Russell Crowe Calls Joaquin Phoenix’s Gladiator Villain One Of Cinema’s Best Bad Guys
Russell Crowe is ready to show audiences the true meaning of a ‘bad day’ in Unhinged, a brutal road-rage thriller that earns its namesake with old-fashioned glee.
Directed by Derrick Borte, it’s one of the first films to truly usher people back into cinema seats after months of lockdown. Grizzled, sweaty and ultra-violent, you won’t think twice about giving a ‘courtesy tap’ at the traffic lights.
Crowe, beloved for slaying gladiators as Maximus and cracking homicides with Ryan Gosling, is on infectiously ferocious form. To mark Unhinged’s big-screen release today, July 31, in the UK, we chatted to the Oscar-winner about playing today’s ultimate bad guy, a sequel to The Nice Guys and a look back at Gladiator after 20 years.
Check out the trailer for Unhinged here:
Unhinged is a right throwback to 90s thrillers, like Falling Down. You must have had a lot of fun making it?
Russell Crowe: Funnily enough, a lot of people assume because there’s so much tension on the screen that it was a very tense shoot… but it wasn’t at all. It was a lot of people with a huge amount of film experience on that set. We were all just getting about, getting the job done.
It was, quite frankly, a very enjoyably experience. Particularly considering I was coming off The Loudest Voice, which was six months of extreme responsibility and the cycle of the make-up, 22 pages of dialogue and speeches to learn every week, that was a pretty heavy cycle to be in.
To get on to this set, when I’m doing stuff like driving in a car and I’ve got remote cameras hooked up the car… but it’s just me on the freeway. So, I had a great relationship with the director Derrick Borte and you can see with his shot selection and choices, fundamentally he’s got a great cinema knowledge. He comes out of visual arts, he was a painter and he’s become a filmmaker.
We got on very well. We both agreed that there’s nothing that’s happened in this guy’s life that should bring about this response. This is an unjustifiable response. We saw it more as an opportunity to make a comment about where we find ourselves in the western world, you know?
What was your first response to the script? A lot of the stuff your character gets to do is quite brutal, how did you react?
RC: It wasn’t positive. Being terribly honest, it wasn’t positive. I didn’t see the movie very clearly when I first read it. It was a page-turner, I hadn’t stopped reading it. Normally if I stop reading a script while I’m reading it the first time, that’s an indicator I’m just not going to be doing that movie.
It’s not very often that I finish the script and decide not to do it, but I found myself in that situation. I was in Los Angeles,naturally I was seeing a lot of friends there, it’s sort of like the capital of the business, you know? I was seeing people, talking business, ‘what have you been doing, what have you been reading?’
I found myself telling the story of the script over and over again. On the fourth or fifth telling, I was hearing an arrowhead of a story in my mind and I started to think about it differently. I sat down and talked to Derrick and we realised we had a very similar perspective on this situation and what’s happening in wider society. Then it just became important to me to do it.
How did you prepare for this? You’ve had ‘angry’ characters in the likes of L.A. Confidential and Romper Stomper, but this is almost like a slasher villain.
RC: One of the things the director said to me is that he saw the character as being like the shark from Jaws. At this point in the character’s life journey, it’s all just a feeding instinct. There’s no malice in it, even though it’s ultra-violent, he’s just on a path of destruction. As he sort of comments halfway through, this is his way of committing the ultimate violence on himself too.
Sometimes you play characters, and they may have darker tendencies, but there’s usually some sort of scaffolding underneath the character that gives you a rational path. There was no rational path for this guy, the only thing that was compelling about this guy to me was the truth of his actions and how we’ve seen this stuff before.
RC: Have we seen people deciding to walk into a primary school and open fire? Yes. Nightclubs? Yes. Shooting outside of hotel windows? Yes. There’s ultra-violence which comes from somebody deciding that their humanity is being drained, they have no empathy and they’re just on a path of destruction.
That bluntness actually makes the character really difficult to play. You can play bad guys and quite often you can sort of lean into something, and have a little bit of a wink at the audience, and bring about a bit of a laugh or moment of respite, then you get back on with the dark stuff.
For this guy to actually have one of those moments, or any levels of justification, actually undermines the situation that’s the centre of the character and the narrative.
This wasn’t a Master and Commander, where I spent most of a year on boats. This wasn’t about that; this was about stewing myself for a while and trying to figure out the tiny steel box of this guy’s mind.
This is one of the first big films to welcome people back to cinemas after months of being stuck at home. How does that feel for you?
RC: Well look, as long as people are sensible and they take tactical steps they can take – social distancing and masks, you know – it should be fine.
The fact that people think that they need to go to the cinema for a sense of balance is a really interesting thing. The film company did a lot of research before they decided to go early and it just seemed to be, in what they gathered, after missing friends and family they hadn’t seen, the next thing they wanted to do was go to the movies.
What did they want to see? It wasn’t a love story, it wasn’t a comedy – it was a thriller. They wanted to go into a room and have the shit scared out of them, where all the crazy stuff happens on the screen and doesn’t happen in real life.
It’s interesting; someone’s gotta go first, man. I don’t mind taking the first step in that regard. The cinema has been a big part of all of our lives. Yes, we’re going through some crazy stuff at the moment, but if there’s solace for people in the cinema, if it releases a certain energy in them, then great.
It’s a really interesting film to welcome people back; it has everything people go to, or at least used to go to the cinema for. Some might say this type of film would typically go to streaming these days, whereas this Unhinged is exclusive to cinemas. How do you feel about films going on streaming services?
RC: I’ve got no problem with it; I mean, I use those services myself. But there are some experiences you would prefer to have in a movie theatre, and I’m really pleased the film company has stuck to their modus operandi they had when I came onboard.
They said, ‘We’re making a film for cinemas, we’re not gonna be doing streaming deals. This film will come out in theatres.’ It was a big release plan initially, but of course in America now, we keep shifting the dates. When you have someone like Mark Gill, CEO of Solstice Studios, who’s got a fundamental belief that there’s gonna be a cinematic audience for the movie, you follow that guy, like, ‘Cool man, I’ll do whatever you want.’
RC: At the end of the day, there is a difference in the experience. There’s no difference in my job. If I go to work, and I’m making a TV show like The Loudest Voice, it’s pretty much exactly the same as a film set. Sure, you’re doing longer days and your schedule is compressed, but I’ve done lots of independent films so I’m used to working at that speed, it doesn’t concern me.
From an actor’s point of view, there is a difference in people putting on a nice shirt and going out to the cinema with their friends and people sitting at home, scrolling through the channels and wondering what they can be arsed watching that night, you know?
It’s a big risk because it could just backfire because not enough cinemas open to make it worthwhile, or not enough people think it’s safe enough to go back. But if it works out well, and people get into that place of being relieved and comfortable again, then great.
Who knows what normal’s gonna be in the future mate, none of us know. It’s not such a bad idea to have a go at getting things back to where they were.
Let’s talk outside Unhinged… The Nice Guys has developed into a big fan favourite.
RC: It was like number 13 most-watched movie on Amazon last week or something.
It’s tremendous. Has there ever been talks with Shane Black about a sequel?
RC: Oh, Shane and I probably discuss that two or three times a year. I probably have the same conversation with the producer Joel Silver once or twice a year since we made it. It’s undeniable that there’s an audience.
In a funny way, this has happened with a few of the movies I’ve made, Master and Commander being another example. Ten years after the movie comes out, the brand name of that movie is infinitely stronger than it was in the first week of release. The Nice Guys is the same thing.
If somebody mentions that film in a conversation, others in the conversation kinda drop into a smile. Immediately, there’s moments they remember whether it’s Ryan swimming in the underground swimming pool, or the bee in the back of the car smoking a cigarette [laughs].
I loved that connection on-screen with Ryan, it’s such an easy screen chemistry. We could take those two characters and do a dozen more stories, and it’d still be fun.
If we’re talking sequels, we can’t neglect Gladiator. After its 20th anniversary, what can you tell me about its long-stirring follow-up?
Russell: Look, you know, that’s a conversation I’ve been having for 20 years. I think I probably was pretty tough on the film company people who were suggesting a sequel to begin with [laughs].
It won the Best Picture Oscar – you don’t mess with stuff like that, you just let that stand. Once you get to that point, number two seems like a grab. So I was never really enthusiastic about it.
I did have one concept I discussed with Ridley over quite a bit of time, but that didn’t include discussions with anybody else. When we tried to bring other people into it, they said: ‘It’s been too long now.’
RC: When you think about it, we were having these conversations in 2004/2005. Now we’re in 2020, and the other day it was number seven or eight most-watched movie. There’s not a single day going by where it’s not playing somewhere in the world on primetime TV. Somehow that film has managed to have this potent 20-year life.
There’s the little side industries too, they do hand-painted figurines which sell-out immediately. There’s a real connection with people to the journey of that character and the experience of the film.
I know that there’s conversations going on, because people tell me, but the thing I always bring up is… I’m pretty sure I died the last time. So they may well try to retell the story where it doesn’t include Maximus. I don’t really know what’s on their minds, but I do know there’s people talking about it.
Having said that, we’re still talking about it after 20 years, so who knows? The worst thing to do would be to step up to the plate and completely miss on the swing. There’ll be people who say: ‘You just don’t need to. It’s part of history. It’s the Academy-award winning best film of 2000.’
RC: If you want to remake it, it’s pretty hard. Film-making is alchemy, you don’t really know the science. It’s not proven. You can take a big budget, a good script, a great bunch of actors and a pretty good director and you can still make a pile of shit. We’ve seen that over and over again.
What happened with Gladiator was kind of the opposite. You take an idea, you don’t really know where the story is going to go, you get one of the most prolific, artistic directors in cinema’s history, and you get a bunch of young people who love that guy’s work and are willing to commit to whatever he wants to do. Whatever problems came our way as a group, we just solved.
Some of those lines, which are still known and shouted out to me on the street, some of those came up on the spot in the moment. The Ridley part was important, we would learn stuff as we were doing it.
Like those figurines, I just did that in the moment, there was no discussion. Then those figurines become a big part of the story. The character that Tommy Flanagan plays, he was on a day rate. Then Ridley had to phone him back, saying: ‘We have an idea, we need you to come back and shoot until we get to it.’
RC: It’s a highly unusual way to make a film. It’s the most expensive creative medium in the world, you have to be fiscally responsible, especially if you’re working for a big studio. We had all of that; we just didn’t have a narrative. But we just went to work everyday, looked at the incredible sets that had come out of Ridley’s mind and put the characters in that world.
I got a lot of pats on the back for that movie when it came out man, but look at the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. That’s probably one of the best bad guys in cinema.
Richard Harris’s performance is fantastic, Oliver Reed’s very last performance, you’ve got David Hemmings, then you’ve got Djimon Hounsou stepping up and being a movie star. Then there’s the supreme and deep performance of Connie Nielsen.
RC: The seriousness of the actors as they would come into that world and what they wanted to discover, and the questions they’d ask the director. That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in terms of the closeness of the cast and how we communicated and kept the conversations going.
Up until that point, Ridley was not known at all as an actor’s director, nor for his focus on narrative. But there was something about that situation, he had to be close with the actors, become friends with them, and then he started to see them in a different way.
Unhinged is playing in UK cinemas now.
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