Exclusive Q&A: Russell Crowe, nobody's movie star. The ''Master and Commander'' actor fires away on the high seas, marriage, and why he doesn't owe you anything but good work

By Benjamin Svetkey
August 14, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Russell Crowe: Stephen Vaughn

In the swashbuckling high-seas adventure ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” Russell Crowe plays Captain Jack Aubrey, hero of the late Patrick O’Brian’s popular historical novels about the 19th-century British navy. Here, the Oscar winner talks about his ”Master” role and unloads about those ”Gladiator 2” rumors, how marrying Danielle Spencer has calmed him, and being misunderstood.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY You didn’t jump at this part at first, did you?
CROWE I walked away from it a number of times. When I first heard about it, I thought it sounded like something Harrison Ford should do. Then I read the books, and I thought it would be impossible to do. The expense would be too enormous. And then I saw the script, and it didn’t read that well to me.

So why’d you end up doing it?
It comes back to [”Master” director] Peter Weir. I remember as a kid seeing ”The Last Wave” [Weir’s 1977 fantasy thriller about an Australian apocalypse] and there were scenes of [Sydney] getting flooded. I’m sitting in the cinema and I see my school bus being flooded. Not a yellow American bus or a red double-decker bus, but the same bus I caught every day to school. That affected me. From that point on he was my childhood filmmaking hero.

What did you have to do to make the script work for you?
It wasn’t a matter of pulling apart what Peter had done but of putting things back. Making it a truer reflection of the books and the spirit of the characters. Making people understand what it was like to be on these ships. I mean, this was the NASA of the time. Being on these ships was the interplanetary travel of the 19th century.

The seafaring jargon in the books can be impenetrable. Stuff like ”hands to the jears” and ”tops’l clewlines.” It’s like a different language.
But that jargon is important to the genre and to accuracy. And there’s no point in translating it. People have to come along for the ride. And, you know, you could say the same thing about ”Star Wars.” George Lucas made up a whole bunch of stuff to make that world fully exist for people.

But you have taken some other liberties with the books. The bad guys are French, not American. And some fans have been upset with the casting of Paul Bettany. [They’ve complained Bettany is too tall to play Aubrey’s diminutive shipmate, Dr. Stephen Maturin.]
There are fans out there who are disgruntled because I didn’t do the role at 17 stone [238 pounds]. In the books, Aubrey ranges from 14 to 17 stone, sometimes on the same voyage.

Did you gain that much weight for the role?
We were going in that direction. But about six weeks out Peter said, ”You know what, I think we should cut down the weight.” He wanted Aubrey to be active, to be able to go up the rigging and be a sailor.

How big were you thinking of going? Brando big?
No, but that’s what 17 stone would have looked like on my frame. And that would have been untenable, just in terms of getting up and down the f—ing stairways. So we didn’t go that far. I’m not Adonis, but I’m not Rumpole of the Bailey either.

What else did you do to get into character?
The first day of rehearsals, I got every man in the cast three shirts. Different colors, depending on what rank they were on the ship. And I gave them name tags, a length of thread, and a needle. They had 12 hours to report back in uniform with a name tag sewn on. It wasn’t for my ego. I just felt that the experience would be bigger and better if we all allowed ourselves to play the game. To get into character and remain that way, because those small details of belief will translate on the screen.

Did any of the actors mutiny over the shirts?
There were a couple who did a sloppy job. They were talked to.

Filming in that huge tank [the same used in ”Titanic”] must have been rough.
The first thing we shot was a 12-day sequence during which you couldn’t hear a word of dialogue. We were on the ship with eight giant fans and two jet engines blowing around us. We were just talking into the noise. You couldn’t hear a grunt. We could have been filming in Italian.

Did you get seasick at all?
I didn’t throw up once during the entire production. I’m very proud of that.