It was more than a decade ago – in 1995 to be exact – when Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington first worked together and the bond they formed way back then has been strengthened on American Gangster.
A lot has happened since they made the futuristic thriller Virtuosity – not least both winning Academy Awards®, Crowe for Gladiator and Washington for Training Day – but they have stayed in contact and admired each other’s work from a distance.
And Crowe never forgot one night in particular after a long day’s filming on Virtuosity when, over cigars and brandy, the two men had a long chat.
“About half way through the shoot Denzel came to my trailer one night with two cigars and a bottle of cognac,” recalls Crowe. “He knocked on the door and was like ‘shall we have a drink?’ And I was like ‘cool, come on in.’
So we sat there and we were chatting for about half an hour, forty minutes, and I always remembered something he said and for me doing American Gangster is a partial pay back for that.
He sat there and said ‘you know, I’ve never said this to any other actor, but man, I wish I was playing your role. So when I got the American Gangster script I knew how much Denzel wanted to do it because I’d been following it from a distance for a couple of years and seeing the machinations and then saw the production fall apart.”
So they sent me the script and I read it and the thing is, what’s great about it is the character of Frank Lucas – on the page it was Frank and really there wasn’t any other half at that time, there was nothing going on. And that conversation, all those years ago, came to mind because I’m reading it going ‘man, I wish I was playing Frank Lucas!’
So the process of getting involved in this is really a form of repaying him, a certain loyalty from 12 years ago.”
American Gangster is Crowe’s third film with Sir Ridley Scott and there will be more – they are currently filming the thriller Body of Lies and plan to shoot Nottingham next year.
For Crowe, the friendship and close professional association with Scott has come about naturally since they first worked together on Gladiator, a project that would win Crowe his Oscar and also claim the Academy Award ® for Best Film. It was to be six years before they were back together again, on the romantic comedy A Good Year, and the actor believes that maybe they should have been reunited sooner.
“We probably should have done it straight after Gladiator because we knew then that we really enjoyed each other’s company and we enjoyed the way each other works. But I suppose it’s not a usual thing and he went off and did his stuff and I went off and did mine.
He did call me about things, like Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven – I was going to be doing that for a couple of years but it just worked out that Cinderella Man was being shot at the exact same time that he wanted to go with that.
But after that cycle when he did those movies without me around, we just sat down one day and talked and we both came to the conclusion that we liked being on a set with each other. I don’t want to disparage anybody else I’ve ever worked with, but I just really like the way he makes a film.
He has a great respect for the medium and how much it costs. He takes a very working class attitude towards it and I appreciate that and I enjoy it too. I like to get to work and know that we are going to achieve something every day.
Not only achieve something, not only knock over the call sheet but probably go beyond what the call sheet says because we are very fluid together. If something is not working we change it, change it in the moment and trust our instincts about whether things are working or not. I just enjoy his company.
I enjoy the way he thinks. He is one of the great visual artists of our time and I’m really lucky that he happens to think that what I do suits him, so it’s great.”
Crowe’s fascination with American Gangster, which is based on a true story, is partly, he says, with finding out what happens when two vastly different worlds collide. In this case, the criminal world of Frank Lucas, a millionaire drugs baron who ruled the streets of Harlem through a heady mixture of enterprise, cunning and fear, and the cop assigned to head the team that hunts him down, Detective Richie Roberts.
At the time, Roberts was not only battling to roll up a massive drugs operation, but fighting an enemy within – police corruption was rife and many officers were taking bribes from Lucas.
It’s not the first time that Crowe has successfully played a real character of course – he played the late boxer James Braddock in Cinderella Man, the troubled mathematical genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and tobacco industry whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider.
He built up his portrayal of Richie Roberts after several meetings with the man himself. Roberts was an absorbing subject for the actor to study, he says.
“Richie’s had a fascinating life. He was a Marine, and then he got seconded to work with the Israeli police force, busting hash dealers on the border. He came back from Israel and was taken straight into the New Jersey police department as an investigator, without ever having gone to the police academy.
And he did an undercover job that went on for 2.5 or 3 years. When that job was over he finally went to the academy to officially become a policeman, even though he’d been working as a policeman and carrying a gun for three years.
At that stage he began to see the way the police force was constructed and it made him very angry. He directed that anger into his desire to become a lawyer. ‘If I can’t affect the police force in terms of its corruption, then maybe being a lawyer I can affect that corruption’ was the way he looked at it.
And when he became a prosecutor he saw a similar type of corruption, so decided the only way he could use his energies was in defending people he felt needed defense.”
Crowe, 43, won the Oscar for Best Actor for his riveting performance as Maximus in Gladiator. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Michael Mann’s The Insider and for A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard. He was also awarded a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for his performance in A Beautiful Mind.
Crowe’s other credits include playing hard-boiled cop Bud White in LA Confidential, a rogue cyber space killer in Virtuosity, a hostage negotiator in Proof of Life and an 18th century British sea captain in Master and Commander.
Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Crowe is married to the actress and singer Danielle Spencer and they have two children, Charlie, 3, and 15 month old Tennyson.
Q: As a character Richie has high moral values at work but in his home life he’s not quite as faithful as he could be…
R.C.: Richie has one thing going for him in terms of being a policeman in that money is not a motivating factor for him. I think that is one of the interesting things about this film is that both these lead characters are morally questionable.
Q: This is a serious film. It also deals with serious issues – drugs on the streets and the appeal of gangsters. How did you approach that?
R.C.: In terms of the heaviness of the movie and what Ridley shows, I think it was a moral responsibility from his point of view to show the destruction that Frank Lucas brought about for the community. We looked up the figures and you can actually see that deaths from heroin addiction spiked in the time of Frank Lucas’s operation. I think Ridley has done a great job in showing that on one side of Frank’s life he is an upstanding man. He takes him mum to church every Sunday. But on the other side, what he’s actually doing, the business he is engaged in, kills people. And there is a certain part of the movie where it goes from being almost glamorous to very fundamental, when you start seeing shots of addicted mothers with their babies crying while they are shooting up. I think, in my personal opinion, Ridley did a great job in showing the destruction that Frank Lucas has brought about.
Q: How could you relate to Richie Roberts as a character you are playing?
R.C.: At a very essential level I understood what he was talking about. He had decided that if it was his lot in life to stand on the edge and throw stones at the big monster, corruption, American law, then that was going to be his job. It’s not glamorous on that side of the fence, but that’s what he decided to do. I appreciate him as a person for doing that. Thank God in our world there are people who will be selfless like that and give their lives and their careers over to the greater good. Richie’s got the same moral compass now that he had then. He denies being quite the womanizer that we portray him in the movie, but the actuality of finding out about his life would seem to indicate that we were actually kind to him on that respect. I agree with him, some corruption is benign. What father wouldn’t steal to feed a starving child? Is that a crime or is that benign? However, the other side of that, somebody who will steal money, steal drugs to sell, from a position of responsibility as a policeman? That’s corruption.
So would I trust Richie Roberts? Absolutely. If you asked Richie Roberts to do something as far as an attorney client situation or just as a friend, he would give his life up before he fouled you in that.
Q: How different is it playing a real person that you’ve actually met?
R.C.: There is a greater responsibility and you try and be accurate with your portrayal where you can. And obviously when you are playing a fictional character it’s all about your imagination or the information the script has in it, and then you expand on that. But if you asked me 10 years ago if I was interested in playing real characters I probably would have said that I don’t think so. But it just seems to have become a thing that’s part of what I do. I actually do get really engaged if it’s a true story.
Q: Does Ridley push you?
R.C.: I think we push each other. That’s why we like working together. The shorthand gets better and better every time we work. We can have an argument across the room without saying a word. (laughs) We have a shorthand that really works for us. And he’s one of the greatest visual artists ever. Luckily for me, he enjoys what I do, so it’s just a great privilege for me to be on his film sets. He likes me to question him and tell him what I’m observing. He doesn’t want me to tell him later when it’s too late to do something about it. I suppose on one level it’s just really easy. It’s easy to explain. I like working with him and he likes working with me. But on the other side of it it’s probably really complex the way we fit together because he gives me greater responsibilities on the set. Probably only Ron Howard is another director that gives me the same level of responsibility. But that really engages me. I enjoy that extra responsibility.
Q: Like what?
R.C.: For example, with American Gangster, the script that was written was about Frank Lucas. It was Frank Lucas’ story and that was the engaging and compelling thing about that script. But you can’t just tell a story like that. You have to find other places to go to. You have to find the weight of the investigation for example, the charges against Frank. So that required quite a bit of research, to find exactly what would have been brought to the table because you don’t want to get into this situation with this movie where it seems like luck or it seems that one charge and this great drug kingpin was brought down. The reality of the situation was the there was evidence about so much stuff and murders and corrupting police officials and bribery and so forth, that there was no way out for Frank Lucas. He was either facing the rest of his life in prison or he could turn state’s evidence and maybe spend some of his life outside prison.
Q: You have a reputation for being a no bullshit actor. How do you deal with Hollywood, it’s all around you all the time?
R.C It’s not around me all the time because I live in Australia. When you are on a movie set that’s your work environment so that’s not quote un quote ‘Hollywood’. I remember one day I was doing a press junket and it was such a tedious day I decided I would walk back to the hotel which was about an hour and fifteen minutes away. So I naively walked straight out of the front gate and look around and go ‘oh ****!’ and I’ve got about 10 photographers following me and they’re all on the phone, right, so then cars start coming in and then you’ve got camera guys from Dutch TV jumping out going ‘talk to me Russell! Crowe!’ And I’m like ‘what the fuck is going on..’ And I had a friend with me who had a camera and I’ve got footage of it and by the time we got to the hotel there was literally, you can see them in the frame, 34 people with cameras and microphones and stuff. It’s nuts.
Q: Is it still ‘the last place on Earth’ that you would want to live as you once said?
R.C: My attitude has actually changed quite dramatically since I gave that quote ten years ago. Man, that quote has been shoved back at me so many times (laughs). When I said that I was a young actor coming in here it was all sort of strange and weird and everything and I said something disparaging. But over time the amount of people I know in this town, it’s a very comfortable place for me to come into now. And just socially, even for my wife as well, she’s got a lot of friends here.
Q: It was a great quote..
R.C: Yeah, I give good quote! (laughs) So my attitude about Los Angeles has changed. I still don’t think it’s healthy for me, as an actor, to sleep in the office and that’s the way I consider Los Angeles. It’s the office, it’s where business gets done, where things get set up, but for me to remain fresh with what I do and just to inform myself as a human, you know, to be out of the town, out of the country, it’s just better…
Q: Have you changed your work schedule now you are a father of two?
R.C: Definitely. There are some movies I say no to because they are being shot in a place that is not going to be comfortable for the kids. Life is completely different without them around and I don’t like not being in the same house as them on a daily basis. Sometimes you have to put up with it and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. I still make the choices the same way I’ve always made them. I read the script and if something about the idea grabs me then that’s probably the thing I’m going to do but I do have greater considerations in terms of their schedule and family life. So just like everybody else, you blend it in and try and make it work.