, and I say terrifying because Ridley would occasionally do 75 setups before lunch. You may get an American crew or an Australian crew will go along with that but a French crew, they were finding that difficult to deal with. This was $30 million dollars below the line, shot extremely efficiently. It’s beautiful to look at. It has that thing that all good films should have – you’re watching the frame and something seems to come off the frame, something comes out into the air of the movie theater and you’re in that world. That’s what Ridley Scott specializes in. You can say that this is a light film for Ridley or less of a challenge for Ridley but that’s an interpretation that’s not entirely correct. He’s done exactly the same thing with this world as he’s done with the world in “Alien” or “Blade Runner” or “Gladiator.” He’s taken you into that world and in this film, you feel like having yourself a nice glass of red wine and a piece of cheese.
Question: Did you help pick Freddie Highmore to play the younger you?
Crowe: I wanted to meet Freddie Highmore. I wanted to work with Freddie. I’m a big fan of Freddie’s and told him so. Our first conversation together I said, “Listen, Fred, if you want to spend some time hanging out, discussing the characters and all that sort of stuff, I’m available for that.” He says, “Oh Mr. Crowe, I don’t think I’ll have the time for that.” “Alright, Fred. Well, you just enjoy yourself then. I’ll go back in the corner.” He’s got his stuff worked out and he’s got to do it.
Question: And what about Albert Finney?
Crowe: He’s wonderful. Unfortunately I didn’t get to do any scenes with Albert. We had two dinner parties, lovable fellow.
Question: How is it working with Ridley Scott again after the long break since doing “Gladiator”?
Crowe: It’s great. We share common ground, a sense of humor and work ethic. It’s just really easy on a Ridley Scott set. I have complete trust in the fact that whatever I do and whatever I come up with in the moment that he’ll capture. He knows, from past experience, that if he directs me to jump off a cliff, I’ll go out and jump off a cliff. If you’re a director, you want that kind of response to your requests.
Question: Your last project together was such an extravagant, big budget movie, so was this your chance to just kick back a bit?
Crowe: Well, I have fun on all my movies. Ridley’s the same. Ron Howard’s the same. Michael Mann is the same, though Michael Mann’s interpretation of fun can be a little strange for some people. I had fun with him. I think we just wanted to do something. We’d spent so many years getting further and further away from each other with our schedules. At one point, they were about a year and a half apart. We never intended that after “Gladiator.” We found ourselves doing things with other people that we probably would have preferred to be doing together, so we had a serious, “We need to sit down, we need to see what is available to us.” So Ridley, myself and Akiva Goldman sat down at the Beverly Hills Hotel and went through 17 projects one Saturday morning. We talked through one thing being offered by the studio with $115 million-dollar budget and so much money being offered upfront. Through that conversation, the thing that was still in my mind when I woke up Sunday morning was this little aside that Ridley had talked about, this wine project he wanted to do. So I called him up and said, “Let’s do that one. Let’s focus on that and forget about the big budgets and all that stuff,” because there’s so much expectation on our teaming up again from the success of “Gladiator,” that doing this just neutralizes that expectation and frees us up to do whatever it is that we want to do. Low and behold, we went straight into another film together because it’s enjoyable. It’s always fun making a film, but when you’re making a film with a friend, when you’re making a film with a master filmmaker who you respect at the highest level, and when you’re working in a place like Provence, it was just a wonderful thing. We’ve just been through all of the skankiest neighborhoods that the five boroughs can put forward for “American Gangster,” and we still had fun every single day. He gave a quote to a magazine a while ago, which I thought was quite funny. He said, “We’re both marginally grumpy men, however, when we’re together, our mood lightens significantly.”
Question: How has your work relationship evolved since “Gladiator”?
Crowe: No matter how oblique, what I’m talking to him about, appears. He knows the best thing to do is just see it and he’ll get it when he sees it. There are only so many words to explain human emotion. I can spend all day talking to him about it or I can do it for him after “action” and then he can adjust it at that point and we can do another take. But I know what he’s looking for. He downloads to me what his desires are, what he sees and believes in, what he sees the movie as, and I listen, which is a scary thing for a lot of directors. I listen and I also retain it and I become a version of his conscience. We’ll be in the middle of something and I’ll say, “Didn’t you say you wanted this to be like that and to have the bloke say this to go with that?” and he’ll say, “exactly. And you would interpret that how?”
Question: Were you two deliberately trying to make a European feeling film?
Crowe: Well, Ridley is European.
Question: That’s true, but in the sense of making something that feels more French or Italian?
Crowe: For sure. There are homages to many different French filmmakers in this film, just in the physicality of the character you have the salute to Jacques Tati, but also, equally, you have a salute to Harold Lloyd. Ridley didn’t set out to make a movie in France with an American sensibility, absolutely not.
Question: What was it like living and working in Provence?
Crowe: It’s got a completely different sensibility from any of the big cities. We were in a place called the Luberon Valley and I was staying in a little town called Lacoste, and we shot mainly in a place called Bonnieux. I could ride there on a bicycle, fifteen to twenty minutes. I called it the Tour de Luberon, just getting on my bicycle every day and riding to a movie set, that was a great deal of fun. It was a very family friendly environment; my wife and my child spent the whole time there. It’s an intensively farmed area, which is opposite to the farm area I live in Australia which is nowhere near as intense as that. Somehow, they manage to get this intensive farming done in such a relaxed way. We arrived during the summer when everything was green and it was really hot and then experienced it turning into fall, the reds and the oranges and the yellows and the golden sunshine. It was a great place to make a film. If I could set it up so I could just go back to Provence three months a year and make a movie, I’d be a very happy man.
Question: As a counterpoint, you’ve been shooting “American Gangster” with Ridley here in New York City. Can you talk about that?
Crowe: Denzel plays Frank Lucas, a heroin dealer who has a very middle-class sort of life with $250 million in the bank. He has a physical relationship with Ms. Puerto Rico and he takes his mom to church every Sunday. On the other half of the coin is the completely dysfunctional life of the police who are trying to pursue him. None of them can hold a relationship together, I don’t have any sort of friendship with my son in the film and I think we’re very honest in the way we view police work. Most of it is just keeping your focus and every now and then you might get lucky and that luck might lead to a conviction. Particularly in the early 1970’s, the investigative techniques weren’t very sophisticated. The thing that my character sees that a lot of other people at the time didn’t see at the time is that it was possible for an African-American man to be running a crime syndicate of this size. Everybody from fellow policemen all the way up to the US Attorney told my character Richie Roberts that he was kidding himself if he thought that was real and then low and behold, five years later, everybody understood he was right.
Question: How has it been filming in New York?
Crowe: You cannot lockdown a street in the city, they will just not let that happen. I’ve been standing on the street doing a scene and a car bursts through the police cordon at 60 miles a hour and just about tickles me up the backside. It’s crazy. To me, it kind of indicates a lack of basic respect. This town cannot deal with having a movie made. It’s like, “We’re not shutting down, we’re not stopping, get out of our way, we’re New York” but you know that about New York coming in, so that’s actually part of the fun of being here. It’s like running across the freeway at 6 o’clock at night in Los Angeles. It’s very dangerous, you shouldn’t do it, but it feels great when you get to the other side.
Question: Did you get to meet the real Richie Roberts and is it strange playing a real person?
Crowe: Yeah, he came to the set pretty much every day, but I’ve done it before and I always find that my attitude is really about my subject matter, and is my subject matter going to come clean with me or not. The thing with Richie Roberts is that he’s a very private person, and he’s probably a little perturbed that there’s a film being made, but he’s trying to be brave about it, but he doesn’t want me to be Richie Roberts in the movie. He’s okay with the facsimile version, but he doesn’t really want the truth, and I can respect that, too. Through talking to Richie, who started off in the Marine Corps and then he went to Israel to do undercover work, busting hash dealers on the border, then he came back and got cornered into the prosecutor’s office as an investigator without ever having been to a police academy. Two years later, after that particular investigation was over and he had helped bring down a lot of mob figures, he finally did spend a week or two at the police academy, but he never donned a uniform. While he was in the police, the indemnic corruption started to eat away at him, it really started to bother him, so he went to law school. Five years, he did law school at night, passed the bar and he became a prosecutor himself. While being a prosecutor, his relationships with people that were higher than him, he began to realize that that corruption is still prevalent here. So Richie became a defense lawyer. This journey of his, which starts in the ’60s, he begins as The Man and thirty years later he’s the hippie. I asked him about that, and I reinterpreted that for him a couple months later. I said, “This is who I see you as. I see you as a person who believes that no matter who is in control or who is in power, questions have to be asked. No matter what the obvious missive of a crime, people deserve a defense. I see you as an agitator who stands on the outside of society as it exists right now and throws stones. How do you feel about that?” He smiled and said, “Well, you’ve nailed me down.” He’s not in this gig to be a hero; he certainly doesn’t want a movie made about him. He knows that there were many, many other people involved in the arrest of Frank Lucas, and this film will probably glorify his part in that and that embarrasses him a little bit. It embarrasses him that I’ve played the character as a womanizer. He is absolutely adamant that he was never that bad, though he will relate stories to you about the time he was giving evidence in the Supreme Court, and him and the stenographer had sex during the recess in a broom closet upstairs. Richie Roberts, the character in “American Gangster,” is contradiction after contradiction after contradiction. He’s just not the man you expect to be in that situation, and he’s certainly not a heroic figure. Hopefully, in my own way, given that Richie didn’t want to be completely upfront with me, I’ve still honored him.
Question: And do you have another role lined up yet?
Crowe: “3:10 to Yuma” with James Mangold and I get to ride a horse every day for three months. It’s a Glenn Ford film. Unfortunately, he just passed away so I don’t get to have a laugh about that, but I’m going to take the character in a completely different direction than Glenn had it and I get to work with Christian Bale, so that will be interesting.
Question: Many people who saw “Cinderella Man” last year thought it was a shoe-in for Oscars, but it was snubbed. How did you feel about that?
Crowe: Well, when I see some of the decisions that are made, you do ask yourself how you can take it seriously. I believe “Cinderella Man,” for example, I think we had three nominations at the end of the day for a film that I believed deserved a lot more, and not just with my own work, but Ron Howard’s work, Renée Zellweger’s work, Paul Giamatti. Paul Giamatti not winning Best Supporting Actor for that performance, you have to stand back and say, “Well, it’s not healthy to take any of this seriously.” The thing is I talk about “Cinderella Man” ten times a day. I’ll be walking down the street and people stop me and they put their hand on their heart and they start to cry. I’ll be having those conversations ten years from now. It will be interesting to see how many conversations people are having about other films down the road.
Question: Do you think that your personal problems contributed to that in any way?
Crowe: I don’t care. It’s not the thing that I base my life on. It’s not even on the top 100 of my priority list.
Question: Is life better for Russell Crowe now that you’re married and you have kids?
Crowe: My life has changed a lot since I got married and having two little boys. I’m very blessed. On a daily basis, I get to experience a whole type of joy that I’ve never had before. It was the right time for me to become a dad. From where I came from, I’m a working-class boy, born in New Zealand and I won an Oscar and that took a lot of personal fortitude. I had to go from one place to another place on that journey. Nothing was ever guaranteed; it’s all about right place, right time. I spent a lot of time establishing that there were no parameters in what I could do as an actor in the cinema and now I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I can be two or three steps more objective and enjoy the whole experience of being on the set.