From EMPIRE: Words
by Martyn Palmer

For his $100 million Roman epic, Ridley Scott needed a real contender, a true GLADIATOR. Someone who could tackle tigers, fight fatigue an still have enough slugs left for a beer. He needed, in other words, Russell Crowe - the next action hero...

So you think you're a contender? Just 'cause you played a hard man once or twice, doesn't mean you can go the distance. Do you even know that it takes to become an action hero, anyway? Sometimes it takes a single film; one bus ride was all it took to turn Keanu Reeves from slacker dude into "the chosen one"; sometimes a solitary sequence is enough: one rev of a stolen German motorbike worked for Steve McQueen. But that doesn't mean you're gonna get lucky. Roger Moore did half a dozen Bond movies, but would anyone seriously describe him as an "action hero"? Whole other thing. 

The credentials of Russell Crowe, the contender from Down Under, look impressive. This is, after all, a man who lives on a 560-acre farm, in a remote corner of New South Wales, which he likes to walk - that's WALK - around. "I've got little backpacks in all the main buildings," explains Crowe of his daily constitutional. They have little bush stoves with powdered milk, coffee and sugar, and a metal cup and a Billie, and I just pick up the pack and walk off." Let's be clear from the start: Russell Crowe is not a Starbucks cappuccino man. "Rugged" is the word.

Of course, rugged along does not an action hero make, but Crowe does appear to have the necessary celluloid
credentials. By his own admission he's done plenty of "physically demanding" stuff before, notably as the cyber-villain Sid 6.7 in Virtuosity (1995) or skinhead Hando in Romper Stomper (1992). And, of course, there was Crowe's breakout performance as vice cop Bud White in 1997s LA Confidential, a man Russell describes with delicate understatement as a "very physical guy". But there's still a big difference between a "physical guy" and an action hero. With Bud, explains Russell, "There were three or four points (of action). Like, at a certain point you rough a bloke up a bit and at a certain point you have a big "hooley dooley" two hander, you and a bloke having a go, but that's going to be done in a day." Single day "hooley-dooleys" (whatever they are) are one thing, but as Maximus, the general turned titular gladiator in Ridley Scott's full blown Roman epic, the stakes, the scale are all different: this is action hero territory. As Russell notes at the end of yet another hard day towards the end of a demanding shoot "This is unrelenting. When I have a day when all I do is sit in a cell, it's like, 'Thank God'" he shrugs. I really am being run ragged." Welcome to the big leagues boyo. Still think you're a contender? Well, if you wanna be the next action hero, there's a lot you gotta learn, a lot to overcome. The modern day action hero has unseen enemies everywhere: commitment, boredom and, of course, f***ing great big tigers....

"The tiger scenes are the most vivid" enthuses Crowe of his part in Gladiator's most memorable sequence, a Coloseum clash starring two fighters and four Bengal tigers. "The pleasure I had from being right next to these huge beasts that if they really wanted to, could put you away." Pleasure? Russell Crowe is relaxing in a small bar (The TexMex), sucking on a Aussie beer (VB,of which more later), after another day's graft, and has nothing but praise for his stripy co-stars. "They are such magnificent creatures that I get drawn to them. I found that with the lions in Morocco as well. A lot of animals, you look 'em in the eye and they're just looking at you and don't appear to be that cognizant of things, but the lion and the tiger are such highly super-charged hunting beasts, they're aware of everything." Super-charged hunting beasts? That doesn't sound like the kind of thing you want to go picking a fight with. "It was cool", he laughs. "That sounds really dumb, 'It was cool'. But it was really a visceral kind of experience, it was full on. They could have used a stand-in - the tiger sequence is very complicated and not everything in that sequence I did, no way - but I got to do a couple of things where I hit the deck and the ground under me opened and the tiger comes at me. And that's me and the cat." He smiles.

Action heroes, of course, hate using stand-ins.

Months before Russell went toe to claw with the big cats, he had a more basic obstacle to overcome: commitment. As a serious (soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated) actor, the idea of becoming an action hero in a  full blooded Roman epic, even one directed by Ridley Scott, must have seemed like, well, a bit of a joke. "Immediately George (Freeman, Crowe's agent) says, 'It's a gladiator movie,' the first thing you do is laugh. 'As if I'm ever going to be in a gladiator film,'"confirms Crowe. "But if you go back to 40 years ago, man, if you hadn't done a gladiator movie and a couple of westerns and
played a pirate and stuff like that, you really weren't on the gig, you weren't acting." This is a critical point. For Crowe to be the next action hero, he can only do it by turning the clock back 40 years; he owes nothing to the Stallone-Schwarzenegger axis which dominated the high concept 80s. He is not bullet-proof, or steroid stacked. Where Van Damme was groomed and greasy, Crowe is grit and grime. It is obvious talking to the 36-year-old Crowe where his allegiances lie - he had no interest in what he calls the "bang-bang sci-fi stuff" he is typically offered. He has no interest in squaring up against Steven Seagal. His roots, like the movie's itself, are older. "To play a Roman general from both sides (leader and slave), so it's not just the Spartacus story, - and it's not Ben Hur, it's kind of both" - this is what turns Crowe on. In his own mind, for Crowe to measure up as an action hero, he must take on the really big guys, Douglas and Heston. The next action hero, ladies and gentlemen, is a throwback. However, before Russell Crowe could even strap on his sandals, he had to settle down and read the script, a task which becomes infinitely more difficult when you are buried deep in the very non-action hero character of Jeffrey Wigand of The Insider. "They called me a lot and tried to get me to
read the script, but it was like, I was in the middle of a very intense and engaging job." recalls Crowe, "and it was actually Michael Mann (director of Insider) who got me to read the script. He must have been told by somebody that I was refusing to read the script, because he came into my trailer one day and said,'You should take this Ridley Scott thing a bit more seriously,' and I said, "Why is that?" And he said 'It's my belief that Ridley Scott is in the top two percent of shooters who ever existed in the history of cinema', and I said 'Okey-dokey', and I read the script.. Break time'

RUSSELL VS. BOREDOM: "I don't like f***ing about and I don't like waiting about" says Russell Crowe. Boredom is the unseen enemy of the modern action hero. Always a showman, Crowe is happiest when playing to the gallery. "When you roll out of the way of the tiger and 1800 people go 'Ohhhh!' immediately; if you do it for real it's kind of cool. so in a way, it's like theatre." Away from the "instant buzz" of coloseum sports, Crowe is a restless sort. On rare days off, whilst others might take a well-earned break and put their feet up and watch the telly, he has to be out an about making sure that the morale of the troops - "This is the best f***ing crew I've ever worked with, bar none" - is high. Even it if means playing the "girls' game" with them.   "Yes, I've been out there on the field running around with those silly little shorts and playing the girls' game," smirks Crowe, "because I really enjoy the company of the people that I work with." For those in any doubt, the "girls' game" Russell is referring to is football, or "soccer" as he insists on calling it. 

To build the spirit of the "army", as the Gladiator crew has been affectionately nicknamed, Crowe organized a four-team soccer tournament and - despite protests from worried suits - got in amongst the thick of it. "They didn't mind me wrestling with four tigers, but seemed to object to me having a Sunday morning kickabout. Very strange," notes Russell.

Although Rugby League is his preferred game, despite Crowe's scoffing, he's actually quite a soccer fan. In fact, on one memorable night last May, during the Gladiator shoot in Malta, he was happily putting bets on Manchester United to win the European Cup. Even when, minutes to go, United were 1-0 down to Bayern Munich, he was still shouting the odds and taking wagers. When United scored two brilliant goals in the dying seconds, Crowe was up on a table, dancing in delight and spraying his co-drinkers with beer.

All action heroes need to blow off steam, and sometimes soccer is simply not enough. Today, for instance, we are sat in Crowe's favourite Maltese bar, the aforementioned TexMex, where they have a stack of VBs in the freezer, Now VBs can be a little hard to find on Malta - read, damn near impossible - so he has them flown in from London. Yes, he likes a beer does Mr. Crowe, but it has to the The Right Beer. "People say I'm crazy, but actually I'm only crazy in a certain way," he comments enigmatically. "And if you don't understand where I'm coming from, then you're never going to get
me". As a matter of fact, reputation or not, it seems the craziest thing that Crowe could do is admit his true after hours passion. A musician since the age of ten, Crowe is aware that in his native Australia, his band, TOFOG, is seen as a vanity project. "When people know I'm in a band, suddenly they think I'm half the actor I was five minutes ago." he grimaces. Crowe won't let it bother him, though. "Music matters", he says, and he plans to record an album in Austin, Texas as soon as his diary opens up. Meanwhile though, crazy Russell Crowe just wants to go home. After his work waging war against the barbarians is done, Maximum wants nothing more than to return to his farm in Spain. Russell can sympathize. After all, there's "a lot of things to do" on Crowe's own, ever expanding farm, where is mother Jocelyn, dad, Alex, and older brother, Terry, live full time, but he only gets to see in between shoots. "We've done a boundary adjustment and I've got some more land. Instead of going for a 45 minute walk, you could go on for five hours now. I think in a funny sort of way it's like I'm buying an island. Somewhere in the middle of that place I can find somewhere to be by myself and have a cup of tea."

At the end of the day, a five hour hike and a nice cuppa - no more, no less, than the next action hero deserves.

~article most impressively typed by Cindy