Russell Crowe is clad in a black jersey with a shamrock and bulldog embroidered on the left breast, and the name Jim Braddock, Crowe’s character in Cinderella Man, emblazoned on the right (“Something I designed for the crew,” he says briskly). His face is roughly shaven, and his short bicycle shorts show off the scope of his muscles.
Crowe exudes a raw masculinity. His body, thick and meaty, is evidence of his intensive training for the role of James Braddock in Cinderella Man (he even dislocated a shoulder during filming). He is eager to discuss his admiration of Braddock, who won the heavyweight title in 1935, against the odds, and the qualities that made Braddock a good man.
“Everything is real about Braddock,” he offers.
“Here was a boxer who was building respectable wealth. He wasn’t wasting his money. He was living very frugally. He had everything invested in stocks and he lost everything when the market crashed, but he made it back.
“Braddock was the one man Joe Louis called champ,” Crowe adds.
“Jim was a fan [of Louis]. He wanted to give Louis a shot. The last time a black man had fought for the title was 1908.”
Braddock lost the fight to Louis in 1937 — the first time in [Braddock’s] career he was knocked out.
“Don’t forget in the first round he knocked Louis down,” Crowe stresses.
As fervent as Crowe is about Braddock, he is equally passionate about the movie. Cinderella Man is Crowe’s baby. He spent years trying to get it made, and was intimately involved in bringing it to the big screen.
Crowe was given the script by Penny Marshall back in 1997, and knew immediately that he wanted the movie to be made. “I read it and I liked it but more than that I liked Braddock,” he recalls.
A fan of Renée Zellweger’s since seeing her in Nurse Betty and One True Thing, Crowe showed her the script and she agreed to play the role of Braddock’s wife, Mae. Later, he and Zellweger auditioned the young actors who would play Braddock’s kids.
And when Ron Howard wasn’t sure that he wanted to do a boxing movie, Crowe persuaded him otherwise.
“When I read the script I knew it was a great role for Russell but I was scared of it — boxing movies have been done so well, I wasn’t sure I could offer anything new,” said Howard, speaking after a screening of the movie. “Russell said, `Why don’t you think of dealing with the fights like the fires in Backdraft?’ And that clicked.”
Crowe is also extremely passionate — in that rallying, sporty kind of way — when afforded the opportunity to discuss Ireland.
“My main contact with Ireland has been Richard Harris,” Crowe maintains. He met the Irish actor on the set of Gladiator, and the two formed an immediate bond over rugby.
“The very first night we met, he said `So I hear you live in Australia.’ And I said, yeah. And he goes, `Well, they’ve got a s**t rugby team.'” Crowe laughs remembering the provocation. “I said, `Is that right?’ and he says, `Yeah, but I hear that you were born in New Zealand. They’ve got a brilliant rugby team.'”
After that first exchange, Crowe spent many pints and hours listening to Harris extol the beauty of his native Limerick.
Crowe also has Irish roots, but he can’t recall whether his family hailed from Cork or Clare.
“I’m not sure,” Crowe mused about his Irish roots. “It’s not in my lifetime, it goes way back.”
Crowe, who had never been to Ireland, promised Harris that he would meet him there for the 2002 rugby match between Australia and Ireland in Lansdowne Road. Unfortunately, Harris died two weeks before the match.
“We kept talking as if he wasn’t sick and we were going to go to the game and it was all cool. After I went to his funeral, I was going to go straight back to Australia but then I thought, No, I’m going to Ireland, because I’ve never been, and I’m going to go to the match and do all the things that me and Richard were supposed to do.”
Crowe anticipated that the Australians would have an easy win over the Irish side.
“It wasn’t expected to be much of a challenge for Australia. Maybe 20 minutes of rough and tumble up front but then they’d just amass points.” After halftime, it became apparent to Crowe that Harris was paying him back for his impertinent thinking.
“Australia couldn’t do anything right. [Captain] George Gregan dropped the ball, I think, seven times at the base of the scrum,” he recalls.
Ireland won the game, its first home victory over Australia in 37 years. “I couldn’t help but think, from halftime onwards, that Richard was on the field. That he was actually there,” Crowe said.
The experience inspired him to write an Irish drinking song, a schmaltzy affair orchestrated with bagpipes, called “Mr. Harris Take the Field.” Crowe has a CD handy and pretty soon he is singing along.
“Mr. Harris take the field and play the 16th man. We’ll sing of Athenry and you’ll do all you can for the green, the glorious green. The emerald green of Ireland’s pride,” the song goes.
The tune, which Crowe imagines to be of the rugby drinking variety, is one track of a yet-to-be-released album by Crowe’s band, Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts. The album also includes a love song, written for his wife, Danielle.
“Can you handle the weight of a man?” the song inquires.
The evening following our conversation he was arrested for allegedly throwing a telephone at an employee of the Manhattan hotel where he was staying. He would claim that he was trying to call his wife from the phone in his hotel suite and it wouldn’t work. His arrest made the front of the tabloids for weeks.
The one quality in Braddock that Crowe admires above all else, he appears to be lacking in himself. “The greatest thing about Braddock,” he says, “was that he reclaimed his normalcy. He didn’t go around getting people to call him champion. He didn’t end up a drug addict or an alcoholic or a restaurant guy in Las Vegas, he just lived his life. I’d kind of like to do the same myself.” ♦