A few years ago, when he was still a couple of years off his 50th birthday, Billy Crudup liked to half-joke that his 50s would be his time. It looked as if he would be proved right, at least until a global pandemic stopped his career – along with everyone else’s in his business – in its tracks, leaving Crudup at home in his New York apartment trying to master making home-cooked pizza (“absolutely abhorrent”) and pickled onions (“terrific”).
He had started filming the second series of The Morning Show, but that was suspended and he doesn’t know when it will restart. What will life on set be like? Will socially distanced filming work? “I don’t know,” he says. “Certainly, from what we’ve learned, it seems as though one of the more likely places [the virus is] going to spread is enclosed spaces where there’s a lot of close talking. And that is all a film set is, that is all a theatre is.”
Can theatres survive? And cinemas? “I mean, obviously everything worries me, this is the right time to be concerned,” he says, smiling beneath his baseball cap. “It’s OK if you have anxiety right now. But I do believe people have incredible adaptive abilities and that there is also a major financial incentive by the corporate infrastructure to keep content flowing. I’ve survived periods where I wasn’t sure if I was going to work at the capacity that I wanted to, and be able to produce the kind of income I felt I needed to. I think I’ve learned that I can survive those, downsize when I need to and continue to be creative and productive, and hopefully contribute to my community.”
We talk over Zoom, Crudup speaking in whole articulate paragraphs, enthusiastic and with the manner of someone absolutely delighted with life, even though we’re talking apocalyptically. On The Morning Show, set in the world of breakfast TV news and co-produced by its stars Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, he plays – with more fun than looks decent – Cory Ellison, president of the network’s news division. Although we speak before the Emmy nominations were announced, it seemed obvious Crudup would be on the list (he was). “Listen, at this age, I’ll take anything,” he says with a laugh.
Crudup’s first film was an improbably big break in Sleepers, alongside Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, then a dogged couple of decades playing everything from rock stars (in Almost Famous) and superheroes (in Watchmen) to spies (The Good Shepherd) and spaceship captains (Alien: Covenant), as well as a parallel successful career in theatre. Most likely to be seen in supporting roles or as part of an ensemble cast, a few years ago the LA Times described Crudup as “the leading man who almost was”, portraying him as someone who’d had a shot at becoming the big star but had failed to take it. It went on to note that he had never courted much press attention, partly because he has always maintained that actors should retain some mystique but possibly because of his brief brush with tabloid fame when he left his partner, the actor Mary-Louise Parker, for Clare Danes in 2003, when Parker was seven months pregnant; they co-parent their now-16-year-old son.
He says now it was never important to him to become a movie star. “I grew up with an affection for great actors – Al Pacino, Meryl Streep. They were chameleons, their process of becoming stars was about creating vivid characters.” It wasn’t necessarily about that kind of megawatt charisma that defines other stars. “I didn’t feel like I was the kind of actor or the kind of personality that could sustain that, but I did feel like I could be a good enough working actor to sustain a stable career.”
The stability was important to him. Crudup, the middle sibling of three brothers, moved around a lot as a child. “My way of fitting in was being a class clown,” he says. His parents divorced when he was young (they later remarried and divorced a second time), so he was brought up largely by his mother, who worked in advertising for local political parties in Dallas. His father, he says, was a “businessman” – he puts a questioning inflection on the word, with a mischievous smile.
“He was constantly looking for the genius idea that would make him a financial success,” he says. “What he gravitated towards was a more fringe kind of a profession. He liked gambling, and he liked being a bookie and a loan shark. He would often buy products that had failed in the marketplace and then try to re-market them because he was a very charming, charismatic person, and so he was terrific at selling things. But he had trouble sustaining interest, so we had things like inflatable ice chests and umbrella hats stored in the basement.”
Occasionally, a shipment of stone crabs “would fall off a bus”, he says with a comedy wink, “and he would try to offload them on the off-ramp of the freeway. He was a hustler.” He adored his sons, and was incredibly affectionate. Which doesn’t mean he didn’t have an edge. “You know, he also had a gun,” says Crudup with a laugh.
Was it chaotic? “Oh yeah, it was awful, that part of it,” he says, smiling. “When he says he’s going to pay your tuition and then you show up to register for your classes and they say: ‘I’m sorry, you’re not paid, you can’t register,’ and then you can’t get him on the phone and you have to drive to your grandfather’s, and then your grandfather gets mad at your dad. Yeah, then it gets less charming.”
Crudup has always been drawn to peculiar characters – does this have something to do with his father? “He certainly infiltrates my creative imagination. I met a lot of people on the fringes, and it was exotic. My mom was trying to provide stable sort of middle-class normative upbringing and my dad had a business partner named Mr O, who had a pitbull named Bullet. In retrospect, there were some difficult moments because he struggled with alcohol, but the affection that I have for people on the fringes comes out when I get to play, quote unquote, eccentrics.”
One of the consequences of having “that kind of father”, he says, is that he wanted to create some stability for himself, even within a notoriously unstable profession as acting. Early on, he realised versatility was the key, doing everything from film to theatre, big parts to supporting roles, commercials and voiceovers. “And there is no versatility in the leading man category – you better make it big while you’re younger, or be able to navigate the time when you go from being a young person to a patriarch, which is hard, because that’s typically when you will have had a child and you need to provide for them. If you’ve grown out of the younger leading man, and you’re not yet a dad figure, then you’re going to be shit out of luck for work.”
Instead, he went for roles that were a stretch. “So consequently, I give any number of mediocre performances,” he says, smiling, “but they’re in disparate roles.” It prepared him, ultimately, for the one-man play Harry Clarke in 2017, in which he plays all 19 characters. It was this play that Aniston saw and thought there must be a part for Crudup in her show, though he had to fight to play Ellison, who was originally written as a younger upstart.
The Morning Show, which has its flaws, is also gripping, and the Guardian suggested Ellison “may well be the single best television character of the year”. I suspect there are overlaps in some ways – both he and Crudup seem to have a sense of twinkly playfulness. But Ellison also has iron-clad self-confidence. “Yeah, I don’t identify with that at all,” says Crudup, smiling. “I’m a mess. The older I get, the more I know I don’t know. And especially as a parent, that’s frightening because you want to feel protective of your child and give them the [idea] that you understand the world, and as you get older you feel less capable of doing that.”
Ellison is based, partly, on any number of shrewd, godlike, New York men Crudup has come across, for whom navigating power structures has become a sport, or a thrilling pastime. “There is an American culture right now surrounding power that is in no small part about managing the social situation of being in the room. America right now is built on conglomerates, and conglomerates are disparate pieces of individual creations. So a person [is] used to navigating all the different pieces, understanding who’s in a position of power, understanding who you don’t have to devote any time to.”
Ellison sees news as entertainment, which – not least because there is a ratings-obsessed US president in office – seems to be the way it is now. It troubles Crudup. Before the internet “we had rules about how you reported news and I thought that probably had a solid foundation in building a civil relationship between journalists and the public. The press plays a crucial role in any free-ish democratic-ish society, and I have felt the pain of seeing the access to that kind of journalism slowly crowded to the background. When you begin to defund the opportunity for journalists to behave in a way that I think is ethically incumbent upon them to behave, so that they can do the service to the community, you run a real risk of people not believing anything. And there’s no question that we’re living right now in a manifestation of that.”
The fictional TV breakfast show starts with its own #MeToo moment, when the Morning Show’s male presenter Mitch Kessler (played by Steve Carell) is accused of sexual misconduct and loses his job. Crudup said it was “fascinating” to watch the creative team on the show work against a backdrop of the real-time revelations (they had to rethink the show when NBC’s morning anchor Matt Lauer was sacked after allegations of sexual harassment). The misconduct storyline has ambiguities – Kessler doesn’t view himself as a predator. Crudup has thought about that kind of male defensiveness.
“Life is hard for everyone,” he says. “Even if you’re born in the gilded castle, the experience of living – as far as I can tell, because I haven’t encountered many people who haven’t had this experience – is filled with grief, confusion, unpredictability, and all of those things are destabilising for the human psyche. Life is not an easy place to be, for everybody.” Including, he says – with perhaps more empathy than is usually afforded – for rich, white, heterosexual males.
Many privileged men, he adds, can’t imagine the experiences of others. And now they are being called out for behaviour, however despicable, that was previously ignored. “So how would he get the information that what he was doing was systemically corroding our ability to socially be civil with one another and is oppressing the vast majority of people? I can see how people would have such a perverted reaction to that kind of accusation.”
Was he surprised by the extent of the allegations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry? “Not at all. It has been deeply upsetting for any number of people, including me, for a very long time.” He’s seen it? “It’s not as though you’re standing by, witnessing a genocide. You’re standing by while there’s a confusion in the way that people navigate a social power structure.”
He starts talking about “obfuscation” and “microaggressions”. “Because it’s difficult to find success and maintain success [in the entertainment industry], you have a lot of people who are going to trade in that desperation. You have the idea of the casting couch.”
But has he witnessed sexual harassment? Has he called it out? “I haven’t witnessed it in the way that we think about it now. I certainly call people out, none of whom I’m going to name, but I have certainly made it clear that I was in support of one of the two parties in a given confrontation.” Though this, he clarifies, is about seeing people be undermined. “This is not just about sexual harassment, it’s about power structure. If you want to express a certain point of view, you might very well get told just to shut up and do your job.” It’s happened to him? “Oh, sure. I’ve been told that many times.”
He is “restless” to get back to work. Crudup likes being around people, for all that he says he was happy spending time with his son, watching baseball and playing “crappy guitar”. He misses the communal experience. Streaming is all very well, but it’s not the theatre, not the cinema. For New Yorkers especially, he says, “communal living is a part of the fabric of how we navigate going to the grocery store – it is not the isolation of getting in your car. We thrive in crowds, in close interaction, and that’s suffering right now, which makes a lot of people in New York feel divorced from their sense of self.”
He rubs his hair under his baseball cap, and smiles. “I don’t have much confidence in anything at the moment, but I do believe that people are going to find ways to continue to commune, even if they’re impossible to imagine right now. And I certainly hope to be a part of it.”