It's 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Russell Crowe is complaining.
As almost everyone on the planet knows, the star resists most attempts to get him to reveal anything. And he's happy to taunt those who take on the challenge. Which tonight happens to be me.
Sitting with director Paul Haggis at Beverly Hills' Polo Lounge several weeks before the release of their prison break thriller, "The Next Three Days," Crowe begins talking about the film. But it isn't long before one of his favorite topics comes up.
"Whatever used to be called mystery, you're not allowed to have that anymore," his lament about celebrity begins. "So there's a whole bunch of blank space that's filled in with stuff that fills up pages of your newspapers. Which is not real, and you know it's not real, and I know it's not real," he adds, not realizing — or is it not caring? — that he's impugned his present company. "And [readers] don't really care because that's what they're interested in."
This could be a long evening.
Crowe decided to make his new movie after three years of working on the big-budget spectacle of "Robin Hood" because he wanted to be a part of what he calls "an animal that moves a little faster" and because he found himself impressed with Haggis' elaborately plotted ideas. "It was the best experience I had reading a script since the 'Beautiful Mind' script. I remember telling you," he says, turning to Haggis, "that it was just that complete as an idea."
Haggis, whose eager-to-please enthusiasm offers a frequent counterpoint to Crowe's prickliness, nods. "You did say that."
Nursing a Coke Zero and casual in an oversize zippered sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "North Bergen" (a play for New Jersey street cred?), Crowe says he treats publicity as just another part. He learned long ago, he said, that the secret of doing well on talk shows is "to play a character who enjoys going on talk shows."
He doesn't seem to be tackling the role tonight, however. The actor occasionally directs his answers toward me. But most of his attention is reserved for Haggis, with whom he has an easy rapport as the two laugh uproariously recalling on-set war stories (reckless car-chase scenes and the like). Haggis, in a busy blue T-shirt, with the last tendrils of his hair clinging to the base of his scalp, is lean and energetic and full of ideas about his movie — and every so often feels the need to apologize or offer an explanation on Crowe's behalf.
"Probably nobody knows that Russell was one of the first people who sponsored our [post- earthquake] school in Haiti," Haggis points out as Crowe finishes a give-me-privacy jag. "He put his money — a whole lot of money — and he didn't go out and make a big press thing about it."
"But you are now," Crowe responds, half-smiling but also looking perturbed.
There are many celebrities who guard their privacy. But those actors want to downplay the tabloid fodder to talk about their movies. Crowe, however, doesn't really want to talk about that either.
"If I ever was going to torture somebody, I'd put them in a room where they can't leave and have someone new come in every three minutes and ask the same question over a number of days and then weeks," he says, describing the process of a film junket, on which he — oops — is about to embark.
Crowe turns again to Haggis: "Have you ever been on a junket where at the beginning of the day you find you were definitive about certain things? And then over the course of the day your brain is going 'What am I saying?' And so by the end of the day, you find yourself putting to death what you were championing that morning." Haggis nods. "I've done that."
But where were we? Oh, yes, one of the movies that Crowe doesn't like being interviewed about.
"Three Days," a remake of the French thriller "Pour Elle," puts a twist on the typical jailbreak film. Unlike genre classics such as "The Shawshank Redemption" or "Midnight Express," this story is told from the outside, lending the free-ranging perspective of a heist picture to the usual urgency of a prison film. In his quest to free his wife ( Elizabeth Banks), whom he believes has been wrongly convicted of murder, Crowe's character, a literature professor named John Brennan, learns the art of counterfeit passports and lock-picking as the breakout plot slowly takes shape.
Fred Cavayé's 2008 original had a streamlined narrative; Haggis, who set and shot his version in Pittsburgh, adds a parallel police investigation, a web of new characters and a more ambiguous resolution to the climactic getaway. "It may be the only English-language remake of a French movie that's darker than the original," Haggis says with a laugh.
Crowe does offer a thought on why he took the part, and it's sophisticated. "Paul said to me in our first meeting that [Brennan] is the guy who will do anything for the woman he loves, including becoming some person that she can't possibly love anymore. And when I left him, I thought, 'That is really cool. I have to do this movie.'"
Coming after "Robin Hood," in which Crowe leads packs of men into battle with rousing speeches and raised swords, the actor spends much of this movie on-screen by himself, laconically planning the prison break. There's a quiet pain to the role and a complexity to his actions, which are criminal and dangerous but oddly romantic and noble.
After demurring that Robin Hood was in fact a public hero — challenging the premise of a question is a go-to move in the Crowe playbook — the actor takes a rare turn to the personal.
"I'm always interested in the heroic that comes out of the simple. In a way, I'm always looking for that in myself. Because I want to have bigger things to believe in personally," Crowe says.
The limelight is not, needless to say, one of those things. Crowe describes fame as something that he and his family have had to "endure." At this stage of the game, he may have a point.
After a torrent of publicity about his bad behavior — the infamous phone-throwing at a New York hotel and the like — more than a few, um, detractors have emerged. Yet it can be hard to discern where Crowe's irascibility ends and the public's need for celebrity blood sport begins. (Consider the MySpace group "Russell Crowe is a ... douche bag," whose uncomplicated mission statement has it "dedicated to the demise and defaming of Russell Crowe.")
But it's one of the great paradoxes that, for all his moaning about fame, Crowe actually seems to handle it pretty well, at least where fans are concerned. As if on cue, a tall, thirtysomething blond from the next table overhears Crowe and turns to him wide-eyed to say she's met him before, on a set in Tucson about two decades ago.
"You're giving yourself away. You must have been 3 or 4," Crowe says, his natural charisma — or is it rakishness? — coming out. She begins to talk of how she and her friends were hanging out with him at the Holiday Inn where he was staying. "You guys were staying in the Holiday Inn. I was at the old people's home," he jokes. "But my friend Lenny was staying in the Holiday Inn. Maybe you're the woman Lenny tried to pick up?"
He then tells a story about his buddies in a pub defacing a Clint Black poster by connecting the "l" and the "i" in the artist's first name, a story he seems to relish retelling as much as he apparently enjoyed the act of frat boy vandalism itself.
I have a passing thought that there's something refreshing about Crowe's willingness to pull the veil off the orchestrations of celebrity journalism. Or maybe he's just an ornery guy.
Haggis said that when he initially decided to cast the "Gladiator" star, he encountered skepticism from some of his friends. Because you'd be in this awkward position? is my first thought. But Haggis, who wants Crowe to consider a part for his new romantic drama, goes on to explain that it was a typecasting issue.
"People would ask me, 'Why are you putting Russell Crowe in this movie? You know he's going to break [his wife] out of prison.' And I'd say, 'How about "Beautiful Mind"? How about "The Insider"?' He's such a larger-than-life character as a human being. But you have to remember he plays deeply conflicted, failed characters, these characters just trying to get through the day."
Crowe sounds like that experience may come in handy as he prepares to do more publicity, occasions on which he will no doubt be asked all sorts of questions about opinions or even causes. Which, unlike every other celebrity on God's green Earth, he doesn't want to talk about either.
"Some people believe celebrity is a power that should be used. Ultimately, your dollars are more powerful," Crowe says. "I'm famous for making movies. Celebrity just happens to be an unfortunate byproduct of what I do."
A few minutes later, the interview ends, and as I stand up, Crowe rather unexpectedly apologizes for "the bumbling bull…" that he has offered. It's unclear whether he means his comments about the movie or his squirming about celebrity. Either way, he seems happy to be done.
I, however, am only too sad to leave.