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