“People think of Westerns as being quintessentially American,” says New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe. “But they’re quintessentially frontier stories. They’re integral to anywhere with a frontier. Like Australia. I think the Westerns I’ve done could just as easily have happened in Australia.”
Crowe is referring to “3:10 to Yuma,” a remake of a 1957 classic starring Glenn Ford. But he also costarred, before rising to Hollywood superstardom, in “The Quick and the Dead” with Sharon Stone and Leonardo Di Caprio (also not yet an A-list star).
Crowe, now 45, is said to have mellowed, even chastened, in recent years, following widely publicized confrontations — some violent — that many say cost him a second Oscar, when he followed up his winning role in “Gladiator” with “A Beautiful Mind.”
So recently, Crowe has taken second billing to actors like Leonardo Di Caprio and Denzel Washington, and he is said to be in need of a box-office hit. In “3:10” he costars with Christian Bale and Peter Fonda in a tense story about an outlaw (Ben Wada, Crowe’s character) and a rancher/Civil War veteran (Bale) and a group of men caught between lawlessness and justice, which takes time to arrive — and sometimes arrives after locals take matters into their own hands.
“It’s a solid story. It’s got conflict from the get-go,” explains Crowe. “The suspense is real because what the frontier means is not a lot of people, not a lot of administration, you know, cope, judges, authorities in town. Few towns. It’s very solid, and I, um, sometimes get the chance to play a character who goes to extremes, and I enjoy that.”
One has been forewarned not to ask Crowe about his roles as a supporting actor (thus, no jokes about “eating crow”). Nor is an interviewer supposed to refer to, let alone ask for details of, his physical altercations.
Insiders have said, for a few years now, that Russell — born in 1964 — has definitely matured. When he wed longtime girlfriend Danielle Spencer on his 39th birthday, he swore to give up drinking, and has apparently kept his word.
Prior to the wedding, he had a much-gossipped-about affair with costar Meg Ryan that reportedly ended her marriage to actor Dennis Quaid and almost ended Crowe’s relationship with Spencer, a some-time singer. However, the birth of their first child, Charles, cemented their bond, followed in 2006 by son Tennyson.
Crowe jealously guards his private life, but when asked about his ranch near Sydney he allows, “Yeah, home is the place you can go to totally relax. You hang your hat up, put your worries in a drawer.”
Crowe has also apparently learned to keep controversial comments to himself. He gained several enemies in the business when, a few years ago, he again told the media that he looks down on actors who do commercials in addition to their acting jobs. The implication, said showbiz newspaper Variety, was that Crowe considered such stars “cheap or prostituting themselves,” something, it added, “he clearly believes is way beneath him.”
When it’s mentioned in passing that some actors who wouldn’t do TV ads in the United States do them, for considerable profit, in Japan, Crowe grumbles, clears his throat, then briefly snickers. “Yeah, well . . . it’s not just the size of an audience, it’s the fact of having an audience when you pretend to be an expert on a particular product, which as far as I’m concerned is a whole ‘nother field . . . that has nothing to do with acting. But obviously, it’s none of my business.”
Crowe asks what one would like to know about “3:10 to Yuma”?
How does it compare to the 1957 original.
He clears his throat — perhaps a sign of impatience — and states: “I’m not going to be the one to call it a remake. It is based on the same story, same plot, yeah. But it’s not some slavish remake or copy. When it got made that long ago, naturally if you go back to that source, you have to alter it, for the sake of relevance. It’s a whole different audience now.” He pauses, adding, “And Christian Bale is not Glenn Ford.”
“Well, how could he be?” says Crowe after a lengthy pause pregnant with impatience or irritation.
So one asks whether he enjoys acting, since one can’t ask if he enjoys working with his costars. “Of course,” he says. “I am an actor. That’s what I do. Which is not to say that it’s fun-time. Acting is discipline, it is work, it is conditions that are often beyond an actor’s control. And it is giving maximum believability to your character and the sequence of events in which he engages.
“To me, acting is a craft — or whatever word you want to apply — that requires dedication and discipline. It’s more than enough of a career and an art that an actor should stick to acting.”
An article in British “Photoplay” once said that Crowe shouldn’t be asked whether he wants to direct or go into politics, because he might launch into a lengthy speech about why thespians should stick to emoting. In the golden years when Crowe was a box-office champ and Oscar winner and/or nominee, he was noted for giving as few interviews as he could get away with. He explained once that an actor, not being a writer or publicist, is much better at acting on the screen than talking about the finished movie.
He says now: “Somebody once said: ‘If your work speaks for you, don’t interrupt.’ I think that’s a sound philosophy. ‘3:10 to Yuma’ is a very good effort in a genre (Westerns) that’s being revived around the world. It’s also pretty relevant, what with the theme of outlaws and how people trying to be civilized react to an outlaw.”
Russell, who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a high-school dropout, plans to donate his brain to medical science (which has led to some unkind jokes in the media). He notes, “Life itself is the big learning process. You learn through the work you do, and you get better and better at it. I love the moments when my work is a joy to me. If, beyond that, a given film is a popular hit, I’m glad, because: one, it pleases other people, and two, it means I get good offers for desirable future films with desirable salaries.
“It’s not that I’m greedy . . . don’t do commercials, or so forth,” he snickers. “It’s just that as you get more famous, you get more of a probing crowd and a very probing media gathering around you, and it takes a lot of money to be able to buy the kind of privacy you need to guard yourself and your family against that.” Like his ranch, he means.
“Besides, I want to stay focused on acting. This is what I do. I’m proud of it. Proud of my work. Proud of how far I’ve come in it.”
Crowe grew up the son of caterers who provided meals to crews and casts making motion pictures.
“I saw acting and filmmaking since I was a wee nipper. But I wasn’t bitten by the acting bug at a tender age, and my parents didn’t push me into any given field. It’s something I got into later.
“But I can appreciate the labors of hardworking, serious people — blue-collar, white-collar, anyone that scrambles to make a living and feed themselves and their family. I think being serious about your work, doing your very best at it, that is something admirable, and a noble goal.”
How does he like being a father? A long pause, but no throat-clearing. “I learn as I go along. Very, very gratifying. And very, very private. Thanks for asking, though.”
Any message for his fans? “Stick with me, folks. I’m getting better and better. And I’m not just doing it for meself.”
Perhaps for a second Oscar? “No, no, no. Don’t ask that. I act for acting, and for the audience. They’re the final judges, mate. OK? Bye.”
Critic Giovanni Fazio reviews “3:10 to Yuma” on today’s Film page.