With a string of hugely successful movies, two beautiful children and a champion football team under his belt, Russell Crowe, 50, is now trying his hand at directing. Sarah Saunders has a chat and finds him candid, charming and passionate.
I’m at a Gold Coast movie convention, as one of only two media outlets granted an interview with Russell Crowe who has flown in to promote his new film The Water Diviner.
I’ve been waiting an hour-and-a-half for the Foxtel crew to wind up, and the publicity girls are nervously checking their watches as the shadows lengthen.
“He’s flying back home to Sydney this afternoon,” one explains.
“What time is his flight?” I ask.
They look at me as if I should know. “He’s got his own plane”.
Ah, that’s right. It’s easy to forget that Russell - who hangs out at rugby league games in trackies, and whose reputation for brawling earned him a spot on the American cartoon South Park some years ago - is a MEGA movie star.
All up, without sequels or franchises, Crowe’s films are said to have raked in almost $4 billion at the box office and attracted a string of Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations and awards. Think Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider, Cinderella Man and American Gangster. Even blockbuster film director Ridley Scott described him as one of the world’s top three actors, in an interview with 50 something.
At home, this father of two is respected for putting his own money, time and effort into one of Australia’s founding rugby league clubs, the South Sydney Rabbitohs (est. 1908) as it teetered on the brink of collapse. Eight years later it sits at the very top of the league ladder following its first grand final win in four decades.
Now, as Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with The Water Diviner this Christmas, the question on everyone’s lips is: Just how far does Russell’s Midas touch reach?
Tell us about The Water Diviner.
The movie is set mainly in 1919. It’s about a father who has waved off three sons to war, and all three get shot on the same day in August 1915, the Battle of Lone Pine. The grief drives his wife insane. So he finds himself alone and he decides to fulfill a promise, to go across the world and retrieve the bones of his sons.
What were the challenges of being on the other side of the camera?
It was a very natural, easy transition. I first started working in front of the camera in 1970 at the age of 6, I’ve played leading roles in feature films for 25 years and I’ve worked with many directors from Ridley Scott to Peter Weir and Michael Mann. I know the language that actors require to be spoken in; I know the language that film crews talk in. I’ve been on so many film sets, in so many situations and part of so much problem-solving that it’s the time for me to do this sort of thing now.
What are the lessons from Gallipoli and are they just as relevant today?
Gallipoli is a big part of our culture. I’m as proud as the next person of the sacrifices made on our behalf back then but I look at it now – I’m 50 years old, I have two sons of my own, and would I be the man who pats his kids on their backs and encourages them to go off to war? I’m afraid I’m not that person. The romance goes out of war the moment you step on the battlefield. The Water Diviner is unapologetically anti-war. Pro-Australian. Anti-war.
You have an incredible body of work. What are you most proud of?
In terms of complete movies, my favourites would be Cinderella Man and A Beautiful Mind.
But in terms of movies I’ve enjoyed making, I love being on sets with Ridley Scott. I’ve worked with him five times and I’d do it 50 times more. I love being his lieutenant on a film, I love solving problems with him and I love sitting back at the end of the day and laughing about how ridiculously difficult something we just achieved was. He’s a great artist. It’s like holding the paints for Titian. When he says: “We need more blue in in here”, I say “Yeah, I can do that for you mate!”
But really in my life, I’m most proud of my children. They make me happy in a deeper place, far more than anything I’ve done in a film.
If your sons [now aged 10 and 7] wanted to act, what advice would you give them?
They both want to. But we have a policy, Danielle and I, where if it’s really important to them, it will still be important to them when they’re older. I also want them to see it as a calling. Not just something they can do. The other day, my eldest said: “The thing is dad, I’ve got this thing I could do, and this thing I could do, but you know, I’m lucky because I’ve always got acting to fall back on”. I was like, you really have no idea how that quite works!
A Sydney newspaper noted that following the Rabbitohs’ 2014 grand final win you let the players take the glory alone, despite your role in the club’s survival. The sense is you’ve mellowed, left that bad boy reputation behind and finally come home.
Funnily enough, I never really left. I’m not one of those people that went over there and became a pseudo American. I’ve always been of the mindset that this is where I live and I commute. Sometimes it’s a particularly long commute but I’ve never wanted to lose touch with my home base. I know a lot of people who’ve gone over to Los Angeles and they’ve stayed and settled down, and I can see that in their work. I never wanted to be that actor.
You know you’re getting somewhere in Australia when every man and his dog calls you by the same nickname. So I’m Rusty to everybody whether they know me or not. Nobody’s ever asked me, but I hate that name. But now it brings a smile to my face when people say it.
Part of that whole bad boy reputation thing is that I wouldn’t fill in the gaps for people. I would do my work and I would do the press required for my job and then I’d come home and live a very private life. But there’s a demand for stories and when you’re not going to help them, they make them up. In England they printed that I’d rung the Australian Museum and told them I’d donate my brain upon my death to science so it could be examined. The English loved that one.
You turned 50 this year. Did you celebrate?
Not really. I was working in Pittsburg, it was a wet night and a couple of friends flew in without telling me they were coming. We found a Mexican restaurant. The guys who had come to visit me were both musicians so they put on a bit of a show for the restaurant staff. Then I went home early and got up for work the next day.
And life just goes on…
Yeah, at some point, when I’ve got my family around me, we might dedicate a night to marking it. But I’ve just never been good with birthdays. I don’t care. In fact, up until 47 I was completely happy with my age. When I turned 48, I looked at it on a piece of paper and went: “Ooh that looks lumpy”. 47 had a bit a swing to it. But 48 looked lumpy so now I care even less about birthdays.
What does the Rabbitohs’ win this year mean to you?
A large part of the whole adventure with South Sydney was to bring the club back to what it meant to me when I was a kid. When I was 7 years old they won the grand final and I remember feeling more confident about my own crazy dreams because my local football team were the champions. If you’d asked me then when I was 7, would it be 43 years between then and the next time, that would have been inconceivable to me.
Here’s this team who were not only down on their luck, they were thrown out of the competition… and they came back, and they came last, three times in four seasons.
I said at the time to Peter Holmes a Court: “This will be a thankless task. But the difference we could make in this community will be vast if we can start turning this team from being hopeless into being competitive; from competitive to dominant; and, all the gods willing, into champions”.
Over the course of the nine years, as we re-set the new club, we also set what the club meant in the community. We started a charity called Souths Cares. We have a range of programs where we focus mainly on helping kids complete their education and indigenous kids compete in the workforce.
In 2006 when we took over we only had 3,000 members – we now have 30,000. On grand final night 83,833 attended, a record for ANZ stadium in that configuration; and 4.65 million watched on TV - one million more than the AFL.
You were born in New Zealand and spent some of your childhood there…
I got to Sydney in 1968, when I was four.
So, Bledisloe Cup – who do you back?
I still go for the All Blacks. It’s terrible isn’t it! I have great affection for the Wallabies, and I always wish them success but following the All Blacks goes back to an 8 inch, black-and-white TV screen and my dad waking me up at 2 o’clock in the morning to sit with him under a blanket, have a cup of tea and watch a football game.
How will you spend Christmas?
Christmas day will probably be in Sydney. But as soon as I get time I’ll go to the bush. It’s the single great joy of my life outside my kids.
The Water Diviner opens in Australian cinemas on 26 December.
This article was originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 edition of 50 something magazine.