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Russell Crowe gives EW a piece of his ''Mind''

The mercurial brooder talks about Meg, movies, madness, and more

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Russell Crowe
Russell Crowe: Photograph by Nigel Parry

In ”A Beautiful Mind,” Russell Crowe plays a mathematical genius who finds covert messages hidden in the text of otherwise innocuous magazine and newspaper clippings. If he were looking at this article, for instance, he’d be convinced it was riddled with secret codes, that its words were encrypted with a cache of classified information.

Actually, in this case, he wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Classified information of a sort is divulged in this story, although none of it is hidden, much less encrypted. The following pages contain, for instance, secret documentation on how Crowe prepared for his performance as John Forbes Nash Jr. — a role based on the stranger-than-fiction tale of the real-life Princeton mathematician who, despite a decades-long battle with delusional schizophrenia, ultimately won a Nobel prize in economics.

It’s a role, apparently, that Crowe was born to play. ”He’s not entirely unlike Nash,” suggests director Ron Howard, who spent three months shooting the film with the famously meticulous actor. ”He’s highly intelligent and he has this self-confidence that you could define as arrogance — all qualities which Nash was supposed to embody.” Little wonder, then, that Crowe’s latest turn is already generating the sort of Oscar buzz not heard since, well, since he won for ”Gladiator” last year and was nominated for ”The Insider” the year before.

But other secrets are also revealed in the interview below (conducted in early December at Crowe’s Bel Air hotel suite), with the scruffily handsome 37-year-old star allowing a rare glimpse into a mind that’s sometimes beautiful, often boisterous, but never in the least bit boring.

Ron Howard says that you could be ”mercurial” on the set but otherwise your behavior was ”exemplary.” He says you ask a lot of ”good, hard questions.” High praise considering what other directors have said about you. You have a reputation for being a little difficult…
A reputation built mainly by people who are not confident, who find my questions threatening.

Howard didn’t?
There wasn’t anything we couldn’t discuss. The lines of communication were totally open. That doesn’t happen on every movie. In fact, this was a first.

You must be pretty happy with your performance, then.
I always say I’ve given 24 insufficient performances and I’m looking forward to the time in my life when I’ll do something that I think is good.

You’re unhappy with your performances in all of your films? Even your last three or four?
There’s always stuff you can do better, stuff that maybe you didn’t uncover enough. But if you do something that you truly believe is perfect, then that’s got to be the last movie you do. If it’s not a search, if you don’t think of yourself as a student of the art form, then you should stop doing it.

So, as a student of the art form, how did you approach the role of John Nash? Did you visit mental hospitals for research?
No. I don’t like the idea of prodding people. There are lots of other ways to get that sort of information without invading people’s privacy. Especially for somebody like me, who spends so much time telling people to f— off and get out of my life. Research is about observation, not about, you know, sticking your fingers in people’s navels.

But you did meet with the real Nash?
Not at first. I had him answer specific questions on videotape. I didn’t want to pressure Nash by sitting directly in front of him — not because of any reputation I have, but just because I’m the guy playing him. But eventually he came on the set and we met. I asked him one simple question, which he took 15 minutes to answer.

What was the question?
Whether he wanted a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. We ended up using part of his answer in the film. There’s a scene where someone asks me if I want a cup of tea and I start muttering about how I don’t know what kind of tea they serve, whether or not it would be suitable for my palate, if it had the density of flavor that appeals to me.

I heard you wore false fingernails to make your hands look longer.
They were fake only for the first three or four days. I ended up growing my nails throughout the rehearsal process. Ron Howard had this video of Nash giving a lecture and I saw the way he used the chalk on a blackboard. His fingers were long and tapered and mine are not, so I grew my nails. It’s not a visual thing — you can’t see it in the film. It was to make me feel more like Nash in the performance. Because the thing about long nails is you have to be more careful how you pick things up, how you touch things. It forces you to be a little more graceful with your hands.

”A Beautiful Mind” is based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of Nash, but there’s a lot of material in the book that didn’t make it into the film. Anything you regret losing?
A certain adventurousness in his sexuality.

You mean the speculation in the book that he may have had homosexual tendencies?
Exactly. And that was a big question for us, how far to go into that. It was relevant to his character, but we didn’t want to imply that there was any possibility that schizophrenia and homosexuality are related. That would be ridiculous.

So you decided not to put it in the movie?
Oh, it’s in there. It depends on how you watch it. There’s a scene where Nash is walking down a corridor at Princeton and he fixes a young man walking towards him with a gaze. The extra turns around and goes, Wow, what was that about? You don’t need a whole scene for everything — there are grace notes that you can do.

Jennifer Connelly, who plays Nash’s wife, Alicia, says she ”crashed for a month” after the movie. She says it took a lot more out of her than she realized when she was filming. Did you have the same experience?
There was a certain intensity, the long hours, the subject matter. But you don’t labor every day to the same extreme. The romantic idea that you take [ the role] home with you — to me that’s bollocks.

But Ron Howard says you had nightmares while making the film.
It kind of annoys me that Ron made that a public thing, but he did it from a very innocent point of view. During shooting I couldn’t sleep very well. But it wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t freak me out.