Tuesday 24 October 2017

Perfect Match

Russell Crowe and Leonardo diCaprio have both matured into Hollywood heavyweights since they first acted together 13 years ago. Susan Daly goes to LA to meet the co-stars and their Body of Lies director Ridley Scott

Susan Daly

Trust no-one. That's the legend on the publicity poster for Russell Crowe's latest film Body of Lies -- but it could also be the motto for his life. The Antipodean actor has a reputation for being slow to warm up in interviews and quick to anger in situations involving hotel staff and TV producers.

If all the anecdotes are to be believed, Crowe is wary and defensive. You most certainly would not expect to him to be a likeable man.

But like him I do, from the moment he enters the room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in LA and nicknames his greasy long ponytail "the dead koala". He's been growing it "as an experiment" for a part for the past two years since he wrapped up American Gangster, his third film with director Ridley Scott.

Body of Lies -- with Scott at the helm again -- also constitutes another Russell reunion. It is the first time he and Leonardo DiCaprio have shared the screen in well over a decade since 1995 western The Quick and The Dead.

"Do you want the standard joke I have about Leo since I last worked with him?" he asks. "Two major things have changed with Leo since I last worked with him. One, he's not a virgin anymore, and two, he became a pencil case after Titanic."

What?! There are two choices here. Ask Russell what the hell being 'a pencil case' means and risk a withering stare. Or ignore it and hope it's not a red herring he's thrown out to prove to himself that journalists are as stupid as he thinks they are.

I risk the former. Crowe sighs deeply.

"What do I mean by pencil case? Your face literally becomes something that can be bought on a pencil case for $2.99 in Walmart." He laughs. Hallelujah, we're back in business.

It must be something like the relief DiCaprio felt when he met Crowe again for the first time in over a decade -- and passed the test.

To his pleasure, Crowe found Leo unchanged by his Titanic fame. "He still has the same heart, the same sense of humour, engagement to life and to the universe around him. That's a wonderful thing to find out because that doesn't always survive with people in this business."

Half an hour later, DiCaprio replaces Crowe in the same seat and returns the compliment. "Sometimes people do live up to the cliche of that monstrous egomaniacal actor who comes on set and is a prick to everyone. But Russell has still got the same sense of humour he always had. He's intelligent, he's a cool guy to hang out with, he takes his job seriously."

Mutual admiration society aside, it's clear that Crowe and DiCaprio have both come a long way since 1995. At that time, Crowe had cult status in Australia for his starring role in Romper Stomper, about a racist skinhead group in suburban Melbourne. His big Hollywood break as Officer Wendell White in LA Confidential still awaited him.

DiCaprio was the better known of the two, having made his name as a child actor in This Boy's Life, alongside Robert de Niro, and in What's Eating Gilbert Grape as Johnny Depp's mentally handicapped brother.

But for DiCaprio, the madness was only beginning. The year after Quick and the Dead he landed the male lead in Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet. His heart-throb status was confirmed with the highest grossing film of all time, Titanic, and the scary 'Leo-mania' that ensued. Since then he has shied away from reaching such levels of mainstream popularity, carving himself out interesting roles in Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Blood Diamond.

Crowe in the meantime has been lionised by Hollywood, winning an Oscar for Gladiator and being showered with nominations and plaudits for The Insider, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander, Cinderella Man and American Gangster.

In Body of Lies, both men are playing roles that reflect where they are at in their lives. DiCaprio's Roger Ferris is an experienced, if idealistic, CIA field operative trying to reconcile his espionage work with his own moral code. DiCaprio, a committed environmentalist and -- when we speak -- a major player in the Rock the Vote campaign, identified with the fact Ferris is trying to do the right thing.

"He is trying to be the best person he can be, trying not to make promises he can't keep, even though he's dealing with the enemy in a cut-throat environment and he's being constantly pulled both ends of the spectrum," he says. "He's beholden to a higher moral context than his boss would like him to be."

Crowe plays that boss, CIA veteran Ed Hoffman who supervises Ferris via satellite phone from the safety of his Washington DC home. In several chilling scenes, Crowe's arrogant, menacing Hoffman is seen attending to the domestic details of his life -- bringing his young son to the toilet, eating his breakfast, greeting neighbours at a soccer match -- while simultaneously barking extermination orders down the line to Ferris.

"You would hope that someone making decisions of that magnitude would at least be focused, right? He's a multi-tasker," says Crowe.

Russell says he too is a multi-tasker too. "I run a football team, I run a charity for indigenous people attached to that football team, I run a farm, I'm in a band, I'm a father of two, and I make movies. So any given day can be quite an intriguing mix of decisions and information I have to take in."

There's another quintessential Crowe moment in the movie when Hoffman flies in unexpectedly to the Middle East to bulldoze his way through a meeting between Ferris and the head of the Jordanian secret intelligence, superbly played by Mark Strong.

"He's summed up in an odd way," says Crowe. "Ferris is complaining to him about his attitude and his arrogance. Hoffman looks up from under his glasses and it's like he's just heard him, like he's saying: 'Oh you've been talking to me?' He says something like, 'Just flow with me buddy'. As in, this is my job and I'm going to do it whether you like it or the next bloke likes it."

Director Ridley Scott -- who previously worked three times with Crowe in Gladiator, A Good Year and American Gangster -- hints that Crowe takes no prisoners in his work either.

"He's very smart and has his questions and you have to sometimes persuade him and discuss things because he's never a slam-dunk," says Scott, leaning into the tape recorder to reiterate, "EVER."

If Crowe and DiCaprio are the perfect pairing for this film's lead roles, it's because Scott has masterminded it so. Even as he spoke to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about the possibility of optioning his Body of Lies novel, he was already thinking, "'Okay, that's Russell and that's Leo'. They were already in my head".

Few modern directors have traversed genres as frequently or successfully as Scott.

"I didn't make a movie until I was 40 and was very successful as a commercial maker. So by the time I hit The Duellists, I found the experience of making a film easy." The secret to his success? "Experience, experience, experience."

Action sequences on a grand scale are also a calling card of Scott's. In Body of Lies, DiCaprio gets shot at by a missile-laden helicopter, explosions rip through Middle Eastern and European locations. Nothing is simulated, says Scott: "All the master shots are real, the helicopter's windscreen was hit by particles from the exploding car."

More intriguing is the underlying plot of espionage and deceit. David Ignatius was a Middle East correspondent for over 25 years who became fascinated by stories about the Jordanian secret service, the GID, he heard from a former CIA boss. "I want to underline it's a novel and the movie made from it are fiction," he says. "But there are bits that someone in Jordan may see and I hope will smile..."

Scott, DiCaprio and Crowe all insist that this is an espionage thriller, a film without a political agenda, despite the fact that the war on terror is a backdrop. As Crowe concludes: "The reality is that there are no good guys, no bad guys. It's just not that clearly defined."

Body of Lies is out next Friday

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