When Russell Crowe starred in 1992 skinhead tale Romper Stomper, American critics talked about his animal magnetism, "powerful and terrifying" performance, and compared him to Marlon Brando. There have been many more rave reviews for Crowe's acting work since — plus an Oscar, a BAFTA and two Golden Globes.
Although he spent his first four years and some of his high school period in New Zealand, Crowe's "formative years" were in Australia. In 2000 he told Juice magazine he didn't differentiate between the two countries — and that he carries a Southern Cross, "something that covers both".
Movie sets were part of Crowe's upbringing. His grandfather was cinematographer Stan Wemyss; his parents did catering for film and television. Thanks to them, he made his acting debut at age six in Spyforce, a TV show created by Kiwi expat Roger Mirams.
Around the age of 14, Crowe transferred from Sydney Boys' High School to Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. Within three years he'd left school to continue working as a nightclub DJ. Although keen on acting, Crowe initially chased a music career, forming pop-rock band Roman Antix (the band later morphed into 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, and some members played in Crowe's later group The Ordinary Fear of God). He sang 'I Wanna be like Marlon Brando' under the stage name Russ le Roq — to differentiate himself from his famous cricketing cousins, Martin and Jeff.
Crowe sang on this episode of teen show Shazam, auditioned unsuccessfully to play a musician on series Heroes, and can be seen as a fresh-faced youth club promoter in this 1984 Radio with Pictures special. He moved back to Australia after winning a part in a touring Australasian production of The Rocky Horror Show, the first of a number of musical roles.
Based initially in an Australian $50 a week room in King's Cross, Crowe waited tables and busked in King's Cross between auditions, but refused to do advertisements, believing "acting is not all about the money".
"I've never been to acting school, I learned on my feet," he told Juice. By the early 90s, opportunities to learn on the job were growing. Aged 25, he got his first big-screen leading role: Aussie romance The Crossing saw him co-starring with future wife Danielle Spencer. He impressed in Spotswood with Bruno Lawrence, and after rejecting advice not to do it, won his first Australian Film Institute award for drama Proof.
The film which really turned heads was 1992 hit Romper Stomper. Crowe played Hando, charismatic leader of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads. New York Times critic Stephen Holden was among those who felt that the film's attitude to its main characters was disturbingly ambivalent. Holden partly blamed Crowe; he wrote that the actor's "mixture of menace and animal magnetism suggests a post-punk answer to Marlon Brando in The Wild One ... in Mr Crowe's portrayal he exudes an antiheroic charisma that could persuade more forgiving audience members to take him as a role model, a sexy rebel with the wrong cause."
After playing gay son to Jack Thompson in The Sum of Us, and co-starring in Canadian bomber pilot drama For the Moment, Crowe made his American debut in 1995, with Sam Raimi Western The Quick and the Dead.
Impressed by Crowe's "captivating" work in Romper Stomper, American director Curtis Hanson cast him as hardboiled cop Bud White in twisty film noir LA Confidential. It won near universal acclaim, 70 plus awards, and Oscar and Bafta nominations for Best Picture. Offered a plethora of cop roles, Crowe chose instead a couple of smaller films, before the triple punch that would turn him into an international star: The Insider, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind.
Two of the films showed that Crowe could do more than tough guys; the last demonstrated that gladiators still had box office life in them. For Michael Mann's The Insider, he aged 20 years and added 35 pounds in order to play real-life whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. He was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. The following year Crowe won the Oscar, for Ridley Scott blockbuster Gladiator.
Though the script had not been finalised when Crowe got involved, he signed on because of a few key elements: "It's Ridley Scott, it's 185 AD, and you begin the movie as a Roman general." He described the shoot as "an unrelenting physical experience". Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture, as did 2001's A Beautiful Mind, in which Crowe portrayed maths genius and schizophrenia sufferer John Nash. Although warned by other directors that Crowe could be "kind of difficult", Beautiful Mind helmer Ron Howard found Crowe was perfect at creating empathy and portraying the brilliance of the real-life Nash. Crowe won a number of awards for the role, including a Bafta, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild gong.
Since then the actor has collaborated with Ridley Scott another four times: on Italian romance A Good Year, drug drama American Gangster (which won raves for Crowe and co-star Denzel Washington), spy thriller Body of Lies (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and as Robin Hood, opposite Cate Blanchett as Marion.
There was further acclaim in 2003 thanks to Peter Weir-directed seafaring adventure Master and Commander, based on a series of Patrick O'Brian novels set in the early 1800s. New York Times critic AO Scott praised the "stupendously entertaining" film as "a study of male camaraderie under duress", with Crowe's character commanding the ship as "an ideal personification" of modern executive authority.
Crowe was nominated for multiple awards — including a Golden Globe — for based on a true story boxing tale Cinderella Man (2005), directed by Beautiful Mind's Ron Howard. With the 2007 release of Western 3:10 to Yuma, came further comparisons to Marlon Brando. Describing his performance as cultivated gangster Ben Wade, New Yorker critic David Denby called Crowe "an acting genius".
Fresh from singing in a big-budget adaptation of musical Les Misérables (2012), Crowe played Superman's father in Man of Steel, then starred as Noah ("his strongest performance in years", said Time's Richard Corliss) in quasi-biblical tale Noah, from Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky.
Crowe became an awards show regular once more in 2020, after starring as disgraced Fox News boss Roger Ailes in miniseries The Loudest Voice. The role scored him a Golden Globe and American Screen Actors Guild Award. He went on to star as the villain in road rage thriller Unhinged, one of the first movies to get a big screen release — and find success —after Covid-19 closed cinemas around the globe.
Crowe made his solo directing debut in December 2014 with The Water Diviner. , after having co-directed 2002 concert film Texas. Within six days of its Australian release, it had become the most successful local film of the year. The WWl-era drama sees Crowe playing a man who sets off for Turkey to find renewal, in the aftermath of Gallipoli. Hollywood Reporter critic Megan Lehmann praised his "affecting, understated performance". As a director, Crowe "underplays the allegories" so that they "seep through the narrative organically".
In 2006 Crowe sat down for this extended interview with Paul Holmes. He was joined at one point by his cousin Martin. The same year he became one of the owners of rugby league team the South Sydney Rabbitohs. In 2010 he was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 31 August 2020
Richard Corliss, 'Review: Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Better Than the Book' - Time Magazine, 27 March 2014
David Denby, 'Eastern, Western' (Review of 3:10 to Yuma) - The New Yorker, 3 September 2007
Paul Ham, 'A star is brawn' - The Sunday Times, 16 June 2002
Stephen Holden, 'Review/Film; Of Skinheads High on Hate And Violence' (Review of Romper Stomper) - The New York Times, 9 June 1993
Megan Lehmann, ''The Water Diviner': Film Review' - The Hollywood Reporter, 9 December 2014
Michele Manelis, 'Mad Maximus' (Interview) - Juice Magazine, May 2000, page 60
John Millar, 'Blade Runner' (Interview)- Film Review, June 2000
Shari Roan, 'Q & A Russell Crowe' (Interview) - The Face, June 2000, page 138
Desmond Sampson, 'Russell Crowe's Chaos Theory' (Interview) - Pavement, number 52, April 2002, page 112
AO Scott, 'Master of the Sea (and the French)' (Review of Master and Commander) The New York Times, 14 November 2003