Brooding bad boy and brilliant actor. Hell-raiser and heartthrob. Player and poet. The many-sided star of "A Beautiful Mind" gives us a piece of his own.

In A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe plays a mathematical genius who finds covert messages hidden int he 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.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY 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…

RUSSELL CROWE A reputation built mainly by people who are not confident, who find my questions threatening.

EW Howard didn’t?

CROWE 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.

EW You must be pretty happy with your performance, then.

CROWE 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.

EW You’re unhappy with your performances in all of your films? Even your last three or four?

CROWE 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.