It’s an early autumnal evening in Nyack, New York, and the squirrels are providing free entertainment for Charlie Crowe and his dad. The toddler – he’ll be three in December – jabbers away to the old man, before breaking off his patter to chase a particularly frisky rodent across the vast lawn.
Crowe Sr is content. His family – wife Danielle and new baby Tennyson (born in July) – arrived in America a couple of weeks earlier and, as he puts it, “I feel whole again.”
He’s been in Nyack, on and off, for four months, during which time he’s made two movies (Tenderness and American Gangster; playing police detectives in both). Most of the inhabitants of this picture-postcard town in upstate New York haven’t got a clue that the resident of the late actress Helen Hayes’ beautiful former home, with its gardens which sweep down to the banks of the Hudson, is the erstwhile Maximus Decimus Meridius: father, husband, grabber of tabloid headlines and arguably the greatest actor of his generation.
If he’s ventured out into town at all, it’s been for an espresso at the local Café Art or a quiet meal at one of the restaurants. Mostly, he’s stayed at home.
“Mate, I’ve loved it here,” he says. “It’s quiet and it’s beautiful, right by the river, and it’s just been about doing the work and nothing else. I missed the family, I always do, but they’re here now, so all is good.”
All is indeed very good. In fact, you might say that Crowe has enjoyed A Good Year (the title of his second collaboration with director Ridley Scott) and then some. As he will tell you, his philosophy these days is to relax, kick back and enjoy it all as much as he possibly can: life, like a decent bottle of red wine, is to be savoured.
In the past, the pressures of physically demanding, long film shoots (Gladiator, Proof Of Life, A Beautiful Mind, Master And Commander, Cinderella Man) sometimes took their toll through eruptions of frustration – culminating in the infamous phone-throwing incident. These ‘incidents’ invariably ended up in the papers and helped forge an image of a hellraiser that Crowe clearly resents. It’s too pat, too convenient.
In reality, he’s far more complex: funny, passionate, kind, interesting, ferociously bright and yes, at times, demanding and direct, his temper likely to flare up if you press the wrong buttons. Right now, however, he’s the happiest he’s ever been, his new-found contentment even eclipsing the joy he found in his early triumphs in America (LA Confidential) and in cosying up to Oscar (Gladiator).
His priorities have changed. Never again, he claims, will he commit to another gruelling, time-guzzling epic like Gladiator or Cinderella Man. To do so would be to take sides against his family. “And none of this is that tabloid bullshit that I’ve changed my spots,” he says. “It’s the same guy. I’m just a 42-year-old guy; I’m not the 28-yearold guy.”
After putting Charlie to bed, Crowe, wearing dark blue sweatpants and a T-shirt, heads to the porch for “a chat”. The lights are dancing on the Hudson but he’s too tired to care – he wrapped on American Gangster, his latest outing with Ridley Scott, yesterday. In three weeks’ time he’ll start work on James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 To Yuma, the classic Glenn Ford Western, alongside Christian Bale and Peter Fonda.
His second film with Scott, the comedy A Good Year, is the flip-side of Gladiator – and that’s why they did it. He plays Max (yes, the play on Maximus is intentional), a ruthless London bonds trader who would sell his granny for a few extra thousand on a deal. When he inherits his uncle’s vineyard in Provence, France, his first instinct is to sell for top dollar as soon as possible. But when he arrives in the Provence, Max rediscovers the one place on Earth where he was happy – much of his childhood was spent on these rambling grounds, learning life lessons from his beloved Uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Throw in some physical comedy (“My Harold Lloyd stuff,” grins Crowe), some intrigue (Abbie Cornish plays an American who might be his uncle’s illegitimate child – and rightful heir), some romance (the charming Marion Cotillard) and plenty of plonk and you have the makings of a pleasant night out.
Crowe is mellow and reflective, happy to talk about his past, his plans and why his outlook on work has changed. As ever, he shoots from the hip. “Fire away,” he says, lighting up a Benson & Hedges. And indeed we do…
A Good Year is a very different project to Gladiator. How did you and Ridley come to decide on this one?
There was so much expectation after Gladiator and, of course, everybody expected us to do something with buckets of blood and masses of action and all of that sort of stuff. But for us, this neutralises all of those expectations; it just lets people know that we’re not going to start making things for other people. We didn’t do it before and we’re certainly not going to start now. We’re going to do the thing we want to do. It’s also snapped our own trepidation of facing our previous success. Now we can do whatever the fuck we want and that’s what we’re doing now.
So that takes the pressure off American Gangster?
Yeah. If we hadn’t done A Good Year, we would be less effective as a partnership on this. And it’s the same old deal with me and him: we never seem to do a movie that’s totally ready to shoot. But here’s Ridley’s line of progression: 21 pages we started shooting with on Gladiator, 48 pages we started shooting with on A Good Year and, like, 64, 65 pages on American Gangster. He looked at me and said, “We’re showing an improvement.”
So what do you do about that?
Well, we work on it together until we have something that’s ready to shoot. And if that means working on it during filming, then that’s what we do. It just seems to be the way we work!
Was A Good Year a good laugh to make?
It was lovely and I had a great time. Geographically the place [Provence, southeast France] is gorgeous. Living in a rural area that is so intensively farmed also comes with its own great reward, because you get to see how the landscape changes and unfolds from season to season. We arrived there in the middle of summer and were surrounded by green vines and green trees; two months later, it’s all dark reds, oranges and yellows.
Your character Max is a money-making machine when we first meet him, but he’s lost his way. Is that part of what you liked?
Yes. He’s taken all of these wonderful things that a very smart man, Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), taught him and he’s learned them all. They’re inside him and in a way they’re completely embedded within him. He’s taken certain things about competition that his uncle taught him and he’s brought them to the forefront of his thinking, to the point where he’s actually forgotten the second part of the lesson – that competition is fun, it’s enjoyable and it’s not just about the process of winning. You must taste both sides of the game in order to fully appreciate what it is to win.
How would you describe the film?
I think that’s one of the problems: if you try to market this as a romantic comedy, then it’s not really going to fulfil that because it goes deeper. It may be relatively frivolous entertainment but it’s still a journey of self-discovery or rediscovery. It’s about reincarnation in a way. Gladiator was about death: Maximus’ drive in that film was to join his wife and child in the afterlife. When we started, Ridley said, “Maximus has got to die at the end and the studio are not going to like it and it’s going to kill us for a sequel. But in order for us to fulfil what we’re doing, he has to die. It’s about death.” And when we first talked about A Good Year, what I liked was this 10-minute synopsis he gave me. I said, “This is about reincarnation.” You could say there are large parts of Max Skinner that have died; he needs to rediscover his childhood and his love of the important things in life.
When you were younger, did anyone give you good advice?
I was very lucky. I had a great relationship on set with Bryan Brown [Prisoners Of The Sun, 1990] and Tony [Anthony] Hopkins [Spotswood, 1992] and Denzel Washington [Virtuosity, 1995], so all the way along I’ve managed to find friendships. And I don’t wish to imply that it’s hard to find friendship among actors, because the opposite is true: it’s very easy to walk into a room of actors and just socialise. We’re gregarious in the right comfort zone, we talk and communicate and share. I mean, “all in it together” is the kind of attitude. If you’ve grown up doing the job, you have that attitude – and if you’ve come in later in life, or from some other way, you may not understand that attitude. But when you’ve done community theatre, been in the chorus line of a stage musical and then slowly built up a reputation that gets you leading roles, then you do have that attitude. I’ve seen this business from every side. I’ve seen it from being a child extra at the age of six and I’ve seen it from being an Academy Award winner.
What’s the perspective of an Oscar-winner like?
It’s one of those funny things. Some times I look at it and there’s just an amazing feeling of fulfilment because, even though it’s really uncool to ever say it out loud [laughs], there was definitely a desire to be recognised at that height. Did I ever think it was possible? No, of course not. Did I think it was real and tangible and all of that stuff? Nope, none of those things. That’s one of the things about ambition, you have to make sure it’s above what you think is reasonable – otherwise it’s not really being ambitious.
These days you’re relied upon to carry a film. Do you feel the weight of that responsibility?
I went through a period of doing that. And I suppose A Good Year is that way as well. But American Gangster is half me, half Denzel. I finished my half of the production and then it was up to him to construct his part of the story. This is a 14-week total schedule and my part of that was seven weeks.
And that’s been more enjoyable?
Yes, it has. I look back on some of the schedules for some of the movies that I’ve done, like A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, and I can’t see myself voluntarily going on to those 20-week-plus shoots ever again in my life.
Yes, something’s clicked. It’s changed.
I think it’s a big sandwich of things. Some of it is definitely to do with family and not requiring from the job the love and affection or whatever that I now have with my family. And it probably puts me in a position of weakness to say this out loud, but some of it is about committing yourself so much to something like Cinderella Man and then having such a disappointing result, when you know that the actual movie you made fulfilled everything you were trying to do. There’s a certain sort of unfairness in that which brings you back to reality. It makes you think to yourself, “Okay, so what’s important?”
So you’re saying you won’t do a shoot like Cinderella Man again? Can you expand on that a little?
Well, you get to that point where you have been through experiences like that and you look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Why should I take this so seriously? Why do I take this so seriously?” For me, it’s always been about fulfilling the narrative. Telling the story and being that character on behalf of the audience. But at the end of the day…
What? External elements take it out of your hands?
Yes. It’s about marketing, it’s about zeitgeist, it’s about what other people have been doing. And what I found out with these last three movies (A Good Year, Tenderness, American Gangster) is that I can have more fun on a daily basis. I can be a kinder person. And this makes me a better collaborator because people seek you out to collaborate, as opposed to you driving the collaboration. I’m not sure that I have it in me to do any other sort of film now. So in this big, long arc I’ve come to be the person that says, “Learn the lines and enjoy it for what it is.” There are more important things.
So the work doesn’t completely define who you are?
No, it can’t. I’ve got a family. I’m a father and I want to be there for my children. The more at ease you are with yourself, the better that is for your children – and then comes time and patience and all of that. It takes a while but, at this point, I’m not on the zeitgeist dartboard any more. I’m not doing the big profile projects, or definitely not in the way that A Beautiful Mind, Master And Commander and Cinderella Man were perceived. I’m working with my friend, Rid, and we’re taking ideas that we think are great, getting what we believe is a reasonable budget and jamming – just having a bit of fun, y’know?
But do you regret any of the decisions you made earlier?
Fuck, no. Look, there are lots of jobs I didn’t do that went on to become successful and there’s lots of jobs I didn’t do that went straight to the garbage can. But I look at my CV and I look at Proof, Romper Stomper, LA Confidential, The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master And Commander, Cinderella Man… they are all quality films.
I’ve got no regrets whatsoever. I’m a wealthy guy but the path I’ve taken has made me less wealthy than I could be. None of these things I regret. One of the things that bugs me is the cheap and nasty suggestion that I did A Good Year because I wanted to change my ‘image’ in some way. Bullshit. I committed to it long before any of that stuff.
After Cinderella Man you had a relatively quiet period until A Good Year. Why was that?
I’ve had a lot of people busting my nuts because I haven’t made the decisions that would have made for better business during the last couple of years. I won’t do blockbuster films for blockbuster wages. But like I said, I can’t really see a time in the future when I will make those decisions. I mean, fuck, give me something interesting to do. That’s all I’m looking for. And you can send me the stuff that comes with the big cheque and all that shit, but if it’s rubbish it’s rubbish. What smelled like bullshit in 1989 still smells like bullshit in 2006.
So where does that leave you in terms of work?
Well, I can use my position in the business, my reputation, my friendships, to engineer the schedule of something like A Good Year – we made a film at the pace we wanted to make it, with the amount of money we needed. If I can continue to do that, then I will.
Recently, I did a movie called Tenderness and I did that for other reasons and they’re still valid as far as acting is concerned. I was directed by John Polson, who has been a friend for a long time and who I acted in two movies with [Prisoners Of The Sun, The Sum Of Us]. It was interesting to do that. Part of what I was there for was to establish his authority as a director and platform him. That’s good: it’s all about the other bloke. Within the parameters he set, I tried to bring him something surprising. I enjoyed it. And you know what? I just seek enjoyment in simple ways from this job. That’s where I’m at right now.
Click here to read our cinema review of A Good Year.