When Michael Buerk met Russell Crowe…

The New Zealand-born actor earns $20 million a movie and has just directed his first film The Water Diviner – but all he really wants is to be an Aussie

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For many, Russell Crowe is the “Greatest Living Australian”. Living, he certainly is, bursting with life, in fact, despite a smoking habit that makes his voice sound like a lorry in low gear. Greatest, possibly, if you mean most famous, or most recognisable, after two decades as Hollywood’s burly bruiser of choice. But Australian he definitely isn’t, and he’s sore about it.

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He’s lived there for 38 of his 50 years but they won’t let him be a citizen. Perhaps that’s what makes him so good at playing heroes rejected by their homeland. Maximus Decimus Meridius, the Roman general betrayed by his emperor’s patricidal son in Gladiator. The eponymous hero in Robin Hood, outlawed by bad King John and at war with the even more wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. 

Crowe’s biggest films have earned him upwards of $20 million a time, but, fabulously wealthy though he is, all his efforts to become a citizen of the place he calls home have failed. “It’s funny,” he says, though he’s definitely not smiling. “I was born in New Zealand but I’ve been in Australia since 1968. As a kid, I handed out ‘how to vote’ cards to help elect the prime minister.”

But he still can’t vote there himself. When he applied for citizenship, after marrying an Australian singing star (Danielle Spencer; they’re now separated) and having children, he was turned down. “They changed the law for New Zealanders,” he says, “and no matter how long you’d been in the country, if you weren’t in Australia for the majority of 2000 to 2002 – when I was particularly busy filming overseas – you can’t become a citizen.”

His only option, he explains in a suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel, is to apply for a visa based on “special talent” and then try to parley it into citizenship later. He’s rumbling mad about it, in a very Russell Crowe way, talking softly but looking daggers. “I’ve been awarded the Federation medal,” he says, counting his distinctions on stubby fingers, “I’ve been voted one of Australia’s 50 national treasures. I’ve even had my face on an Australian stamp, the only non-Australian to do so,” he thinks a moment, “apart from the Queen, of course [and a few others, Russell]. It’s so, so…” I wait for the explosion, fearful for the Dorchester’s spindly furniture, “…unreasonable.”

He is smaller than you’d imagine, well shy of six feet. Scruffy, with his creased-up jeans and hoodie, he’s a careless counterpoint to the deep-pile and decorous soft furnishings. He’s affable, talkative, calls you “mate” a lot. Very, well, Australian. He’s in town to follow the rugby league team he not only owns, but, to hear him talk, has practically resurrected. They’re a bunch of one-time losers called the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The club had fallen on hard times when Crowe and other backers bought the team in 2006. They’re now the Australian Premiership champions, to Crowe’s “deep, deep satisfaction”. He loves them, not just for their triumphant, blokey manliness, but for what their success means for a rough, tough slice of Sydney with more than its fair share of problems.

“People have seen the club pick itself up by its bootstraps, become a competitive team, a dominant team, a championship team. It’s picked up the whole place. Not just sport – there are going to be more doctors and lawyers coming out of South Sydney now we’ve shown that no matter how dark it gets, you can actually turn things around and be successful.”

There’s a totally gratuitous tribute to the Rabbitohs – “You beauties” – at the end of Crowe’s latest film, which he’s plugging while he’s over here. “I put it there because I could,” he says. As director, as well as star, of The Water Diviner he called the shots – in every sense.

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The film’s subject couldn’t be further from rugby league. It’s about Gallipoli, the First World War campaign for control of the Dardanelles, exactly 100 years ago, that looms so large in the Australian and New Zealand psyche. Crowe plays a farmer whose three sons were supposedly all killed in the Battle of Lone Pine, and whose wife, mad with grief, commits suicide. He sets off to recover their remains and his increasingly improbable quest is intercut with flashback scenes of the battle itself.