For Crowe, packing on nearly 40 pounds to play ”The Insider”’s Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand was a piece of cake. (Actually, several pieces of cake.) It was shedding the flab that was next to impossible. Not that Crowe (who scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for ”The Insider”) minded. It’s just that the actor was on a pretty tight deadline not only to drop the pounds, but also to chisel himself into Maximus – the baddest badass in ancient Rome. ”After five weeks of working out I’d only dropped five pounds,” says Crowe. ”For some people dropping 38 pounds is nothing, but my cholesterol was ridiculously high and I had trouble getting out of cars, I was so fat.”
Vying to be the first blockbuster of the summer, director Scott’s $100 million Roman action epic tells the swashbuckling story of Crowe’s Maximus – a brave and loyal military general under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Harris). But when the emperor reveals his plans for Maximus to succeed him after his death, Aurelius’ jealous son Commodus (Phoenix) betrays Maximus and has him sent into exile as a slave. In shackles and with his family life destroyed, Maximus is trained as a gladiator under the tutelage of Proximo (Reed, who died of apparent heart failure toward the tail end of filming).
When Maximus is sent to Rome to fight in the Colosseum, he begins to plot his vengeance and gain his freedom. While that simple ”general to slave to gladiator” three-act story arc would be more than enough to sustain most summer fare, Scott and screenwriter David Franzoni had loftier goals, piling on a few twisty subplots involving Maximus’ enslaved brother-in-arms (Hounsou), Maximus’ past relationship with the emperor’s daughter (Nielsen), and her plan to restore Rome to democratic rule with the help of a civic-minded senator (Jacobi).
While Crowe’s character is fictional, others are drawn from the history books. ”It’s pretty smart,” boasts Scott. ”Thankfully, a lot of the story was there in Roman history, so we didn’t have to make too much up.” Still, the director says ”Gladiator”’s real surprise is its lean-and-mean leading man, who he predicts will rocket from a bristling and brooding character actor into one of Hollywood’s heavyweight stars. ”Trust me, if I had to hire Russell after this movie comes out,” says Scott, ”I wouldn’t be able to afford him.”