Russell Crowe doesn’t arrive at press day empty-handed. He has brought silver and black ball caps for all the journalists waiting to interview him about his new movie, The Water Diviner. The owner of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Australian National Rugby League team he bought in 2006, Crowe beamed like a proud papa, calling the team’s worst-to-first rise to the 2014 world championship “extremely satisfying, and significantly more difficult than making a movie.”

That’s even when the movie, which gets a limited US release this weekend, is a humongous historical drama in which Crowe does double duty as star and director. With a resumé full of period pieces (Master and Commander, Noah, Les Miserables) and gripping dramas (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and L.A. Confidential), Crowe is no stranger to the grander side of the big screen, but this flick is personal for the Oscar-winning actor (Gladiator, 2000) and father. He plays a rancher who travels to the Turkish site of a WWI battle, hoping to find his sons—dead or alive.

In this exclusive Q&A, the cinema vet explains why he took on the challenge, and how he met it…

“I’ve worked in this business a long time, doing stuff in front of cameras starting in 1970 when I was six years old. I’ve done 25 years of lead roles in feature films. I know the nature of film. I speak the language. I belong to the gypsy tribe.”

Had you always wanted to direct?
I think it’s simply the right time. It’s a natural transition for a certain type of actor to step into the director’s shoes. I’ve always been focused on the story but also very technically aware. The transition from actor to director is not as large as people might think.

How did you approach it?
I created an energy on the set with was all about contribution and recognition of that contribution. Working with different people all the time, they have different energies and ways of doing things, so over time you cherry pick—this is something that I’ll learn from and this is something I’m learning to never do.  Everything you do on a film set is about setting a platform for the performance. I’ve worked in this business a long time, doing stuff in front of cameras starting in 1970 when I was six years old. I’ve done 25 years of lead roles in feature films. I know the nature of film. I speak the language. I belong to the gypsy tribe. A lot of the things that people outside the business would see as crazy or strange I find a really natural part of the working process. Preparation is the key and detail and collaboration are the rule.

Why did you choose this film as your directorial debut?
In one of those strange quirks of fate, I didn’t really choose this piece. It crept up and chose me. I was in the middle of an extremely busy year, the busiest of my professional life. In a 16-month period I did five feature films, one after the other. In the middle of that and personal complications like my kids and [marital] separation, this script arrived. I had a very deep and resonant connection to it when I read it. There’s a cultural connection in that the battle of Gallipoli and the Australian-New Zealand involvement in the First World War is a definitive cultural touchstone where I come from. It’s the first time Australians and New Zealanders fought under their own flag. Prior to that they were seen as extensions of the British Empire. I saw an opportunity in the script to redefine the perspective that we have on this conflict and to rebalance it and show very clearly that you have bravery and compassion and grief on both sides.

As a dad, did it especially hit home?
Once you become a parent, everything in your life is seen through the prism of parenthood. It’s just a given. This is a man with three sons who go off to war and don’t come back. I’m a father with two boys so that hit me in a very essential way.

What kind of preparation did you do?
First there was the very arduous audition process. I took the final 12 guys into an audition room for nine hours and tested them on many levels, intellectually, emotionally, but I was looking for the guy who was still contributing—the days are long, you need the guy who’s still going to be present in the ninth hour. Once I had the guys we went to my farm in northern New South Wales and put them through this extensive and tortuous experience. They’d get up early in the morning and train and then ride horses, work with weaponry, do a 50k bike ride and then I’d give them some arrows and say, ‘If you don’t hit the bulls-eye you don’t get dinner tonight.’ It’s a pressurized situation. At nighttime there’d be lectures about the geopolitics, the history of the Ottoman Empire. You fill their hearts and minds with the things you want them to know so they take the knowledge you’ve crammed into them at camp, and on the first shooting day they’ll have a mile of depth behind their eyes because they know the character that they’re playing, they know the situation they’re in and the history of the time and they have the skills for everything. I’ve taken a group of surfer dudes back a hundred years.

What were the challenges on set?
No matter how many hours you spend preparing, things will happen. We were shooting a steam train sequence in Quorn, in the Outback, and on the first day of a six-day shoot, I’ve got a couple hundred extras, a couple hundred crew, I’ve got explosions and guns going off, people falling off trains. And at five in the morning they tell me the temperature will rise to 49.5 degrees Celsius, which is 121.6 Fahrenheit and that will be the average temperature all week. Once you get to 39 or 40 degrees there’s a total fire ban. I’m doing a steam train sequence. Steam trains require fire to move. So we had to get a diesel engine. The weather is always an issue when you’re shooting outside on a film. The trick is to dominate the weather and not let it slow you down.

Was it hard to direct yourself?
Not really because I can rely on me, unlike some actors! I never got anything less than what I needed from the lead actor. It’s fundamentally changed my attitude because I used to think I had the greatest job in the world, and then I did this and realized how much more this suits me. The composition of shots, colors, textures, the myriad things you’re responsible for… it’s such an intimate experience being a director. It’s deep and satisfying and wonderful on so many levels. But it’s also really scary because I’m responsible for all of it. There’s nowhere to hide.

Are you looking for something completely different for your next project?
I don’t know. This, with all its complications—language and shooting in two different countries, battle scenes and storm scenes and steam trains and shooting in the Blue Mosque, where no one ever filmed before, and approaching all of that with an independent Australian budget… I stood in front of that and said, ‘It’s impossible,’ and then, ‘When do we start?’ People asked, ‘Why would you do something this big, on this scale, for your first thing?’ It never occurred to me not to. It was a really important story and I wanted to tell it.

What are your criteria when you look at scripts?
I wait till something touches my heart. There’s one period when I read 50 scripts before I found one that I wanted to do, and I can never predict what it’s going to be. Sometimes a script sounds interesting, but if I read it and don’t get goosebumps and don’t start making notes about the character, I don’t do it. I don’t care what the check is. It was the same process with choosing this script. I had wanted to be a director for a long time, but it took something that grabbed me in such a visceral place to make me take it on.

You have some great on-screen chemistry with Olga Kurylenko.
What’s funny is that people talk about my character Joshua and Olga’s Ayshe as a romance but they never even touch hands. They’re on different sides of a conflict but they recognize in each other a grief. Ayesha’s son leads her to a place of understanding. Joshua’s supposed to be the enemy, but her son whom she loves and knows has a good instinct for people is telling her that this is a good man, so it changes the way she communicates with him. But all they do is talk. I wanted them to be connected, for that part of the movie to show that there’s hope and potential for the future. The story has sad moments but also some lightness. I want people to leave the cinema thinking, ‘It’s going to be OK.’