Defending champ in another hit pic

OSCAR QUOTIENT

PROS: Great range: from a Roman fighter to a world-renown intellect

CONS: Nom seems a sure bet, but can he pull a Tom Hanks and win two years in a row?

Director Ron Howard hadn’t seen Russell Crowe’s Oscar-winning turn as the title character in “Gladiator” before deciding he should play mathematician extraordinaire John Forbes Nash in the biopic “A Beautiful Mind.”

But he had been dazzled by Crowe’s performance as the stressed-out tobacco biz whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand in “The Insider,” another Oscar-nominated performance from the Aussie leading man who’s proved himself equally adept at playing warrior and thinker alike.

“I had a great deal of confidence in Russell’s chameleon-like ability to transform himself and invent a very original character,” says Howard. “However, it wasn’t really until I met Russell and was talking to him about this character that I was 100% convinced, because Nash’s intelligence has to be evident, and Russell naturally displayed an ambitious, even aggressive intellect.

“It’s also a role that demands a unique combination of physicality, charisma, intelligence and the possibility of this eccentricity.”

Whereas Crowe had worked extensively with Wigand to craft his portrayal in “Insider,” Howard discouraged Crowe from working directly with Nash, and the two didn’t meet until after shooting began.

“I didn’t want Russell to do an imitation of Nash. Besides, most of the film takes place when Nash is a young man. Nothing ever had been recorded and saved, and no television appearances had been kinescoped. So there wasn’t a lot to go on. It really was more an act of interpretation and invention.

“The thing that was most exciting for me with Russell,” adds Howard, “was (how he captured) the gradations of Nash’s psychological and emotional states.”

Crowe and Howard did spend time examining documentary footage of schizophrenics, research that helped to define the physicality of the role.

“I think Russell does an interesting thing,” says Howard. “He works from the outside in. The physicality is very, very important, at least when it’s called upon. It’s something he really knows how to address as an actor and be creative with.

“And then once he has it, once the cameras are rolling, everything’s coming from the inside out. Russell’s not alone in his ability to do that, but he’s among the elite.”

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