For Russell Crowe, directing 'Water Diviner' is risky; reward is 'freedom'

Russell Crowe finds a new path as director of 'The Water Diviner,' about the WWI Battle of Gallipoli

A movie star whose films have taken in nearly $4 billion globally at the box office can travel around any way they please — limousine, private helicopter, jewel-encrusted rickshaw — but Russell Crowe gets a special charge out of pedaling himself through the busy streets of Los Angeles. "People expect you to get out of their way, but it's not as bad as London or Paris," he said on a recent afternoon after parking his bike at a West Hollywood cafe. "When I'm shooting here, quite often I'll ride to the set every day."

Clad in a black tracksuit and wraparound sunglasses, his beard flecked with gray, Crowe sat down at an outside table and ordered a Flat White with two shots of espresso. He normally drinks tea, he explained, and has even developed a hobby collecting coronation tea cups ("I'm currently looking for a Queen Victoria if you get a tip," he said). But, feeling jet-lagged from a flight from Europe, he needed the extra pick-me-up. "I've been running on constant adrenaline," he said, pulling a cigarette out of a pack.

For weeks, Crowe, 51, has been hopping around the globe virtually nonstop — Australia, Turkey, South Korea, Ireland, England, France, Spain — drumming up publicity for his directorial debut, "The Water Diviner." The actor stars in the sweeping period drama — financed by Australian backers and filmed in Australia and Turkey — as a grieving widower who travels from his farm in the Outback to Istanbul to find the bodies of his three sons who were killed in World War I's bloody Battle of Gallipoli and unexpectedly finds himself falling in love with a Turkish woman (Olga Kurylenko).

The film, which hits theaters April 24, has already proven a major hit in Australia, where the history of the Gallipoli campaign — which resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties on all sides — reverberates a century later. Though a handful of critics have deemed the film overly sentimental, reviews have been generally positive. Still, in places like America, where the history of Gallipoli is less well known, Crowe knows the film could be a harder sell. "It's a little independent film, so the way to get it talked about is to talk about it," he said.

In person, as on-screen, Crowe projects a kind of silverback self-confidence and, coronation tea cups notwithstanding, an old-school machismo. In the nearly 20 years since he broke out in 1997's "L.A. Confidential," he's had massive hits and been nominated for an Oscar three times — for "The Insider," "Gladiator," for which he won lead actor, and "A Beautiful Mind." He's also had his share of flops and earned a reputation early on for throwing around his unvarnished opinions — not to mention his fists and, in one notorious 2005 incident, a telephone. An entire section of Crowe's Wikipedia entry is dedicated to "Altercations and controversies."

To an unusual degree in an industry fueled by adoration, Crowe seems not to care how he's perceived. "I never have — that's one of the problems because you tend to walk into the same thing over and over again if you don't give a ... as much as I don't give a ...," he said, using a salty word.

Still, "The Water Diviner" is a passion project for Crowe, and he does care deeply what people think of it. Like many stars from Clint Eastwood to Jodie Foster to Ben Affleck, he has long harbored ambitions of stepping behind the camera. "I'm very comfortable with every creative decision being mine — I know that doesn't surprise you," he said dryly. Now that he's had a taste of calling the shots, he needs the film to perform well so he can continue down that road.

In his mind, the stakes couldn't be much higher. "It's a massive risk," he said. "It's the opportunity to buy my own freedom. I used to think I had a great job, but then I did this and now I know there's this other world that I need to keep exploring in order to satisfy me. If it doesn't work, I'm stuck in limbo between the things I need to do to grease the wheels of my life and the things I want to do. It's a gigantic gamble."

He almost directed before

Crowe first came close to directing a feature more than a decade ago, as he rode the wave of post-"Gladiator" success. But he ultimately decided to let that opportunity pass. "It was a little urban thing," he said. "I was in the middle of being a really famous bastard and it was almost handed to me as a pat on the back. It didn't feel right."

When the script for "The Water Diviner" by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios crossed his path a few years ago, it resonated with him deeply as a nearly lifelong Australian (Crowe was born in New Zealand) and a father of two young sons (he is divorced from singer-songwriter Danielle Spencer). "In Australia, information about Gallipoli is tattooed on the inside of your eyelids when you're a child," he said. "You're very close to it culturally. But here was the opportunity to put in front of people a perspective on it they've never actually considered, to show the other side's point of view in this conflict. Here's an opportunity to open people's hearts a little more."

A believer in rigorous preparation, Crowe put his actors through a pre-production boot camp that included horseback riding, military-style training and lectures on history, and held his cast and crew to a high standard throughout shooting. But Kurylenko said Crowe — who owns a championship-winning Australian rugby team and is developing plans to bring the sport to Las Vegas — was an inspiring leader, not a tyrannical one. "He was intense, but in a good way," she said. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, my God, I'm being bullied.' Whatever he wanted, you wanted to give him."

Writer-director Shane Black got a glimpse of Crowe's fervent enthusiasm for directing when he traveled to Australia to woo the actor to star in the upcoming caper film "The Nice Guys," due in May 2016.

"I walked in and Russell was cutting the picture and he's like, 'What do you think of this? Should this shot come first or that one?'" Black remembered. "He doesn't do anything halfway. This is a guy who, if a nuclear bomb went off, he'd say, 'Where's our cover set?' The movie is that important to him."

As always, an actor

In the public's mind, of course, Crowe is still first and foremost an actor — and in that regard as well he finds himself at something of a crossroads, an old-fashioned alpha-male movie star in an era in which comic books, YA bestsellers and other pre-sold brands have become the coin of the realm.

As Crowe has settled into middle age and fatherhood, the media's focus on his reputation for truculence has abated, for which he is grateful. "Look, man, I don't think I handled getting really famous that well," he said. "But I don't blame myself for that because it's a very unusual situation. I think over time it sort of rebalances itself. Things are a lot more comfortable now. I just did a press tour in the U.K., and I didn't have one tabloid-y bear-baiting session. If there was a test involved, I seem to have passed it. I'm still here."

But as he gets older, Crowe is also aware that there's been a shift in the kinds of role he can play. The actor stirred up a minor flap in December when he appeared to be criticizing older actresses who "still want to play the ingenue." Meryl Streep, for one, came to his defense, and he says he is happy to act his age. "There's a big slice of vanity in this profession that some people buy into," he said. "I'm not trying to pretend to be something else. The job requires you to be where you are and to be comfortable in your own skin."

That's not to say he relished turning 50. "I remember feeling that every age sounded cool up to 47, but 48 sounded lumpy," he said. "One day my ex-wife and I were coming home from a premiere and she said to me, 'It must be very hard for you watching yourself age on-screen.' I was like, 'It had never actually occurred to me, but thanks for pointing it out!' "He shrugged. "It is what it is."

Meanwhile, the major studios have pulled back on the type of large-scale adult-oriented dramas that propelled him to fame and to which he is most drawn. Crowe wrapped work last year on the film "Fathers and Daughters," playing a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer struggling with depression after the death of his wife. With "The Nice Guys," in which he co-stars with Ryan Gosling, he will take a turn toward the darkly comedic.

"Adult dramas don't occupy the same budget range as they used to," Crowe said. "Those stories are still there, but you're not going to be getting the type of fee you might have gotten 10 or 15 years ago. You've got to be ambitious. You've got to go looking."

If there's been a guiding principle behind Crowe's career, whether as an actor or now a director, it's been to avoid the lure of the easy or well-trodden path. "I do understand the commercial necessities of the job, but I think pandering or getting into a place where you're just creating a tent pole from elements — I'm just not interested in that sort of stuff," he said. "The career-based decision is the one that you'll regret. You have to make your decisions based on what you connect to. Is this thing going to get you up at 4 in the morning with a smile on your face?"

He paused and pulled another cigarette out of the pack. "This is what I do, and this is how I do it, and I haven't changed in 25 years," he said. "And if you believe I fundamentally should, I'm very sorry you feel that way, but I'll just carry on."

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

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