'Morning Show': Billy Crudup Reveals Inspiration, Motivations Behind "Shape-Shifter" Network Exec

The actor talks to The Hollywood Reporter about getting into character as "the smartest guy in the room" and teases the final episode of the Apple TV+ drama.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Billy Crudup in 'The Morning Show'

[This story contains spoilers from the penultimate episode of Apple TV+'s The Morning Show.]

There is a scene in the first episode of The Morning Show that drew Billy Crudup to the Apple TV+ drama.

Crudup's character, Cory Ellison, has been introduced as the rising star of the fictional broadcast network home to The Morning Show, and he is explaining his long-term vision to the executive producer of that beloved news program, Chip Black, who is played by Mark Duplass.

"It's kind of funny how the entire world of broadcast could just fall off a cliff in a few years. Like, boom! Bang! Lights out. Unless we reinvent it. We're all going to get bought out by tech, unless something changes," says Cory, the newly anointed boss of both the entertainment and news divisions. "News is awful. But humanity is addicted to it and the whole world is depressed by it. That's why what we really need on television right now is not news or fucking journalism. It's entertainment."

The excitement beaming out of Cory as he delivers what could be interpreted as a death sentence to a TV journalist leaves Chip unnerved and grasping for another swig of his drink. But ever since that scene, viewers and critics alike have had the opposite reaction: they can't get enough of Corey's cool among the chaos.

"It was interpretive, obviously, because none of us can read anything without interpreting it through the lens of our own creative imagination," Crudup tells The Hollywood Reporter of Corey's monologue, "but to me, the character was as fascinating and fun right on the page based upon the language that he used. My intention was purely to bring [showrunner] Kerry [Ehrin]’s vision of who the network executive was to life."

Below, in a chat with THR, Crudup reveals his process for crafting what has become a breakout role on the #MeToo-era Apple drama (and recently earned him Critics' Choice and SAG Awards nominations), and digs into his character's equal-opportunity outlook ("he abhors lazy privilege") and motivations heading into the season finale: "Cory wants everybody to be outed. He wants to have anyone who has been victimized to be able to exploit the power of truth in television."

Viewers can't seem to get enough of Cory Ellison and his smarmy charisma. What was Cory like on the page when you first read the script and what excited you about playing him?

I remember reading the first two episodes together and in particular there was the monologue that he gives to Mark Duplass' character where he describes what he sees as the state of televised news and where he sees it going. That kind of prognosticator in the body of a younger person — someone in their 40s and not a sage of 70 running a corporation — reminded me of a very specific kind of angler that you see in New York in almost any profession. You wear your heart on your sleeve in New York in a million different ways and one of the ways that people do is quickly adapting to changing situations with a profession of confidence. That kind of angler working their way around complicated circumstances with a confidence and joy at being in the mix, right next to the eye of the hurricane, is a total thrill to play. I don’t share that confidence myself in life about anything. So when you see it on the page, and you see somebody with that kind of insight and interest and investment in being a part of such a chaotic system — and even going so far as to predict the way in which that system will benefit himself and the shareholders of the company that he’s running — it makes for a ton of fun. 

Through the eyes of Cory Ellison, The Morning Show has been able to explore network culpability in the #MeToo era, creating storylines similar to recent headlines about NBC, CBS, Fox News, etc. How much research did you do into the corporate culture of it all? Did you speak to news executives or craft Cory around anyone you've met or read about in real life? 

I did not base him off any television executives. You don’t have to go very far in the entertainment industry to find these kind of shapeshifters. Cory has a bit of a room-reading, going-with-the-weather kind of vibe in him that makes him difficult to pin down, most exclusively because he has heightened intellect. And the combination of all of those things leaves someone who is in this company and negotiating with him always on the back foot, because you don’t know what the fuck he’s going to do. That, I’ve seen from producers, agents, corporate executives.

But the way in which I manifested Cory brought me to three different people that I’ve encountered throughout my life, all my age or younger, who have managed to achieve on a very high level and carry with them a kind of confidence in their own capacity to understand and read situations that I simply don’t have and kind of marvel at. They almost always land on their feet. They speak in paragraphs because they think in paragraphs. When I was doing HBO's Too Big to Fail, I was playing Timothy Geithner and I was trying to interview some of his aides. One phrase I heard about him was that he could "see around corners." And the way that was relayed to me was in a kind of awe; they were in awe of his predictive ability. The problems that have yet to come into vision for the vast majority were lurking just around the corner for him. Cory is one of those guys. I certainly can’t think or speak as fast as he can, so I kind of count on Kerry to do the drawing out of it and then I just drill it.

Viewers aren't clued in to much of Cory's history or personal life. Have you given him a backstory — and can you share it?

I have! He alludes to a part of it with Bradley (Reese Witherspoon) in their first discussion where he says, "Smart kid. Dad left. Mom raised me. Vowed to take over the world one day and kick everyone’s ass into submission." In an anecdotal way, that to me revealed that he has a chip on his shoulder and an appreciation for people who are marginalized. And he also has an appreciation for his own intellect and drive and ambition. And if he is not going to win the race, he’ll go down as the one trying the hardest. I have him as a sort of monastic presence, in terms of his personal life. He seems to only come into full visibility and focus when he is on the job, and therefore his identity is wrapped up in his work ethic. He never stops working. He goes home and works; he eats by himself and works; he goes to his closet of beautiful clothes while he works. All of those things pointed to somebody who has a myopic vision of himself and the word, and a real axe to grind. That being said, I think his general disposition is an optimistic one. He carries himself with a kind of enthusiasm that is uncommon in that position, which makes him, I think for a viewer, quite interesting to bear witness to.

There are many self-serving players in The Morning Show's orbit. Where does Cory fall on the scale of good to bad: How do you view him and how do you play him? 

(Laughs.) If you are part of this democratic capitalist society that we live in, one of the things that we champion is the capacity for a corporation to take care of itself and for those within the corporation to attend to the fiduciary responsibility of the shareholders. That is to say, they are not your priests, they’re not your teachers, they’re not your parents. They are there to make money and they are there to support an environment that makes money on the long-term scale. And I think Cory, absent of any evidence to the contrary, has had nothing but a string of hits in his life when it comes to the corporate environment. So the argument that he might be doing something which is ethically or morally challenging sort of flies in the face of one of the institutions that we hold dearest in our country, which is that of peoples’ ambition to tell the story of their life. You make a meritocracy and the evidence is the money that you make. So to that extent, Cory is doing great! He’s a great guy! He can’t help but make money for all of the shareholders of the corporation that he works for, which did give him the agency to take over the news division while also running the entertainment division and being president of the company — and that’s a pretty rare scenario. From the lens of a certain philosophical, economic system, he’s a great guy. But whether or not his compartmentalization is off-putting or destabilizing or distressing in the context of a television show about people we care about from an emotional point of view? That’s completely up to the viewer and their investment in the other characters. When it comes to the actual game of being a part of business, Cory has no interest in soothing peoples’ egos. 

You talk about what drives him and how he is motivated by a corporate duty. But as the season ramps up and Corey takes aim at the network over their complicity in the sexual misconduct scandal surrounding Mitch (Steve Carell), is any part of him also seeking social justice? 

I think we find him in this story as motivated by a single thing, which is his own ability to thrive in a corporate circumstance. He has the expectation that everybody who is a part of this corporation has this same ambition. Therefore, there is no being nice or being cruel to each other. There is just business. Either you’re invested in business, or you’re not invested in business, in which case, you shouldn’t be on his block. He only wants to be playing with the people who are really after it, because I think he is a hyper-ambitious and competitive person and wants to exploit the extent of his full potential in this environment because he wants to win, because he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.

In the penultimate episode, Cory and his skeleton team of Bradley and Chip are pursuing this story about what happened between Mitch and Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in hopes that it will expose the network on a larger scale. At this point, is Cory considering the potential ramifications?

My position is that he feels the thing that is in the best interest of the community at large is a level playing field, where you can’t have people like Mitch taking advantage of their privilege and subjugating people who are marginalized for no other reason than the way they were born. That is antithetical to the way that Cory thinks. Cory wants everybody in the mix. He doesn’t want to relegate anybody to the sidelines just because they’re not a rich, white male. The kind of confidence and arrogance that [network boss] Fred shows over the course of the season tends to be utterly distasteful to Cory and he intends to drive it out, not just because he wants to be on top, but because he abhors that kind of lazy privilege. So from the perspective of leveling the playing field, Cory wants everybody to be outed. He wants to have anyone who has been victimized to be able to exploit the power of truth in television. And if there’s going to be some step toward that kind of equality, the open and full and graphic story to those who have been victimized is crucial to the society at large understanding the extent of peoples’ marginalization.

He’s looking at it from a larger philosophical context. Not just one that will get great ratings, but I think he also believes pretty strongly — and there’s some evidence in the script — that nobody should be subjugated the way that people have been subjugated and harassed by Mitch, certainly not in an environment where he has any kind of authority. And that it’s not good overall for a community, where The Morning Show won’t have the potential of having all employees working their hardest. When they work their hardest, they show their best potential and that’s when we get the best of everyone. I think that’s what he genuinely, philosophically believes. So it’s hard to see the forest through the trees in moments like that. He does have an expectation that if you come into the office, you’re ready to play. That everything is fair game. He has an expectation that people should take care of themselves and that if they are not stable or capable enough to be in the game, then they shouldn’t come to the field.

These final episodes explore Mitch and Hannah’s differing perspectives on the sexual assault, with him viewing their night together as consensual. Showrunner Kerry Ehrin initially said she didn’t want to make Mitch as a monster from the get-go, so men wouldn’t write him off. Do you feel that by Mitch being so ignorant to what he’s done, it makes him more relatable and therefore, this story can have the power to shift more perspectives around sexual misconduct and abuse of power?

I certainly hope so. That complication is near and dear to my heart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people abut ideas related to social justice, equality, systemic racism, systemic sexism, classism and all of these things, where you look somebody in the eye — someone you know and love even — who has experienced throughout their life an unending stream of privilege that they simply can’t process the idea that by doing nothing wrong that they’re complicit in some sort of systemic failure. That seems to be a big source of conversation right now. And I think for Cory, as a white privileged man in a position of power, it’s even more interesting when that message comes from him. Because he’s going to be the one with the closest proximity to those who need to change. So when they are incapable of processing the information in an academic or cerebral way, he brings it home in a visceral way because he has got power and can say, “I’m going to fire you.” He’s one of the few people who has the capacity to really shake somebody into an understanding. I think he is ruthless when it comes to that. [In the finale], I say to Mitch at a certain point, "Confess or you’re done." That, to me, was a pretty powerful expression of somebody not allowing another privileged person to move forward without consideration.

This first season set out to tackle a nuanced post-#MeToo conversation, and after the finale all of the pieces will fall into place. Given how this season ends, how would you say everything has been building to the final moments?

One of the insane ambitions of the show was to fire at a moving target. When you’re attempting to be a part of a social discussion that’s changing hour by hour and you’re producing a series that’s not going to air until six months after you start to make it, you have to have the same kind of predictive power that Cory seems to have, which is a phenomenal ambition to have. And that’s one thing that I think is extraordinary. Win, lose or draw about how people feel about it creatively, I’ve always wanted to be a part of projects that are exhibiting that kind of ambition. Because it’s not easy to make anything! And to make anything good is almost impossible. I think what you can really leverage with a sense of pride almost always is the endeavor and, to me, this was always a project that endeavored to take on a lot in terms of complicated people navigating complicated moments in time as the ground shifts under their feet. That’s a very relatable theme for viewers right now. There’s just no end to the ways in which we’re being destabilized by the cultural and political changes that come hour by hour. I think what you see in the finale is that there are human costs to all of these discussions. That the change that we’re talking about is not just anecdotal; it’s imperial. And therefore, has a kind of gravity that’s worth attending to.

When I spoke with Ehrin recently, she said she plans for Cory to return in a big way. You’ve gotten to spar — and sing — with Jennifer Aniston, and trade monologues with Reese Witherspoon. Anything you hope to do in season two?

Oh, man. I am way past ticking all the boxes! I feel like I’ve gotten both of my hands on the mane of a wild horse and I’m just holding on for dear life. It’s a total thrill to do and I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Cory in the next season.

The Morning Show is now streaming on Apple TV+. Head here for more show coverage.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.