CROWE'S FEAT, From May 2000 issue of Flaunt Magazine
by Shari Roman
~photos by Anthony Mandler


Watching Russell Crowe, you feel at any moment he may do something utterly unpredictable, possibly apocalyptic. The tiger's paw may lash out.
His emotional nakedness is unsettling. His essence: complex, moody and turbulent. Where he has played aggressively divisive characters in film as wide-ranging as Romper Stomper, Virtuosity, L.A. Confidential, and his latest, Gladiator, there is a curious preciseness to his willfulness, a fragility to his suffering. Deeper in Crowe's temperament is a vein of self-protective impatience, a ferocious honor and idealism, and an innate dignity that his rougher public persona cannot wholly conceal. When the violence has been moral, and emotional, as in his award-winning performance in The Insider, the possibility of destruction is no less palpable. Whether directed inward towards the soul, or outward towards bodily injury, Crowe willingly hurtles into the abyss, throwing his fate over to destiny.
In Los Angeles, just over a month ago for the Academy Awards, the 36-year old actor bucked the glamorama, looking every inch the cowboy Everyman. As points on a map, California is at a great remove from Crowe's Australian homeland, a working farm seven hours north of the cosmopolitan hurly-burly of Sydney. As a state of mind, Hollywood is a paradigm shift from the 560 acres down under where Crowe retreats to ride horses, herd his cattle, and visit his mother and father, and elder brother. Presently encased in that alternate reality, a sleek black towncar, he is motoring slowly to another hotel, another anonymous room to enjoy and forget.
Even removed from his native environment, Crowe's physical presence remains an unspoken power. Wearing Levi's, sunglasses, hair freshly clipped, and strong forearms visible below the rolled up sleeves of a well-worn flannel shirt, he could be your favorite neighbor or friend, the guy who shows you how to jump start your car, put up your bookshelves. The one who makes you flinch by speaking the truth.
Fatigued from a lengthy plane ride, and a long night of chain-smoking and conversations, Crowe is not in a great mood. He's out of cigarettes and clearly out of small talk, except when it come to his towheaded 12-year old niece in the front seat. He teases her with a vast array of loud noises, funny accents, and scary faces. Decidedly unimpressed, she responds in graceful preteen style by rolling her eyes, burrowing into her seat, and sucking loudly on her Big Gulp. Uncle Russell shifts his attention outside the car window and visibly perks up, a huge grin spreading across his face. "It must be love, people!" he roars at a young couple lustily battling it out on the sidewalk; then silent again, he watches as their elapsing bodies retreat into the afternoon light.
factsFLAUNT3.jpg (13875 bytes)If in The Insider Crowe seemed to disappear into the paunchy, 50-something scientist (the added girth achieved via a concentrated diet of bourbon and cheeseburgers), in Gladiator, a $100 million take on the bloody Roman Empire directed by Ridley Scott (whom Crowe admiringly dubs a cinematic "Dutch Master") he has subsumed a mythic killing machine, a brawny warrior whose convictions are tightly wound into an unwieldy buckle of honor, hatred and fealty.

In our heroes we look for perfection, but in the icons we adore, it's their flaws that we cherish the most. Visioned thus, Crowe could be an archetype for us all. Spiting the smoothing glare of celebrity and lacking the thick skin of conformity beneath which most of us bandage our most embarrassing impulses, he's occasionally set up by the media as a stripped-down, cocky hard case- a no-nonsense Clint Eastwood.Jimmy Cagney/Spencer Tracy amalgam who'd deck you just as soon as look at you. He is fully capable of a opaque state that can rattle your neurons. Then there's the voice, a heated musical rumble that could caution a running horse at thirty yards, reign in audiences on a thousand screens, or dare a woman across a crowded room.
He is aware, at times, that people find him a bit prickly because he tells you what he thinks. This characteristic clarity, he notes coolly, "is not an effort. People ask me questions. I give them answers. It's pretty simple." He add, " A lot of the time I think people want to be intimidated. They want some kind of preconceived experience that has nothing to do with who I really am. I mean, sometimes I'm doing nothing more than scratching my nose and they take that some kind of hugely vigorous physical act."
Crowe's grandfather was a cinematographer, and his great-grandmother was of the Maori tribe. His dad did a spell as a hotel manager at a colorful spot nicknamed "The Flying Jug" because of its rowdy brawls, and both parents catered film and TV productions, which is how, at six years of age, the star-struck youngster got his start. Crowe continued to work in television before he proved his mettle in early films such as The Sum of Us (playing a gay plumber) and the aforementioned Romper Stomper (as the skinhead leader of a gang of Neo-Nazis). In his late teens he began singing and swiveling his hips in local stage productions of Grease and The Rocky Horror Show, corseted, "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania," Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Russell Crowe, chorus boy?
"When I was a little fella," he begins, in that once-upon-a-time kind of way, "my dad taught me how to dance. My folks went to one of those dine and dance places which were very popular at the time, and every now and then my dad would walk me around the floor. I know it's supposed to be a 'non-masculine pastime,' but having that sense of rhythm can help you in different ways. You can shift your internal beat to adapt to where you are and what you need to do, practical things like fight routines, blocking a scene....sitting in as a drummer with my band." He laughs, adding, "I used to get into musicals because nobody would take me seriously as an actor." At the time, playing in Rocky Horror was one of the choicest opportunities Crowe could imagine, but that's in the past. "These days," he says, "because they often cast 'celebrities' in the roles, the real sexuality of the show tends to dissipate into innuendo and crotch-scratching. It used to be recognized as a cutting edge piece that crossed certain boundaries and gave audiences a larger view of what sexuality really was, or could be. That one and one can sometimes equal three."
Or, he adds, sometimes just an old fashioned two. "There is this amazing thing that my mum and dad do when the right song is on. They dance, but it's more than that. It's a communication you can only achieve when you've been married 38 years. They just focus into it... it's a fantastic thing to watch.

factsFLAUNT2.jpg (14204 bytes)Days later he is far from that familial solidity in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, shooting Proof of Life opposite Meg Ryan. The film follows the true-life exploits of a corporate insurance negotiator who handles the kidnapping and ransom demands of South American terrorists. The on-site location is a notorious transit point for illicit narcotic traffic and money laundering, rising nearly 11 thousand feet above sea level, plateaued on the inter-Andean central highlands. Its famed Mount Chimborazo, at 21.5 miles above sea level, is one of the highest points in the world. Not surprisingly, says Crowe, "the altitude sickness can hit pretty hard. Eighteen people have already gone home. One guy is in the hospital for a blocked artery." Recently, massive downpours caused another series of landslides which split the second unit team in half.
And how's Crowe doing? "Tell everyone," he purrs, "I am becoming the Salsa King of Quito!" His birthday is tomorrow; it's been a tough few days, and to relax the other night, he says, he and a couple of mates went over to a local artists cafe. At the end of the evening, he says exultingly, "they put on some really magnificent local music and we all started dancing. I had a dance with a barmaid, she was about a 55-year old lady, and after dancing 15 minutes or so, she sat down at the bar and made one of those very theatrical fanning movements with her hand, flipping her hair back and letting the perspiration course down her neck." Crowe pauses, affecting a languid Ricardo Montalban accent. "She said, 'That man is a verrrry good dancer." He laughs. "Hey, I was just improving on all those moves I learned from Grease."
And as far as the continuing in-country dangers? He hesitates. "They're still there. The armed men on the every street, inside every business, outside every bank, and on the set, "enough discreet guardsmen to impress the Secret Service. When he goes out for a walk, there's always somebody nearby to watch over him. "It's not like he walks behind me or anything. He's a good guy. A former New Zealand regiment fella. Same canoe as far as tribal heritage. But it's smart having him around. I guess," he remarks dryly, "they just want to protect their interests." And if they want to come dancing, they too are very welcome.
Today we are in Los Angeles standing on the hotel balcony with a 180 degree view of the Tinseltown topography. Crowe's face lights up, two fingers jab towards some finite point. Not so far in the distance looms his Gladiator billboard, a sepia-toned monolith one hundred feet high, ruling the Sunset Strip. Squaring off against his alter ego, voice dropping to a playful basso profundo, he growls out the picture's tagline, "A hero...will rise."
He laughs and begins a personal decree. "I prefer engaging in life rather than observing it. Get involved! Get it all over you." And Crowe prefers full immersion. In the Northern territory that the actor calls home, there is no highway speed limit. During one holiday, he gathered up his mates for a road-burning, ass-grinding, three week, four thousand mile motorcycle trek. To relax, he herds his cattle, giving nicknames to the ones he develops a soft spot for. Crowe also puts his big-figure paycheck back into the land. Among other things, he is reforesting his property with 80 acres of hardwood. His favorite part of the world, he says, is "down by the main back paddock of my place. There are these two silky oak trees."
He recites a poem he always keeps in mind, a standard from "Clancy of the Overflow," (the Overflow being an area in Western Queensland):

"And the bush has friends to meet him/and the kindly voices greet him/and the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars/and I have seen the vision splendid/of the sunlit plains extended/and at night the wondrous glories of the everlasting stars"

Home is also a tangible reminder wrapped around his waist: a burly leather hobble belt, with a small knife pouched into the side. "We have much larger paddocks than your average country," the actor/rancher relates. "Eighty 120-acre paddocks on mine....and if you have to get off your horse to help a cow while she's giving birth...or to check that the buffalo fly drenches have taken hold and all that kind of stuff."
He gauges the distance between us, then slowly unbuckles his belt, sliding it out of its loops. He gently drops to his knees at my feet. Taking the belt, he forms a loose figure-eight interlock around my ankles, then buckles the opposing ends.I look down, Crowe leans back on his heels and looks up. "When you hobble a horse, he can't gallop, but he can still move. If he really tries he can get about a half-mile away. But mostly, he goes, 'Ah screw it, I'll just stay here and wait."
factsFLAUNT4.jpg (16392 bytes)I've been humbled by many interviews, but never hobbled, and that's only a minor achievement for Crowe. In Gladiator, he tangles with an eye-popping genre spectacle that reinvents the early Christian epoch. With chariot races, bloodsports, and the rampaging forces of nature, this is a fever-dream commingling of spaghetti western, Ben-Hur, Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia quadrangled into a brutal extravaganza, both gorgeous to the eye and wrenching to the soul. Even the characters were born to have exclamation points struck after their names. Joaquin Phoenix plays the twisted young Emperor, beauteous Connie Nielsen is his steely sister, Derek Jacobi a savvy Roman senator, (the late) Oliver Reed portrays the cruel gladiator trainer, and Djimon Hounsou a noble fellow slave. Crowe is the picture's centrifugal force-Maximus Decimus Meridius-a super-glandular moniker for the Roman general who is forced into slavery only to reemerge as the fierce title character, who then exacts revenge on his tormentors.
Crowe spent months in Morocco and Malta learning the art of war, buffeted by wind storms, stuffed in heavy armor, splitting skulls, and wielding real metal swords. In the pursuit of excellence, he also cracked a bone in his foot and fractured his right hip. There's a Gladiator scene in which tigers leap at his throat, and when Crowe wrestles them to the ground, the viewer worries a bit for the poor cats. "That's just a trick," he yawns. "That's the easy stuff. When they decided to do stuff on their own, that's when you have a problem."
After Proof of Life and prior to metamorphosing into a love-struck circus freak for director Jodie Foster's Flora Plum in the fall, Crowe will plant himself in Austin, Texas, for two blissful months to soak up sound, gig in local clubs, and record a new album with his longtime rock band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts, a.k.a. TOFOG. Now a six-man outfit, Crowe formed the band more than a decade ago-way before his film career took off-with high school buddy Dean Cochrane. (You can find them on the internet at
Admittedly, Crowe is driving himself rather hard, "but this is just one of those periods when it's best to stay up a little later," he says, prowling the hotel balcony's parameters. "Enjoy life a little longer," he adds. "Why not? Next thing you know, I'll be doing 14, 15 hour days. When you get more responsibility, it takes up more time, and I tend to work with fellas who hire me because they want me to become an expert in that particular role...almost like kind of spelling checker. If there's anything wrong, the really smart ones, like Curtis Hanson (LAC) or Michael Mann (Insider), want you to bring it up before you start shooting, and I don't mind, so long as it makes the thing better. Some actors don't like to get found out, but I prefer it prior to the cameras rolling, because none of it counts. It only matters what the finished product is."
In the living room, his niece is curled up reading a magazine. There is a guitar leaning on a chair. Breakfast leftovers are still on the table. Every inanimate object in open sight has been handled, tossed, or rumpled. "Do you want to hear some music?" Crowe rumbles cheerfully from the bedroom. "I travel with one bag full of books...the other bag full of clothes," he says, rummaging through another one of his bags, stuffed with cassettes, looking for a demo tape of songs that TOFOG recently recorded. An old sunglass case contains his collection of crosses and religious medallions which people have given him over the years. One of which is a seventeenth century wooden Jesuit priest's cross. When traveling, he will search his suitcases to find the case, then pick it up and shake it, reassured by the sound.
factsFLAUNT5.jpg (13502 bytes)The talk turns to music. "Patsy Cline," he declares unequivocally, when I ask him to name his favorite Country-Western singer. "I also really like (slide guitar master) Junior Brown. He's f---in great." Crowe thumps another cassette into the stereo. "I can't wait to get to Austin, Texas again. I've only been there for a short time, but when I'm there, there's five or six bands to see every night. And Austin," he promises tantalizingly, "is where the band and I plan to create some absolute mayhem." He turns up the volume on the stereo. Though he has said, self-disparagingly, that he "sucks as a singer," and has reminded me several times that this is only a demo, the band sounds tight and he has a rather good voice. "I'm never going to be a really great singer," downplaying his passion, "but that doesn't bother me. The story is what I'm all about...the funny thing is, I'm starting to sound like I was trying to sound when I was 16, 17 years old. My voice is getting closer to the intention of the lyrics." The next tune is more mellow. "Breathe in, don't sigh..." his husky voice croons. "It's a good piece of advice, aye?" he queries over the music. "Honestly it's the best advice I ever got. Breathe in more than you breathe out," he adds, eyes aglow. "People get so exasperated with life. They won't let things just happen.
"This isn't a convenient job, by any means," he continues. "The business isn't constructed to go on hold, and for me, it's been one of those years where many things that I want to do converge. Still, he asserts, "A little insanity is good for clarity, don't you think? You have to deal with what comes up. You have to think about things learn to talk to your own heart. I do it all the time. If I can' the hell is someone else supposed to?"
From the balcony outpost, Crowe spots a close friend walking towards the hotel 15 stories below. H whistles to him, sweet and low. His mate looks up instantly, waving a pack of cigarettes meaningfully. "We've been doing that a long time, he says companionably as his friend disappears into the building."If we're in a room somewhere and we want to talk...or when I'm working the horse in the bush, working with cattle, it's easier than calling out. If you call out, you'll interrupt what the dogs are doing, but a whistle...a whistle can cut through the noise and murmur of a thousand people."
They say when you take on an Australian, you take on a whole continent, and that's a whole lot of terrain to cover. But in that next moment, all we did was stand still with the world spread out beneath us, saying nothing.
It felt very peaceful. Sweet as a biscuit.

~most heroically typed by Big Apple