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."