Sunday 18 March 2018

How Russell Crowe divined his inspiration - the actor on his new lease of life

Making his directorial debut with The Water Diviner has given film star Russell Crowe a new lease of life. He talks about fame, family, owning a rugby club and his late friend Richard Harris

Hilary A White

Russell Crowe is beaming. "I am actually in a very good place. Well geographically," he smiles, looking around his Merrion Hotel suite, "I'm in a wonderful place. Emotionally, intellectually, artistically, I'm in a spectacular place."

You'd be lying if you said this was what you expected from an interview with the Antipodean acting giant, a man who has described promotional duties in the past as being akin to Guantanamo torture techniques. Many journalists have been given short shrift by Crowe during his heyday as one of Hollywood's most in-demand and critically lauded leading men. The Late Late Show audience will even get a taste of this, hours after we meet, during an impromptu musical number.

Yet that Crowe is entirely absent this afternoon. The portly, casually attired man looking back at me and puffing on a Marlboro is enthusiastic and amiable, even if a vague frisson lingers amid the cigarette smoke of professional courtesy that daren't be toyed with.

The reason is The Water Diviner, Crowe's directorial debut and a labour of love that may mark something of a career rebirth for the star whose stock has dipped ever so slightly from the world-conquering, Oscar-courting days of The Insider (1999), Gladiator (2000) and A Beautiful Mind (2001).

Sturdy and handsomely filmed, The Water Diviner is a commendable first outing for the 50-year-old, who helms the story from both behind and in front of the camera. It tells of a water diviner in the red outback of Australia whose sons go off to fight in Gallipoli in 1915. They never return, leading his distraught wife to take her own life four years later. With nothing else to tie him down, he sets off for Turkey to find his sons and bring home their remains.

Crowe has never hidden his solemn reverence for the plight of Anzac soldiers who died in World War One, and has led dawn memorials on set to mark the early morning landing at Gallipoli, a disastrous attempt by the Allies to take the Dardanelles back from the Turks. It's not the only reason, he tells me, that this film has given him a sense of fulfilment like no other.

Richard Harris and Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Crowe says Harris
Richard Harris and Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Crowe says Harris "filled me with a certain type of confidence".

"The desire to be a director and be the one who makes those creative decisions, has been with me for a long time," he says. "I could have done it earlier, particularly when I was extremely famous, but it just felt wrong. When we got this project financed in one meeting, that felt wrong. It said to me that people just wanted to be associated with someone who was famous. But over time things have changed because I'm not in the thick of fame any more. I'm probably able to articulate what it is I'm trying to achieve better than I could as a younger man. I'm able to display a style of leadership that is possibly more effective. And I'm not as easily scarred as when I was younger."

He credits his experience with his pet project as a fortune-changing majority shareholder of rugby league team South Sydney Rabbitohs for feeding into his ability as a team builder on set, and vice versa. "Oh look absolutely," he nods, "but I took that to the Rabbitohs from film. Because I'm asked to be a general of Roman soldiers, and Ridley (Scott, Gladiator director) says 'see these 400 blokes? Any of these guys f**k up, that's your responsibility'. It was the same thing with Peter Weir (who directed Crowe in 2003's Master And Commander...). But what I got out of that situation with South Sydney, and what I'm still getting out of it, is a different understanding of politics, of how to lead people in a way that makes them feel they're not being dictated to. If you've been in something as complex as dragging a football team up off the ground then directing a film feels pretty easy," he proudly concludes.

Ex-Rabbitohs player and current Leinster flyer Ben Te'o will reunite with Crowe at a special Jameson Dublin International Film Festival screening of The Water Diviner later this evening, and while I tell Crowe that he cannot have the centre back just yet, he assures me that it's all part of the plan. "Once you're a South Sydney boy, mate, you're a South Sydney boy for life. Don't' worry about that. That's one of the things we do in South Sydney; we kind of let people know that you can dream as big as you want. I taught Ben and (Bath player and another ex-Rabbitoh) Sam Burgess to lift their heads and open their eyes and go for it."

This love for the oval ball naturally leads us to Limerick legend, Munster fan and Gladiator co-star Richard Harris, who became close to the then-34-year-old Crowe, who thinks about him often, especially when he visits Ireland.

Russell Crowe with his friend Ronan Keating and Storm Uechtritz at the Irish premiere of Noah
Russell Crowe with his friend Ronan Keating and Storm Uechtritz at the Irish premiere of Noah

"He filled me with a certain type of confidence," he frowns, "because when I met Richard I was just about to become extremely famous, but in his imagination I already was, because he'd seen LA Confidential and The Insider. He just made the decision that he was going to be my mate and he was really happy to find out in his own words that that was a worthwhile pursuit. And he told me 'just do what you've been doing. If you start pandering to the audience, you fundamentally change who you are'.

"People cross a certain line of fame," he continues, "and then retaining themselves in that box, with that fee, with these perks, becomes the prime goal of their life. Richard said to me: 'You have to ask yourself in your heart, if somebody said they couldn't pay you, would you still turn up for work?' I said yes. And he said: 'Just be that guy.' I used to make him laugh his head off. Every time I got in trouble, he'd say 'that's my boy!' He was a hellraiser but he was also a very deep and spiritual and soulful man."

Crowe was born in Wellington, New Zealand but has lived most of his life in Australia. He spends much of his time in Coffs Harbour on the east coast, where he owns an Angus cattle ranch. Showbiz was somewhat in his genes, given that his parents Jocelyn and John were film-set caterers. His maternal grandfather, meanwhile, was Stan Wemyss, a Kiwi cinematographer who received an MBE for work undertaken in World War Two.

"He was one of those classic reticent men," Crowe recalls. "You'd ask him about the War and he'd say 'you don't want to know'. And that was the end of the conversation. I went to his house one time, where he used to edit, and I said 'can you show me how to do it?'. And it really broke my heart because he said 'you don't have the patience'. I didn't make a feature film in a lead role until a year after his death, so I wish he'd seen some of things that I'd done so I could show him I do have the patience and the tertiary knowledge and this thing has been my life and I speak his language. My mum said it to me after seeing The Water Diviner, 'I just wish my father could see this.'"

Family clearly means a great deal to him, and while he has spoken of wanting this film to get Australians talking about the loss on the Turkish side of the Gallipoli conflict, he explains that a big motivation of stepping into film-making comes down to his sons Charlie (10) and Tennyson (eight).

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"This is three years of my life devoted to this and it's a big gamble," he stresses. "And if it comes off and I get a commercial result then I've bought my freedom. I'll be able to make another independent film and not have to kowtow to any studio, which buys me more time with my kids. That's a very big part of it."

The bumps and bruises of the action-man younger days are felt more at his current age, but he still feels lucky his body avoided getting "seriously f**ked up". Otherwise, he says, he is the proud owner of "a pure heart and a deep belief" in what he does. Eager to qualify this, he tells me about meeting the cast of Once, the musical, in London while visiting old pal and star Ronan Keating. He relished being able to mentor young actors over dinner the way Harris had done for him, and this he reasons, is one of the best things about approaching the autumn of one's life. "I realised I was in such a lucky position because there's this young heart and I can reach in and touch them the same way Richard did for me," he beams one final time, clearly delighted with himself.

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