You can find all sorts of exotic birds in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. Parrots are as plentiful here as pigeons. Cockatoos squawk from every treetop. But recently, an odder sort of fowl has been flocking to these parts. In fact, there's one flapping out of the bushes now: the Paparazzi australis, its 400mm beak focused directly on Russell Crowe.
''We're being photographed, mate,'' the actor coolly announces a few hundred yards away, standing on the terrace of his still-being-renovated apartment overlooking the gardens from just across Woolloomooloo Bay. ''See him on that cliff? In the red T-shirt?''
When Crowe and his wife of nearly five months, Danielle Spencer, purchased this sprawling pied-a-terre (for a reported $9 million) on one of Sydney's most fashionable wharfs, its panoramic park views must have been a major selling point. Lately, though, the only bird getting watched has been Crowe. ''He'll try to sell the pictures to some magazine,'' he grumbles. ''But all he's got is two guys talking. Not much of a story.''
Unless this paparazzo can read lips through his telephoto lens. Because for the next two hours, Crowe will talk about everything from his reputation for barroom brawling (exaggerated, he insists) to how marriage and impending fatherhood have made him a mellower man (maybe). Of course, the three-time Oscar nominee (he won for Gladiator) will mostly talk about playing Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the swashbuckling high-seas adventure based on the late Patrick O'Brian's popular historical novels about the 19th-century British navy. It's a role that could conceivably put Crowe on the Oscar ballot for a fourth time.
The history of the film itself is an epic, spanning 10 years and five studios (it began at Samuel Goldwyn, then moved to Disney, and moved again to Twentieth Century Fox, which brought in Universal and Miramax as coproducers) and costing boatloads of cash ($135 million, spent mostly in Mexico, where Master shot in the same giant tank in which James Cameron sank his Titanic). And now, with a Nov. 14 release date looming, it's sailing into the most treacherous waters yet, with fans of O'Brian's 20-novel series already circling cineplexes like sharks. A fiercely loyal lot -- they exhaust nearly as much bandwidth with their Web pages as Trekkies -- they've been grousing about the film's patchwork plot (combining elements of the 1st and 10th novels), complaining about the casting of the too tall Paul Bettany (Crowe's A Beautiful Mind costar) as Aubrey's diminutive shipmate Dr. Stephen Maturin, and even raising questions about Crowe -- or at least his waistline (in the books, Aubrey is a bit of a fatty).
''I'm hoping they've all seen Adaptation,'' half-jokes director Peter Weir (The Truman Show), who cowrote the film with John Collee (Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman did some uncredited doctoring). ''I've tried to give the audience the experience of being at sea, of inhabiting this other world, which is what I enjoyed most about the novels. But it's rare for people who love a book to love the movie made from it.'' Still, Weir has no doubts about one thing: His hero couldn't have been more perfectly cast. ''The minute Russell walked into the room I thought, 'There he is,''' he says. ''He's got this natural authority. He likes to command. He's the captain of actors.''