Russell Crowe talks to PEOPLE about how he handled fame after winning a Best Actor Oscar for Gladiator
russell crowe
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Russell Crowe became a household name when he played a Roman general in the historical epic Gladiator in 2000. But prior to making Ridley Scott's classic movie, which won him an Oscar for Best Actor, Crowe had already made an impact on Hollywood, appearing in 1995's The Quick and the Dead opposite Sharon Stone and 1997's Oscar winner L.A. Confidential.

"Being famous was fun," Crowe, 56, says in this week's issue of PEOPLE, recalling the period between making L.A. Confidential and Gladiator. "It didn't come with any real pressure. It just meant that if you'd go in a restaurant, the maître-d was pleased to see you. If you were booking into a hotel, you got an upgrade if there was one available. Being famous was easy at that point."

Crowe says his perspective changed after Gladiator.

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"That sort of took fame to the other place, where you are no longer you anymore," he says. "I thought through that period that I was making the right decision in not being so available and being humble in the face of that fame. But that's just not the way it was taken. It was taken in a different way. All of these things, the whole process of all of this stuff, it's all about what you learn and what you pick up as you go."

Shortly after Gladiator, the actor became a tabloid fixture due to his romance with his Proof of Life costar Meg Ryan amid her divorce from Dennis Quaid. He later went on to marry actress and singer Danielle Spencer, but it was his temper that continued to land him in the headlines — culminating in a phone-throwing incident in 2005, for which he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault.

He later told David Letterman the altercation, where he threw a telephone at a hotel concierge in New York City, was "possibly the most shameful situation that I've ever gotten myself in" and also told Charlie Rose it "indelibly changed me."

He's since moved back to Australia to raise his two sons with Spencer, whom he divorced from in 2018, and continues to challenge himself with roles ranging from the musical drama Les Miserables in 2012 to action comedies like The Nice Guys in 2016.

"I don't get into any kind of singular groove," he says of how he chooses his parts. "I look at the material I'm given, and I go from there."

His latest film, the thriller Unhinged, sees Crowe play an unstable man whose intense road rage turns murderous. It's one of the first films to debut in theaters since the coronavirus pandemic began.

His character's anger "is something that's unleashed really across society," Crowe says. Plus, as he slyly puts it, "When you're playing a super bad guy, you have a little bit more fun."

Unhinged opens in theaters Friday.