Virtual reality bites--which is why Sid 6.7, a computer-generated killer in a virtual reality police-training simulator, crosses over into real reality in the sci-fi action film “Virtuosity.” And despite his cherubic exterior, Sid’s vicious--an amalgam of 183 human monsters, including Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and, to set the plot in motion, a terrorist who’d killed the wife and child of ex-cop Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington).
Yet for acclaimed Australian actor Russell Crowe, who plays the killer ap, Sid may as well be Santa Claus. As evil incarnate--yet stylish and witty--Sid is the kind of unforgettable villain who leaps at an audience and, pardon the expression, slays ‘em. Think Alan Rickman in the original “Die Hard” or Charles Dance in “Last Action Hero.”
Or rather, if Crowe has anything to say about it, don’t. “What a load of [manure],” bristles Crowe at the suggestion. “What a load of bollocks.”
But aren’t Rickman and Dance terrific actors who played memorable villains? “That’s your opinion,” Crowe says, putting the matter to rest. He lights up a cigarette--not asking if anyone else in the room minds--then smiles like Sid 6.7 before a kill.
Well, OK, so maybe Sid has more grace and tact. He also dresses better than the 31-year-old Crowe, who’s looking studiedly scruffy today in a denim shirt, blue jeans, outback boots and several days’ worth of downy beard. Still, no one can deny Crowe’s got talent as big as his ego: His Sid is the latest in a series of dazzling performances, from his breakthrough role as the comprehensible evil skinhead Hando in “Romper Stomper” (1992), to the devoted gay son in “The Sum of Us” (1994), to the gunsligner-turned-man-of-God in “The Quick and the Dead” (1995)--a role he won at the behest of star Sharon Stone, who insisted no one else would do. Along the way, he’s picked up two Australian Film Institute awards--the Aussie Oscar.
Yet while Sid may well lead the actor to American leading-mandom, “it’s just another role,” Crowe says. “It’s just the latest thing I’m talking to people about. I’m purely a working actor.” Yeah, yeah--but doesn’t he hear Hollywood calling after years of bottom-budget Australian art films? “I’ve got offers on the table,” he says, “for more money than I got for this one, for half the [expletive] time. But doing only studio movies is not my aim, and if I ever start thinkin’ like that, then I’ll go start doing something else for a living.”
Crowe is following up his two big studio pictures with a pair of more modestly budgeted films: “No Way Back,” with Michael Lerner and Helen Shaver, which Crowe cites as a $1.3-million micro-budget independent, and the U.S./U.K. co-production “Rough Magic,” with Bridget Fonda. As for his doing anything else for a living, it’s unlikely--he’s in the family business.
A New Zealand native, born in the capital of Wellington, Crowe grew up around film. His maternal grandfather, Stan Wyemss, was a cinematographer who, Crowe says, produced the first film by director Geoff Murphy, late of “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.” Crowe’s parents were set caterers who emigrated to Australia when Crowe was a child; there they worked on the TV series “Spyforce,” where the producer was his mother’s godfather. Crowe, at 5 or 6, got hired for a line of dialogue in one episode, opposite series star Jack Thompson--who years later played his father in “The Sum of Us.”
“My family’s been in the business for three generations,” Crowe says. “I’m just the first one stupid enough to stand in front of the cameras!”
The family moved back to New Zealand when Crowe was about 14. He returned to Australia at 21, intending to apply to the National Institute of Dramatic Art.
“I was working in a theater show, and talked to a guy who was then the head of technical support at NIDA,” Crowe says. “Actually, I was a family friend who was living in the house that he grew up in. I asked him what he thought about me spending three years at NIDA. He told me it’d be a waste of time. He said, ‘You already do the things you go there to learn, and you’ve been doing it for most of your life, so there’s nothing to teach you but bad habits.’ ” In any event, says Crowe, “I wasn’t one of those ooh-la-la-honey-lovey-darling performance sort of kid.”
In 1990, he won his first film role in “The Crossing,” a small-town love triangle directed by George Ogilvie (co-director of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”). Before production started, however, a film-student protege of Ogilvie’s, Steve Wallace, “rang me up and wanted to have a look at this guy George was gonna use as his lead.” Wallace was casting the film “Blood Oath,” a.k.a. “Prisoners of the Sun” (1990), which, Crowe says, “had nothing to offer in terms of great characters or anything, but it was 10 weeks of on-set experience.”
Crowe went on to become a top Down Under star. He continues to live in Sydney, and his pet project, the in-development film “Pacific Meltdown,” concerns French atomic testing in New Zealand’s claimed nuclear-free zone.
“I want to do movies that have a strong sense of purpose, and work with people who have a vision,” Crowe says. “Whether that’s in a supporting or a lead capacity is neither here nor there. And if you get locked into a major-studio-only kind of career, though it may seem huge on one level, your options begin to get limited.”
For Russell Crowe, it seems, “Virtuosity” is its own reward.