We take a look at the ''Proof of Life'' star and his work

By Clarissa Cruz
December 23, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Much like his brooding alter ego in the summer blockbuster Gladiator, Russell Crowe, 36, just wants to go home. ”I’m sitting here (in) a hotel room in Los Angeles on what, the fifth day of December? I’ve slept 21 nights on the farm (in his native Australia) this year since January 1st,” he sighs. ”It’s just been very busy, and I’m hoping that things, once I get home, settle down a bit.”

Don’t count on it, mate. Since he unleashed hell on moviegoers with his muscular, sword-brandishing star turn as Maximus in the $187 million-grossing epic, Crowe has found himself at the center of a swirling maelstrom of public fascination. Gladiator was only one vehicle in the star’s multi-chariot pop-culture ride during year 2000: Whether he was waddling his way to an Oscar nomination as a pudgy, morally conflicted whistle-blower in The Insider, barking out rock lyrics in Austin as the swaggering frontman for 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, or turning in a skillfully controlled performance as a gruff kidnapping expert in Proof of Life (not to mention dodging paparazzi around the globe once l’affaire Ryan broke), the strapping, gravel-voiced actor thrilled a Colosseum full of onlookers.

The secret? ”I don’t know, mate. Luck?” says Crowe, who also drew stellar reviews for 1993’s Romper Stomper and 1997’s L.A. Confidential. ”I don’t have any rules. Every single job is completely different, every single character is completely different — the only thing I’ve probably learned over the years is that I’m not objective when it comes to my own work.” Then let’s give Proof director Taylor Hackford a shot at it. ”He possesses this fantastic physical ability, and at the same time, intense, intelligent acting ability. I think the world’s open to him — there’s no limit.” Adds Proof costar David Caruso: ”Once in a generation an actor will come along and set a benchmark for excellence that everybody else aspires to. He’s the real thing.”

He’s even got the tabloid battle scars to prove it. At first, Crowe and Proof love interest Meg Ryan had managed to keep their romance under wraps. ”There’s a certain process that takes place on the set, when scenes were being shot, but to me that was just process,” says Caruso. ”And I didn’t see anything personal going on.” But when Ryan and husband Dennis Quaid announced their separation after nine years of marriage, the stage was set for a gossip-page siege that hasn’t abated.

Still, Crowe isn’t one to get his toga in a bunch over the ruckus — or get caught up in Hollywood star machinations. ”I don’t know if I was ever looking for this kind of success — it came along as a by-product of concentrating on what I was doing,” says the actor, who’ll next play a schizophrenic mathematician in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. ”I have a thing that goes through my head, that if I do the best I can possibly do on the day, any given day, on whatever job it is, then that’s all I can actually do.”

And, as Maximus once bellowed, were we not entertained?