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At Home With His Range

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

Russell Crowe wore a crocodile tooth on a cord around his neck.

In town the other day to promote “The Insider,” Michael Mann’s new movie about tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, the 35-year-old New Zealand-born actor interrupted an interview at the Argyle Hotel to shout epithets at a televised rugby match. He took a reporter to task for describing him as proud. And at times he was so blunt in his assessment of Hollywood that when he revealed that he had wrestled a tiger on the set of the upcoming Roman epic “The Gladiator,” it was easy to picture the cat in a headlock.

In other words Crowe--whose pent-up portrayal of a brutal cop with a vulnerable heart in the 1997 noir hit “L.A. Confidential” let American audiences in on something Australians have known for years--appears in person to be exactly the tough guy you might expect.

“People accuse me of being arrogant all the time. I’m not arrogant, I’m focused,” Crowe growled at one point, responding to reports that his strong opinions about acting can make him a challenge on a movie set. “I don’t make demands. I don’t tell you how it should be. I’ll give you [expletive] options, and it’s up to you to select or throw ‘em away. That should be the headline: If you’re insecure, don’t [expletive] call.”

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But if that’s the headline, here’s the surprising story that goes with it: This man’s man, who recently rode 4,000 miles around his adopted Australia on a motorcycle, also has a sweet streak a kilometer wide. He is a collaborative--and unusually generous--performer who has fought to cut his own screen time to protect others’ roles. He’s a softy for animals--he can’t bring himself to slaughter any of the cattle he keeps on his 600-acre farm seven hours northwest of Sydney, so the cows (some of whom have names) have become his “mates.” He thinks women who have children are sexy (“They really get to me”). And wait--is that big, bad Russell Crowe singing a love song?

“You know she’s gone and left me,” he crooned midway through a spirited three-hour interview, singing along with the CD track of “She’s Not Impressed,” a song he wrote and performed with his longtime rock band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. Clad in jeans, a white T-shirt and black boots, with his blue eyes sparkling meaningfully, he delivered the emotional punch line: “I don’t provide the safety she needs to build her nest.”

There’s absolutely nothing safe about Crowe on screen. He brought a neo-Nazi skinhead to scary life in Geoffrey Wright’s 1992 “Romper Stomper” and played a computer-generated killer opposite Denzel Washington in Brett Leonard’s 1995 “Virtuosity.” And when not inspiring fear, he’s often taking roles that some might see as risky: playing a gay plumber in the Australian film “The Sum of Us” or a sarcastic gunslinger in the spoof “The Quick and the Dead.”

But it is Crowe’s leading role in Disney’s “The Insider,” which opens Friday, that has everybody talking these days. He plays the tightly wound Wigand, whose decision to reveal a tobacco company’s secrets to CBS’ “60 Minutes” made him and his family the targets of a smear campaign.

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Crowe is 17 years younger than the 52-year-old Wigand (he gained 35 pounds for the part and wears a gray wig), but his physical transformation is not what you’ll notice first. Instead, what’s most striking is Crowe’s restrained fury. From his carefully knotted necktie to his practiced golf swing, Crowe’s Wigand is a painstaking and deliberate man, and one you don’t want to cross.

“What Russell is doing, which is so difficult, is he’s conveying the anomalies of the man, not what’s symmetrical and easily observable,” said Mann, who believes Crowe and his co-star, Al Pacino, who plays “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, “have one thing in common as actors: courage. They have no fear of embarrassment. [The trick is] nailing awkwardness. Not nailing grace. Nailing grace is a lot easier.”

Mann laughed at the memory of Crowe’s discovery that the real Wigand wasn’t as good a golfer as the one the director planned to portray in the film. Crowe saw Wigand’s sorry golf game as a key detail that helped explain why Wigand ultimately failed to fit into corporate culture. Conversely, Mann wanted to use a few scenes of a more proficient Wigand hitting balls at a driving range to highlight the man’s self-discipline and loneliness. The director was willing to fudge the truth a little to make his point. But for Crowe, it didn’t fit and he said so. Repeatedly.

“He’s totally an actor. Totally. I don’t know what goes on between roles,” said Mann, his voice deeply respectful even as he remembers the golf debate. Crowe, he said, resembles a young Marlon Brando. “Look at ‘On the Waterfront,’ at ‘Streetcar’ or even ‘The Young Lions,’ and you see this raw, powerful talent that’s dead serious and accomplished. That’s Russell to me. I’m dying to work with him again.”

Crowe has similarly glowing words for Mann, whose clear vision and unflappable confidence completely made up for the fact that he is--and Crowe says this fondly--a “megalomaniac.” Crowe and Mann spent six weeks together before the “Insider” shoot began, during which Mann involved him not only in character discussions but also in every meeting about Wigand’s props, clothes and accessories. Finally toward the end, Crowe begged off.

“The last week before we started shooting, I said, ‘Michael, it’s been a very interesting thing hanging out with you, but I need to learn the dialogue.’ I mean, he was driving me nuts,” Crowe said. “If any actor tells you that it’s an easy gig working with him, they’re lying through their teeth, because he works really long hours and he’s extremely intense. But he works on the principles that I’ve tried to hold to in what I do: detail and collaboration. . . . The bottom line is, he cares. And there’s that kind of forthrightness about him.”

Crowe values straight talk, and he rarely stifles himself. For example, on the set of “The Gladiator,” in which he plays a Roman general who is unlawfully imprisoned and condemned to participate in the blood sport of the day, he spoke up about the accent, which he thought was all wrong.

“My character was Spanish, and I wanted to do Antonio Banderas with better elocution. But they wouldn’t let me,” said Crowe--a proven vocal chameleon who believes a proper accent is essential to a fully realized character. “They didn’t want people to be distracted by it. But I felt when you say you’re Spanish 50 times in the course of the movie, I should be doing the accent. Instead, basically everybody in the movie does, you know, Royal Shakespeare Company two pints after lunch.”

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He demonstrated what he meant, his normally relaxed Aussie twang suddenly theatrical and overzealous--"I am Maximus, commander of the armies of the North!” He paused, rolled his eyes and added: “Ole!”

Nevertheless, he loved working on the film, due out next year from DreamWorks, partly because it is so rare as an actor to get the chance to do an epic and partly because director Ridley Scott, he says, “is Picasso.”

“I really like him as a chap,” said Crowe, who signed on to “Gladiator” before there was even a script. “Seeing him orchestrate five different camera crews on five monitors, you know, with 3,000 extras--he’d say, ‘I want this here, I want that there. OK, now if you can bring me in the 500 German guys--and get hairy guys in the front. Not those little skinny ones, hairy guys!’ He gives everybody’s instructions and he gets ready for another take and I say, ‘What should I do?’ And he says, ‘Oh, no. You’re fine.’ ”

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Crowe has been acting since he was 6 years old, when he got his first speaking part on a TV show. Show business was in his blood--his parents were location caterers, and his grandfather was a cinematographer. Crowe jokes that he was the only one in the family stupid enough to work on the other side of the camera.

At 14, he started playing in bands, which led to musical theater. In 1983, he had a part in “Grease,” then starred from 1986-88 in live productions of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” performing more than 400 times as Dr. Frank N. Furter. He made his film debut in director George Ogilvie’s 1990 “The Crossing,” which landed him a leading part in Jocelyn Moorhouse’s 1992 film “Proof.” That same year, “Romper Stomper” was released--and it was that role that would eventually catch the eye of Curtis Hanson, the director who cast him as the rage-filled Bud White in “L.A. Confidential.”

“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,” Hanson told The Times in 1997, explaining why he chose a relative unknown to play White, a character who was supposed to be the largest man in the LAPD.

Just shy of 6 feet tall, Crowe himself is no giant. But Hanson felt he exuded the power of a bruiser, with something more: “He understood the duality of the 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.”

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Crowe waited 14 months before working again, turning down numerous tough-guy parts to play a thoughtful sheriff who won’t carry a gun in this year’s ensemble hockey movie “Mystery, Alaska.”

“I just thought it was very ironic for me to, after 14 months, play a lawman that holds conversation above the law,” he said. “I’m a great fan of irony.”

Jay Roach, who directed “Mystery, Alaska,” said Crowe’s intensity can yield something almost lyrical on screen.

“It’s a kind of poetic approach to acting. That’s what makes it so powerful,” Roach said. “He’s very controlled and disciplined about the externals--timing, blocking, choreography. But in addition to that he has a way of connecting to his subconscious that adds all these other layers of subtlety and nuance to what’s on the outside. A four-second reaction shot from Russell can be equivalent to a full minute of dialogue. He can be supremely articulate without words.”

Crowe can also be stubborn. During post-production on “Mystery, Alaska,” executives at Disney, which financed and distributed the film, suggested that the too long first cut be trimmed to be more of a Crowe-centered film and less of an ensemble piece. Thinking of his fellow actors, Crowe sided with Roach in arguing that the movie should remain a portrait of a town--a decision that meant Crowe lost some screen time.

“There was a debate, and Russell backed me up entirely,” Roach said. “He felt like he had signed up for something that was an ensemble. . . . He saw that the film would be better off if he was not elevated above the other characters. He became the kind of defender of the greater good.”

Crowe is not selfless, but he has genuine admiration for other actors. He’s such a fan of Jodie Foster (whom he’s never met) that when she had her baby last year, he sent her a couple of tiny rugby jumpers. And when his movies wrap, he always tries to trade the canvas director’s chair with his name printed on it for the chair of one of his co-stars. (“I’ve got Kim Basinger,” he says happily. “Now that’s [expletive] cool, isn’t it?”)

“I think you’ve got to be a fan first to be able to be a performer,” Crowe said. “Acting has a lot to do with living in the real world.”

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Crowe does a lot of that. Unless he’s shooting a film or promoting one he’s already shot, he rarely leaves Australia. He’s got his motorcycle to ride (his recent three-week trip, from the Pacific Ocean to the Timor Sea, was so rugged that he needed “medicated nappy rash creme”). He’s got his rock band to write for (he’s lead singer, guitarist and songwriter). He’s got his farm to tend--horses, dogs, chickens, roosters, turtles, snakes and even a platypus. He’s got a new swimming hole he just dug and a small mountain of chicken manure (25,000 tons of it) that needs turning.

“I had no idea I’d be such an abject failure as a farmer,” he said with a grin, referring to his inability to cause animals even the slightest discomfort. He took a drag off a cigarette. (No, not even a movie like “The Insider” could make him quit a habit he’s nursed since the age of 9. “It’s indicative of the power of nicotine,” he said. “Because after all the research material [Mann provided], I really know the dangers of smoking.”)

Next up for Crowe: “Proof of Life” opposite Meg Ryan, in which he plays a hostage negotiator who falls in love with the wife of the man he’s trying to save. Director Taylor Hackford has asked Crowe to play the role in his own accent, and Crowe is clearly pleased about it.

“Part of the reason for my expanding and going overseas in the first place was to try to attract investment money back to Australia and to also hopefully at some point get to play Australian characters in big-budget Hollywood movies,” he said, sounding like a proud son from Down Under. But when he heard himself described that way, he looked stung.

“It’s got nothin’ to do with pride,” he said fiercely. “Pride is something that happens when you block out information that you really need. You no longer are open. You know, you’re full of yourself. Do I love where I come from? Yeah. Is it important to me that the culture be seen in many different ways and not just in generalized terms? Yes, it is.

“But the only way that they’re going to trust me to do that is if I do it their way first.”

In the meantime, it’s back to the land for Crowe, who was hurrying through a weekend of interviews in order to return to Australia for a cattle auction.

“Got to keep the grass down,” he said, when asked why he needed more cows. He fiddled with the crocodile tooth around his neck--a souvenir from his recent cross-country excursion. Asked if he had wrested it away from its original owner, he grimaced.

“I wouldn’t hurt a crocodile,” he said. “Unless, you know, it was a dentistry thing and he needed a hand.”


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