NEW YORK CITY — Russell Crowe has been called the greatest actor of our generation. More than a leading man, Crowe is a man who dominates every frame, every scene of a film, and first caught America's attention with his performance as Bud White, a tough, honest cop in “L.A. Confidential.” Crowe's portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand, the man who had the courage to blow the whistle on tobacco companies, in “The Insider” earned him a best actor nomination.
In 2001, Crowe captured the Oscar for best actor for his commanding, muscular performance in “The Gladiator.” In “A Beautiful Mind,” Crowe's gentle and haunting performance of a tormented genius won him yet another Oscar nomination.
This week, Crowe's new movie, “Cinderella Man,” opened across the country and to rave reviews. But this week, Russell Crowe also made other headlines when he was arrested for throwing a phone which hit a hotel employee.
Below is Chris Matthews "Hardball" interview with the actor. Crowe talks about the incident, the movie, and relating to his character Jim Braddock through his own hardships. Russell Crowe even breaks his own rule and talks politics.
On the N.Y. hotel incident
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST: So, what happened with this incident in the hotel with the phone?
RUSSELL CROWE, ACTOR: It's a level of frustration built up over a period of time. I was in the hotel for a week, and the phones were just not reliable. When you're this far away from your young family—and, look, you know, I haven't been a husband and a father for that long. And I'm just only getting used to the abject loneliness of being on the road. But, you know, bottom line is, Chris, I'm sorry for the whole incident. And...
MATTHEWS: Did you throw the phone at the guy, or did you throw it at the wall?
CROWE: I just threw it, you know? And where it went, there was no—you know, there was no actual intention about it.
MATTHEWS: How are you going to plead?
CROWE: I'm not necessarily thinking of those things at the moment. I'm just thinking of what I've got to keep on my mind when I do interviews like this and talk about the movie. But, you know, I understand that Nestor's family will be getting a lot of unwanted pressure and stuff at the moment, so I'm really sorry for that as well.
About James Braddock, "The Cinderella Man"
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the movie. The great thing about the movie, a lot of people think, I think, is the backdrop, the 1930s in America. Guys that had jobs don't have them anymore. People can't provide for their families, and especially hard on the American male. What was that boxer, James Braddock, the guy you play, up against?
CROWE: He was up against the collapse of the modern utopia, you know? I think that's one of the things that Ron was really attracted to. He has a long family history with stories of the Depression, both his father and mother's families lived through it in different degrees. But all in a sort of rural setting.
And those dust bowl Okie photographs are one things. But the photographs that haunted him were the people who were former bankers dressed in their fine suits, you know, waiting in soup lines. And around them were gigantic structures— the Brooklyn Bridge and all the skyscrapers. And here they were in this modern utopia and the whole system had collapsed.
for Braddock to go from the type of success he had as a younger man, where he was earning $8,000 a night, to working for 26 cents an hour on the docks— if he could get a job, if he could get some time on the docks— that was a huge shift. And that to me was the thing that drove me with this. That was the thing—that change of fortune, the fact that it was real.
MATTHEWS: Was the real James Braddock that good? When his kid stole the salami from the butcher shop, he took him back?
CROWE: I couldn't find anything, any incident, any time in his life where he hadn't kept a balance. And, in fact, his granddaughter told me a story the other night which kind of just underlined everything that I had sort of assumed about him. Here's the thing, I don't require to fall in love with the characters I play. I'm in love with the job of acting and making feature films. So that objectivity is really helpful when you're playing negative characters, you know?
But everything I read about James J. Braddock, who's actually James W. Braddock—his middle name was Walter, but his manager, Joe Gould, changed it to because it sounded snappier with a J.— Everything I read about him before he was a champion, when he was a champion, after he was a champion, I just liked the guy.
And that story that his granddaughter told me the other day, it was the Easter weekend, right? They were going to visit some family members. And coming off one of the bridges, somebody cut him off. All right? And he yelled something out the window at the same time. And his wife, Mae, who was like the renowned firecracker of the family, jumped into the front seat and said: “What did that guy say? What did he say?”
And Jimmy Braddock said: “He said, 'Happy Easter,’ Sweetie. He said, 'Happy Easter.’
MATTHEWS: So, this guy, this James Braddock, he also took back a welfare check when he had some money in his pocket.
CROWE: Well, what he did was he kept a running tally of the money that he received from welfare. And as soon as he had money of his own, he went back down to the welfare office and he paid it back.
I own that receipt. I found it on a sports auction Web site and bought it, because, to me, that symbolizes who James J. Braddock was— far more than anything he ever did in boxing.
On overcoming challenges like Braddock
MATTHEWS: Let me talk about the ethnic and the American experience. These guys are Irish. You know, today, most fighters today are Hispanic or black. And the fighters in the '30s all immigrants. They were struggling. How do you identify with them as an Australian?
CROWE: Well, you know, I've put myself in some awkward situations in my life, as you well know. But I'm talking about in terms of challenges. I left New Zealand in my early 20s to return to Australia to try and make a living as an actor. So, I spent seven months living in a single room with a bathroom down the hall, where I was probably the youngest person there by 50 years. And I was busking on the streets for a living. So, I was just taking my guitar out, which was the only possession I had at the time, and singing songs. And, you know, I used to make my rent and I used to live off $3.50 a day, amortized over cigarettes and fried rice. And I did that for seven months. So, I certainly have an understanding of what it's like to beg, because busking is just begging with a guitar, mate, you know?
MATTHEWS: That's a hell of scene in the movie when you have to beg for the money for the family.
CROWE: And that's true. He walked 19 miles to go to the boxing club that day, and then walked home again, because he didn't want to spend the money on transport. I mean, you know, I think it was like 4 cents or 6 cents for a return ferry ride.
MATTHEWS: Jimmy Cagney, when he won the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award, said the secret to his success as an actor that, “After all was said and done, he still had an unmistakable touch of the gutter.” You could connect him with characters.
CROWE: I'm not sure my mom would like me to say something like that.
CROWE: But, certainly, in my life, I've experienced all types of wealth and poverty, not just, you know, personally, but, you know, in terms of observationally.
So, yes, my greatest fault is calling it as I see it, you know? And, sometimes, that's just really inappropriate. But I think that would possibly come under the same heading of the sort of thing that Jimmy Cagney was talking about.
On boxing and his feelings about welfare
MATTHEWS: What I loved about the movie was the violence. You say you're against violence. I loved it in the movie.
CROWE: But it's also boxing. It's a sport.
MATTHEWS: That guy you fought, Max Baer, was one of the great bad guys. He was funny.
CROWE: He was really good, wasn't he?
MATTHEWS: And yet, at the end of it, you touched gloves.
CROWE: Yes, because it's a sport. If we don't go to a certain level of reality— boxing is a guy in shorts and a guy in shorts and a defined area, you know? And somebody's going to get humiliated tonight by the end of this gig. It's a really tough sport that requires an incredible amount of courage. But if we don't go to the reality of the violence of the sport, then we're not really telling you the story. And particularly in those times as well, there was a lot of things that they used to get away with, because, you know, a different kind of coverage with cameras and stuff like that, which boxers don't get away with now.
And we tried to illustrate that, tried to illustrate the boxing at the time. But, you know, Ron Howard has said a number of times that—apart from that aspect, apart from the athletic aspect of Braddock, that this is the closest character to who I am that I've ever played. I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with that, but, you know, Braddock's attitude to his family, the things that he would do for his family, his attitude and his righteousness about the reasons for social welfare, this is a big deal for me. There's plenty of times when I could have gone on the dole, could have taken a check, could've taken free money.
And I would never accept that while I was young, fit and healthy and could work, that I should get free money, you know?
So that was one of the things that just entwined me and Jimmy in my imagination, that there's great reasons for social welfare. And social welfare should be in place. But the abuses of social welfare and the people that take advantage of it and accept checks that shouldn't really be theirs.
I mean, you know, Medicare and the structures that are in place are tumbling because of that abuse, you know? And I know that Jimmy Braddock would be spinning in his grave if he realized what people had done with the things that FDR put in place.
MATTHEWS: And you nevertook the dole when you were struggling?
CROWE: No, no. Never took the dole, never took a government grant.
MATTHEWS: What about the Australian Film Commission? Isn't there a lot of subsidies for film over there in your country?
CROWE: Yes, there is, yes. And, for sure, my film career begins with films that are financed partially by the government. But they have a film finance corporation, which is a body set up to make a profit out of being that financier, because films are very expensive, you know?
But it's also very important culturally that Australia has its own movies. So, the government very cleverly put in place—and, you know, you can list movies that they've made money on. And it's a very long list. And they've done pretty well out of that, you know. So there is probably few other investments that they've done that have been, you know, up until the last couple years, as reliable as that one.
MATTHEWS: When you're boxing, and you've trained, and you've done the research to know what boxing is all about, and you're out there, I can see being a boxer for one or two rounds, but it seems to me after you've out there a couple of times, been hit a couple of times hard, your I.Q. is dropping pretty low. I mean, your sense of where you are, what you're doing, any sense of strategy is gone.
What's going on in the head of a boxer going into the late rounds, the double-digit rounds? I mean, you're playing this guy. Those are the best scenes in the movie, I thought, the real action.
CROWE: Well, see, Angelo Dundee [trained me]
MATTHEWS: That was Muhammad Ali's guy.
CROWE: Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Willie Pastrano, Carmen Basilio— he's had 15 world champions.
He built in me the ability to keep going, to keep my head clear no matter how much punishment I was taking, and, you know, no matter how deep you're dragging for a breath. And that's the whole key to it. If you can keep your head clear, you can keep going forward.
Angelo didn't teach me to see everything that I needed to see, because he can tell me that, you know? What he taught me was how difficult it was to keep going when you're in the situation where you've lost the ability to breathe, you know, and you've taken quite a bit of punishment. And that's what he taught me.
And then, you know, examining, finding yourself in that situation, even just inspiring, you know, you begin to really understand just how hard this is. And, obviously, a lot of what we did was choreographed, but a lot of what we did was freeform as well, because we needed those moments of absolute violence to make our point, you know, to make people understand that this wasn't an easy task that Braddock faced.
On Australians, cowboys, and conservationists
MATTHEWS: Australia—it's my second-favorite country. This [The U.S.] is my favorite. And maybe this is your second-favorite country.
CROWE: I have great deal of love for America and what it stands for, mate.
MATTHEWS: We had the cowboy experience, the frontier. It's so far behind us now. We've become very politically correct now. You guys seem to be still close to the Outback, guys like you and Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson. There is so much of that cowboy feeling that comes across in your acting. And I've seen all your movies. Cowboy, that is not the right word. Tough guy.
CROWE: Look, you know, reality is, mate, I'm not—I'm not tough at all. I don't get scared very easily, but, you know, my wife terrifies me.
I think, in Australia, we have a mythology about the Outback, you know, which is really readily accepted, you know, but is not necessarily all truth. I mean, the reality is, the Australian Outback is a tough place.
MATTHEWS: “Crocodile Dundee.”
CROWE: Tough place.
MATTHEWS: The guy who goes in and gets a cold one, tells some jokes, rowdy jokes, gets in a fight.
CROWE: I'm very good friends with Steve Irwin, and apart from the last bit, he says that, you know, Steve very much epitomizes that. And sometimes Australians are embarrassed about that, because he is so enthusiastic about it, his life.
You know, and often people misunderstand what Steve does. Steve is a conservationist. He saves things. He doesn't kill things or hurt things, you know. He will move an animal to a more protected area. He operates, you know, hundreds of acres of conservation land for all different types of creatures, from echidnas to koalas to platypus.
In fact, I'm working on a project with him at the moment. I'm on a river in Australia where we're trying to regrow the native plants right near the river bank, so the platypus will thrive. I mean, it's just he has a great care for that. And so do I. And I think that's all embodied in what it really means to be an Australian, because you can't live in a country that's so unique and have so many unique animals without really respecting that environment, you know?
But you've got to understand that we don't have the benefit that the continental USA had where, you know, the larger slice of the land that you have is arable, is workable, and does have water. We had kind of the opposite percentage, you know, where 80-plus percent of the center of Australia is very, very difficult land not only to work, but to traverse in the first place.
MATTHEWS: It's hot, too.
CROWE: It's a desert. And it's, they say, the oldest continent, the first one to pop up, and therefore has had many, many more years of exposure to weather patterns and all that sort of stuff. But not a great deal of Australia is actually reliably farmable, even where I have my property, which is in land from Coffs Harbor and the Orara Valley. You know, we cyclically will have droughts. So, I was actually just hesitant to move on 200-and-something cattle, because we are just unsure that we will have the water and the feed to look after them for the season.
MATTHEWS: Yes. I'm trying to figure out the Australian attitude. There is a great joke about Australia. I hope it doesn't offend you. I guess I'll know if it does, about the guy applying for immigration to Australia.
MATTHEWS: And they say, have you got a criminal record? And he says...
CROWE: ... said it.
MATTHEWS: Is that still required?
MATTHEWS: You like the joke?
CROWE: Yes. Yes.
MATTHEWS: Do you guys still have an attitude about the Poms, the Brits, that we've lost, that they're the imperialists? I look at all the movies like “'Breaker' Morant.” You know, Kitchener is the bad guy. “Braveheart,” Edward Longshanks, the English king is the bad guy. You seem to have that anti-colonial, anti-imperial feeling that we used to have and maybe we're losing because we're getting too big in America.
CROWE: I think our relationship with the English is far warmer than it appears on the surface.
MATTHEWS: Mixed feelings?
CROWE: Well, it's the greatest—it's the greatest competition for us to play any game against England.
CROWE: And the fact that we beat them most of the time in anything, particular at the games that they invented, is a great source of enjoyment. But I think there very definitely is some serious rejection of ideals, given that our side has moved on quite a bit in the last 100 years. You know, we don't really see that the monarchy as any kind of threat. Most people, I suppose, even if they believe in republican ideals for Australia, as in getting rid of all attachments to the monarchy and the Union Jack altogether, they still sort of have an acknowledgement and a slight affection to the fact that this is our past and this is our history.
But the independence thing, the freedom thing, the ...
MATTHEWS: Republic. Are you for a republican Australia?
CROWE: Very definitely. But I am also not into the idea of a republic wherein it brings in more political offices that I would call “jobs for the boys.” I don't see that the current structure that they tried to sell to the Australian public actually has any credibility to it, because it is exactly that. It doesn't actually take into account those freedoms. It just adds more bureaucracy.
Breaking his rule… Crowe talks politics
MATTHEWS: You guys have a different vision of the world than we do, but I noticed when you—I always wonder what Australians think when they see this so-called special relationship between us and the Brits.
You know, the first time we went to war in Iraq, Margaret Thatcher is with Bush Sr. And she says, “Don't go wobbly, George.” All of the sudden, we're at war. Then the president and our president now, the younger Bush, is in league with his partner Tony Blair. You wonder who is leading who.
When you look at the Americans and the British going to war in the Middle East again and again, literally, what's the Australian's view? Are you for or against this?
CROWE: Well, obviously we are fully entwined with what you're doing, because...
MATTHEWS: Are you for it personally, the war in Iraq?
CROWE: No, I am not. Our hand is up first every time you guys say, “This is what we need to do.” But—and I know this is all going to sound extremely ironic, but, you know, I am quite specifically anti-violence.
MATTHEWS: Are you anti this war?
CROWE: What I would like to do is I would like to see is a solution. What I am anti is taking a kind of colonial—colonialization aspect, and, you know, putting roots down there. It's like, OK, there was a specific job to do. Get the job done, bring everybody home. Bring them home safe, as quickly as possible.
Would he ever run for office?
MATTHEWS: Are you going to run for office? You talk politics pretty discernedly there, about Australian politics.
CROWE: No. And, really, quite frankly, I'm—I've probably just broken a cardinal rule of mine as an actor to—discussing politics, because I didn't want to be in a situation where I was refusing an answer to a question, because I really don't think that somebody in my job has got any right to actually stand up and say anything.
You know, my job is entertaining people. And that's what I do, you know?
MATTHEWS: That will be well-received, sir, that comment.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Russell Crowe. Thanks for taking—good luck with the movie, fabulous movie.
"Hardball with Chris Matthews" airs every weeknight at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.
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