At the 2001 Oscars, Russell Crowe took center stage at the Dolby Theater to accept best actor for “Gladiator,” using his speech to urge young viewers to follow their acting dreams. Now, Crowe tells Variety that his kids can look up the speech and realize that their father had something “relatively intelligent” to say.
“Gladiator,” a blockbuster hit where Crowe plays a Roman general sold into slavery, was physically taxing on the actor, who was then in his mid-30s. He narrowly escaped a tiger on set, stayed in tip-top shape working out at a makeshift gym on the outskirts of the Colosseum and rode a horse down a steep mountainside to give director Ridley Scott the perfect shot. He and Scott developed a collaborative friendship that would last for decades as the actor has worked with Scott on four more films: “Robin Hood,” “A Good Year,” “American Gangster” and “Body of Lies.”
The award-winning actor talked to Variety in honor of “Gladiator’s” 20th anniversary about his relationship with Jodie Foster, working with Scott and screenwriter David Franzoni on the script’s rewrites, and how his breakout role in “L.A. Confidential” set his career into overdrive even before “Gladiator” hit the big screen and won for best picture.
What did people initially think about “Gladiator”?
Most people had already sort of written it off from a business point of view. They didn’t know anything about it. What they heard was that it was a “sword and sandal” epic, you know, the cliche that they used to call things like that. They thought that was such an out-of-touch step to make. I had one conversation with a guy who asked me about it, and I was talking to him about how difficult the shoot had been because just being honest, it was tricky and it was exhausting and it took everything I had. So I was discussing it in those terms, and he took that as a negative. He said, “Well, look, you’ll always have ‘L.A. Confidential.’ If a career has a movie that fine, you’ll be able to work.” And I went out of that meeting and talked about it with my agent, I was like, “Is that what people really think?” And he goes, “Well, yep.”
What was it like to work on rewrites with Ridley Scott?
One of Ridley’s unique changes right at the beginning was adding that second act, when you find Maximus sold as a slave at the edge of the Empire. That second act gives the whole journey a much more epic quality. That’s the best way to approach making a movie — when you get to evaluate what you’re capturing and work to the strengths of that. It’s a very risky way to make a movie, though.
Ridley and I often laugh about it when we sit and talk and have a drink these days, because we were dodging bullets on a daily basis. We were just trying to let people know that this fractured energy that they might read coming out of the set was only there because we were so focused on what we were doing. From our point of view, those days were great. We nailed something spectacular every day. Ridley has an incredibly intuitive connection to all of the elements that help the film. Somehow he almost can predict the weather in a way. He knows which direction to be pointing his camera when the sun is doing a particular thing. So it was never a wasted day on that set. That’s why I’ve made five films with Ridley now because out of all the directors that I’ve worked with, a day on the set with Ridley is my favorite way of doing a job.
Ridley said that there was one scene where he begged you not to ride on a horse down a treacherous mountainside, but you did it anyway. What was that day like?
I think you have to take a pinch of salt when Ridley expresses that he really cares about the safety of an actor. We did have a funny time on that film because we had a lot of stunt guys who they wanted to do their job, too, so when something like that comes up, it’s like they always think it’s their prerogative. But in reality I had a good amount of horse experience before then. I started riding when I was as a kid and didn’t take it seriously until I was in my mid 20s.
There were shots in there where other people would double me and then he would complain about a shot and I would just be like, “Well, just let me do it then!” But that particular slope down into the battlefield with all the fires going off and the explosions going off, that was actually a pretty hairy day. It ended up with me chopping a guy through a head and I would leave my sword in the tree, so you’ve got to give it a fair “whack” to be able to do that. You’ve got to position yourself right.
What do you remember about the night you won your Oscar?
Jodie Foster called me after I made my speech because she knew that adrenaline rush when your name gets called out and now you’re going on to that stage. As I discussed in my speech, there’s a connection with pretty much everybody who’s in the business now to watching that show from childhood. There’s a lot of emotion involved in that moment and it takes a lot to control the adrenaline and just say what you want to say. Many times you see that situation happen and people get lost in the emotion of it. For whatever reason, it was important for me not to get lost in it emotionally and to talk to that kid who’s watching the show and tell him or her that this is a reasonable aspiration.
When Jodie called me afterwards, it wasn’t a mobile phone but I took the phone into a quiet place and we just had a chat. She said, “Later on in life, you’re going to remember that moment because of the clarity that’s brought to it.” I didn’t fully understand what she meant at the time, but 20 years later, I do. I’m really pleased that my kids can look that up and hear me say something relatively intelligent and talk to them in the same way I was talking to a kid in my imagination.
What do you think about the film, looking back 20 years later?
I hadn’t seen it since 2000, but a couple of years ago, I just happened to be traveling in Europe and I heard about this thing that was happening. I reached out to the promoter of it, and he told me that he’d been trying to get in touch with me for three years. What was going on was there was going to be this charity night at the Colosseum where they were raising money for the End Polio organization, but also constructing an elevator at the Colosseum specifically for movement impaired people. They were going to not only screen the film within the walls of the Colosseum, but have the soundtrack played by a full orchestra and a 50 voice choir and Lisa Gerrard who sang on the soundtrack.
I sat in the colosseum and watched it, and it was an extremely humbling experience because I was seeing so much attention for that film. But in reality, that film belongs to the filmmaker. That’s the director’s work. The performances across the board in that movie — Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Djimon Hounsou, Oliver Reed — it’s incredible what Ridley brought out of people. Knowing the difficulties of film and what he did to put things up on the cameras the way he did, it’s really mind numbing when a situation like that arises and “Gladiator” can be recognized for best film, but not recognize the guy that actually created it. So, that’s an unfortunate situation. I still hope that one day I’m in a movie that Ridley directs where he wins best director because it’s well overdue.