Feature by: Jack Foley
ITS earning rave reviews for all concerned, and has prompted
early talk of Oscar possibilities, yet, incredibly, outspoken
actor, Russell Crowe, originally turned down the role of Captain
Jack Aubrey in Peter Weirs Master & Commander: The Far
Side of the World.
The decision even caused the Aussie star some sleepless nights,
but he was eventually tempted by the allure of working with revered
"Peter was pursuing me for about a year, but I kept saying
'no', because I didn't like the script as it existed," he
explained, as the epic movie set sail in cinemas at the end of
"But I couldn't get over the thought of working with Peter.
I mean, that's been something that's been on my mind since I was
an eight-year-old kid, you know, since I saw The Cars That Ate
Paris, and then it was Picnic At Hanging Rock, and then, with
The Last Wave, which was one of the scariest moments of my childhood.
"Being in a cinema, and seeing not a red London bus, not
a yellow American school bus, but the blue and white New South
Wales transport bus was the one being flooded in the movie. It
was like 'that's the bus I catch to school every day..' And that
impacted on me a lot.
"I simply couldn't get past that and would be waking in
the middle of the night going, 'I'm turning down this opportunity
every actor I know worth their salt would simply say 'yes' to'.
"There are very few directors like that - Scorsese, Kubrick
until his recent passing, and definitely Peter Weir. So it kind
of got me back on the phone again."
The two subsequently met up for a talk, in Sydney, and sat on
the balcony of a place Crowe owns in Elizabeth Bay, which has
a Marina in front of it.
"It was a ridiculously opportune place to have a conversation
about this, with the lapping of the sea and the movement of the
rigging on those yachts down below us," he adds.
Weir, for the record, has also helmed some of the most critically-acclaimed
movies of recent years, from Gallipoli (starring Mel Gibson),
to The Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford), Dead Poets Society (Robin
Williams) and The Truman Show (with Jim Carrey).
Yet, without doubt, Master and Commander represents his most
ambitious task to date, and Crowe quickly found himself getting
into the challenge - both physical and mental - of doing Patrick
OBrians classic novels justice.
"I loved the image that Peter put in my head when we talked
about this man, a sailor with calluses on his hands, who has grown
up in the navy and knows every part of his ship - if the sails
aren't going up fast enough, he will jump down and grab the rope
and see what is causing the problem," explained Crowe.
"And those same callused, thickened hands then pick up this
delicate, feminine instrument, the violin, and he will play from
his heart the things he can never say. And every time I saw future
problems, I couldn't walk away from that description of the character."
With this in mind, Crowe set about giving his all to the character,
learning the violin for the musical interludes, and getting to
grips with the practicalities of working on a 19th Century warship.
Yet while the actor already has musical tendencies, in the form
of his guitar-playing, he admits to finding the violin a little
"The violin was very difficult to start with. I think it
took me six or seven weeks to get over the top of Twinkle, Twinkle
Little Star," he said with a laugh.
"I started off working with Richard Tognetti (virtuoso violinist
with the Sydney Chamber Orchestra, who also composed music for
the film's score)
"It's a really expressive instrument, if I take 40, 45 minutes
warming up, then I can make it sound really beautiful. You have
to treat it with respect. It's a very mysterious instrument in
that sense, you can't be aggressive towards it, because it will
stop giving you a sound but it likes you to be strong, so it's
very feminine in a way."
Yet while it could be suggested that Crowe got in touch with
his feminine side for the violin, the all-action hero emerged
when called upon to take part in some of the movies grander
sequences, as Crowe insisted on doing the rigging climbing and
rope slides himself.
"My stunt double was there, but the point is, if somebody
else does it, it takes away the opportunity for the director to
have a 100 per cent shot, so we came up with the idea of this
shot from the top of the main mast," he explains, sounding
typically stubborn and determined in his own beliefs.
"I asked James D'Arcy [his co-star] to do it with me, because
if it was going to be me, plus a stunt guy up there, a stunt guy
doubling him, it wouldn't be the same thing, and he came up with
me, which was 137 foot; quite a swell."
So did Crowe find the challenge at all intimidating, particularly
when at the top of the mast?
"No. Not at all. You just do it. My thought process wasn't
anything other than what the shot would look like and what the
character I'm playing would be comfortable with. And, quite frankly,
I think it's a lot easier being up there without a safety line
on, because you don't know what you are going to get caught on,
there ropes running everywhere.
"Rule number one is hold on, it's as simple as that, and
get about your business. And I'll tell you, it's a wonderful view
"And it's the same with the rope slide. If this character
has been at sea since he was nine-years-old and served once before
on the ship when he was a younger man, knows every inch of the
ship, and he's an involved captain he is part of the pursuit,
he's not objective, he is the one driving it, that's his love.
So all of those things suits being as involved as you can be."
From listening to Crowe speak, it is easy to imagine that he
doesnt suffer fools gently, or shirk away from anything
he believes in, even if the project at hand seems particularly
Not even the thought of having to face criticism from some of
the novels die-hard fans, for changing some of the aspects
of OBrians writing, appears to have phased him, as
he replies to any such possibilities in suitably bullish fashion.
"The bottom line is Patrick O'Brian has met his demise (the
author died in 2000), and there will be no more books," he
explains. "And, apart from what he has written already, this
is the only way these characters survive and go on for further
"So I think Peter's decision, at the end of the day, not
to be faithful necessarily to any of the books, is totally the
"This way, he gets to live in the period and indulge his
love of detail and yet, at the same time, he has freed himself
up with the characters and the geography of where they go to.
"So, quite frankly, this is where they are going to get
their sugar from, so take it or leave it."
He concludes: "I think if you work towards O'Brian obsessives,
or you work strictly for them, then you are really limiting yourself,
and without them knowing it, you are limiting their enjoyment
But they would argue against that if they are true obsessives,"