Russell Crowe was walking along a Malibu beach a few years back when he came across a young couple struggling to get their sea kayak out of the water.
Crowe helped them lug the boat ashore and turned to continue his walk when he heard the man call out to him.
"You don't know who this is, do you?" the man said.
Crowe looked again.
"Oh, sorry, mate," Crowe said to Leonardo DiCaprio. "I didn't recognize you. It's been a while, hasn't it?"
It had been a while. The two met in 1993 as relative neophytes in the Western "The Quick and the Dead," and more than a decade had passed since they'd seen each other — and become two of the biggest stars on the planet.
They team up again for the political thriller Body of Lies, which opens Oct. 10. And while the pair could not have become more disparate in demeanor and acting styles, they still remember a time when they bonded as outcasts.
"It was a strange dynamic," Crowe says over tea with DiCaprio. "You had Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone and these actors who had been in the business for 30 years. We had only done a couple of small movies, and we weren't part of that superstar club. So we forged a friendship and started our own club."
That "club" has since enjoyed a Hollywood ascendancy few have matched. Together they have six Academy Award acting nominations, including a win for Crowe, and DiCaprio anchored the biggest box-office film in history with "Titanic."
They will need all of that clout for the Ridley Scott film, which marks Hollywood's most critical view yet of American military policy in the Middle East.
Based on the book by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, "Body of Lies" tells the story of a CIA agent (DiCaprio) who roams Mideast hot spots while his superior (Crowe) leads the hunt for a terrorist from his laptop in suburban Washington, D.C.
The contrasting roles seem tailored for the pair. Off-screen, DiCaprio, 33, is careful with answers, more prone to serious political discourse. He's decked in Armani and Wayfarer sunglasses, and so carefully coiffed he could be fresh off the set of his upcoming 1950s drama "Revolutionary Road."
Crowe, 44, is in jeans and loose polo shirt, with a tangle of hair pulled back into a ponytail. He's more raw in his answers, quick to break into impressions and happy to jab gently at DiCaprio. (Crowe, for instance, claims DiCaprio was a virgin when shooting began on "Quick" but has developed a taste for "beautiful lasses" since; DiCaprio never ventures into his personal life.)
"They're fascinating together," says "Lies" co-star Mark Strong. "Russell is very full of energy, always moving. Leo is more introverted. Russell takes a scene by the throat, while Leo tends to be meticulous. Some A-list actors don't like to share scenes, but they seem to do it naturally."
Bonded over intense training
From the beginning of their friendship, they have been a study in contrasts. DiCaprio was a cinephile by the time he began "Quick," having studied Crowe even in the tiny Australian film "Romper Stomper," in which Crowe played a skinhead.
"He's the quintessential student," says Scott, who has done four films with Crowe, but "Body of Lies" is his first with DiCaprio. "He'll sit back and absorb everything for a couple of days, then suddenly, he's caught up."
Crowe, meanwhile, was already gaining a reputation as a headstrong, if not hotheaded, actor. Sam Raimi, who directed "Quick," remembers once helping crewmembers throw dirt and manure on Crowe for a scene. "I may be the only man who was ever able to get away with throwing cow pies at Russell," he jokes.
But for all their differences, the young actors found they shared something: an almost obsessive preparation for a film role. Both spent hours with trainers learning how to dismantle and quick-draw their six shooters.
"A lot of actors are afraid of props; hell, they can't walk and talk at the same time," Crowe says. "Leo had this focus. I could relate to that, particularly with the dynamic of all the veteran actors. So we mucked it up and laughed to alleviate that tension."
That included playing a running prank on DiCaprio: Every time Crowe caught his co-star in the makeup chair, he feigned a sneeze and sprayed DiCaprio with a fine mist of moisture. Crowe only recently let on that it was bottled water.
"Working with him is a little like hopping on a train," DiCaprio says. "You just have to have faith and make that leap. But once you're on, you realize how focused he really is."
"Quick" grossed just $18 million at the box office, barely half the film's budget. But the actors found stardom soon afterward. While they went in different directions, they watched each other's star rise.
"I was a little worried about him after 'Titanic,'" Crowe says. "The massive success of something like that, it's not always a positive, particularly when you're that young. (He was 23.) Suddenly you find yourself on lunchboxes and bedroom slippers. That can have a deteriorating effect on the inside."
DiCaprio, too, wondered whether success had changed Crowe.
"I think we were both a little skeptical whether we would be the same guys we were when we were starting out," he says. "Then you talk for five minutes, and you see the commitment is still there."
Commitment manifested itself in different ways for the stars. DiCaprio, as usual, immersed himself in study. He read Ignatius' other books. He consulted with a former CIA official to see how an agent would react under torture.
Crowe gained 50 pounds.
"Ridley called up and said 'Now, mate, would you mind putting on a significant amount of weight? I see him as an ex-athlete who has let himself go,' " Crowe recalls, breaking from his Australian accent to mimic Scott's British brogue. "And I trust him so much, I say yes first and rationalize pretentious artistic reason later."
Gaining the weight was easy, Crowe says. "At my age, I have to watch everything I eat," he says. "I have to be really disciplined. If you take off those disciplines, all hell breaks loose. And it happens pretty quickly."
What was DiCaprio's reaction when he first reunited with Crowe?
"I busted out laughing," he says, slapping Crowe on the back. "I couldn't stop."
For once, DiCaprio is the one making fun, while Crowe gets sheepish.
"Yeah, when I see my gut hanging between my legs, I don't know what I was thinking," says Crowe, who has already lost most of the weight. "I'm not sure I'd do that again. But I get what Ridley wanted to do. He doesn't put in any image that he hasn't thought out."
Political with an eye on reality
Those images will not go unnoticed by the public, at least on the Internet, where debate is brewing over whether Scott's portrait of a CIA detached from realities in the field will be a Hollywood polemic on the war.
Whether moviegoers care is another question. They have largely ignored films broaching conflict in the Middle East. "The Kingdom," "In the Valley of Elah" and "Saving Grace" were box-office duds.
That hasn't deterred Scott from some overtly political imagery. In one torture scene, an Islamic terrorist tells his captor "Welcome to Guantanamo." In another, Crowe's character warns that when a nation is occupied, resistance only grows stronger over time.
Scott concedes the movie is political. But he says he is simply trying to reflect the realities of the conflict.
And the film hardly offers a monolithic view of the USA or Mideast nations. Strong's character is a Jordanian intelligence officer who at times is more sympathetic than Crowe's — and a better ally to DiCaprio's agent.
"Usually the most challenging things you can say are also the most accurate," Scott says.
For all of DiCaprio's research into the role and Crowe's bluster, both are loath to discuss any message of the film.
"We're not telling people what to think," DiCaprio says. "If we're guilty of anything, it's in telling people to think."
DiCaprio says that if Hollywood has been remiss in any aspect of political films, it's in not sparking the industry's target audience to become politically active — in any direction.
"I'd just like to see young people respond in some way," he says. "About 40% of young people who are registered to vote actually did in 2004. About 70% of older people did. If you can get young people to have their generation represented, then you're doing something."
Crowe grins at the brief sermon. "I knew he was a good bloke early on," he says. "Even if he doesn't know when you're pulling a joke on him."