Producers, directors and scribes toe the line with thesp

Brian Grazer, producer
‘Robin Hood’

Visually the film is the “Gladiator” version of “Robin Hood.” It has that visual intensity. And you love seeing Russell be a bad-ass. He has a visceral component that only he could pull off in the same way he did “Gladiator.”

Russell himself embodies Robin Hood. He is a man of people. He champions the working class and lives that life, and he has succeeded in (doing) that in movies.

What surprises me is the level of research he’ll do on a movie and the movie’s character. He’ll spend hundreds of hours looking at archival footage. With “Robin Hood,” he just became the most well-read man on the subject of the time right after the Crusades. And he became an expert on the long bow, which is massively heavy. The tension on the bow is incredibly taut, and it’s very difficult to shoot an arrow much less shoot it with such accuracy.

Ron Howard, director
‘A Beautiful Mind’

and ‘Cinderella Man’

Russell is at his best when he’s playing a character who’s aggressively pursuing something that’s challenging in the extreme. He doesn’t bring that much of himself to the characters. He finds the characters.

On “Cinderella Man,” Russell had to accomplish a lot physically in order to bring his character to the screen, even though he had destroyed his shoulder during training for the role. It was surgically put back together, but it was never right the entire time we were filming. Every time he stepped into the ring to film any of those thousands of punches that he was throwing, it could have shut the movie down. It was nerve-racking. But Russell loved his character, Jim Braddock, and he wanted to tell his story. He’s that kind of committed artist.

In doing our research on schizophrenia for “A Beautiful Mind,” Russell and I spent a lot of time talking about the physical affects of the disease — the ticks, the patterns of behavior. In the early sequences, Russell began to build in very subtle reflections of those affects. This engaged the audience on an almost subliminal level. By the end of the film, when they see those same affects fully revealed, fully blown, the audience recognizes that what they thought were eccentricities were actually Russell’s signaling to us the beginning of his illness.

Russell and I are very different people, but what we share is this ambition to try to find interesting stories.

Curtis Hanson, director and co-screenwriter
‘L.A. Confidential’

Bud White was wounded and angry. And I needed an actor who could convey that and show the heart underneath.

I had seen Russell in “Romper Stomper,” so I knew he could be the brute. What I didn’t know was whether he could show the heart. We brought him over and I put him on tape. He was fabulous. Russell has that tenderness within him, and he got to a place in the movie where he was comfortable revealing that.

Russell is an actor of literally 1,000 questions. I had six weeks of rehearsal with him and he spent those six weeks going over every line in that script. He questioned each line in every possible detail. There were many times after the rehearsal that my writing partner, Brian Helgeland, and I would go outside, and Brian would roll his eyes and I would say, “I know. But he’s going to be a great Bud White.” By the end of those weeks of challenging questions, Russell knew that I was as committed to that character as he was. From then on, I think he would have done anything I asked him to. Russell has a reputation of being difficult, and what I speculate is that he’s difficult when he’s not trusting.

David Franzoni, screenwriter
‘Gladiator’

Ridley Scott, Russell and I were trying to sort something out that was working for one person and not working for another. Ridley liked it. Russell didn’t. Russell was getting very frustrated. I could tell he was getting very pissed off. At the end of the day when it came time to do that scene, Russell still wasn’t entirely satisfied. But he took that anger, that angst, and put it into that scene. That, to me, is the mark of a complete professional. He did that several times when there were issues. Whatever was going on, he found a way to make it work.

Geoffrey Wright, screenwriter-director
‘Romper Stomper’

Physically, Russell’s tough and capable and a good strategist. He seemed the perfect leader for the outlaw gang in “Romper Stomper.” Russell became an expert on his character. He’d always have a convincing argument if he wanted to deviate from the script. He was constantly adjusting his wardrobe, and sometimes props. You knew that it was coming from such a considered place that you went with it.

Russell is never afraid to alter his appearance. That’s what gave him an edge in the early days. So many American rivals were afraid of changing an established image, but Russell, who had some experience performing and entertaining on stage, embraced that chameleon element. For “Romper” he bulked up and was dangerously fit. He knew how to apply his body for a role: the physique, the stance, the gait.

Kevin Dowling, director
‘The Sum of Us’

Russell had to fight for the part. He flew from Sydney to New York to convince me. Russell was very clear about his willingness to take risks. In “The Sum of Us,” he was taking on the role of a homosexual plumber when no one knew him in the U.S. “Philadelphia” came out at about the same time, but Tom Hanks was already an established superstar, so for Tom to do that film was not anywhere the risk it was for an unknown Australian actor. That sense of courage both personally and professionally is unique to Russell. He has all kinds of different depths of feeling. He is a little wounded and he is willing to show that in his work on a regular basis, and that makes him fascinating.

Frank A. Cappello, director
‘No Way Back’

I always knew that he had to feel like he was in the moment. One of my favorite recollections of working with Russell is that his character’s watch had to be set for the exact time it would be in the movie. And Russell would get upset with the prop guys if it wasn’t right on the money.

It was two weeks into production. I had just shot close-ups of Russell. Then I began to shoot close-ups of Etsushi Toyokawa, the other guy in the movie. It started to rain. So we just shot 50 feet because it was never going to match. In front of the entire crew, Russell goes, “Hey, you didn’t give him the same amount of close-ups as me.” I said, “It’s raining!”

Russell had criticized me in front of everybody. I brought him off to the side, almost grabbed his ear and said, “Don’t you ever do that in front of crew. You have a problem with me, you talk to me personally.” Then, boom, we became friends. We drank all night that night, and the rest of production was great. He’s got this man’s man attitude. You keep up with him and you’re cool.

Marc Klein, screenwriter
‘A Good Year’

Russell’s character, Max Skinner, was a hard-ass stock guy. Max’s journey was to discover his evil ways and become a nice guy. One day, Russell sent me a note asking me to make the character more evil, more terrible at the beginning. What Russell understood very clearly was that the worse the place Max started from, the bigger his arc would be.

Russell was so deeply into the character that he faxed me what looked like almost a mathematical chart displaying his character’s arc. He did it because there was this debate on whether two scenes needed to be transposed. This equation looked at his character not only from an artistic point of view but a technician’s point of view. He had such a fundamental sense of the character that by the first day of shooting I was asking him what Max would do. He was living it in a way that I’d never seen an actor do before.

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