I really didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to the press conference that Russell Crowe was holding at UNF. The Academy Award winning actor also holds a majority stake in the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a National Rugby League team in Australia.
When my friend Spinner first brought the idea of bringing Crowe’s “Bunnies” for an exhibition game here in Jacksonville in January I wasn’t sure what to think. Spinner has been the single driving force behind the Jacksonville Axemen and all things Rugby that have been going on in town in the last couple of years. He’s a big thinker but I thought this might be a little “big” even for his thoughts. It’d be like bringing the Yankees to Sydney for a little game against the Yomimuri Carp. That all changed when I walked into the press conference in the soccer locker room at UNF.
They know what they’re doing at UNF when it comes to putting on meetings and pressers. Crowe was sitting at a long table at the front of the room, alone, with South Sydney jerseys all draped neatly over the front. Behind him, the wall was decorated with more “Souths” paraphernalia. “RC” as he was referred to in the emails, was dressed in Rabbitohs gear, sweatshirt and hat and was speaking calmly and plainly about his team’s appearance in Jacksonville.
“I like the temperate climate,” Crowe said when asked what attracted him to Jacksonville as a place to play this game. “And the facilities are very nice here, plus it’s my preference that the fellas stay at the beach which will be like home.” “Plus, they already have a history with Rugby here, (UNF) they know the game,” he continued.
I’ve been to a lot of pressers with actors or musicians who were totally lost when asked any questions of substance. Crowe was the exact opposite. The more complete the question, the more thoughtful the answer.
There were about 30 people there, journalists, photographers and dignitaries all to talk to, see and have their picture taken with one guy. Some questions were about his movie career, some were about his ownership of the team. Some were about the team itself, and even of his athletic career.
“If I had played Rugby league mate, I wouldn’t have had an acting career,” Crowe exclaimed as he pushed his nose to the side and pulled his ear out perpendicular to his head.
As I said, I didn’t know what to expect, but this was very un-Hollywood. No pretension, no primping, no preening. No rehearsed responses.
He answered questions until they were exhausted, then stood and chatted with everybody within earshot. If he was on a schedule, he didn’t let on. He didn’t have a whole bunch of handlers. Just a few security people around making sure somebody didn’t get out of hand.
That is one of the unique things about Jacksonville anyway. We don’t get too jacked up over celebrities. We like it here, they like it here, great, let’s get something to eat, is our attitude.
Spinner made a point to bring “RC” over and introduced me. He looked me in the eye with a firm handshake and repeated my name. He was more Arnold Palmer than John Travolta that’s for sure. And when he hung around and talked with Tom McManus and I for another 10 minutes, I was sold. If it was an act, it was a damn good one.
Somebody asked me afterwards if I was star struck, even for a second. I laughed and said, “No, not even for a second, but when he was standing next to me and answering a question Tom asked I was looking at him and it dawned on me ‘This guy was in Gladiator!” Not that I didn’t know that, but the whole time I was talking with him as just another guy, not the Oscar winner in the movies. That’s Palmer’s charm, and Crowe has some if that in him as well.
(By the way, he’s a bit bigger than you would think, nearly six feet and not skinny.)
During our conversation he told a couple funny stories, laughed at our comebacks and seemed to be enjoying himself. “We’ll let you go,” I said, sticking out my hand to say bye. “If you come back early for the game, let Spinner know and we’ll go have some fun,” I threw in just as “guy talk.”
“You’re on,” Crowe immediately responded with a laugh.
McManus and I walked out the back door and headed for the parking lot. About a half dozen UNF students were gathered outside, having heard that Russell Crowe was here.
“Is he coming out,” one called to me as I walked by.
“In about a minute,” I answered.
“Do you think he’ll talk to us?” she asked without desperation.
“If he sees you and doesn’t have to go anywhere, he’ll probably come over,” I said gauging Crowe’s mood inside.
And as if on cue, “RC” stepped out of the door of the building, walked to his car, saw the students and kept walking over to them. “Hi there,” he waved. He signed all of their autographs, took all of their pictures and asked as many questions as he answered.
When one student named a town in South Africa where she was from he said, “I know it. I’m not an American. I know geography.” It was a remark made in fun so standing in front of him I piped up, “What, Americans don’t know geography?” with a smile. “When I come back, want to have a test,” Crowe slyly said as he signed away. “You’re on,” I answered and thanked him for his time. “Cheers mate,” he responded with a wave. “See you in January,” he finished like he meant it.
The game is the weekend before the Super Bowl at UNF. The team will be here for about 10 days and there’s rumor that Crowe’s band might also make an appearance. Tickets are limited and can be purchased through the Jacksonville Axemen website.