From the Crowe's nest
On his latest film, set aboard a tall ship from the Napoleonic era, Russell Crowe relished seeing the horizon from the perch of his very own Crowe's nest.
"One of the most sublime moments was climbing a mast, 137 feet above the ocean," recalls Crowe. "Riding the mast, I had the sea breeze whipping around my face. What could be better than that?"
The movie, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," finds the Australian actor playing the role of an Englishman, Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey. He's the hero of author Patrick O'Brian's 20-volume series of salt-and-brine tanged adventures on the high seas. In this particular episode the year is 1805, and Aubrey and close friend Dr. Stephen Maturin find their ship, the HMS Surprise, attacked by the French.
To duplicate the HMS Surprise, the movie studio bought an American tall ship, "Rose," and sailed her from Rhode Island to San Diego, where she was rebuilt and retrofitted as an exact duplicate of the British ship, right down to the interiors.
For authenticity, the actors portraying the ship's crew underwent a two-week intensive training course to learn everything from how to tie a sheepshank knot to striking the sails. There were sweaty workouts loading cannons, too, followed by breaks to play rugby with Crowe.
But costar Paul Bettany (who was last seen alongside Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind") had an easier time preparing for his role as Maturin. Part of the shoot took him to the Galapagos islands.
"Since I play a naturalist as well as a doctor, the Islands gave me a lot of specimens to observe," says Bettany. "We were the first film crew they've ever allowed to [film on] location there."
To prepare for the part of the doctor, the actor also spent time with director Peter Weir at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to learn about procedures of the period. "I read books on how they used the surgical instruments," says Bettany. "I spent time preparing for the mind-set of the doctor. He was very solitary and enjoyed his own company."
Bettany says the period costumes, designed by Wendy Stites, also helped him get into character. "Wendy, who is the wife of Peter Weir, is a stickler for detail," says Bettany. "I really felt as though the clothes she made for me, resembled those of a nobleman from that period."
But Bettany can't claim to have gotten his britches wet like the others. "Paul was a fortunate chap: "He was only drenched in seawater once," says Crowe. The crew and I were topside, so we got the water when it stormed."
Many of those battle sequences were filmed on a replica of the boat inside a water tank in Ensenada, Mexico - previously home to the set of "Titanic." Other turbulent sequences were filmed with smaller wooden models of the ships.
There are some quieter scenes in the movie, too. The two lead characters relax by playing violin and the cello on deck.
Crowe and Bettany decided to learn how to play several tunes in their entirety. "We didn't have to master all four of them," says Bettany, "but it was a surprise to Weir that we did." Adds Crowe, "Let's face it, it made us seem better than we were."