15 Minutes with Russell Crowe

The Hollywood legend speaks to LAMag about his new horror film, “The Pope’s Exorcist,” working with Ron Howard and how he picks his roles

There aren’t many actors in the history of cinema that have achieved the level of fame and success that Russell Crowe has over his eclectic career. The New Zealander is the only actor to lead back-to-back Best Picture winners, which he achieved for Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, winning the Best Actor award for the latter.  

Crowe now leads the upcoming horror film The Pope’s Exorcist, which is inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican, who performed and documented over 100,000 exorcisms in his lifetime.

LA Mag: You have such a wide-ranging filmography and have played everything from biblical figures to gladiators to now an exorcist. What is the main thing you look for when picking your next role?

Russell Crowe: It’s just if I get interested in the central character. There’s a thing that I have, and I haven’t talked about this for ages because some people think that it sounds sort of stupid but it’s true for me. But I’ll be reading a script and I may not have any interest in it at all but I still feel an obligation if a young filmmaker is actually putting forward an offer, I’ll read what they’re asking me to read. Sometimes I go into that really excited because I’m jazzed about the title or I’m jazzed about the filmmaker or whatever. But other times, It’s kind of like I don’t know anybody involved. What I do is I just start reading and at a certain point what will happen is I get goosebumps on my skin and in my mind I start playing the character. I might read a line and be like “No, he’d never say that.” And as soon as my pen hits the page to make a note I go, “Ahh shit, this is the one I’m doing next!” It can be different things that grab you but it’s just that general sense where it actually gets under my skin. 

In this particular project, it was the character Gabriele Amorth himself. When I read it and it said Chief Exorcist for The Vatican as a job title, I thought that was just some snappy thing that a scriptwriter came up with. I didn’t know it was a real job! I looked into it and then I was surprised to find that this is a position that’s been in place for centuries. Anyway, I just got into him and the biographical details I could uncover about him and that got me excited to hear about such an incredibly fascinating life.

You’ve played real people before, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. But with Father Gabriele Amorth, did you have more creative freedom because it’s more supernatural?

Yeah, sometimes I feel an absolute obligation to try to physically match the character and sometimes that really bothers the director, like in Cinderella Man with Ron Howard. I’ve got a widow’s peak. I’ve got a nose piece and I’ve got these cauliflower ears, which we can see in photographs, that’s what Jim Braddock had looked like. His ears poked out from his head so we had these pieces made that would fit behind my ears and my ears would poke out. But I think Ron might have grown up with wing-nut ears and he was really worried about me doing that. I remember talking to some press people when the film was coming out and they said “We want to use romantic images of you and Renee Zellweger but either your nose or your ears stop it from feeling really romantic!” But it was a genuine part of the character.

With this particular character, I didn’t actually have any visual references to the year that we were talking about. I wanted him to have some physical presence and feel pragmatic, that he’s right for this type of job because he can see through a lot of stuff. As we say in the film, with 98% of the people that came to him seeking an exorcism he would talk to them and examine them and he would say “you need to go to the doctor” or  “You need to go see a psychiatrist.” He really was specific that only 2% of the cases that he dealt with were in the bracket of what he called “fundamental evil.”

I find it interesting that the film also talks about how many exorcisms or possessions relate back to mental health issues, not many horror films take that angle.

Yeah, it’s interesting that it has been under consideration for such a long time in terms of the official exorcisms that the church undertakes. But when you look at it though, Catholicism is possibly the first of the religious organizations to take mental health into account. The confessional, as an example, that’s mental health 101 if something’s bothering you. Rudimentary elements of that have been built into the infrastructure of the church. 

Are you a believer in the supernatural yourself?

I like to simplify that question and put it back to people because it’s very easy for someone to ridicule your belief in those things because sometimes it’s just a belief. But if you simplified that question and asked “Do you believe that evil exists in the world?” Look at the nightly news, look at our conduct historically as a species, we’ve kind of evolved as pretty horrific things. I’d have to say yeah, I do believe that evil exists.

I was reading an interview where you said you love period movies because of the costumes and sets, was this the same appeal for The Pope’s Exorcist?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be period. You were talking before about taking on various roles and there is definitely something interesting in particular roles and what you wear and what you have on. Broadly, I do like doing big period pieces, but that’s mainly because that usually means I’m working with Ridley [Scott] and that’s always fun. But yeah, priests’ cassocks are very roomy and quite comfortable, I recommend them!

You pulled the Italian accent off brilliantly—what was the biggest challenge in that?

Not so much the accent but the Italian language scenes. I think the original idea was to play the character and to have some sort of generic mid-Atlantic accent and I just thought that was wrong for the character. I came up with this idea of a film in Italian and then transitioning into English, which is what we’ve done but then suddenly, there were a lot more Italian scenes than I thought we needed so that was quite challenging! I have a love of the country of Italy and the people and I’ve spent a lot of time there. Actually, last year they gave me the honorary title of Ambassador of Rome in the World, that was pretty cool!

There’s a bit of stress involved with that because I definitely wanted the Italian-language scenes to land right for the Italians when they watch the movie. I think it gives it a little bit of extra credibility and also a place for a little bit of humor because this guy is Italian, his sidekick is Spanish but their common language is English.

 What do you think makes the horror genre such a great spectacle in cinemas?

I think out of all the genres, the horror genre is definitely a big theater experience. It’s designed to bring a reaction out of you. Then you have that communal experience around you when one small scream turns into a large scream, which then turns into a laugh as people are nervously trying to rebalance themselves. That’s what makes it fun, man! 

I actually saw The Exorcist in New Zealand in 1978, when I was 14. I was sitting in the theater and about halfway through the usher in the theater decided it was funny to bang a broom against the ceiling. Man, the screams that went off in that room! In the moment nobody in that room shared that guy’s sense of humor but afterward, I’m still talking about it 40 years later.

The Pope’s Exorcist will be released exclusively in theaters on April 14, 2023.

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