Sgt. Friday Was Never Like This

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Australian actor Russell Crowe is not unlike Bud White, the obsessive, brutal cop he plays in the Curtis Hanson film "L.A. Confidential," which opened Friday. This isn't to suggest Crowe's a violent person, because he's not. In fact, by all accounts he's an uncommonly sensitive, kind man who refers to the livestock on his farm in Australia as "my friends." (Crowe's cows were unavailable for comment). What we're talking about here is vigilance.

Take Crowe's approach to interviews. Most movie star chat sessions boil down to one carefully measured hour of conversation in a controlled setting--a publicist's office, say, or a discreet public place. With Crowe, you go to the house of his buddy who's putting him up while he's in L.A., and he spends hours with you. He pulls out CDs and plays favorite cuts. He tells you about his girlfriend. He calls the next day to clarify a point he felt he hadn't adequately communicated, then calls again and invites you to come and see his girlfriend's band--he's doing the lights for the show and he'll put you on the guest list.

He calls again and asks if a lunch meeting could be arranged to tie up some conversational threads he feels are still hanging. You meet for lunch, and here's the amazing part--he tries to pay! This is highly unusual, as within the industry it's generally assumed a star's mere presence is their contribution to whatever bill has been run up.

Maybe they do things differently in Australia. However you slice it, the 33-year-old actor is thorough, and he's been a big star in his homeland since 1992, when he turned in a searing performance as a white supremacist in "Romper Stomper," a terrifying film about Australian skinheads. "L.A. Confidential," which also stars Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce and Kim Basinger, is expected to confer comparable star status on Crowe in America.

Hailed by early reviewers as the first great period film about Southern California since the 1974 masterpiece "Chinatown," "L.A. Confidential" is an adaptation of James Ellroy's 1990 novel chronicling the misadventures of three cops afflicted with different kinds of corruption. Spacey's Jack Vincennes is simply in it for the money, while Pearce's Ed Exley is a craven opportunist desperate to prove himself to his father. Crowe's Bud White--perhaps the most complex of the three--witnessed the murder of his mother by his father when he was a boy, and that experience turned him into a walking time bomb driven to rescue damsels in distress.

White explodes with blind rage at the mere idea of a woman being subjected to physical violence--and it was Crowe's capacity for telegraphing violence onscreen that brought him to Hanson's attention.

"I saw Russell in 'Romper Stomper' and just thought, 'Wow! Who is this guy?' " he recalls. "I knew from that picture that he had the stuff to hold the screen, and that he was able to play violence and still keep a character interesting. I love Russell in 'L.A. Confidential,' too, because he understood the duality of this character. Bud White appears to be a mindless thug, and Russell handled that well, but he also brought a courtliness to Bud that lets women know there's more to him than that.

"Bud is the noblest character in the film, and of all the characters Ellroy's created, I think Bud is the closest to him," Hanson adds. "Both their mothers died violent deaths, and I think the demons they struggle with are similar." (In 1958, when Ellroy was 10, his mother was found strangled; the writer explored his feelings about this unsolved crime in his book of last year, "My Dark Places.")

Crowe agrees with Hanson on this point, and recalls, "Ellroy told me that of all the damaged characters who populate this story, Bud White is the only one with the potential to be a hero. James is fond of Bud, and I think it's fairly obvious that there's a lot of James' own story in Bud, and that both are on a quest for self-redemption."

Surprisingly enough, Ellroy sees things differently. "I'd say there's an equal amount of Ed Exley in me--I'm just that calculating and ambitious, and in a sense, Exley represents my worst vision of myself," Ellroy confesses. "As Russell said, self-redemption is one of my central themes, and there is the trauma of Bud's murdered mother and my own, but Bud White's a violent man and I never have been."

Bud White is indeed a violent man, and "L.A. Confidential" is a violent movie. Crowe is quick to point out, however, that "it's not violent in Hollywood terms, nor is the violence gratuitous. This is a story about policemen during a particularly ugly period of the '50s, and the LAPD had a totally different relationship with society then than it has now. The audience must be made to understand that these aren't the easiest streets to deal with."

This is why Crowe feels it's appropriate to play Bud White as a man capable of killing at the drop of a hat; precisely how he does it is another story. White is the third in a series of psychopathically violent characters that Crowe's portrayed with frightening believability. (He played a vicious, computer-programmed humanoid opposite Denzel Washington in the 1995 film "Virtuosity"). Which leads one to inquire: What do you draw on to play these characters? Have you ever killed anyone?

"Good on ya'," Crowe replies with a giggle. "I'm not the sort of person who'd ever be a policeman, so it's a stretch for me to get into the authoritarian groove necessary to play a man like Bud White. I have a simple way of working though; I research my character and pull in as much material as I can, then once you've done your homework, you pretty much know who the guy you're playing is. From that point on it's just a matter of commitment and focus.

"I'm an obsessive person and I have certain grooves for each character I play," he adds. "With Hando in 'Romper Stomper,' I decided he was a guy whose dad gave him boxing gloves at the age of 3. For Bud, I looked at old police training films. Because the LAPD operates in a city whose main industry is movies, they're probably more image-conscious than most police departments, and they were among the first to use training films. Consequently, there's an unusually in-depth history of the LAPD on film.

"Ellroy speaks in short, sharp phrases and uses the terms of a particular time that are frozen in his mind because of the trauma he experienced as a child," says Crowe when asked about the linguistic style of "L.A. Confidential," which is a veritable thicket of '50s slang.

"Neither the slang nor the L.A. accent was a problem though--I am, after all, an actor," he wryly points out. "There are, however, many words peculiar to L.A. that you don't hear anywhere else in America, so it was like learning a new language.

"There was a lot to learn for this film, plus, it was a six-month shoot, which made it the longest shoot I've ever been on. It was a great experience, though. What usually happens with films shot in L.A. is, you're in your corner, the other actor's in his corner, somebody rings the bell and you do the scene. 'L.A. Confidential' was unusual in that it was a true ensemble cast, the relationships were strong, and everybody's input was welcomed. I've worked with directors who were incapable of answering a simple question, but Curtis listens, and he allowed me to get heavily involved in the choreography of the stunts and all my scenes involving weapons. I'm a stickler for accuracy and I warned Curtis I was a bullet counter--which is something I probably got from my dad. We used to watch westerns together and he always cracked up when somebody fired the 10th bullet from a six-shooter."

Born in New Zealand, Crowe moved with his family at the age of 4 to Australia, where he immediately met the movies. "My parents were location caterers and my grandfather was a cinematographer and an editor, so I got to hang around sets as a kid," he recalls. "I got my first part when I was 6 years old--I had one line on a TV show--and I've been slogging away at this job ever since. When I was a teenager my parents kept telling me I needed something to fall back on, but I said forget it because although I might fall on my face, I have no intention of falling back. I felt completely driven."

When Crowe was 14 he started playing in bands, and since 1984 he's been the lead singer and guitarist with 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, a quartet that recently completed a 22-city tour of Australia, and has recorded two CDs, neither of which was released in America.

"Our music isn't relevant anywhere but Australia because the songs I write are specifically about how and where I grew up. In a way it's like regional folk music. As I've become more known as an actor it's taken a toll on the band's credibility, but we still fill rooms and give people a damn fine night."

Playing in bands led to work in musical theater for Crowe, and in 1983 he landed a part in a productions of "Grease," then starred from 1986-88 in "The Rocky Horror Show." During those years he split his time between working as a D.J. in nightclubs, musical theater, performing with his band, and working as an extra in movies. Things started to change in 1989 when director George Ogilvie saw him in a production of the musical "Blood Brothers," by Willy Russell, who wrote the 1983 box-office hit "Educating Rita."

"At that point, my idea of the ultimate success was to appear in a play at the Sydney Opera House," Crowe recalls, "but George said 'I think you've got a fabulous career ahead in cinema, and I'd like you to be in a film I'm directing called 'The Crossing.' "

Crowe made his film debut in 1990 in Ogilvie's film and his performance made enough of an impression to land him a leading part--of a dishwasher who befriends a blind man--in Jocelyn Moorhouse's 1992 film, "Proof." That same year director Geoffrey Wright's "Romper Stomper" was released and Crowe's career was off and running.

Much to Crowe's dismay, "Romper Stomper" made him something of a poster boy for Australia's white supremacist movement, so he opted to play a gay plumber for his next film, "The Sum of Us." "There are very elemental, testosterone-driven rules for life as a male in Australia," says Crowe, "but I have a twisted sense of humor and thought it would be funny for the people who loved 'Romper Stomper' to line up on the first day and see 'The Sum of Us.'

"I had quite a following at that point, but I had no problem walking down any street in Australia--until I went to America and made a movie with Sharon Stone," he recalls with a rueful laugh, referring to the 1995 western directed by Sam Raimi, "The Quick and the Dead." "Suddenly I was tabloid fodder and my girlfriend was reading articles about how Sharon wanted to bonk me!

"Sharon's aware of how she's perceived and she has fun with it," he adds. "The first time I encountered her she came barreling out of a restaurant where we were supposed to meet, ran up to my car, leaned in the window and said: 'Know what? I'm on a man hunt!'

"Sharon was co-producer on 'The Quick and the Dead,' and she'd seen a video test I'd done that impressed her, but nobody else shared her enthusiasm," continues Crowe, whose performance as a reformed gunslinger-turned-priest was whittled down to almost nothing in the final version of the film. "I was present in an office when she had a conversation on a speakerphone with an executive who shall remain nameless said, 'Sharon, I don't know who's gonna' play the [expletive] priest in this movie, but it ain't gonna be some unknown Australian guy named Russell Crowe!' "

This didn't get much of a rise out of Crowe, who shrugs his shoulders at the memory and says, "I've been coming in and out of L.A. since 1992 and have learned that this city's like an onion with many different layers. For all the high-flying cowboys, there are also some incredibly sincere artists here, and it's all just a matter of talking to people and finding out which layer of the onion they're standing on.

"Obviously the greatest film minds of the world live or do their business in L.A., but speaking as an actor I find a falseness to life here that I think can have a negative effect on your work. I would never live here, even though my girlfriend lives in Northridge. I met her at the gym," he confesses with embarrassment. "She was lifting a set of free-weights the wrong way, so I walked over and said, 'Could I talk to you about your form?' "

Technically, Crowe may not live in L.A., but he's doing a lot of business here right now. "I've read 62 scripts since 'L.A Confidential' wrapped," says the actor, who has two more films in the can. Slated for release this fall is "Breaking Up," a love story directed by Robert Greenwald that pairs Crowe with Salma Hayek. "Heaven's Burning," a tragic love story directed by Craig Lahiff about two lost souls on the road, presently has no release date.

"I'm at that point in my career where I'm being bombarded with offers--and it's really fun, too. But if I ever feel I'm in danger of losing my perspective about the business of acting, I can always go home to the farm," he says of the parcel of land he owns seven hours north of Sydney. "My parents and older brother live there and they run the place when I'm away. I've set everything up at the farm so things should flow just fine when I'm away, and I try to be there when all the babies are being born--we have horses, cows, dogs and chickens.

"I'm just a big softie when it comes to the farm," he adds. "These animals are my friends, and I enjoy spending time with them because they open my mind up again when the small world of show business threatens to close it down."

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