Russell Crowe for “Gladiator”

The opening image in Ridley Scott’s extraordinary new epic, Gladiator, is of a face. Contemplative, weary, ready for battle. In those opening few frames, we understand the character of Maximus, the honourable general craving his wife and son. There’s no dialogue, just the visual expressiveness of an actor who devours the role with renewed voracity.

The face, bearded and worn, is that of Russell Crowe, again displaying the unnerving honesty that has won him international plaudits. Whether he’s an aggressive cop in 1950s Los Angeles, the middle-aged whistleblower of The Insider, or the proud Roman general reduced to slavery through treachery in Gladiator, for Crowe, it’s all about the work. It’s the work that has garnered the actor his first Academy Award nomination, not that he’s taking the Oscar talk seriously, as he explained to a packed foreign media. “I’m in the middle of another job, actually (Proof of Life, with Meg Ryan). I just got back from Poland, hangin’ out of helicopters, and now I’m off to Ecuador to do some jungle training, in a minute, so I kind of outside it all, really. I come in here (Los Angeles, one of the actor’s least favourite towns), get a taste of the freak show, and then go away again.”

He adds hastily, that “I don’t mean that in any disrespectful manner, but it’s pretty full on, this awards season.” For Crowe, who has always had a degree of animosity towards self-congratulation, finds it all “a bit boring getting dressed up in a tuxedo and losing at the same time”, he adds laughingly. But in true modest style, Crowe says that in terms of the upcoming Oscars, “I am not trying to be cool, and realise it is the ultimate peer-based accolade,” he recently maintained. “But I do my shift, go home at the end of the day and most days feel good about what I do. There’s no point in bullshitting.”

From the first time we met, with Crowe a virtual unknown, it was clear that the New Zealander who now calls Australia home, was a man in focus, a man who refused to ‘bullshit’. Then, as now, the young actor was full of self-determination, ambition, vitality and intensity. Nothing much has changed. These days, Crowe has a reputation of being ‘difficult’, but those who know him, realise that behaviour has to do with what directors bring to the party. As Russell recently recalled, “It’s only when the captain of the ship doesn’t know where he’s going that I explode. Ridley is the kind of strong director I like, as was Michael Mann on The Insider. These are men who are confident and have done their work long before they get to the set.”

Gladiator producer Douglas Wick, who envisaged Russell for the central role from the outset, agrees. “With all of his demons, with Russell it’s always about the work,” says Wick. “He doesn’t tear up phone books to intimidate his directors or co-stars, but he questions everyone incessantly. That can be intimidating for some people. There’s no question Russell is volatile, but the genius is up there on the screen.” And for those he likes, Crowe has equal amounts of genuine generosity. On Gladiator, co-star Joaquim Phoenix was nervous about doing this film and playing such an intense character. Phoenix told me that Crowe made it easy, by advising him “just to have fun and relax.”

The diversity and range of Crowe is in full evidence when seeing him in the epic $103m spectacle, Gladiator, a hypnotic visual feast that is a throwback of a genre we haven’t seen in decades. The Insider this is not. Gladiator is set in 180 AD, and the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) throws the Roman Empire into chaos. Maximus (Crowe), one of the Roman army’s most capable and trusted generals and a key advisor to the emperor, is stripped of his rank and sold into slavery, as Marcus’s devious son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) ascends to the throne. Renamed ‘The Spaniard’ and forced to become a gladiator, Maximus must battle to the death with other men for the amusement of paying audiences. His battle skills serve him well, and he becomes one of the most famous and admired men to fight in the Coliseum. Determined to avenge himself against the man who took away his freedom and laid waste to his family, Maximus believes that he can use his fame and skill in the ring to lead the people of Rome to overthrow their tyrannical leader. As the gladiator begins to challenge his rule, Commodus decides to put his own fighting mettle to the test by squaring off with Maximus in a battle to the death.

While for The Insider, Crowe relied on padding and make up, here, he engages in some tough action sequences, sword fighting ancient Rome style. “Before this, I had done a little fencing but the sword master, Nick, patiently explained to me that fencing had not been invented by 185 AD. So we had to throw all that out, though there are only a certain amount of moves you can make with a short sword”, explains the actor. “So what I TRIED to do, was try and make both hands work at the same level, because I felt that WAS your weapon. So Nick came down to Australia at Xmas time, spent a coupla weeks with me and we just started working on it there.” Though Crowe remained in good shape for the film, he adds, “The point for me was not to create some kind of iconographic, gym body. In fact, Ridley sent me a note at one point in time after he saw me in England, and said: ‘Do not lose any more weight – Chunky is hunky. So basically that body was the shape it was, because it COULD do all the things that Maximus does in the film.”

It was not just the physical stuff that Crowe prepared for. In playing Maximus, Russell immersed himself in the period, another sign of the actor’s clear dedication for a project, and was able to create a very real, though fictionalised, character. “Fortunately for me, one of the only subjects I enjoyed at school was history, and this was a very interesting time period. In one way, Maximus is a fictional character applied to historical situations. What I found interesting was that I saw him as a student of Marcus Aurelius, so I was then able to use Aurelius’ book, The Meditations, to work on this character. Some of the lines of dialogue in the movie were taken straight from the book. I just felt that with Max’s back-story and his close connection with Marcus, it made him interesting to play.” 35 years since Ancient Rome was brought to the screen in all its glory, Crowe feels that “it was a very strange and interesting time to look back on. You have a great deal of social and political awareness, as well as incredible inventions coming from this time period from the Roman Empire. Juxtapose that with the brutality of their ‘sporting’ events, and it’s quite an era you’re dealing with.”

In all of his American screen outings thus far, audiences have been used to Crowe sporting a convincing American accent. In Gladiator, the actor insisted on adopting a moire neutralised sound, “because of the general connection that audiences have with these kinds of films – that’s the device that’s been used. Spain had been under Roman control for over 200 years, so who are we to assume there was an accent difference of ANY kind.” Crowe’s work on Gladiator continues to meet one’s expectations, but the actor himself, always self-critical, remains genuinely cautious when asked about the kinds of reactions expected for his latest movie. “At this point in time, you’re in that golden glow of everybody’s expectations being surpassed, and we’re getting a lot of compliments and all that sort of stuff. But it hasn’t opened yet, so let’s have a look, you know what I mean? I DO know that at this point of time I’m really gratified with people’s response, because it was a hell of a journey for everyone involved.”

Crowe further concedes that he usually hates watching the movies he’s in “possibly because I play very serious, emotional characters and I have to relive that story when I watch them. And though there are quite a few emotional moments in Gladiator and very heavy stuff, when I was watching the movie, I was just hooting and hollering like a 14-year old, thinking: This is a hell of a lot of fun. But as for the rest of it, I’m not predicting anything.” Nor is young Russell prepared to predict the outcome of the Oscars, but his feelings about the hype of Hollywood, remain the same. “I’ve got to keep my life apart from Hollywood, I am committed to acting and get great satisfaction from it. But I don’t take it too seriously, and realise that it is not rocket science.” As with the first time we met, Crowe’s feet remain well and truly planted on the ground.