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American Gangster - Russell Crowe interview

Russell Crowe is Richie Roberts in American Gangster

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RUSSELL Crowe talks about reuniting with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington for American Gangster, returning an old favour as part of the casting process and working with the real-life Richie [the character he portrays in the movie].

He also talks about the appeal of Frank Lucas, forthcoming projects with Ridley Scott (including Nottingham) and why he feels the director really deserves an Oscar…

This is your third film with Ridley Scott [after Gladiator and A Good Year], so does the experience change?
Russell Crowe: It just gets easier really, we knew when we worked together on Gladiator that we communicated really well. It probably took longer for us to realise that in any given roomful of film people we were the ones we could rely on. I think that’s the thing that gets stronger every time we work together; he had no problem throwing responsibility my way and I really enjoy that. My bottom line is that I think Ridley is one of the greatest visual artists of our time and I feel very privileged that he wants to work with me, so I go with that flow.

And it’s the second time you’ve worked with Denzel Washington [after Virtuosity]…
Russell Crowe: We were both very innocent the first time, yes. We didn’t need this, but the fact that we were mates made this enjoyable to be together again.

But I gather you had a mishap on Virtuosity though?
Russell Crowe: I did [laughs]. Now let’s be clear, Denzel got me that job and at that time in my career, even though I’d done numerous American films, I hadn’t been in a situation where I was the second lead. They auditioned a lot of people, they met a lot of people and the studio had very clear ideas that they wanted somebody recognisable to an American audience. But the director was very strong about me doing the movie so they set up a screen test. It was the scene in the movie that ends up being shot in the back of a paddywagon, a copper car, where my character is raving on [about something].

Anyway, I’m doing my rave and this spittle comes out of my mouth and it winds its way very delicately through the wire fence that separates us and lands clear and bright on Denzel’s lip. And we’re at the beginning of the scene and I’ve got to do the rest of the scene, and the camera isn’t on him, it’s on me – and I’m fully aware that I’ve just spat on Denzel Washington! But he kept going. A lot of other people wouldn’t have. My friend, Jack Thompson, calls it actorplasm. But it’s sitting on his lip and when the director calls cut, Denzel just goes: “You know what? I love the taste of warm saliva in the morning!”

I thought right then that we could very easily be mates because he hadn’t let me down, he hadn’t pulled the plug on me and when the screen-test was over he left the soundstage saying in a very loud voice: “This man is an actor, this man has got to get the job. Is everybody hearing me? This is the man for the job, blah blah blah!” So, by and large 100% he got me the gig.

Interestingly, part way through that film – because I was having a hell of a lot of fun playing an artificial computer-generated serial killer, as you do – he said to me: “Man, I wish I was playing your role…” So, then American Gangster came up and I was sort of connected to it from a long way back because the first director had sent me the script and I’d turned it down and the second director had sent me the script and I turned it down again. But then [producer] Brian Grazer called me and said: “Look, the second production has just collapsed again and it’s very embarrassing – it’s cost a lot of money and it’s a black mark on my career but my storytelling instincts are burning. I know this will be a great movie and I know this should be a film – so do me a personal favour: read it a third time but this time there’s nobody attached to it, it’s clear. So, read it and tell me who the filmmaker should be for this gig.”

So when I read it for the third time, I decided to read it from Denzel’s perspective and I just really wanted to play Frank Lucas. I really wanted to play that character so bad. So I just repaid that loyalty he’d shown me 12 years earlier and I said to Brian Grazer: “The guy for this has got to be Ridley Scott because he’s going to see what’s missing. And what’s missing is that if you have such a compelling bad guy, you’ve got to have the weight of investigation and evidence to bring that bad guy to justice.” And Brian said: “I thought you’d say that. I called Ridley two days ago.” Ridley was interested, so we started talking about it and he in turn called Denzel. Ironically, Denzel had been through this trip twice as well with the two previous directors and I think his first response was: “Well, what have you got man? What’s on your mind?” And so it came together.

Define your relationship with a director…
Russell Crowe: It depends on who the person is but I’ve never met a director who doesn’t need some help. But that’s my gig. I’m there as the lieutenant for the bloke who’s running the show. Ridley’s the governor, he’s a very organised filmmaker and he’s got everything sorted out. He gets the mathematics completely done and he creates time for the actors, which is something that other directors sometimes forget they should be doing. I just love the way Ridley works. You don’t finish a day on a Ridley Scott film thinking: “Oh gosh, I wish I’d had one more opportunity to run up those 12 flights of stairs…” You get done what you want to get done, and you get the time to focus on all of the details.

Do you ever clash?
Russell Crowe: We don’t clash any more, we have differences of opinion – but it’s not a clash. We’re perfecting the art of the wordless argument – which can take place across a crowded room. I know that some of you will assassinate me for saying this but what Ridley and I know about each other is that we’re both very kind and generous people and that’s why we get on.

At what point was your character fleshed out?
Russell Crowe: I think both of the two previous directors knew they had to have a second side to the story. You can’t have such a glamorous and compelling bad guy without bringing him to task. Much as audiences enjoy watching the bad guy do his thing, when the body count starts to rise they want to know that justice will prevail. I think when Steve Zaillian wrote it, he wrote it quite balanced but over time some of it had been affected in one way or the other and you’re talking about an American Jew from New Jersey. At one point Richie was going to be played by Benicio Del Toro, so changes had been made to affect the character that weren’t necessarily based on truth. So, it was a matter of going back through all the drafts and all the reasons why certain changes had been made and seeing what that template was and what parts of Richie’s history really needed to be brought into the story so you could understand what sort of guy he was.

Did you get to meet the real Richie?
Russell Crowe: Richie’s a very humble and reticent man. For me, talking to him was quite difficult; I’d ask a very complicated question and get a one-word answer. But at one point in time I’d made the decision I was going to wear a Star of David because in all the photographs of Richie Roberts he did and had since the late ’60s. But possibly because of the current political climate he saw courage in that and he started to answer my questions. But he’s the kind of bloke that once he starts talking he can condemn himself at the same time he’s trying to help you out. He would say to me: “Look, I really don’t want to be seen as a womaniser…” And then in the next breath he’ll tell you about the time he f****d a stenographer in the broom cupboard of the Supreme Court during the course of a really important case. So it was like: “OK Richie, I’ll do my best!”

Tell us more about your conversations with Richie and how they shaped your character?
Russell Crowe: Well, I didn’t know anything about Richie. He wasn’t like a big feature in what we knew of Frank Lucas, so I wanted to know about him and who he was. The thing I found out was that he was a true patriot – he came out school, had a look around and decided to become a Marine. He went into the Marine corps and whatever he discovered didn’t really satisfy him so he went into the police force. And what he discovered there didn’t satisfy him either, so he went to law school and became a prosecutor. And that didn’t satisfy him either.

Every one of these American institutions that he went into in the country he absolutely believed in was affected by some kind of benign corruption, so he ended up becoming a defence attorney because he could still be a patriot from that point of view. He could be an advocate for people without defence, stand up for people who required defence, and he could stand on the outside of the castle and chuck rocks. He could say: “I don’t care if you’re the president, it’s my duty to ask what the f**k you’re doing mate.” So he stuck to his guns, and he stayed an idealist and he’s still a patriot. I really respect him for that.

His friendship with Frank [Lucas] is intriguing…
Russell Crowe: Yes, and Richie and Frank are still mates today. They’ve been friends longer than they’ve been adversaries. I asked Richie about that quite a lot. And he said: “Look, the way I’d have to explain it is that when a criminal decides to turn against his brother criminals, they do so in a rush and they do so with a certain energy. No stone will be unturned. Everyone’s going down. And I have to sit in a room with the guy for six months going through it point to point, detail to detail. We began to achieve things together and one by one we arrested these guys. It became a sport.”

At the end of the day, they incarcerated 75% of the special investigations unit set up specifically in New York City to combat drugs, and three out of every four of those men were building lifestyles based on drug money. So, that’s a massive achievement and they did it together. If you think of any way of bonding between people, male or female, you have that kind of shared achievement and there’s going to be a strong bond. Theirs has lasted all their lives. When Frank was released from prison and required defending, Richie stepped in as his defence attorney. So, he was the cop who tracked him down, the prosecutor who put him away, the bloke who took all the information off him and the guy who defended him when he got out of prison. I think these guys were in love!

What appealed so much to you about the character of Frank Lucas? You mentioned that you would have loved to have played him yourself…
Russell Crowe: Well, if you’re talking about Frank Lucas in American corporate terms, you’d be talking about a guy who had universities named after him and there would be scholarships in the name of Frank Lucas. The brilliance and genius with which he applied his particular thing, which was selling heroin, was equivalent to Bill Gates in his particular thing. This was a guy who decided to circumvent all usual channels, cut out the American Mafia completely from the thing they did, which was supply drugs, find his own source and come up with the concept of flying the heroin he found in south east Asia back into America in the body bags of dead soldiers. Now, you can look at that as a horrific thing – and it’s heroin, so you can have a certain attitude to it… but if you flipped that over into a series of decisions for some other product, it’s brilliant. He’s a guy that had $150m in the bank when he was arrested in 1974, which is equivalent to a couple of billion today. He’s a compelling figure and a movie should be made about him.

According to various reports you have three more films with Ridley Scott, including Nottingham. Is that true and what sort of spin will it have?
Russell Crowe: We’re currently thinking we’ll be in production between February and June but a lot of things will be solidified when we read that script, depending on how much work we feel we need to do. The writer is Brian Helgeland, who won the Academy Award for LA Confidential, so there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to be decent but we’ll evaluate that when we get it. Just recently, we were both contacted by David Geffen who has a project taht’s been on his mind and burning for a long time. We’ve taled about it in some detail, we both agree with David that it’s a really compelling story, so it would appear – and who knows how these things work out – that we’ve got at least two more projects together, yes.

Will the sheriff of Nottingham be more than a pantomime villain this time around?
Russell Crowe: [Smiles] I’m a big Robin Hood fan and have been since I was a little kid. But if you go back into the history of the mythology, you get back to the ballads of Robin the Beheader, who would chop off your head and your hands and take all your money and not give any of it to anybody. So we’ll have a look at that. We’ll have a look at how the mythology morphed over time, who was in power and what was the current church we should all attend – and in this country that changed quite regularly! And then we’ll look at the Hollywood mythology ad how much of that is embedded in the psyche of people when they think of Robin Hood. I tell you this – Richard the Lionheart won’t be bounding up in the last scene and saving the day [chuckles]. I mean the bloke only spoke French and only spent six months of his 10-year reign in England. And besides, Richard Harris is dead.

Both you and Denzel have been down the Oscar path before but astonishingly Ridley Scott hasn’t. Should this be his year?
Russell Crowe: If there’s any director that I know who deserves an Oscar it’s Ridley Scott. But I don’t want to engage in conversations like that because it just puts the film into a situation that all the other people who’ve got films coming out want you to be in – discussing it so that it burns out. The thing is that Ridley’s work, whether he’s awarded or not, is work that will stand the test of time. He’s one of the hugely influential film directors that exists. The films that have been influenced by Blade Runner, the special effects that have been influenced since Alien, how he took CGI from architecture and landscape, and brought Oliver Reed back to life to do a couple of scenes that he wasn’t alive for. This is amazing stuff. I think he’s deserving of any honour that comes his way.

How do your own two lads perceive you and how you propose to keep their feet on the ground?
Russell Crowe: That’s a really big question because it’s an ongoing thing, it’s not something I can solve today, you know? That’s going to be something I’m dealing with and adjusting to for the rest of my life. That’s the gig, being a dad. I didn’t grow up in the situation I’m in now, so I don’t know what to tell him about this and how people will be affected by how they treat him because of what they think of me. They’re both in for a good deal of stick when they’re at school, one way or another. We’ll just deal with it as it comes along man, like every other parent.

Both my wife and I are very aware that we need to work against privilege and at this point of time my son is nearly four and he thinks a box of sultanas is the greatest gift God ever sent to earth. And if I can keep him in that place where simple things bring great pleasure, where going for an ATV ride around the farm and spending an afternoon talking to the cows is something he’ll discuss with his friends for a week, then that will be a great advantage to both of us. There will be a point where the world impacts on him, and the only thing I can guarantee is that I’ll be as close to him as I possibly can and be around to answer his questions and guide him along as required.

Do you feel a lot of pressure when choosing roles, post-Oscar?
Russell Crowe: I don’t think about it in the least. I do the things that interest me. And I go to work every day. All the other stuff is other people. It’s got nothing to do with me. You can’t engage in that kind of conversation without being a complete f*****g wanker, so let’s move on…

What gangster movies is your favourite?
Russell Crowe: Um… Bugsy Malone. I’ve always loved Jodie Foster. Second would be Johnny Dangerously because of the way that guy kept saying: “You furrugging icehole” [laughs] There’s a lot of gangster movies out there man, and a lot of cool ones. But those are two of my favourite.

b>Read our review of American Gangster

  1. Great interview, thanks! There’s another film coming out soon in the UK which looks quite similar, ‘Cocaine Cowboys’. It’s about Miami, whereas American Gangster was about NY. Anyway, good stuff, cheers

    Cocaine Cowboys have a website, which I think is www.cocainecowboys.co.uk. It looks awesome.

    Ed    Nov 15    #