Not off-screen (as hapless interviewers were relieved to discover), where the 39-year-old Aussie actor has earned a reputation as a periodically prickly sourpuss, but on-screen, in the new high-seas adventure epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Directed by fellow Down Under countryman Peter Weir, and based on part of a 20-volume set of naval spectacles penned by the late Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander casts Crowe as Jack Aubrey, the dashing and determined captain of the HMS Surprise, whose dutiful crew is embroiled in a vast cat-and-mouse battle with an elusive French vessel during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
Holding court during a recent press conference in Los Angeles, Crowe acknowledges the athletic demands of portraying the sea-faring Capt. Aubrey: "You'd think I would've already had my sea legs, so to speak, growing up in two harbor cities like Auckland and Sydney, but I was never really much of a sailor," he confesses. "My mum has very bad motion sickness, so I was probably driven by the thought in the back of my mind that I would, too.
"I had to basically set about overcoming that, because it was very important to me that the captain not throw up during the course of production," Crowe continues with a chuckle. "We were halfway through shooting before I realized that, even though the boat was pitching and rolling and even though we had all these huge waves breaking over our heads, it wasn't bothering me anymore. Once you get past the idea that you can actually do something, it's a lot easier to put to rest whatever reservations you might have."
Despite the requisite amount of swordplay and related stunt work involved with the role, one of the most daunting aspects about the undertaking was capturing the character's quieter, more introspective side. In times of rare repose, Aubrey and the ship's doctor (played by Paul Bettany) take to their violin and cello to perform a few classical duets. "You can take your tiger fights or your sword fights and chuck it all away, because playing the violin is probably the most difficult stunt I've ever done for a movie," Crowe maintains. ". . .I knew that somebody else would do my bits and straighten them out on the actual soundtrack, but I had to know, at least in my own heart and mind, that I was capable of playing the instrument. I knew the movie was going to be about wearing the uniform and giving out orders and doing a lot of action scenes, but Aubrey's a very complicated character, and one indication of that is the fact he plays the violin. Establishing that balance was important."
Crowe admits he limited the amount of his pre-production research to reading two or three of O'Brian's original books. "I decided not to read the whole lot, just in case we decided to make another movie. That way, I'd still have some fresh material to delve into." Even so, as yet there are no specific plans for any sequels. As Crowe puts it, "I didn't allow for any kind of deal that included multiple movies. My attitude is, if this one works and if I'm interested in playing the character again, there are a lot of places we can take him. As I understand it, one of the wonderful things about the books is that Jack's only really in control when he's at sea. Every time he goes ashore, all hell breaks loose, and that could definitely be interesting."
Indeed. No stranger to all hell breaking loose, the actor nevertheless bristles when asked if his recent marriage (to long-time girlfriend Danielle Spencer) or his impending fatherhood (the couple is expecting their first child) has somehow mellowed him.
"I wouldn't say any of that has fundamentally changed who I am as a person. If anything, it might've changed what's written about me in the press, but that has always been quite separate from who I really am, anyway," Crowe replies with a shrug of his shoulders. "I don't know if it'll affect any of my acting choices. Would I turn down a risky action movie like Master and Commander just because I might have a young son at home to think about? I don't know. I think that's possibly overstating the dangers of making a movie like this, because film danger is very different from actual danger. It's all about shifting and readjusting your priorities. If anything, rather than scaling back on my career right now, just the opposite is probably true for me. I want to keep working as hard as I can over the next four or five years. That way, I can think about slowing down later, when my son's grown up a little. By the time he's going to school, I want to be there to meet him at the gate every day, you know?"