Russell Crowe could be up for another Oscar for his latest role as genius mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Kye Northover speaks to him, uncovering a harrowing tale of mental illness.
Russell Crowe is used to challenging roles, but his lead in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind was more physically demanding then most. Not only was Crowe portraying a real man, Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash, who is still alive today, but his challenge was to accurately portray a genius struck down in his early thirties by paranoid schizophrenia. ‚Every Sunday before the week’s shooting, it was ridiculous,’ explains Crowe. ‚No matter what I’d done on the weekend, no matter what place of relaxation I’d taken myself to for the weekend to get ready for the week, I could not sleep on the night before shooting. I would start every week in this weakened place because I’d had 45 minutes sleep for 14 hours’ shooting.
‚I think that’s part of the process. You delve into this stuff and you can’t help but think how you’d feel if you were in this situation, how your mind would react, and when you start thinking of the subject matter, obviously things come up.’
A graduate student at Princeton in the late 1940s, Nash was something of a mystery in the Ivy League with no old money ties or prep school legacy, few social skills and an obsessive drive to find a truly original idea. Within his brutally competitive maths department, he’s the antisocial outsider, but he’s tolerated.
Despite his misanthropic behaviour and reluctance to attend classes, Nash does indeed find an original idea – one that boldly contradicts the foundations of modern economics and outdates 150 years of accepted thought. His controversial game theory wins him a coveted research and teaching post at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he meets and marries physics student Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) and his mathematical genius is sought by Cold War governments. But Nash’s world changes when he succumbs to paranoid schizophrenia, which he has, unknowingly, been living with for some time.
The story is told from Nash’s point of view from the outset, and directed in such a way that Nash’s diagnosis results in a Matrix-style re-evaluation of things as much for the audience as for the character. It’s a touching and harrowing depiction of mental illness. ‚From a practical sense, a big challenge was making the decisions of how we were going to portray Nash as a young man,’ Crowe says. ‚There’s no footage of him as a young man – when you apply 35 years of hospitalisation and medication, what parts of him now were existent before that and what developed throughout that time period?
‚Without going to the real source, it felt really false. It came down to the fact that we didn’t have a lot to hang it on. In our research of schizophrenia, we found that people’s voices, the tones of their voices, were affected, their facial features, their whole bodily construction were often affected through medication and hospitalisation.’ With just a handful of black and white photographs of the young Nash, the filmmakers and actors used deduction and broad strokes to complete their characterisation.
‚That was a bit of a leap of faith, but I felt that if I’d spent too much time zeroing in on Nash as a person, I would’ve taken a lot of stuff that he processed and thought through and now saw in a completely different light with hindsight,’ says Crowe.
‚My research for the role wasn’t really going out meeting people, it was more watching a lot of videos. I made a comment to the New York Times that was taken as a glib, smart-arse comment that my research was done by taking a walk through New York every Sunday. But if you look into that and realise how many people there are right across America, but more particularly in New York, who should be in some kind of hospice care but who aren’t, because they’ve taken to turfing people out, then that guy who is having that imaginary conversation with several people on the Upper East Side – that’s what he’s going through.
That’s the kind of episode we’re trying to explain.’
With Crowe recently claiming the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Drama), and the film also winning Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Actress (Jennifer Connolly), A Beautiful Mind is already being tipped to scoop the Oscar pool. Veteran director Ron Howard explains that while A Beautiful Mind is the story of one man, it should not be considered a straight biopic. The story, while taking its name from the Sylvia Nasar-penned biography, has been partly fictionalised.
‚It’s hard to tell the story of a life; this is not an attempt to tell the story of his life in the accurate anecdotal sense – we wanted to tell the story of the experiences of John,’ Howard says. ‚We wanted it to be like feeling like John.’
It was the experiences of mental illness that Howard says he’s been keen to tackle for some time.
‚While people don’t really talk about mental illness a lot, many, many people are touched by it and don’t know what to make of it,’ he says.
‚We thought if we could find the right narrative shape to deal with it without losing the sense of ideal and not letting it become a disease-movie-of-the-week type drama, that it could be very powerful. This story had the right character and architecture to it.’
While Howard had met with the real Nash, as had Crowe, once, on the first day of shooting, he hadn’t been closely involved with the production, so Howard was understandably nervous when the mathematician seeing the final cut. ‚It was really kind of an out of body experience for me to sit one row behind them, watching it; it’s always got to be strange to watch a movie that purports to represent your life, when no movie ever can, and also there were aspects of Nash’s experience that he does not remember, that are portrayed,’ Howard says. ‚I was not emotionally prepared to watch the electric shock sequence with Nash sitting there. The real Alicia started crying at that point and John, who was kind of bemused about the whole thing, I think, he just sat there watching. But at the electric shock scene he looked down. I’m always impacted by that sequence, which is very authentically portrayed.
‚After the film we were talking, and he was in his own, disconnected, kind of way, complimentary of the whole thing, and Alicia was blown away by it, so it was satisfying.’ While the story is as much a love story between Nash and his wife (Jennifer Connolly, too, also tipped for an Oscar after picking up the Best Actress Golden Globe), the film stands out from the pack of Hollywood ‚issue’ movies.
‚The important thing about this film, from a very basic social understanding, is that schizophrenia is not about split personality – it’s about different planes of reason, and I think that’s quite important, even if that’s the only thing that we get across,’ Crowe says.
‚I reckon there’s actually more to it than that, but that’s an important thing, just as a societal understanding of the disease. I hope we’ve done our best to get that across.’
As for the Oscars, Crowe is dismissive.
‚The main thing for me about a role is what I call the goosebumps factor,’ he says. ‚There were devices built into this script which rocked me in the reading from the beginning. That doesn’t usually happen. I start with what I believe is essentially high-quality material and then I work from that point. I’ve always made my decisions that way, and that’s what I really cared about with A Beautiful Mind.’
|harrowing||męczący, zdzierający nerwy|
|to be used to||być przyzwyczajonym|
|to strike down||powalić|
|to delve into||wgłębiać się|
|the Ivy League||grupa ekskluzywnych uczelni|
|to covet||pożądać, łaknąć|
|from the outset||od początku, od razu|
|hindsight||wiedza po fakcie, doświadczenie|
|to turf out||wyrzucać|
|to purport||twierdzić, zapewniać|
|complimentary of||uprzejmy, wyrażający uznanie|
|to stand out||wyróżniać się|
|get across||przekazać jasno|
|to reckon||myśleć, sądzić|
|to do sb’s best||zrobić wszystko, co można|