Russell was born into a show-business family. His maternal grandfather, Stan Wemyss, was an award-winning cinematographer during WWII. His parents, Alex and Jocelyn, were set caterers in film and television, and the family traveled extensively.
The family moved to Sydney, Australia, when Russell was 4. It was while on set that the acting bug struck. "I was on film sets and TV sets all the time between the ages of 5 and 9, and it just fascinated me. I always wanted to know what was behind the doors ... on film sets and TV sets nothing is behind them. But I kept thinking, 'If I open one of these doors, sooner or later there's going to be something there.' So I really lost any fears about TV and film performance at a young age, because I knew it was all fantasy."
He started working in television at age 6, "but I was never a child star -- I was a child extra. My parents were location caterers, so I was the annoying little kid on the set."
His first part was on the Australian television show Spyforce, directed by Jocelyn Crowe's godfather. Wearing a South Sydney jumper, he got to deliver a line to his future Sum of Us co-star, Jack Thompson. Even then, Russell had a dogged determination.
"Even at 6," he's said, "I would look at the 28-year-old guy playing the war veteran in a film and tell my parents, 'I don't know why the director doesn't see me in that role. I might be a little short, but I can do it.' "
Still, he says that as a child "I was shy. I was the sort of kid who would sign up for a talent quest and then, having done all the rehearsal and all the work, not turn up." He noted, however, that he only did that once, at age 7.
At 14, Russell returned to New Zealand to finish high school "because my dad never intended us to have been away that long. He's very much a New Zealander. But for me, the formative years in Australia set my attitudes toward life, and they're vastly different from your average New Zealander's attitudes."
So what is that difference? "New Zealanders tend to be very persistent, you know? And Australians are quite happy-go-lucky, so I've got kind of a combination of the two things."
In high school he met Dean Cochran, and the two formed the band Roman Antix. Music became a major focus in Russell's life during this period. He recorded several songs under the name Russ Le Roq. One of his early songs was "I Want to Be Like Marlon Brando."
Of his early recordings, he's said they "went rocketing straight to the bottom of the charts."
"I actually have two or three of the worst recordings in the history of the New Zealand music industry. So I've got that whole bottom end covered."
But forget about finding copies. He jokingly told talk-show host Conan O'Brien "They wouldn't release my shit on CD, man! That's an expensive medium! I'm lucky if someone writes out the lyrics and photocopies them."
After high school, he took a variety of odd jobs while pursuing his film and music careers, including "entertainment manager" at a resort island off Auckland, New Zealand, where his duties included bingo-calling.
Eventually he landed a role in a local production of Grease, then the Rocky Horror Show, which brought him back to Oz.
Russell did about 415 performances of The Rocky Horror Show from 1986 to 1988. He played Dr. Frank N. Furter, among other roles. He's said his favorite screen villain is Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in the film version of the play, "although I was pretty good in high heels myself."
He opted not to go to Sydney's famed National Institute for Dramatic Arts, whose students have included Judy Davis, Mel Gibson, and his Romper Stomper co-star Jacqueline McKenzie. "I was a child extra and had 19 years of apprenticeship," he's said. "I go out and find the answers to the questions that become apparent to me in life, not from somebody else's list."
Instead, he took a number of odd jobs, including waiter and street performer in Kings Cross in Sydney, while going on auditions and casting calls hoping to break into film. His first film was Blood Oath, also known as Prisoners of the Sun. But his big break came at age 25, when George Ogilvie cast him in The Crossing.
At the time, Ogilvie asked which role he wanted in the film. Russell's response: "All of them." (He would eventually play Johnny Ryan in the film). He starred alongside actor Robert Mammone, who later appeared with him in Heaven's Burning, and actress Danielle Spencer, who became Russsell's girlfriend for four years. Years after breaking up, Russell and Danielle reunited and were married on April 7, 2003.
His award-winning performance in Proof followed, then came Romper Stomper, which broke box-office records in Australia, and which made Russell a star. The film also drew scathing criticism from some who called it racist and inflammatory, and praise by others who likened it to the classic film A Clockwork Orange. But Russell has continually defended the film and his decision to star in it.
"Every role has different things that speak to you," he's said. "With Romper Stomper, I was afraid of delving into the darkness of the neo-Nazi ideology on one hand, but on the other hand, I could tell that it was going to be a very important social document. That was the imperative behind my doing it."
One year after winning the Australian Film Institute's award for best supporting actor for his role in Proof, Russell won best actor for Romper Stomper.
"I don't mind being afraid of some of the characters I play, because it adds an extra level of excitement," he's said. Still, "I think it's kind of pretentious to sit there and say 'I only dance on the edge,' because that's not the human condition."
It was his electrifying performance as the vicious Hando that caught the eye of American actress Sharon Stone. She was producing and starring in a Western, Quick and the Dead, and she so desperately wanted Russell for the film that the start of production was delayed so he could finish Sum Of Us.
The Quick and the Dead quickly died at the box office, but not so Russell's film career. He went on to co-star opposite Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington in the big-studio film Virtuosity, and made smaller films including Rough Magic and Breaking Up.
And then came L.A. Confidential. In readings and a screen test -- part of which is available on the L.A. Confidential video and DVD -- Russell won over director Curtis Hanson, who had first seen him in Romper Stomper. Again Russell was taking on a character who some might not see as totally without faults, including Russell himself.
In describing his character, Bud White, Russell says, "he's a racist. He's self-righteous. He's foul-mouthed. He's a son of a bitch. However, in the course of the movie, you get an indication as to why he's taken this attitude toward life. He doesn't realize just how much he's looking for love and affection and confirmation of his good points, buried as they may be. ... I think he is a good man -- but he's very much a product of his environment and his job."
The film astonished critics and moviegoers at Cannes in 1997, and went on to win numerous film critics awards, as well as two Academy Awards. Filmmakers took notice of Russell's complex performance, and soon the scripts began piling in. As his followup to L.A. Confidential, he chose Mystery, Alaska. In it he played John Biebe, the aging captain of a pond hockey team that goes on to play the N.Y. Rangers. The film failed to score at the box office, though, or with critics.
Russell next filmed The Insider, co-starring Al Pacino and directed by Michael Mann. He earned his first Academy Award nomination ever, for his portrayal of balding, pudgy, 53-year-old Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on American tobacco companies. He lost the Best Actor award, however, to L.A. Confidential co-star Kevin Spacey.
Then came Gladiator, the movie that catapulted Russell from a well-respected but largely unknown actor to one of the biggest stars in the world. Russell played the Roman general Maximus in the Ridley Scott film. With the help of a huge marketing campaign by DreamWorks, the movie was an immediate success at the box office, and went on to become one of the best-selling DVDs of all time when it was released in that format later that year.
Russell went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for Gladiator, which also won Best Picture, among other honors.
After Gladiator came Proof of Life, a romantic adventure co-starring Meg Ryan that was released in December 2000. The film Flora Plum, to be directed by Jodie Foster, was put on hold after Russell injured his shoulder, requiring surgery. Ewan McGregor eventually took the role instead.Russell then completed A Beautiful Mind with director Ron Howard, released in December 2001. The film earned him his third consecutive Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
He is currently preparing his directorial debut with A Long Green Shore, in which he'll also star. But first, he'll star in the Peter Weir-helmed Far Side of the World, based on the popular series of books by Patrick O'Brian. He is also scheduled to film Cinderella Man, the story of boxer Jim Braddock, and Tripoli, reuniting him with Gladiator director Ridley Scott.
He still calls Australia his home. In fact, after moving to Oz at age 4, he's called himself an Aussie ever since, "except when the All Blacks are playing."
He owns a farm in Nana Glen, where his parents and older brother live, as well as numerous animals he calls "my friends."
"Being on a farm, I read books," he's said. "I structure my day around the needs of my animals, not my animalistic friends."
He also owns a harbourside mansion in Sydney.