The first thing you should know about Billy Crudup is that he has no intentions of selling out. Though he's currently co-starring with Cate Blanchett in the big-budget Warner Bros. period drama Charlotte Gray and made a splash in 2000 as a rising rock star in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, Crudup's past, present, and future career map is an eclectic mix of rich, varied stage and film roles, the latter of which have been in projects that have often missed the mark as box office successes but that have added color and range to Crudup's palette as an artist. His latest venture, playing the title role in a soon-to-debut Broadway production of The Elephant Man, further illustrates this actor's commitment, above all, to challenging himself and, in the process, reinventing himself with each role he tackles.
He first caught my attention with his amazing physical transformation into the real-life competitive distance runner Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits—a film he did three years after getting his M.F.A. from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Crudup's fiercely focused portrayal of the cocky, talented, and haunted late athlete secured a place for him on my list of young actors to watch. Though his subsequent films have sometimes disappointed me, his performances have not. Take his more recent work in Jesus' Son: Director Alison Maclean may have wandered too far at times, but Crudup's performance never strayed into unnecessary excess. His darkly comedic, simultaneously sad, and, at times, deeply hopeful performance as a nomadic man lost in the haze of drug abuse is one the strongest portrayals of a junkie I've seen.
Crudup likes to talk about compassion for his characters—a lesson he has said he's learned from his longtime girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker, whom he met while working on the 1996 Broadway revival of Bus Stop. Crudup's empathy for his characters goes beyond merely liking the people he portrays—he truly imagines himself in their shoes and, in the process, becomes them. As the New York-based actor told Back Stage West during a recent visit to Los Angeles, he has every intention of continuing his quest for roles that expand his range. Whether his work garners greater fame and accolades is secondary to what matters most to him: simply put, being a good actor.
Back Stage West: You seem to gravitate toward characters who wrestle with their mistakes—from Steve Prefontaine to the junkie in Jesus' Son to the haunted congressional candidate in Waking the Dead to your recent portrayal of the French resistance fighter, Julien, in Charlotte Gray. Why do you think you're drawn to these kinds of men?
Billy Crudup: I suppose that some of it is without any intellectual decision-making process; it's just instinctual. And part of it is always timing. As much as I may like to have a handle on my career and focus [on projects that] recognize my own sensibilities, part of it is just timing.
As I look back at some of the roles I've played, I tend to gravitate toward people I don't understand or who behave in a way that I think seems out of character as much as it seems in character. Then it becomes a kind of investigation. I like that aspect of the work as much as I like the art of acting. I suppose when you have more questions going into something than answers, you have the opportunity to learn something.
BSW: Do you think part of that love of the investigation comes from the process of doing stage work? It just seems that there is so much time to reflect on your character when you have six weeks to prepare for a role.
Crudup: It might. I know many cases of people who were trained in school with me who don't have the same process. But, for me, that's probably where I embraced that way of working. I think one of the things I excel at—if I excel at anything as an actor—is growing over a period of time in a role. It's a difficult thing to do on film. What you end up having is really good moments and unfulfilled moments, and it lacks cohesion sometimes.
In theatre, invariably, the process suits me more, and I find that I have a better handle on what I intend to do and what I am doing as time goes on. Some actors—myself included—enjoy the spontaneity of the moment and enjoy discovering things. That's a part of the process that I really enjoy, and the moments of inspiration that you have are among the best moments you can have as an actor.
BSW: I've read that you find acting on film far more nerve-wracking than performing onstage. Are you becoming more comfortable working on camera as time goes by?
Crudup: No, I'm not becoming better. I understand the medium more. When you first start doing [films], there's a kind of chaos that happens around a film set that's really hard to follow if you've never done it before. Once you get over that, you certainly overcome a number of obstacles that are specifically associated with the practicalities of making a film. Walking to the set, going back to your trailer, having people knock on your door, people saying cut and action, where to stand, how to hit your marks, how to find your light, how to understand the difference between a master and a close-up—all of those things you learn pretty quickly. However, what's hard for me to learn is how to focus a performance over the course of two and a half months when you have no idea how it'll be edited together.
BSW: So is it a matter of trusting the director and his crew and your fellow actors?
Crudup: That's all it is. Each day you start out with an idea of the arc of the character, but in the end all you can do is be as present as you can when you're working on any specific scene. Be as prepared as you can. Know what's coming before and what's coming after. Then you just have to trust the director to put it all together, and it's hard.
BSW: I realize that your approach to acting probably varies according to whatever role you're playing, but I'd like to know if there is a place where you tend to begin your development of a character?
Crudup: Well, I think a good place to start is with humility. I have to kind of sit down with it and go, What don't I really understand? What am I taking for granted? Then I begin a collaborative experience with the director—just asking dumb questions. "Is this what this means?" "I'm sort of getting some sense that this is what this moment is about…," or, "Is the character really from there, because it seems like…." Just very simple questions like that.
I find that the kinds of questions my mind gravitates toward are the things that I really want to cultivate in the character. So I kind of let that work stand for itself and build on itself. I've definitely tried over a period of time to try to write out some kind of architecture for building the character, and it's a futile effort, because what applies for one character simply won't apply for another character.
Yeah, I would like very much for the process to be something I can count on. Obviously there are tools you use that you can count on, but, in terms of building a character, what will ultimately inspire you and what will ultimately be able to allow you to build a unique character change from role to role.
BSW: In interviews you've done before, you've spoken about the importance of using your imagination when it comes to acting. It's funny but I find that most actors tend to shy away from including that word when talking about their craft—as if it's a childish or amateur approach to acting.
Crudup: It's an enormous tool for me. In school I can remember many times getting comments from peers or teachers that something I did was "unexpected," and that wasn't always a good thing. But the more I acted, the more I realized that the thing I took for granted was my imagination. That is to say, I would begin to believe or to be inspired by something a director said or another actor said about the part or the play, and it would take on a life of its own for me. It seemed matter-of-fact—like the only logical progression to a specific direction—but it really was my own unique, vivid imagination taking hold of something. I think the more I've worked, the more I've really embraced that and enjoyed that aspect of it.
There's also the part of acting that has to do with empathy, and that requires imagination. I think that's a key component—for actors to be compassionate and empathetic toward their characters. And to be curious. That is to say, I can't possibly imagine what it would've been like for the character in Charlotte Gray to go through the things that he was going through in a lot of ways. It's really difficult for me to, in any real way, grapple with the ideas of living in an occupied country or seeing my friends being carted off. Nothing like that has happened to me in my life. However, if I can, with some sense of compassion, imagine a scenario like that and the sort of things that would come across my mind and the sort or things that one might be feeling or thinking, it can be a tremendous resource.
Some people will just tell themselves over and again—convince themselves—that they're this person and that this is happening and try to dictate everything—how a person must have responded in a certain way. For me, there's a more free-flowing exchange of ideas within my own silly brain that sometimes leads to obtuse choices and sometimes leads to really banal choices and sometimes leads to really interesting choices. I don't think I would've known for a long time to call it my imagination, but once you do, there's a certain sort of liberty you have with it.
BSW: Was your character's French accent in Charlotte Gray a challenge?
Crudup: You know, I work on dialects all the time, and it's just one of the many different tools you use. There's a physicality people take for granted, which is often much more challenging than the way you speak. There's also the placement of your voice, and all of that is actually very difficult in film. For me it's much easier in theatre when you have two hours to commit to just doing that, so you're constantly reminding yourself and reminded by your surroundings of how to hold yourself physically, how to speak, etc.
When you're on a film, it's so fragmented. You're back and forth all day. I've never been able to speak in the accent of the character I was playing in and out of the scene. One: It's too embarrassing for me. Two: I do all my work with the script. So I don't necessarily know how to use the language or the dialect or the accent that we're using outside the context of the script. So the words of the script become very comfortable to me. It can also lead to bad habits. If you're doing the accent all the time, and you're not doing it right all the time, then you can screw it up. [It helps to have] have a dialect coach who's listening very keenly to everything you're saying.
The first play I did on Broadway, [Tom Stoppard's] Arcadia, I played a British guy in that. What's my point? I do accents all the time and it's not a big challenge for me. However, I do realize that there's a popular notion that Americans really shouldn't do accents other than American colloquial accents. That seems kind of silly to me.
BSW: You seem to be an actor who has shied away from fame, for the most part. What are your thoughts on fame?
Crudup: There's no question in my mind that I wanted to be famous when I was a kid. If not famous, I wanted to be recognized and applauded or singled out. I think when you become a professional actor you realize that the reasons you got into acting are very different from why you stay in acting, because the profession is too hard for those reasons to sustain themselves. You have to deal with so much rejection. You have to deal with the craft that comes and goes not of your own bidding. You have to deal with the financial difficulty of maintaining a career. You have to deal with your own viability in the marketplace.
When there are that many obstacles, either you become incredibly ambitious or you find new reasons to act if you really like it. I just became really interested in the craft of it. It was something I felt useful at, and it's something in our culture that has the potential to have an impact.
BSW: Young actors, especially, feel the need to take just about anything that comes their way. As your own priorities shifted as an actor and you began to find success, did you feel more responsibility when it came to making choices about what work to pursue?
Crudup: I felt that responsibility from very early on. I recognized pretty early that I was having opportunities and that it was very important to pay attention to that. Two or three months out of school, I was doing a play up at Purchase, N.Y., and I got offered $40,000 to go do a horror movie. It was $40,000, man! I could pay off my student loans. I'd be set for a little while. I was living check to check at that point. I knew that in the end that would not be the thing to service me—that $40,000 would not be enough for what that would potentially cost me in missed opportunities while I was doing that. I also didn't feel like that was an environment where I was going to learn something. That may not have been the right decision for somebody else. For me it was the right decision.
I struggle to this day with career decisions and do the best I can to limit the scope of what each project means. Otherwise I don't think I'd ever work. It becomes too big of a problem; you have to do the perfect thing every time, and obviously you need to work. So it's a juggling act. I suppose, to some extent, I don't have a resistance to fame. However, I would like to be famous for being a good actor, you know? If I wanted to just be famous, I have the opportunities to do that, but in the end it doesn't offer me or anybody else anything really positive.
I love performing. I like the energy I get from an audience. I like the ability to transform myself into somebody else. I just get energy from it. Acting makes me feel useful, and that's a positive thing—feeling like you have something to add. BSW