A cigarette pack, wrapped in one of those garish warning labels used in some foreign countries, sits on an outdoor table. It says “smoking damages teeth,” and illustrates its point with a photo of a gnarly mouth belonging to a “male smoker, aged 50.”
Russell Crowe is a male smoker, aged 51. During a 30-minute interview, he will light up a few cigarettes from that same pack. His teeth look OK.
Playing a real-life Big Tobacco whistleblower in “The Insider” (1999) did not end Crowe’s habit. A graphic photo on a cigarette packet isn’t going to sway him.
The Australian actor comes across as someone who knows his own mind. He exudes authority, whether unleashing hell in his Oscar-winning role in “Gladiator” or sitting, in a black hoodie and jeans, on the patio of a Nob Hill hotel, his famously deep voice competing with, then winning out over, the clang of nearby cable cars.
Crowe’s feature-film directing debut, “The Water Diviner,” suits his guy-in-charge demeanor. It is a sweeping period movie, complete with World War I trench-warfare scenes – an ambitious outing for a rookie feature director. (Crowe previously made a few documentary shorts and music videos.)
Crowe also stars in the film, as Joshua Connor, a grieving father who travels from his Australian farm to the Ottoman Empire to find out what happened to his three soldier sons, missing after the battles at Gallipoli. Crowe shot the film, which opens Friday, in the Australian Outback and in Sydney, Istanbul and other locations.
“It’s a big canvas, and I think that’s part of its attraction,” Crowe said with a grin. “I am staring at (the script) going, ‘This is impossible, to make a movie like this on a budget you’ll be able to achieve for an Australian independent film. Let’s do it!”
The film was financed independently (Crowe would not reveal its budget) before Warner Bros. picked it up for U.S. release. Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios wrote the script, based on a notation from an Allied officer’s letter that mentioned a real-life Aussie who traveled to Gallipoli to search for his son. Knight and Anastasios moved into fiction from there, lending the farmer a flair for dowsing, or pinpointing the existence of groundwater in preparation for well-digging. In the film, Connor hopes to use that same “divining” ability to locate his sons – or his sons’ remains – at Gallipoli four years after its battles.
“Diviner” opened in Australia late last year to respectful-to-positive reviews. It shared the best-picture prize with the horror film “The Babadook” at January’s Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards.
Its American release comes a day before Anzac Day, on which Australia and New Zealand commemorate the arrival of troops at Gallipoli exactly 100 years ago, on April 25, 1915. More than 8,700 Australian soldiers and more than 87,000 Ottoman soldiers died at Gallipoli.
“The beginning of the first world war was the first time Australians and New Zealanders were fighting under their own flag,” Crowe said, instead of England’s. Gallipoli also still resonates in Australia because “there is this overhanging guilt” regarding the jingoism of the day, Crowe said.
“It was all about defending the motherland and defending our friends in Europe, including the French,” Crowe said. “It became a kind of societal catch cry. That if you were able-bodied and of the right age, you essentially had to go.”
That guilt plays on Crowe’s face as the devastated Connor, whose wife went crazy with grief after their sons went missing, makes his long journey by boat to what’s now Turkey. Once there, he sees the damage to the other side, in the haunted expressions of an Ottoman officer and Gallipoli veteran (the stately Yilmaz Erdogan) and a hotel keeper (Olga Kurylenko) whose husband never returned from the war.
“When you are recognizing the sacrifice of war, you only look at it from your side,” Crowe said. “You don’t look at the other side. … We waved off our young men ... and we sent them across the world to get engaged in this conflict. The Turks were emptying their high schools to fill the trenches because they were running out of soldiers.”
Crowe said that as an Australian, he felt a cultural connection to the material, when the “Diviner” script came to him and he was considering acting in the film. He also could relate to Connor’s grief, he said, as father to his own two boys (11-year-old Charles and 8-year-old Tennyson), with his estranged wife, Danielle Spencer.
Then something else happened.
“I believed I could read between the lines, and see into its shadows,” he said, referring to the script. “And this voice came out of me that said, ‘You must take responsibility for this story. Only you can see this story the way it needs to be told.’ I recognized what it was: It was the voice of a director.”
It was an assured voice, like those of the directors with whom he has worked and who he cites as role models: Ridley Scott (“Gladiator” and four other films), Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Cinderella Man”), Peter Weir (“Master & Commander”) and Darren Aronofsky (“Noah”).
“When I go to meet directors, I don’t want to meet someone who’s wishy-washy, who doesn’t know what they are aiming at,” Crowe said. “You want to meet someone who’s got that tone of definite control.”
While on sets with such directors, Crowe said, he always studied “what lens they were using, how the camera is moving, and what the director is expecting to achieve from a particular shot,” he said.
He paid attention because “I don’t want to be the guy that’s slowing things down,” he said. “I want to be the guy (about whom directors) say, ‘I want that guy, because I’ve got something complicated to do and he will lend me an efficiency that will bring me to what I want quicker than somebody else might.’”
Moving behind the camera was “not that big of a step,” Crowe said, and showing the same confidence his favorite directors showed was not difficult, either, he said. Even when he wasn’t feeling it.
He took lessons from playing the British Napoleonic War captain in “Master” that he has applied to his own life ever since, he said.
“Inside myself, I might have been very nervous, (but) on the exterior, I was certain,” while on the “Diviner” set, he said. “And that is what a crew requires of you. They don’t necessarily require you to be right. Just on the day, they need you to be certain.”
Crowe said he made a film in Australia to spend more time with his growing sons. The actor once known as a hothead (accused of assaulting a New York hotel employee with a phone in 2005 – by throwing it – Crowe pled guilty and settled financially with the employee) has mellowed with the years, he acknowledged.
Part of that is age and fatherhood, he said. Also, people no longer get in his face.
“You get to a white-hot point of fame, and your days are not yours anymore,” he said. Strangers once demanded his attention, he said, on the street and in restaurants, where people thought nothing of approaching him mid-bite and then lingering.
The British press stoked his prickly reputation through what Crowe calls “bait-the-bear” sessions, he said. “It would basically be a knife fight to figure out the agenda from the first question,” he said.
“That brings a different kind of person out of me, because you get defensive,” he said. “And I also have a thing, which comes from the way I grew up: If you talk to me in a certain way, I’ll match your level. So if it’s pleasant, it is going to be pleasant. But if you are aggressive, I am not going to put up with that. … And that gets construed as anger (when it) is never really anger. … I have never been an angry person.”
He just completed a round of press in England, and things went fine, he said. And when he visited a restaurant the night before his interview with The Bee a few weeks ago, his fellow diners acknowledged him, he said, but unobtrusively. “They were just sort of saying hello,” he said.
Crowe is now in his 50s and playing fathers to grown men. It follows that the attention he receives now is less frenzied, and more simply friendly.
“There are people who are my own age who, just through the natural course of being a viewer and audience member, they have seen almost everything I have done,” he said. “They started watching things when they were in college or in high school, and they have enjoyed them. They just want to say thanks.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.