On the Set of 'State of Play': Washington Post Consultant Tells (Almost) All

By R.B. Brenner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Russell Crowe trusts his instincts, and right now he's almost certain they are dead-on. He just needs confirmation. So he darts his piercing eyes toward me.

Five days earlier I was in the Washington Post newsroom, editing articles for the Metro section. Now I'm in Crowe's Beverly Hills hotel suite, along with director Kevin Macdonald and actresses Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams. Three Academy Award winners. A magnetic young star. And a newspaper guy you've never heard of, still wondering how he got here.

We're dissecting the script for "State of Play," a big-screen thriller that revolves around the friendship-rivalry between a politician and a reporter. It's Jan. 6, 2008, the eve of three months of filming.

Crowe's voice booms across the room. Surely, he asserts, a journalist who's been given photos that break open a sensational crime story would never jeopardize the scoop by sharing them with the police. Right?

I've known him less than 48 hours. Not long enough to gauge whether he finds me useful or a pest. Certainly not long enough to calculate whether the answer I'm about to give will earn me an icy glare or a nod of respect.

My new, surreal role as a pampered movie consultant is quite agreeable: hanging out with A-list celebrities, traveling first-class, staying near the beach in Santa Monica, fattening up on catered meals. It would be nice to stick around.

It also would be nice to leave with some integrity intact.

"In most situations, you're right," I begin, making eye contact while building the courage to drop a big "however" on Crowe, who plays the reporter. He's our meal ticket, the guy who rescued the movie six weeks earlier after Brad Pitt abruptly dropped out amid the Hollywood writers' strike. If he gives the word, I'm probably on the red-eye back to Dulles.

After explaining why reporters often have adversarial relations with police and protect confidential documents at all costs, I outline a very narrow window of exception. If lives are in peril, then your duties as a citizen trump your principles as a journalist.

Crowe pivots toward Macdonald, who had cautioned me that his leading man doesn't necessarily see the noble side of my profession. I brace for the worst. Instead, an articulate ally emerges.

The exchange we just had, he tells Macdonald, needs to find its way into the scene.

"That was fun, man," Crowe says to me later, after we spar a few more rounds over the script.

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