- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2000

LOS ANGELES

Actress Meg Ryan and actor Russell Crowe are the pre-eminent tabloid couple.

Their movie "Proof of Life," during which their romantic involvement began, opened yesterday. In the film, Miss Ryan plays the distraught spouse of a kidnapped American engineer (David Morse). Her character hangs tough through months of negotiations and uncertainty while relying on a resourceful troubleshooter (Mr. Crowe) who makes a profession of dealing with international bandits.

The co-stars' fictional true grit wasn't quite duplicated in real life during promotional work for the movie. They declined to submit to round-table interviews with the press and confined themselves to radio and television interviews.

Taylor Hackford, the film's director and co-producer, talked candidly about his absent co-stars while addressing the press at the Four Seasons Hotel along with supporting players David Morse and David Caruso.

"It bothers me," he said of their decision not to be interviewed, "but what can I do about it? I understand their sensitivity. They're captives of the situation. They didn't know each other when I cast this movie. I put my chemistry set together, and kaboom."

Mr. Hackford fears the movie may remain a hostage to the notoriety of the couple's involvement. (The romance broke up Miss Ryan's marriage to Dennis Quaid.)

"The tabloids, who have the big vested interest in scandal, are claiming that what happened in real life is what you'll see in the movie," he says. "You guys know that's baloney, but I'm afraid a large segment of the public may decide they've already had it with the movie because of the gossip."

After location work in Poland (which doubled for Chechnya) and then Ecuador (which doubled for a country called Tecala), production for the movie shifted to London for interiors and a smattering of exteriors. The Ryan-Crowe romance was percolating in Ecuador and a done deal by the time the company reached England.

When did Mr. Hackford become aware that love had flourished under his nose? "When I read it in the tabloids, in England," he says.

The pair were "discreet on the set and while circulating socially," he says. "I'm a particular kind of director, totally focused on what I do. I don't hang out with the actors… . I'm watching dailies and making plans for the next day's work until I turn in.

"Moreover, this was one of the toughest films I've ever worked on. There was a military coup three weeks before we arrived in Ecuador. It was the wettest year in 40 years, which made difficult locations in the Andes even more difficult. We were at 14,000 feet for many of the sequences about David Morse as a captive. During one week, 25 people got carried out because of oxygen deprivation at high altitude — never David, by the way. He had better endurance than several of the younger people."

In retrospect, Mr. Hackford acknowledges that he underestimated some of the chemistry between Miss Ryan and Mr. Crowe.

"Looking through the camera, I saw a certain amount of sexual attraction and tension. I'm happy with it, because that's what the characters need to project. But I've worked with people who despised each other and got the same chemistry on screen. When I got to England for the studio work, I discovered from the tabloids that something real had been going on. I can't say I was astonished by that, even if I hadn't suspected a thing. Meg and Russell always got along. They seemed to be having fun… . They were enacting a relationship that was supposed to be tentative and ambiguous."

Mr. Morse's contact with Miss Ryan and Mr. Crowe is a bit fleeting in the movie. His character, Peter Bowman, is separated from his wife (Miss Ryan) for most of the picture and dominates a subplot dealing with prolonged captivity in the jungle. Bowman, who becomes tougher and more defiant as his ordeal persists, encounters rescuer Terry Thorne, Mr. Crowe's character, only during a bang-up finale.

"I almost felt like I was in a different movie," Mr. Morse says. "Russell got to come and join in my movie for a little while… . I was mostly off in my own little world, preoccupied with things like losing weight, which I needed to do to authenticate part of Bowman's suffering."

Mr. Morse says he felt a special obligation to Tom Hargrove, whose experiences were the source for Tony Gilroy's fictionalized screenplay. Mr. Hargrove recalled them in his memoir, "Long March to Freedom." He also was one of the subjects in a Vanity Fair article by William Prochnau, "Adventures in the Ransom Trade."

"I was trying to honor Tom's experience without confusing his story and the movie story. About two weeks into the kidnapping scenes, I called him, and we talked for a long time. We kept up an e-mail correspondence after that.

"I tried to borrow some of the stubborn anger that got Tom through — and still motivates him to an extent. He was adamant that we don't get sentimental about the kind of people who take captives for ransom."

Mr. Hargrove, an agronomist, "specializes in rice," Mr. Morse says. "He goes around the world working on food problems. He felt very comfortable with his counterparts in Colombia. It was a total shock to be cast as a bad guy by the people who kidnapped him. He took a wrong turn and became a hostage for 11 months… . The initials of the company he worked for were CIAT. When the terrorists saw that, they chose to believe he was a CIA agent. The company essentially abandoned him. They were afraid that if they ransomed Tom, employees in other parts of the world would be kidnapped. He doesn't work there anymore."

Mr. Caruso, who gets a comeback role in "Proof of Life" as Mr. Crowe's comrade in arms, fielded polite inquiries from reporters about the major miscalculation of his career. That was the decision to elope with a movie called "Jade" and abandon a TV series called "NYPD Blue." Mr. Hackford cast Mr. Caruso in the hit movie "An Officer and a Gentleman" 16 years ago.

"I've had kind of a quiet five years," Mr. Caruso says. "I haven't been involved in such big-scope things until this movie, but I've had some great experiences — like working with Charles Dutton on his TNT thing, 'Deadlocked.' We worked with a really interesting guy, this director, Michael Watkins, who was so confident he made everything feel almost effortless. There's an advantage to what I've been through. Careerwise, it's real easy to be terrified of losing what you have. The neat thing about losing it is that you find out you don't die.

"I created a lot of turmoil for myself back in 1994. If you're fortunate enough to learn from that, you can apply some useful experience, starting with the need to act like an adult and understand what your responsibilities are.

"I was offered a million dollars for 'Jade' four hours into the second season of 'NYPD.' Suddenly I was catapulted from a hard-working character actor into some kind of surreal overnight stardom. I was making it up as I went along, so it's kind of no wonder I didn't handle it well. You're talking about a guy who was still looking for an agent when he started getting these fabulous offers."

Mr. Caruso concedes he should have stayed with the TV series. "Something might have been worked out, but I forced the issue, in a panicky way, and created a lot of negative stuff. My thing was such a fluke.

"You can't compare it at all to Russell, who's still a young guy but has been in the business for a long time and really gets it. There was a real build in his career, a solid foundation of things until 'Gladiator' made him an international star… . I basically mishandled the situation, and it shouldn't have been a big surprise when the bubble burst.

"I think I've earned my way back to the top-level people by virtue of becoming a professional — a little tardily."



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