LOS ANGELES—Russell Crowe was in a good mood in our latest interview with him. Smiling often, and engaging in joking banter, the actor was effusive in praising his “Les Miserables” co-stars.
While Russell stressed the heavy preparation that he and the cast did for director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the popular musical, mentioning that lead star, Hugh Jackman, led a “monkish” lifestyle to preserve his voice, he also recounted fun times during the London shoot.
“With this group of people, it doesn’t take a second suggestion that we should have fun together,” said Russell who sipped coffee every now and then during our talk. “So, when it was allowable in everybody’s schedule, we would get together on Friday nights. We behaved like a group of actors in musical theater (laughs). We sang songs until the sun came up. It was during those sing-alongs that I fell deeply in love with Anne Hathaway. Apart from what she was doing on the set, she’s a very entertaining young lady with a magnificent voice!”
The Aussie star admitted that he’s a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen. “Big time!,” he exclaimed with a laugh. “It’s probably to an embarrassing degree that I’ve seen everything he’s done—‘Da Ali G Show,’ ‘Borat,’ of course, and I’m one of the few people who think ‘Bruno’ is the pinnacle of his work.”
He rhapsodized about “the opportunity to witness Hugh’s performance, his leadership and artistry every day, the exquisiteness of Anne’s performance, and those of Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit and the rest of the wonderful cast.”
Russell saved his highest praise for Hugh: “Working with Hugh was a joy,” he gushed. “We’ve been friends for quite a while—but, you never know what that’s going to be like on a set. It was fantastic! I was impressed by him every day—how he prepared himself physically, and how he prepared his voice.”
While many knew that Russell sang, recorded and toured with a band, some weren’t aware of his musical side until “Les Miz” came along. Since the film came out, critics generally loved it (and eventually won the Golden Globe Best Picture-Comedy or Musical award), but panned Russell’s singing prowess.
But, we understood Tom Hooper’s reason for casting Russell when he explained it to us in a separate interview: “This was my challenge—I had cast Hugh. To me, it’s all about storytelling. There’s a confrontation, rivalry story between Jean Valjean and Javert. You’ve got to believe that whoever you cast as Javert can get the better of Jean Valjean. You’ve got to believe that Javert can vanquish Valjean for the story to have any suspense at all. How many actors out there, if you put them head to head with Hugh, you think are going to win? I felt that if you’re going to put Wolverine in the ring with Gladiator, it’s a fair fight!”
Tom added, “So, the question then is, can Gladiator sing? I knew about his rock band. Russell came over to London. We talked about it. I discovered that he actually started in musical theater in Sydney. But, still, I said, ‘Russell, you’re going to have to prove it to us—you’re going to have to audition.’”
“In September 2011, he came to New York to a rather intimidating room with me, the creators of the show, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Cameron Mackintosh. In that room, Russell proved to us that he could do it. He sang ‘The Confrontation.’ He was concentrating so hard on his singing that his eyes were shut. I said, ‘You also have to act, as well as sing. You can’t just be so concentrated on your singing.’ He looked at me. Then, the next time he did it, his eyes opened and engaged the full Russell Crowe—and it was amazing!”
Russell admitted that it took a lot of hard work to prepare for the actual filming. “My last major tour was way back in 2006, although I have been doing shows,” he shared. “So, when this opportunity came up, I wasn’t really in a state of preparedness. There was a lot of work involved reclaiming a voice that I once had when I was a younger man.”
He explained how challenging and elaborate the setup was to implement Tom’s idea that the actors sing live, not lip-sync the musical’s beloved pieces: “It was a learning process because it was not only just learning to open up your voice—to increase your range and build the stamina you’re going to need to be on a film set singing,” Russell said. “I give as an example Fantine’s arrest. You have four principals singing in that—Jean Valjean, Fantine, Javert and the fourth guy is the fellow who comes looking for a prostitute. Then, you also have the pimp and the whore, so you actually have six principals singing that piece of music!
“The nature of a film set is that you have to cover in wide, medium and close shot each aspect of what’s going on. The director may make a choice that he wants to group some characters together, so he might want two or three shots. So, if you do that multiplication, you end up singing a lot. In Fantine’s arrest scene, we sang about 48 times. So, that stamina aspect was one of the things that Tom Hooper was looking for in people when he started doing auditions.
“It appeared to be a difficulty in the beginning that everybody would be singing, but the first time everybody tried it, they realized that the lyrics of the songs that they were singing were simply their dialogue, and that they could be imbued with many meanings and shades, just the way any dialogue could. It was that realization that made everybody relax.”
Despite the hurdles, Russell seemed to savor his “Les Miz” experience. “I had such a profoundly enjoyable experience with ‘Les Miz’ that, for the rest of my career, whenever I start another movie, there will be some part of me wishing that I was starting ‘Les Miz’ again,” he remarked. “That’s how much I enjoyed being on this film set.”
So, if the singing part did not scare Russell, what scares him? “I’m not scared of spiders or snakes,” he said with a smile. But, he brings up a co-star’s name in “Noah,” his coming epic biblical drama with director Darren Aronofsky, whom he praised as “an auteur of the highest level,” and shot by Filipino-American Matthew Libatique.
Crowe recounted, “I did a fight sequence with Ray Winstone on ‘Noah.’ It was scheduled for one day. Five days later, I still hadn’t gotten around to killing him yet. He’s a tough man to get down. Usually, when it comes to my work, if there’s fear involved, that’s actually the fun of it. I get butterflies whenever I’m about to go onstage to perform, or when I’m walking toward the cameras. But, to me, that’s not a negative. It just means that I know within myself that I want to do my best!”
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