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Billy Crudup has a theory about his career, and it’s that he tends to get some of his best roles when he’s not the director’s first choice. Exhibit A: his Broadway debut as Septimus in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Ethan Hawke later confided to him that he’d been offered the part, only to turn it down. Exhibit B: Crudup’s turn as Russell Hammond, the enigmatic guitarist in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous. Brad Pitt originally was set to play the rock star before dropping out. Exhibit C: His superhero debut as Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s feature rendition of the beloved comic Watchmen. Keanu Reeves initially was attached to play the blue god.
“It’s happened to me quite a few times. They either can’t find the exact right person, the person that they had isn’t available or they drop out,” says Crudup via Zoom from his apartment in New York, where he’s been riding out the quarantine. “And that’s when I come in, ready to play.”
The 51-year-old actor’s The Morning Show casting wasn’t much simpler. He first heard about the flagship Apple TV+ drama shortly after Jennifer Aniston (with whom he shares a manager and an agent, as well as an old friend in her former husband Justin Theroux) went to see him in his one-man play Harry Clarke two years ago. “I remember leaving the theater and turning to my producing partner, Kristin Hahn, and saying, ‘I don’t care in what capacity, Billy Crudup has to be in The Morning Show,’ ” recalls Aniston, who teased the project to Crudup without a specific part in mind.
He agreed to read the script, and when he did, he was captivated by one character in particular: Cory Ellison, a slick news executive with a keen understanding of the news media’s social hierarchy and a genuine enthusiasm for upending it. He’s met a lot of Corys during his time in New York, often at galas and charity events. He’d sometimes watch as they’d scan the room for the person in a position of power, sussing them out and then winning them over. “The level of ego that goes into them making those chess moves is super fascinating,” he says, adding that he also could relate to the character’s eccentric bent: “I am a little bit of a weirdo just in the way that I am in the world, so I felt it was a perfect fit.”
But not everyone thought Crudup was right for the part. “It took some convincing,” he admits. “I’m not sure who they wanted me to play, but I kept saying, ‘What about Cory?’ And they would say, ‘Umm … no.’ So I just kept saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to do anything else besides [him].’ ” According to Aniston, showrunner Kerry Ehrin had originally conceived Cory as a “30-year-old Young Turk pompous bad guy” — but Crudup was so determined to get the part, he flew to Los Angeles to sell the producers on his vision for the character. “Many discussions [took place] about who was right for the role, as it was a pilot and everyone has their own idea of what various roles should look and feel like,” says Ehrin. “But Billy never left my mind as the person I wanted to pass the ball to so he could slam-dunk Cory Ellison — and he did.”
Even though the show premiered in November to tepid reviews (with several critics warming to the series in later episodes), Crudup garnered near universal praise for his magnetic performance, whether it was the lengthy monologues he delivered about the state of the media or the impromptu Sondheim duet he performed with Aniston. The Guardian singled out his portrayal of the smarmy exec as the reason the drama is so addictive, proclaiming that his onscreen alter ego “may well be the single best television character of the year,” while GQ declared rather matter-of-factly: “Billy Crudup Is the Best Part of The Morning Show.”
That critical acclaim has begun to morph into trophies for his mantel, too. Crudup won a Critics’ Choice Award, was nominated for a SAG Award and is now closing in on an Emmy nom. Of course, Crudup is no stranger to awards. He’s been up for a Tony on four occasions, winning in 2007 for his second Stoppard play, The Coast of Utopia. But the Morning Show nods mark Crudup’s first brush with any sort of TV accolades. And that’s because he pretty much has avoided the medium altogether, with the exception of Netflix’s short-lived 2017 series Gypsy opposite Naomi Watts, who’s now his girlfriend.
It’s been a conscious decision that traces back to early in his career when the New York-born performer auditioned for a broadcast pilot. The network liked his tape so much, they wanted to fly him out to L.A. to test for the role. At first, Crudup, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alum who was fresh out of NYU’s Tisch grad acting program at the time, was beyond thrilled. But then his agent told him that they needed to negotiate the deal beforehand. “Wait, did I get the part?” Crudup asked, utterly confused. When he learned that in television, actors normally have to agree to a contract before they even get the role — and, oh yeah, it’s a seven-year commitment — he remembers telling his rep, “That doesn’t sound like my thing because there’s going to be seven years of material that I haven’t read yet, and maybe I won’t know how to do it.”
He was much more interested in playing a range of characters, the way his idols Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have throughout their careers. “They were wildly successful, so they got to be the leads, but they were still character actors,” he explains. In Crudup’s own path to successful character actor, he caught a break early on when he secured a lucrative commercial contract with Mastercard as the voice of its “Priceless” campaign. For 13 years, it afforded Crudup a good amount of artistic autonomy, protecting him against having to take on projects only for money. He felt guilty about it at the time, though, because all he had to do was hop on his Vespa in SoHo, drive up to Broadway and 22nd, run into the recording studio and say, “One plant, four dollars. There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard” — and cha-ching! Still, he very much enjoyed the cushion until the gig ended in 2007, the same year he won the Tony (the awards show, oddly enough, was sponsored by American Express). “I wanted to say, ‘Thanks, American Express, for supporting the Tonys and thanks, Mastercard, for supporting my career,’ ” he says.
Being selective meant occasionally turning down some major movies. Among the most notable was The Hulk. “Ang Lee is one of my favorites, but I just didn’t understand his particular telling of it,” he says. But by far the biggest one was Titanic. Crudup met with director James Cameron about the role of Jack — which, of course, catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio to superstardom — but he’d already committed to starring in the 1998 Steve Prefontaine biopic Without Limits. The movie — written by Chinatown‘s Robert Towne, shot by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid‘s Conrad Hall and produced by Tom Cruise — boasted an all-star lineup at the time that he couldn’t refuse. “I mean, they were icons to me,” says Crudup. “So I just said, ‘I can’t turn Robert Towne down now that I have already said yes. That’s kind of a douchey thing to do.’ “
To hear Crudup tell it, he was never savvy enough to pick parts for the money. “I don’t think of it in terms of, ‘Oh, I could do The Hulk and then I could have five movies to myself because I’m going to get this paycheck and then I’m going to have this much power.’ I’m just not smart enough to think like that,” he says. “I think in terms of the character and the story, and if I don’t have a way into it, then it’s hard for me to commit.”
And seemingly for that reason, even though he’s appeared in more than 40 films — and some wildly successful ones, at that — some critics can’t help but see Crudup as an actor who never reached his full potential. (A 2016 Los Angeles Times story called him “the leading man who almost was.”) Crudup is acutely aware of the cloud of perception that surrounds him. “People have asked me if I’ve tried to subvert my own success,” he says. “I always want to say, ‘Man, I’ve been working so fucking hard. What are you talking about? You just don’t go to the theater!’ ”
He’s laughing now, possibly at Hollywood’s narrow view of success, and begins to rattle off some of his work: “I’d say Almost Famous was a big movie. We weren’t trying to do something underground there. Big Fish was a big movie. We weren’t trying to slide that one under the radar. Watchmen, I mean, that was going for something big, too,” he says. “I have never avoided those kinds of movies in particular; I just played character parts in them.” After all, who said Crudup ever signed up to be Hollywood’s leading man? “That’s one of the things that is confusing because I photograph like a leading man, so people think I should be this heroic leading man, and I’m like, ‘You don’t want me as your hero, man.’ That’s not who I play,” he says, without the slightest hint of remorse in his voice. “I need something confusing and chaotic.”
Adding to his mystique is the fact that, for years, Crudup was famously private, agreeing to few interviews. In fact, he would often try to negotiate his way out of press tours on major movies, asking studios how much they’d pay him for “just his acting” and not the appearing-on-talk-shows part. “The answer was zero,” he says with a smirk. Surely his distrust of the media only intensified when he became a tabloid fixture after his 2003 split from Mary-Louise Parker, who was then seven months pregnant with their son, for a new romance with Claire Danes. It’s a part of his life he’s never directly commented on, though every once in a while he seems to hint at it.
“One of the things that I was very concerned about early in my career was that I would be exploited as a personality and not be able to exploit my potential as a character actor,” he says. “The industry has a very robust support system to do that, and what that includes is making your personal life fodder for people to write about — so that people know who you are, so that they’ll go see your movies because they are intrigued by that personality. That is, to me, counterintuitive to being a character actor. What I want people to believe every time they see me in something is that that’s me.”
But now that he’s over 50 and has an established body of work, he’s loosened up a bit. “There’s not really a Billy Crudup brand out there that I am going to deconstruct in some way,” says the actor, who is eager to get back to filming the second season of The Morning Show. The drama series was about two weeks into shooting in Los Angeles when the studio had to halt production in response to the coronavirus pandemic. So instead, he’s been filling his time with play readings over Zoom just to scratch the itch. Surely, there are other itches he’d like to scratch someday, too — perhaps writing or directing, as many of his peers have at this stage of their career? Crudup shakes his head vehemently, quipping: “I’m still trying to figure out acting.”
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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