Don’t let his latest film’s title mislead you: Russell Crowe has carved a career out of being a tough guy, not a nice guy.
At least that’s the way things appear onscreen.
First commanding the attention of audiences as a savage skinhead leader in 1992’s “Romper Stomper,” the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised actor became a household name after brutal leads in acclaimed hits such as “L.A. Confidential” and “Gladiator.”
Sure there were a couple of more genial, Academy Award-nominated detours in there for the versatile actor, most notably as a whistleblowing chemist in “The Insider” and an unbalanced mathematician in best picture winner “A Beautiful Mind.” But recently he has reverted to menacing roles in “Les Misérables,” “The Man With the Iron Fists,” “Winter’s Tale” and, oddly enough, “Noah.”
The Oscar winner Crowe returns to theaters on Friday in “The Nice Guys,” an action comedy from filmmaker Shane Black (“Iron Man 3” and the cult favorite “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”).
Crowe portrays Jackson Healy, a freelance leg-breaker who teams with a blundering private eye (Ryan Gosling) to solve a missing persons case. The pair zigzag through Los Angeles circa 1977, encountering porn kingpins, ruthless industrialists, photogenic hit men and lots of smog.
They also run across a Department of Justice honcho played by Kim Basinger, marking Crowe’s first onscreen reunion with his “L.A. Confidential” co-star since she won her Oscar.
Calling from Los Angeles to discuss the new movie, Crowe, 52, reveals why his definition of what it means to be a “nice guy” might not be what you expect.
Q: What was Russell Crowe doing in 1977?
A: I was in high school in Sydney. We were wrestling as a family with a decision my dad wanted to make to take us back to New Zealand. I suppose I was a little bit more relaxed about it than my brother. He was very tense about it.
So in January ’78, we went back to live in New Zealand, having lived in Australia for 10 years. It was kind of odd because for my parents, they were returning home. But for my brother and I, it was quite a significant uprooting. We had to change schools and leave all our friends behind. We were thousands of miles away from them.
It was kind of melancholic that second half of the year as we started counting down the days. But I could see my dad’s perspective. My dad thought that Sydney was just a little too fast. We were growing up too quickly, and he wanted to slow it down a bit.
Q: Had you been to Los Angeles at that point?
A: I didn’t travel outside of Australia and New Zealand until 1991. I was 26 or something.
Q: You’ve done a lot of period pieces that are set centuries ago. Is there a special kind of fun shooting a movie that takes place in the recent past?
A: I suppose it was interesting from the point of view that all the music was familiar to me. All the references were familiar to me.
One of the cleverest things in the film is how Shane has reached back into history and picked this point in time where certain decisions were made that corrupted America’s future. From that serious point, he decides to make a comedy out of it.
Q: What’s a nice way to describe Jackson Healy?
A: He’s just trying to be useful. Still useful at his late age.
Q: Fundamentally, are you a nice guy?
A: On what parameters are you making that judgment? We tend to as a society put that mantle onto people who ultimately disappoint us in very deep ways. There’d be quite a few hundred priests out there who people called nice guys, who end up doing some shocking (expletive).
I don’t place any importance at all on whether somebody’s nice or not. To me, if somebody is honest in their communication, that’s a lot easier to deal with than somebody who might be on the surface a nice person but doesn’t really believe in anything they’re saying to you. I would prefer to be known as somebody who’s upfront rather than nice.
Q: Do you notice elements of yourself in co-star Ryan Gosling?
A: I do a little bit. That’s probably where we really connect.
Even though this is a comedy and it’s silly and all that sort of stuff, Ryan is a cineaste. He loves the cinema. He has a great deal of respect for it and knowledge of it. If you’re picking up any references in his performance, you can be sure that he intended them.
He’s a very serious insect. He comes to the set, he’s examined things, he’s thought about them, he has questions. But none of this gets in the way of his sense of fun or his ability to play.
One of the key things about Ryan that’s naturally innate is he’s a listener and an observer. They always make the best actors and always make the people you have the most fun with.
Q: What took you so long to reunite onscreen with Kim Basinger?
A: Funny, isn’t it? There’s a little melancholy in that, too. People have been talking about it, but, obviously, the difference between what we do together in this film and what we did together in the last film is pretty large. It was good to see her. She’s one of my favorite people.
Q: It’s been almost 20 years since our first interview when you came to Kansas City to promote “L.A. Confidential.” How do you view that film now? What’s its legacy?
A: When it first came out, it wasn’t so successful. But it ended up being in cinemas 53 weeks. Eventually, it did take in a healthy amount of money for that time period. There’s a precision in that movie that is very inspiring to young filmmakers that come across it. There are a couple things that happened in that movie that you wish could happen every time you watch a film.
I remember being with Curtis (Hanson, director) at the time and him being so pedantic about certain things. He was running a very risky game. He knew he had less money than he needed to make the movie when he started. But he kept pushing for the things he needed and never gave up.
He was like that on a daily basis on the set, but he was also like that with the studio and the producers. Eventually, he got all the things he needed, the days he needed and the resources he needed. But it was sheer, bloody-minded persistence.
Q: “The Nice Guys” feels like a movie that could start a franchise, but you’ve never done a sequel. Would you consider it for this one?
A: We’ll see. I’ll tell you what I do know is every time I’m in an (interview) situation and people start mentioning sequels, it never happens.
Q: So I’ve jinxed it already?
A: Yep. Your fault.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”