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I shot the sheriff: Russell Crowe and the Hood

A mellower Crowe has emerged from Sherwood Forest after reinterpreting the role of the English outlaw.
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Courtesy Universal Pictures

A mellower Russell Crowe has emerged from Sherwood Forest after reinterpreting the role of the English outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. His Robin Hood, he tells John Hiscock, is a rebel tamed by his love for Maid Marian. The film, directed by Ridley Scott and co-starring Cate Blanchett and William Hurt, opens this week. Usually, it is one of two Russell Crowes who shows up - invariably late - for an interview. There is either the boisterous, backslapping and arrogant Crowe or, more often, the surly, uncommunicative and arrogant Crowe. Both have a notoriously short fuse and are prone to walk out of an interview if anything offends. But not this time. The Russell Crowe who has come into a Beverly Hills hotel suite to talk about his new film, Robin Hood, is cheerful, friendly and clearly in a good mood. It is as if the bellicose, belligerent actor of old had been replaced by a more amiable model who is prepared to talk willingly and without a scowl.

No longer scruffy and unshaven, he wears a smart, grey striped suit and his hair and beard are neatly trimmed. So what happened to the short temper and sharp tongue that have landed him in bar-room brawls, film set scuffles and even once led to his arrest? In a Hollywood where batteries of advisers and publicists carefully control their client's image, 46-year-old Russell Crowe was a loose cannon.

Even his fellow Australian Peter Weir, who directed him in Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, once said of him: "You're never sure what Russell is going to say or do." And a poll carried out a few years ago by the Radar Online website named Crowe as the most nightmarishly difficult actor to work with. But now he wants to set the record straight with an explanation for what he calls his "misrepresentation".

"I come from a nation of very sarcastic people and I can have a dry response to something. And because sarcasm doesn't come off on the page, when you read it in black and white, it sounds like I was being ridiculously aggressive," he says. "One of the main misunderstandings is that I've been portrayed as an angry person and that's just not true. I like to put a lot of effort into what I do and that comes with a certain amount of energy, especially when you're weary and it requires you to dig deep inside yourself. And I certainly have a temper that can flare up. But having a temper is a completely different thing from being an angry person.

"There was a time when there was a lot of interest in what I did and because I was usually between jobs, out on my farm in Australia not talking to anybody, there was a lot of room for people to fill in the holes between who I am and the characters I played, because I played a lot of people who held themselves outside society." His Robin Hood is a prime example of a rebel who defies authority, although as interpreted by Crowe he is far removed from the Sherwood Forest-dwelling swashbuckler who stole from the rich to give to the poor as played by, among others, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Richard Greene and Kevin Costner.

This Robin Hood, as directed by Ridley Scott, a longtime Crowe collaborator, has undergone some drastic revisions since Universal won a bidding war for Nottingham, a script that told the folk tale from a point of view sympathetic to the sheriff. Then, in true Hollywood tradition, the idea was scrapped and the script rewritten many times to come up with what producer Brian Grazer calls "the Gladiator version of Robin Hood".

Robin Hood has become Robin Longstride, an archer with Richard I's army. On the death of the king in France, Robin returns to England, assumes a dead man's identity and, in Nottingham, falls for Maid Marian (Cate Blanchett), who is fighting off the attentions of the despotic sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen). Together with his former army yeomen, Little John, Alan A'Dayle and Will Scarlet, Longstride joins forces with the northern barons opposing the rule of King John while at the same time helping to repel a threatened French invasion of England.

While Scott keeps the action moving with plenty of battle scenes, the movie tends to drag in the middle and the plot is somewhat rambling. Crowe, as always, threw himself wholeheartedly into the role, losing the weight he'd packed on for his last film, Body Of Lies, learning about English folklore and taking archery lessons. "I was very enthusiastic," says Crowe. "Robin Hood has always been at the back of my mind since I was a child. The thing that makes Robin Hood such a compelling story, no matter what language you grew up speaking, is that he robbed from the rich to give to the poor and that there was somebody out there who was prepared to redress the balance.

"But I said I'd do it only if it was a fresh take on the story. It had to be different from what has come before. I revisited the 1938 Errol Flynn version and one of things I didn't want to do was put my hands on my hips and laugh uproariously" - he lets out a mocking ho-ho-ho - "I thought we could probably do without that. "When Ridley and I sat down together we decided there had never been a version that had gone into why the Robin Hood story was so strong and why it has lasted for so long. So we looked at history to find what the fertile ground was for somebody like Robin Hood to come out of. It wasn't just a resetting of the story, it was a recalibration and the only way we could approach it was working out where this person came from and how he came to be in the situation he was in.

"We never assume that he is a charitable person, because he's not. He's totally about looking after himself but he develops into this other thing, mainly driven by the desire, I suppose, to be loved by Marian." Both Crowe and Scott are known to be somewhat irascible and short-tempered but they work well together and Crowe has nothing but praise for the 73-year-old director. "I love working with him," he says. "On a film set with Ridley Scott, I trust in the fact the infrastructure is there. I trust in the fact that even though he's making an expensive movie it will not cost one dollar more than it needs to because he has a very responsible and strict attitude to where the money's being spent. He knows how many severed heads he's got in the effects department; he knows what he's got, what he can use and how quickly he has to move on any given day and I really respect that.

"As many times as we've disagreed on things, we don't yell at each other. There's no need. We just discuss things and we understand we might not see each other's point of view all the time but ultimately by the time we're standing in front of the camera we've collaborated on the decision that we've made and what we're doing." Ridley Scott is known for his tough demands on a film set and Robin Hood, with its hundreds of extras, medieval villages recreated in the English countryside and violent and intense battle scenes, was no exception.

"It can be physically sapping but I have no problem whatsoever because being on a set like that is an energising experience," says Crowe. "The hours are long but it's so much fun. You can ride your horse on to a village set that's been faithfully recreated and may well have existed 800 years before and you don't see any power lines, any tyre tracks or anything modern. You get the feeling that you're really there.

"I've ridden among 130 horses, charging down a French battle line on a beach and when you're doing that it gives you a true sense of what it must have been like to actually engage in that." When it comes to film sets, Russell Crowe knows what he's talking about. He's been acting since the age of six when he made his debut in an episode of the Australian television series Spyforce, and later landed roles singing and dancing on stage in the Australian productions of Grease and The Rocky Horror Show. His portrayal of a vicious skinhead in the controversial film Romper Stomper led to his first Hollywood role, opposite Sharon Stone in The Quick And The Dead, followed by LA Confidential.

He was nominated for an Oscar for The Insider and A Beautiful Mind and, teaming up for the first time with Ridley Scott, won the award in 2000 for Gladiator, in which he played Maximus, a fallen Roman general forced to fight in the arena. "I'm really surprised that Gladiator had the weight it did because we never expected that sort of success while we were making it," he says.

"The idea of doing a Gladiator 2 comes up all the time but we've made it very difficult for ourselves by killing off my character in the first one. We have an idea but it never seems to have sufficient credibility. It just comes back at us and says, 'Are you kidding?' We don't want to do something just for the sake of it, so maybe we are kidding. Maybe we'll just enjoy talking about it." After his Oscar win, Crowe seemed destined to be the biggest movie star of his generation, but he slowly started to let it slip away through a combination of bad behaviour and bad roles. He was nominated again the following year for A Beautiful Mind and although the film won the Oscar for the best picture, Crowe lost out to Denzel Washington for Training Day. It has been suggested that his attack on Malcolm Gerrie, a television producer, for cutting short his acceptance speech at the Bafta awards ceremony may have turned voters against him.

Many believe that his continual bad behaviour may have been the reason for the poor box-office performance of Cinderella Man, the 2005 film in which he played James J Braddock, the former world heavyweight champion boxer. While he was in New York just before the film's release, Crowe was arrested and charged with assault after he threw a telephone at a desk clerk in a New York hotel because the phone system did not work from his room.

Crowe later described the incident as "possibly the most shameful situation that I've ever gotten myself in... and I've done some pretty dumb things in my life". He was sentenced to conditional release and settled a lawsuit filed by the hotel worker. He has never discussed the type of therapy or anger-management treatment he reportedly underwent but, whatever it was, it apparently had some effect. "I don't approach everything with the same level of intensity that I used to," he says.

He is rarely in Hollywood nowadays, and when he is not filming he spends most of his time in Australia on his 324-hectare farm in New South Wales, although he and his wife, the singer-songwriter Danielle Spencer, also have a home overlooking Sydney Harbour. He has known her since 1989 and for years they carried on an on-off romance during which he had affairs with several other women, most notably the actress Meg Ryan. After his relationship with Ryan ended abruptly, he resumed his romance with Spencer and they were married in April 2000 on his farm.

"I just thought it was time," he has said of his marriage. "But I also sensed in her it was time, too. We'd discussed marriage in the past and I'd always felt a certain resistance from her. But then the last few times we talked I noticed she seemed to have softened her stance about marriage and also her preparedness to be a mother, so I just felt it was the right time." They have two sons, Charlie, aged six, and three-year-old Tennyson. Crowe is determined that his marriage will not end in divorce like so many Hollywood marriages. "I have my parents' marriage as a template," he says. "They've been married nearly 50 years and, you know, that's probably why I waited as long as I did to get married, because I absolutely wanted to make sure that I only did it once."

A devoted cricket fan - his cousins Jeff and Martin Crowe both played for New Zealand - he favours the traditional five-day game over limited-over cricket and is eagerly looking forward to the next Ashes series and what he confidently expects will be an Australian victory following their defeat in the last series in England. "I'm really looking forward to the next series and the simple vengeance that will be wrought upon your side," he laughs. "Isn't it great that in the last few years it's really been competitive? It's been fantastic."

Russell Crowe is passionate about everything he does, and for the moment his passion is focused on Robin Hood and a possible sequel which will centre around the outlaw's adventures in Sherwood Forest. "We don't have a script ready, or anything like that, but if people like this one and the studio has an appetite for it, would Ridley and I like to go on a film set of that size again and make another movie like this, in this day and age when everything's done with computer-generated images and comic book characters? "Yeah, we'll be fine with that. Great."

William Hurt: for cinema-goers of a certain age, the name conjures up the brighter memories of an era. No actor had a classier time of it in the Eighties. If a complex human drama managed to muscle its way past Schwarzenegger and Stallone and up on to the big screen, Hurt was most likely the male lead. Ramrod tall, blue-eyed and aquiline, with a high forehead swept clear of thin fair hair, he even looked clever, like a tweedy young professor of letters on secondment to Hollywood. Those years in the sun began promptly in 1980 with Altered States, continued with the steamy noir thriller Body Heat (1981), then steered him into ensemble comedy in The Big Chill and Soviet sleuthing in Gorky Park (both 1983). Hurt won an Oscar for the prison drama Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) while his deaf co-star and girlfriend Marlee Matlin won one for Children of a Lesser God (1986). Broadcast News (1987), which visited a television newsroom, and The Accidental Tourist (1988), based on Anne Tyler's novel, completed this, in retrospect, astonishing run. But then that, in terms of lead roles in films that people wanted to see, was that. At 38, Hurt had somehow contrived to match the career longevity of a pretty young actress. He did plough on. But suddenly the work seemed, as the title of the low-budget British film about fostering he made with Chris Menges has it, Second Best. The decade found him doing sci-fi, slapstick, romantic comedy, none of them genres that agreed with the cool intensity of his Nordic demeanour. Not that Hurt sees it that way. "People were, 'Well, where'd you go?' I go, 'I was there.' It's funny because if you don't give people what they expect, they think you're failing. In Robin Hood, Ridley Scott's epic improvement on Kevin Costner's Robin, Prince of Thieves, Hurt plays one of the English folk hero's merry men, Will Marshal. Even if he keeps insisting he has never been away, it's good to have him back. You need only sit in a pub with Hurt for an evening to get an inkling of how and why the scripts stopped coming his way. William Hurt is a man of opinions. Intense, firebrand, nose-thumbing opinions on just about everything, but principally on the evils of the Hollywood machine. He makes for terrific company. Just so long as you don't have to work with him. For his first film, Altered States, Hurt negotiated from a position of strength because the producers had already seen 500 actors and would pull the plug unless he agreed to do it. "I had no obligations to do PR. I had a guarantee that I was personally in control of the character. I had director approval until 48 hours before we started filming. And I had those protections in my contract for many, many, many years. You couldn't make me market a film that I didn't approve of. You couldn't make me sell something where I thought I'd been lied to or cheated. You couldn't make me smile on something I didn't want to smile on." He started as he meant to continue. For his second film, Eyewitness, he asked the producers to give half his fee to Off Off Broadway, small theatrical productions. They refused, so he gave it away himself. Then came Body Heat, the first of his collaborations with Lawrence Kasdan. "I spent the first six hours of my life with Larry Kasdan telling him why he couldn't direct it. He didn't know what he had. It was a gem, pure and simple." Did he take kindly to that? "Yes he did. He listened. Because I was the only person who was honest with him." For three years running, Hurt was nominated for an Oscar. He won the first as a cross-dressing convict in Spiderwoman. He did the film on spec for no pay up front and, as you might guess, was "tremendously conflicted" about receiving the statuette. "It was also the night they gave one to the producer of 007 for selling more theatre tickets than anybody ever sold. So I'm going, 'Is this what they ram down your throat to make sure you never work unconditionally again?' I thought I was going to have a couple of drinks and watch the other salivating guys in the penguin suits like you study a character. But when they called my name out I really thought, 'Oh no, no, no, no, don't put that target on my chest.' I went up onstage and Sally Field put it in my hand and I said, 'Sally, what the hell do I do with this?' She looked at me hard because she knew me - she is a wonderful woman - and she said, 'You live with it'." Hurt has no patience with the idea that he became difficult. " 'I hear that you're obstreperous,' " he says in a poor-diddums voice. " 'You must be neurotic or temperamental or something worse.' 'No. No. You're wrong.' 'Oh you told me I'm wrong. You are obstreperous.' You hear what I'm saying? You can't win that way." In the time it takes him to sink three slow pints of beer, I ask in as many different ways as I can if he admits the wheels might have loosened even a little after The Accidental Tourist. "I've never been sorry about anything I chose to do," he says. Another of the things he has no doubt about is the rightness of that prediction of his to the producers of Altered States. "Fame," he says, "is not a happy condition for me. Having people generalise about you with any information about you whatsoever, contempt prior to investigation - it's a remarkable prejudice. 'Aren't you who I think you are?' 'No, ma'am. I don't know anything for sure in life except one thing. I'm sure I'm not who you think I am. I'm positive of that. Now can I go my wandering way?' " Jasper Rees

Throughout history in many countries there have been various versions of the outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Here are a few... Joaquin Murietta, a semi-mythical figure of the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, became known as the "Mexican Robin Hood". He reputedly came to California in 1849 to seek his fortune but became an outlaw after a series of injustices culminating in the hanging of his half-brother. He and his gang stole gold and horses. His exploits are the stuff of legend, and even his death is shrouded in half-truths: he was supposedly killed in a gun battle with California Rangers in 1853, but 25 years later there were reports that he was still alive. He has been celebrated in stories and was partly the inspiration for the character Zorro. Omar Ben Hafsun was a 9th-century Andalucian bandolero, whose ancestors had converted to Islam after the Moorish conquest. According to tradition, he chose a life of banditry after being disowned by his rich father following a dispute in which he killed a neighbour. In 884 he became part of a rebellion against the Emirate of Cordoba. From his base in the ruins of the old Bobastro castle, he made raids, "redistributing wealth and taxes" from rich to poor. Eventually the Emirate recognised him as governor of the area, where he remained, although his power was much reduced, until his death in 918. Ishikawa Goemon was a bandit of the 16th century, a Japanese folk hero who reputedly stole gold and valuables and gave them to the poor. Many versions of his life story exist, but they all end with his gruesome death: being boiled alive for the attempted assassination of the powerful overlord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A large iron kettle-shaped bathtub is now called a Goemon-buro ("Goemon bath"). Goemon is the subject of many kabuki plays (as seen in the famous woodcut by Utagawa Kunisada) and novels, and was the hero of the long-running Legend Of The Mystical Ninja video games. Kobus van der Schlossen was a 17th-century Dutch thief and hero of many folk tales. Historical facts about him are scarce: seemingly, he served in the army, before joining a gang of ex-soldiers called "de zwartmakers". Eventually he was captured in Uden and executed in 1695. However, in folklore, he and his band lived in the vast Slabroek forest. Van der Schlossen was known for protecting poor widows against greedy landlords and miraculously escaping the law. He was said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for magical powers.

Published: May 8, 2010 04:00 AM

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