Russell Crowe: Russell's new philosophy

Everyone has a Russell Crowe hellraising story. But, as his new film comes out, the star tells Elaine Lipworth he's a changed man, thanks to yoga and fatherhood

I needn't have worried. Eventually he arrives, contrite and apologetic. He stubs out his cigarette and politely opens the window, blowing away the smoke. Immediately all is forgiven; he's so endearingly charming and matey that the tedious afternoon of waiting is forgotten.

He explains that he walked several miles from the Mercer, the hotel where he's been staying (and the scene of the alleged crime) to the Essex House hotel, where we're doing the interview, because he's in the middle of a gruelling press tour for his new film, Cinderella Man, and wanted to unwind.

"Thing is, we're eating fast food, eating late," he says, pulling up a chair. "So I walked this morning and realised not only that I should walk, I should hammer myself and do a bit of sweating because I was feeling really aggressive, and that's the wrong place to be when I'm going to sit down with you. To get rid of the aggression I have to find some form of clearing my head every day, to get my head into the right space, whether it's yoga, going for a walk or just having a conversation about a completely different subject than acting," he says. "I don't live in America, so I've come across an ocean and I've been working since I hit the ground. I'm dealing with the jet-lag thing."

He claims that his reputation for being volatile and temperamental is unfair because it is based on isolated incidents highlighted by mean-spirited tabloids. "I don't think anyone can possibly go through their life without getting things wrong now and again, without saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. It's never my intention to do anything negative to anyone or to hurt anyone. I have a simple ability to know when I've done something wrong and if I can't apologise to that person directly, I can apologise to myself. If you think you can get away with bullshit, you're wrong. You can't live a thoroughly selfish negative life and expect to be a successful person."

Crowe says his critics are quick to attack, whatever he does. "I use the word 'yoga' and people still react as if it's some new-agey kind of thing. Are you kidding me? I still have to explain it to people. It's like, 'Come on, let's get real here.' When are we going to get a level of integrity that will just take into account a whole load of different philosophies?"

Unshaven, in a hooded sweatshirt, jeans and boots, Crowe moves around a lot. Even after the hike across town, he doesn't appear relaxed sitting in one place. The logo on his T-shirt reads "Zen Master", but there's a restless energy. I sense that things are going well, however, when he tells me that he likes The Independent. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I tell him how much I enjoyed Cinderella Man. "Oh goody," he responds with childlike enthusiasm. "At last, a positive English journalist."

He laughs, crosses his legs and stretches his arms. He says he's having a difficult few days in Manhattan, because he's missing his wife, Danielle Spencer, and their almost two-year-old son Charlie, who are at home in their Sydney apartment. "You start scratching your head and try to work out how you ever lived without 40 or 50 cuddles a day," says the actor, looking watery eyed. "The change in my life that has taken place after becoming a husband and father is massive."

The contrast between the image of a tough, difficult, self-centred star and the thoughtful and rather vulnerable man in front of me couldn't be greater. Perhaps I've caught him in an emotional mood, but he's as happy talking about the joys of family life as he is discussing his performance as the Depression-era boxer James Braddock in Cinderella Man. "My priority list has changed massively. I'm at the back of the room in my mind, all the time, wherever I am," he says, folding his arms. "Everything has shifted simply and easily because I got married and had a baby, because I wanted to do that with an open heart. I was ready."

Crowe was born in New Zealand. The family moved to Australia, where his parents managed pubs and then had a catering business, often working on tele-vision and film sets. Crowe says there was never financial stability. "I didn't want to be a dad under those circumstances. I never wanted to have to have children who would hear the kind of conversations I had to hear my parents having, wondering where the money was going to come from for the next rent."

But there's a whole set of new challenges now, he says. "Giving Charlie a level of balance is going to be difficult. Our natural leaning is to give him whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. I know that I can't just do that, so I have to learn restraint in my generosity. It's going to be hard for me to make sure I'm always mindful of the balance. Will we have another child? I'd like a dozen, but I'm not the only one involved and we'll have to see. We very clearly think that it would be an unfortunate situation for Charlie to grow up all by himself in the strange world that he's going to have to inhabit.

"Fatherhood hasn't changed who I am, essentially, as a person," the actor says. "So I'm not going to be mellow or less passionate in my work, and if somebody asks me a smart-ass question they're usually going to get a reply in the same tone. Possibly it's going to be harder for people to take such cheap shots at me now, though. I'm not going to be wandering the streets aimlessly at night trying to experience life any more. I'm settled."

I say I agree that children change one's perspective. "How many kids have you got?" he asks. Two girls, I tell him, aged seven and 10. "It's great, isn't it?" he says, and walks over to the window, looks out over Central Park and seems to drift off. We listen to the sirens, screeching brakes, horse-carriages and general Manhattan noise from the street below. "New York interview," he grins. He sighs, and offers another apology.

"I just got a little bit homesick, so that's why the sentences started going out of the window. When we started talking about my child..." He trails off again. "Yeah, I haven't seen Danny and Charlie for a few days. And in this town, it's difficult. The time difference is just a pain in the arse and I'm in a hotel downtown, so you're not dealing with world's most sophisticated phone system either, you know what I mean? Getting a line out at a time when I'm free to get to talk to Danny or get Charlie on the computer screen has been hard."

Given his past, it's easy to view the star as a pampered celebrity. Yet he doesn't come across as arrogant at all: rather, as a man who is in conflict with aspects of the life he's chosen. Fame and recognition aren't interesting, and he's almost puritanical about "the work", refusing to do commercials and criticising actors such as George Clooney and Harrison Ford who do make money from their celebrity.

Crowe closes his eyes for a moment. "I love my job. But it doesn't come with any pretension or any prerequisite; it * * comes with a single focus. Are you prepared to work as hard as it takes to get this job done?" There's another long pause. "I do the gig the way I see it. I've learnt over a lot of time."

Crowe became internationally known with LA Confidential in 1997, and then won the 2001 best actor Oscar for Ridley Scott's Gladiator. The actor, 41, started acting as a child in bit parts on productions his parents worked at. "Gee whiz, I did my first TV gig when I was six," he says. "But I was never a TV star. People think I was, but I was a child extra and I only got my first lead at 25 [in Romper Stomper]. So there's been a 19-year apprenticeship. Now I'm in front of the camera as a lead player, and I've still got lots of stuff to learn."

Crowe is humble about his talent. He says that much of his accomplishment is simply down to experience and sheer hard work. But the emotional authenticity with which he inhabits his roles, and the physical transformations he undergoes, single him out. Whether he's playing the tobacco-industry whistleblower in The Insider, the tortured mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, the ship's captain in Master and Commander or Maximus in Gladiator, the performances are intense and convincing. His complex portrayal of the 1930s boxer Jim Braddock is another example of that ability to lose himself and disappear into a character.

This time, he's playing a real-life, downtrodden underdog who became an unlikely American hero. When Braddock's boxing career was over, he lost his fortune in the Depression but went on to stage a thrilling and completely unexpected comeback, winning the world heavyweight boxing title.

The appeal for Crowe had nothing to do victories in the ring, though. "I never saw Jim as a man who really lived for boxing at all. To me, the story was interesting because of his change of fortune. I thought, 'This is a great story, because it's true. You couldn't make it up.' Braddock had been a very responsible young man when he was doing well as a boxer. He'd saved his money, he hadn't wasted it. He hadn't lived outside his means. He did the thing everybody said to do at the time, which was to invest his money in the stock market. And in October 1929, he lost 85 per cent of his total net worth and was brought to the brink of bankruptcy. Suffice it to say, things turned bad."

Directed by Crowe's friend Ron Howard, the film focuses on the grim struggles facing Braddock, his wife (played by Renée Zellweger) and their children during the Depression. They survived rock-bottom poverty, with no money for food or heat. In true Ron Howard, Hollywood style, it's sentimental, but also gripping and very moving. And there's an outstanding performance from the Sideways star Paul Giamatti, who plays Braddock's manager.

"Jim had to go on the dole, but he didn't wear the pain on his sleeve," Crowe says. "He accepted it and kept trying to do the best he could for his family. The Great Depression is a character, and I think the villain in this piece is poverty. If there's a single moment in Braddock's life that I think makes him important in history, it's the fact that he went to the Social Security Commission and repaid the money he'd taken when he was on the dole. That shows you more about his character than anything in his boxing career."

Crowe is famously choosy about the roles he takes, and Cinderella Man is his first film since Master and Commander in 2003. It has to be an enticing role for him to leave his family and their home in Sydney. They also have a 1,400-acre cattle ranch in northern New South Wales. "Physically, this was the hardest thing I've ever done," he says, "much more difficult than Gladiator. I was in massive pain a lot of the time. But I'm happy I did it. I just like Braddock," he says.

"Most of the time, it's not a prerequisite for me to like a character. Mostly it's the opposite; I go, 'Ooh, that guy's dark and weird.' I don't believe in the theatrical tradition that you have to love the character. I think love makes you forgive a lot of things, a lot of faults, so therefore if you're playing Adolf Hitler - do you have to suddenly think he's not so bad? I mean, I just don't think that's a good way of getting into him. True objectivity will give you the detail. The job of acting is about discovery and about examination and about the human condition."

Despite the quest for objective detachment, Crowe says he does feel a special affinity with his character this time. The sweatshirt he's wearing, (which he designed) carries a "North Bergen" logo, in honour of Braddock's home town in New Jersey. "No, don't write anything about me having a line of clothing coming out, or my own perfume, 'Eau de ring'," he jokes. "But when I can't sleep at night, I design clothes, and this is something I had made up as a crew gift."

Crowe maintains that even now, as one of the most successful film actors in the world, he can identify with Braddock's financial hardship. He remembers being broke himself, first as a young musician, touring with his band in New Zealand and Australia, and later as an actor. The big difference was that, unlike the boxer, he was single.

And he was also passionate about his profession. "I have experienced what it's like to live without any material possessions. I spent seven months busking for a living; that's how I earned my rent money. You know, it was the fact that I was willing to embrace bohemia when I was a young man and give up societal ideals across the board that gave me the freedom to accomplish the things that I've achieved: the fact that I didn't need a car, I didn't need my own apartment and a mortgage and stuff. I could take risks. I was completely about looking for work in my chosen field.

"I also did lots of other jobs as a young man, from fruit picker to car washer to barman, cocktail waiter, restaurant manager. And they all taught me that there was only one thing I really wanted to do - to act - so I went out and did it. I remember being in Melbourne doing a theatre show with two blokes who still bring this up when we talk; how we were all looking at each other going, 'We're three of the luckiest blokes in the world to be doing professional theatre in Australia in Melbourne.' And it was true.

"Look, I work at a job, right?" he says. "Just as Jimmy Braddock had a job. It just happened to be that, in the Depression, boxing was the best working-class job you could have. Acting is a similar gig for me." Boxing's a bit different, I suggest, because it can be brutal and dangerous. "So is my job," he says with a grin. "Pen's mightier than the sword, mate."

Does that mean it hurts to read those tabloid headlines? Crowe screws up his face, then gets up, grabs my hands and laughs. "Do you want to listen to what you just said? Would it be hurtful for you? Of course it is," he says, rolling his eyes. He sits down. "You have a thick skin, which develops over time, it gets thicker, but... your readers will get it. I don't think there's any need to expand, they've been reading the papers for the last few years.

"You know, my job is entertainment," he says emphatically. "It's a very simple gig. The other night, I was in this really privileged place. I cracked open the door at a screening of Cinderella Man during the last few minutes. There were cheers, and one girl was just praying. And I was like... all the pain, all the days of boxing, the whacks in the head, the shoulder injury, all of that, just got paid back in those few moments. Whether the film is successful or not, for me the movie has achieved its aim.

"I've done lots of films now, and I don't live and die on critical response. I'm not hungry, like Jimmy Braddock, in the literal sense any more. But my hunger is my passion for storytelling. I believe that's a really important part of the culture of our life, you know; going into a movie theatre and having that collective experience, being moved, possibly. My privilege is to get to work in this medium. It's the most expensive artistic medium that exists commercially, and I never lose sight of that. That's what's important to me."

'Cinderella Man' opens on 9 September

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