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Master & Commander - I think if you work towards O'Brian obsessives, or you work strictly for them, then you are really limiting yourself

Feature by: Jack Foley

IT’S 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 Weir’s 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 director, Weir.

"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 November.

"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 O’Brian’s 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 more taxing.

"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 movie’s 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 up there.

"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 doesn’t suffer fools gently, or shirk away from anything he believes in, even if the project at hand seems particularly daunting.

Not even the thought of having to face criticism from some of the novels’ die-hard fans, for changing some of the aspects of O’Brian’s 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 adventures.

"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 correct decision.

"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 as well.

But they would argue against that if they are true obsessives," he laughs.

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