TORONTO - He couldn’t be a more affable host. He meets you at his hotel suite door with a “Good to see ya again, mate,” inquires if it’s OK to continue smoking and then offers to pour you some coffee.
Yet when he heads to the carafe, you can’t help but take a quick peek to see if there is a telephone within hurling distance.
So is the mercurial legend of Russell Crowe.
On this day, however, only an hour or so after Crowe has charmed and disarmed a roomful of international journalists at a press conference for Crowe’s new film “A Good Year” at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, he is on a bit of a goodwill mission. And in deference to the no-worries, one-of-the-lads attitude he tried to preserve before he became a moody, put-upon movie star, Crowe doesn’t deny it.
“Did I think it would be a good idea to make a movie like this one, where I wasn’t playing some tough, focused warrior of some kind to take the edge off things? Yeah, I did, sure,” says Crowe, who had to eat some after that fateful, phone-wielding altercation with a hotel concierge last year.
“Would I have done it if it hadn’t been a good, funny script and if Ridley (Scott, his director in “Gladiator”) wasn’t directing? I dunno, maybe, maybe not.
“Fortunately, it was a good role and a good script, and it was set in Provence, and Ridley was directing. And I thought if there was ever an opportunity for people to see another side of what it is I do, this was it. The food was good, the company was good, the women were lovely. I was among friends.”
“A Good Year,” opening Friday, tells the story of Max Skinner, a high-powered London investment banker who as a boy (played by Freddie Highmore) spent summers with his wine- and women -cultivating uncle (Albert Finney) on his country estate in the south of France. When the uncle dies, he leaves the estate to Max, who darts over to France expecting to turn a quick sale and profit. But as happens when uptight, ambitious, career-obsessed people go to France, things change.
“A Good Year” is based on a novel by Peter Mayle, but Crowe admits to having only a passing acquaintance with the best seller. Scott - who just happens to spend part of the year in Provence - had suggested that Mayle, his next-door neighbor, write the book. The novel is dedicated to Scott.
“Russell had made films in Australia that showed his softer side, so to speak,” says Scott.
“So I suggested this might be something we could do on the run, so to speak, without all the backgrounding and endless preparation that goes into something like `Gladiator.’ I had finished `Kingdom of Heaven,’ and that had been a major undertaking, and I was looking to something that was a little more spontaneous.”
As for Crowe, he was coming off the box office failure of what he still believes “is one of the best pieces of work I’d done to date,” playing Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock in director Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man,” and awaiting a start date for “Tenderness,” a “lean little drama” he’s since finished with Australian director John Polson.
He had pulled out of a costarring role with Nicole Kidman in an epic war drama to be directed by Baz Luhrmann, allegedly because the cast was asked to defer salaries so Luhrmann could get a larger budget from the studio.
“I do charity work, but not for movie studios,” said Crowe.
Between disbanding his rock group, 30 Odd Feet of Grunts, and forming a new one, the Ordinary Fear of God, Crowe was spending his time making a solo album, tentatively titled “My Hand, My Heart,” with producer Alan Doyle, leader of the Canadian band the Great Big Sea. (It’s available for download on iTunes.com.)
And Crowe was also between children, so to speak; his son Charles was then 2, old enough to travel with Crowe and his wife, Danielle Spencer. Their second son was born June 29 - reportedly a French conception.
“It wasn’t all that tough to convince the missus to go live in an 11th-century chateau in the south of France for two months,” says Crowe. “That was certainly one of the factors involved. But the primary one was that Ridley and I had been wanting to work together again since `Gladiator.’
“So Ridley and I kept talking, and I could see he really wanted to do what he called `our little wine movie.’ So I finally said, `OK, let’s do this,’ even though we really didn’t have a finished script. ... He’s one of those filmmakers you can completely trust. If he says we’ll get this right, I’m inclined to believe him.”
Scott says there were only about 42 pages to the script when they started.
“But I knew when we were in France, ideas would suggest themselves; they always do. Sometimes over a bottle of good red. But Russell’s such an intuitive actor, he knows his characters inside and out before he gets before the camera, which means his improvising is usually on the mark. He’s fast on his feet. And he’s the most graceful masculine actor I’ve worked with. The physical comedy stuff in `A Good Year’ are my favorite bits in the film.”
Scott says the mood and vibrant, colorful look of “A Good Year” was inspired by the comedies of French director Jacques Tati, maker of the playful but sophisticated comedy “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” extolling the joys of French vacations.
“It’s not about belly flopping and banana peels and begging for the laugh,” says Crowe. “It’s about losing yourself in the character and the moment. If you’re playing a control freak like I do in `A Good Year,’ and think you have thoroughly embarrassed yourself, then you’ve probably gotten it right.”
Crowe winces when asked if he considered reminding audiences that he is not “some sort of egomaniacal rage-aholic” to be therapeutic. But he says he hopes making the film and talking about it will prompt people to take a step back “and say, well, maybe he’s not the complete jerk he was made out to be.”
“I made my own bed, as they say, and obviously I behaved stupidly and rashly and I apologized for it. There is a price for everything, and the price of having a career like I do is being on public display, and I should be able to understand that by now. Because really, my whole goal in life at this point is to make one movie every year with Ridley, and if I can do that, things should be fine.”
Crowe is currently on track: He and Denzel Washington are shooting the fact-based “American Gangster” in New York
When shooting finishes, Crowe says, he will segue right into “3:10 to Yuma,” a Western based on an early and terrific short story by Elmore Leonard, costarring Christian Bale.
Though the story was filmed in 1957 with Glenn Ford as a rancher who takes the job of making sure a murdering gunslinger gets on the train that will carry him to justice, Crowe says the character has been substantially altered in the new version.
“Good thing, because I don’t know I could fill Glenn Ford’s boots. Some mornings, I can barely find my own.”