Despite the scepticism of many, including myself, Russell Crowe did in fact spend the last couple of days in Durham. My doubt may never have been quashed had I not been so fortunate as to actually shake his hand and spend the three quickest minutes of my life with him and Bill Bryson. Visiting the university with his friend Bryson, our departing Chancellor, Russell Crowe spent his time meeting and speaking with many members of Durham’s thriving dramatic community. Yesterday morning, he taught a master class to some of Durham’s most talented actors, and in the evening he spoke to the wider DST community, in addition to showing us a ninety-minute home movie he made shortly after filming Gladiator.
Durham’s good fortune in having such a prestigious guest was precipitated by a conversation over dinner at the Dorchester six years ago, which Crowe had invited Bryson to because he admired the writer’s accurate portrayal of Australian culture in his book Down Under. After a few beers, Crowe made “the rash and immodest promise” to one day teach a Drama class at Durham. Upon hearing that Bryson will soon be leaving his post at the university, Crowe decided to see his promise through, much to the delight of about two hundred and twenty thrilled DST members.
In the morning, Crowe was very patient with the numerous interviewers, pausing only for a brief cigarette break. He had spent three hours with twenty-four aspiring actors earlier in the morning, during which he taught them about interpretation, leadership and original thought. Crowe said he was “quite surprised” at how much he enjoyed the class, and admired the abilities of the students, who said the actor is “absolutely lovely”.
His advice to hopeful actors is that drive and desire are crucial. Crowe himself went through what he called a nineteen year apprenticeship of rejection, which began when his father found himself unemployed, and it was easier for the young Russell Crowe to find work than it was for his father, so he gave up on his idea of studying History at university, and began the journey that has led him to become the superstar he is today.
In the evening, Crowe showed us a film he made on a motorcycle road trip to Darwin, Australia, with his friends in 1999. The Durham audience was the first to ever see the film, although Crowe said he had mentioned it to Ewan McGregor, and joked that McGregor nicked the idea for Long Way Round. After the film, the audience wrote down their questions, which were then read out by Bill Bryson for Crowe to answer. Among his responses was the wisdom that “Fame is good shit”, which he qualified by saying the best part of being famous was what he has been able to give to his parents, who gave him so much when he was younger. His thoughts about the theatre were, in his words, “smart-assy”. Crowe believes that it is difficult enough already to convince people to come to the theatre, and that anyone who bores their audience should be fined. He says that if you are putting on a play, it is not your privilege to bore your audience.
When asked by one audience member which he values more, the friends he embarked on his road trip with or his career, Crowe had a difficult time answering. While he did say, “I know that I belong on film sets”, he ultimately decided that if it came down to it, he would have to choose his friends. Crowe’s hobbies include sport and cattle farming, because he is very interested in clean food sources, but the primary focus of his life is his sons Charlie and Tennyson. Crowe says that having children changed his priorities, and that there is nothing more fun and fulfilling. He is also a self-proclaimed lego master who loves Mary Poppins.
Russell Crowe told an amusing story about how he turned down Viggo Mortensen’s role as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, the stupidity of this action he now realises. Even worse, this mistake was compounded by the fact that the Lord of the Rings budget was under pressure, and their only way of paying his salary was to offer him ten per cent of the revenue of the first film. He joked that had he been two hundred and ninety million dollars richer, he probably would not have come to Durham. Lucky for us then that he didn’t take the role.
Accompanying Crowe was a pair of Irish singers who go by the name of size2shoes. The hilarious and gifted musicians, friends of Crowe, performed some impressive numbers, but the highlight of the evening was without a doubt when Crowe returned to the stage to sing and play guitar himself. Although he claimed that he doesn’t “consider singing in tune that fucking important”, his false modesty was proven by his excellent rendition of Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman.
Having never been further north in the UK than York, Crowe enjoyed his visit, calling Durham a “spectacularly beautiful place”. He was staying at Wynyard Hall, and was very keen to see the Angel of the North. He is now on his way to Scotland for the first time.
Without wanting to neglect Bill Bryson, I must say he is one of the nicest men you could possibly meet. Sweetly acknowledging that Crowe was the main attraction of the day, Bryson seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and didn’t once stop smiling. He even made a few jokes of his own in the evening, and told the audience how his children call him “knobhead”, much to the embarrassment of his son and daughter who were watching from the audience, and who were quick to point blame at each other for the nickname.
For my fellow Canadians, contrary to popular belief, Russell Crowe is not a Toronto Maple Leafs fan; his loyalty lies with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He does, however, know the Canadian national anthem and has been known to sing it to his sons using puppets.
Russell Crowe was all affability throughout the day, but he did make one rather unusual remark. When I mentioned that I am interested in theatre criticism, and proceeded to ask him what he thought the function of criticism is in his line of work, he brusquely replied something about it providing a job for people without skills. He was vague about whether he meant acting skills or skills at all, and as my three minutes were quickly running out I didn’t have time to press him further. I find it difficult to believe that a man who had been so friendly to everyone and so encouraging to the young actors he had been teaching would have been quite so unkind to an aspiring writer of nineteen, but perhaps he did mean criticism provides jobs for people without skills at all. Perhaps that was the one glimpse of the day of the notorious moody side of Russell Crowe. Unfortunately, I’ll never know.