OPEN­ING A NEW DOOR

Rus­sell Crowe doesn’t care about his ornery im­age, but he cares much about ‘The Wa­ter Diviner,’ his di­rec­to­rial de­but

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - BY JOSH ROT­TEN­BERG

A movie star whose films have taken in nearly $4 bil­lion glob­ally at the box of­fice can travel around any way they please — limou­sine, pri­vate he­li­copter, jewel-en­crusted rick­shaw — but Rus­sell Crowe gets a spe­cial charge out of ped­al­ing him­self through the busy streets of Los An­ge­les. “Peo­ple ex­pect you to get out of their way, but it’s not as bad as Lon­don or Paris,” he said on a re­cent af­ter­noon af­ter park­ing his bike at a West Hol­ly­wood cafe. “When I’m shoot­ing here, quite of­ten I’ll ride to the set ev­ery day.”

Clad in a black track­suit and wrap­around sun­glasses, his beard f lecked with gray, Crowe sat down at an out­side ta­ble and or­dered a Flat White with two shots of espresso. He nor­mally drinks tea, he ex­plained, and has even de­vel­oped a hobby col­lect­ing coro­na­tion tea cups (“I’m cur­rently look­ing for a Queen Vic­to­ria if you get a tip,” he said). But, feel­ing jet-lagged from a flight from Europe, he needed the ex­tra pick-me-up. “I’ve been run­ning on con­stant adren­a­line,” he said, pulling a cig­a­rette out of a pack.

For weeks, Crowe, 51, has been hop­ping around the globe vir­tu­ally non­stop — Australia, Turkey, South Korea, Ire­land, Eng­land, France, Spain — drum­ming up pub­lic­ity for his

di­rec­to­rial de­but, “The Wa­ter Diviner.” The ac­tor stars in the sweep­ing pe­riod drama — fi­nanced by Aus­tralian back­ers and filmed in Australia and Turkey — as a griev­ing wid­ower who trav­els from his farm in the Out­back to Istanbul to find the bod­ies of his three sons who were killed in World War I’s bloody Battle of Gal­lipoli and un­ex­pect­edly finds him­self fall­ing in love with a Turk­ish woman (Olga Kurylenko).

The film, which hits the­aters Fri­day, has al­ready proven a ma­jor hit in Australia, where the his­tory of the Gal­lipoli cam­paign — which re­sulted in hun­dreds of thou­sands of ca­su­al­ties on all sides — re­ver­ber­ates a cen­tury later. Though a hand­ful of crit­ics have deemed the film overly sen­ti­men­tal, re­views have been gen­er­ally pos­i­tive. Still, in places like Amer­ica, where the his­tory of Gal­lipoli is less well known, Crowe knows the film could be a harder sell. “It’s a lit­tle in­de­pen­dent film, so the way to get it talked about is to talk about it,” he said.

In per­son, as on-screen, Crowe projects a kind of sil­ver­back self-con­fi­dence and, coro­na­tion tea cups notwith­stand­ing, an old-school machismo. In the nearly 20 years since he broke out in 1997’s “L.A. Con­fi­den­tial,” he’s had mas­sive hits and been nom­i­nated for an Os­car three times — for “The In­sider,” “Glad­i­a­tor,” for which he won lead ac­tor, and “A Beau­ti­ful Mind.”

He’s also had his share of flops and earned a rep­u­ta­tion for throw­ing around his un­var­nished opin­ions — not to men­tion his fists and, in one no­to­ri­ous 2005 in­ci­dent, a tele­phone.

To an un­usual de­gree in an in­dus­try fu­eled by ado­ra­tion, Crowe seems not to care how he’s per­ceived. “I never have — that’s one of the prob­lems be­cause you tend to walk into the same thing over and over again if you don’t give a ... as much as I don’t give a ...,” he said, us­ing a salty word.

Still, “The Wa­ter Diviner” is a pas­sion project for Crowe, and he does care deeply what peo­ple think of it. Like many stars from Clint East­wood to Jodie Foster to Ben Af­fleck, he has long har­bored am­bi­tions of step­ping be­hind the cam­era. “I’m very com­fort­able with ev­ery cre­ative de­ci­sion be­ing mine — I know that doesn’t sur­prise you,” he said dryly. Now that he’s had a taste of call­ing the shots, he needs the film to per­form well so he can con­tinue down that road.

In his mind, the stakes couldn’t be much higher. “It’s a mas­sive risk,” he said. “It’s the op­por­tu­nity to buy my own free­dom. I used to think I had a great job, but then I did this and now I know there’s this other world that I need to keep ex­plor­ing in or­der to sat­isfy me. If it doesn’t work, I’m stuck in limbo be­tween the things I need to do to grease the wheels of my life and the things I want to do. It’s a gi­gan­tic gam­ble.”

He al­most di­rected be­fore

Crowe first came close to di­rect­ing a fea­ture more than a decade ago, as he rode the wave of post-“Glad­i­a­tor” suc­cess. But he ul­ti­mately de­cided to let that op­por­tu­nity pass. “It was a lit­tle ur­ban thing,” he said. “I was in the mid­dle of be­ing a re­ally fa­mous bas­tard and it was al­most handed to me as a pat on the back. It didn’t feel right.”

When the script for “The Wa­ter Diviner” by An­drew Knight and An­drew Anas­ta­sios crossed his path a few years ago, it res­onated with him deeply as a nearly life­long Aus­tralian (Crowe was born in New Zealand) and a fa­ther of two young sons (he is di­vorced from singer-song­writer Danielle Spencer). “In Australia, in­for­ma­tion about Gal­lipoli is tat­tooed on the in­side of your eye­lids when you’re a child,” he said. “You’re very close to it cul­tur­ally. But here was the op­por­tu­nity to put in front of peo­ple a per­spec­tive on it they’ve never ac­tu­ally con­sid­ered, to show the other side’s point of view in this con­flict. Here’s an op­por­tu­nity to open peo­ple’s hearts a lit­tle more.”

A be­liever in rig­or­ous prepa­ra­tion, Crowe put his ac­tors through a pre­pro­duc­tion boot camp that in­cluded horse­back rid­ing, mil­i­tary-style train­ing and lec­tures on his­tory, and held his cast and crew to a high stan­dard through­out shoot­ing. But Kurylenko said Crowe — who owns a cham­pi­onship-win­ning Aus­tralian rugby team and is de­vel­op­ing plans to bring the sport to Las Ve­gas — was an inspiring leader, not a tyran­ni­cal one. “He was in­tense, but in a good way,” she said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m be­ing bul­lied.’ What­ever he wanted, you wanted to give him.”

Writer-direc­tor Shane Black got a glimpse of Crowe’s fer­vent en­thu­si­asm for di­rect­ing when he trav­eled to Australia to woo the ac­tor to star in the up­com­ing ca­per film “The Nice Guys,” due in May 2016.

“I walked in and Rus­sell was cut­ting the pic­ture and he’s like, ‘What do you think of this? Should this shot come first or that one?’” Black re­mem­bered. “He doesn’t do any­thing half­way. This is a guy who, if a nu­clear bomb went off, he’d say, ‘Where’s our cover set?’ The movie is that im­por­tant to him.”

As al­ways, an ac­tor

In the public’s mind, of course, Crowe is still first and fore­most an ac­tor — and in that re­gard as well he finds him­self at some­thing of a cross­roads, an old-fash­ioned al­pha-male movie star in an era in which comic books, YA bestsellers and other pre-sold brands have be­come the coin of the realm.

As Crowe has set­tled into mid­dle age and father­hood, the me­dia’s fo­cus on his rep­u­ta­tion for tru­cu­lence has abated, for which he is grate­ful. “Look, man, I don’t think I han­dled get­ting re­ally fa­mous that well,” he said. “But I don’t blame my­self for that be­cause it’s a very un­usual sit­u­a­tion. I think over time it sort of re­bal­ances it­self. Things are a lot more com­fort­able now. I just did a press tour in the U.K., and I didn’t have one tabloid-y bear-bait­ing ses­sion. If there was a test in­volved, I seem to have passed it. I’m still here.”

But as he gets older, Crowe is also aware that there’s been a shift in the kinds of role he can play. The ac­tor stirred up a mi­nor flap in De­cem­ber when he ap­peared to be crit­i­ciz­ing older ac­tresses who “still want to play the in­genue.” Meryl Streep, for one, came to his de­fense, and he says he is happy to act his age. “There’s a big slice of van­ity in this pro­fes­sion that some peo­ple buy into,” he said. “I’m not try­ing to pre­tend to be some­thing else. The job re­quires you to be where you are and to be com­fort­able in your own skin.”

That’s not to say he rel­ished turn­ing 50. “I re­mem­ber feel­ing that ev­ery age sounded cool up to 47, but 48 sounded lumpy,” he said. “One day my ex-wife and I were com­ing home from a pre­miere and she said to me, ‘It must be very hard for you watch­ing your­self age on-screen.’ I was like, ‘It had never ac­tu­ally oc­curred to me, but thanks for point­ing it out!’ “He shrugged. “It is what it is.”

Mean­while, the ma­jor stu­dios have pulled back on the type of large-scale adult-ori­ented dra­mas that pro­pelled him to fame and to which he is most drawn. Crowe wrapped work last year on the film “Fa­thers and Daugh­ters,” play­ing a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning writer strug­gling with de­pres­sion af­ter the death of his wife. With “The Nice Guys,” in which he co-stars with Ryan Gosling, he will take a turn to­ward the darkly comedic.

“Adult dra­mas don’t oc­cupy the same bud­get range as they used to,” Crowe said. “Those sto­ries are still there, but you’re not go­ing to be get­ting the type of fee you might have got­ten 10 or 15 years ago. You’ve got to be am­bi­tious. You’ve got to go look­ing.”

If there’s been a guiding prin­ci­ple be­hind Crowe’s ca­reer, whether as an ac­tor or now a direc­tor, it’s been to avoid the lure of the easy or well-trod­den path. “I do un­der­stand the com­mer­cial ne­ces­si­ties of the job, but I think pan­der­ing or get­ting into a place where you’re just cre­at­ing a tent pole from el­e­ments — I’m just not in­ter­ested in that sort of stuff,” he said. “The ca­reer-based de­ci­sion is the one that you’ll re­gret. You have to make your de­ci­sions based on what you connect to. Is this thing go­ing to get you up at 4 in the morn­ing with a smile on your face?”

He paused and pulled an­other cig­a­rette out of the pack. “This is what I do, and this is how I do it, and I haven’t changed in 25 years,” he said. “And if you be­lieve I fun­da­men­tally should, I’m very sorry you feel that way, but I’ll just carry on.”

Christina House For The Times

“I USED TO THINK

I had a great job, but then I did this and now I know there’s this other world,” direc­tor Rus­sell Crowe says.

Pho­to­graphs by Mark Rogers Warner Bros

RUS­SELL CROWE works with direc­tor of photography An­drew Les­nie on the set of “The Wa­ter Diviner.”

OLGA KURYLENKO is Ayshe and Rus­sell Crowe di­rects and stars as Joshua Con­nor in the World War I drama “The Wa­ter Diviner.”

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