Billy Crudup, the leading man who almost was, makes a character-actor leap

Taking a swing at being a leading man in Hollywood? Risky and time-consuming.

Figuring out what to do when your window has closed? Priceless.

For a brief period around the turn of the century, Billy Crudup stood on the cusp of stardom. As he was beginning to sneakily work his way into our brains as the voice of Mastercard, Crudup enjoyed a batch of potentially star-making turns. The New York native earned indie cred in the adored scrappiness of “Jesus’ Son,” took his place in a prestige drama with father-son fable “Big Fish” and was quite literally a rock star in “Almost Famous.”

But age — and theater digressions, studio distractedness and tabloid headlines — can take their toll. At 48, Crudup has been faced with an unusual Hollywood dilemma: What to do as the leading man who almost was?

“You can stay in that pool of being a go-to actor for a year, maybe a few years,” he said. “But there are only what, 15, 20 people in that pool at any one time? And they're always getting punched out.” He paused. "Maybe I should have done more with my opportunity. But I took my stab. I've just had to figure out what's next."

Crudup is in a downtown restaurant here on a recent Friday afternoon, taking a break from shooting his upcoming Netflix thriller series “Gypsy” (his first notable TV role). As of Wednesday, a piece of his post-A-list strategy will be in evidence. The actor will have two art-house movies out simultaneously: Mike Mills' semi-autobiographical 1979-set dramedy "20th Century Women,” in which he plays an adrift working-class male in a sea of enlightened women, and Pablo Larrain's recently released Jackie Kennedy snapshot, "Jackie,‎" as a reporter who turns up at Hyannis Port shortly after JFK’s assassination to interview the grieving widow.

This in addition to the Netflix show, opposite Naomi Watts, and  Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated 2017 sequel “Alien: Covenenant,” in which he has an undisclosed supporting role. (A trailer released Christmas Eve suggests captain of the titular spaceship.)

Crudup has reinvented himself as a character actor —  though not with ease and not, it should be said, without regret.

It started, more or less, where Mastercard ended.  Shortly after his long run as credit-card pitchman ended a few years ago —  a gig so lucrative he once addressed the audience from the stage of a Broadway play sponsored by a rival card with “I wanted to say thank you American Express for tonight, and thank you Mastercard for my career” — Crudup headed out to Los Angeles for a round of meetings. The idea was that the meaty indie and Broadway roles he enjoyed — he was nominated for or won a Tony four times between 2002 and 2011— wouldn’t pay the bills.

More important, they wouldn't keep him in the minds of the people who could hire him for the jobs that would pay the bills.

"I remember when I got out there. It was like, 'Hi, I'm Billy Crudup, and I'm still acting. Because let's face it, if you're doing a lot of theater work it's tantamount to quitting or rehab."

Useful experiences 

The experience proved sobering, even as it also helped chart a course for his next ‎phase.

“Those meetings — I don't know if absurdity would have been the word. If you're an actor you have to make friends with the experience of being humbled repeatedly even if you had success. But it was useful. It’s made me hungry again, in a different way.”

Those new appetites power his latest work. Though a far cry in more ways than one from standing atop a Topeka, Kan., house proclaiming "I am a Golden God" (watch that “Almost Famous” clip five times and try not to watch it a sixth), Crudup has earned his standout moments in these works.

In “Women,” he provides a complex male counterpoint to the feminism swirling around him, too macho to fully understand the changes at hand but too much a product of a counterculture not to register his ignorance. In one linchpin scene, he and a drifter bohemian played by Greta Gerwig engage in a power-shifting sexual tango that has him both evincing masculinity and coming to terms with its limits.

In another scene, he offers some dead-on lines, a number of them improvised, at a dinner-table conversation about menstruation.

“Jackie” offers a different forum, one in which he plays both an audience surrogate and a cat-and-mouse game in which he is most certainly not the feline. Larrain, who directed Crudup over a course of just three shooting days, said that he thought the actor subtly signaled character development in his quick-hit scenes.

"The reporter character is someone who feels uncomfortable and doesn’t buy everything Jackie is selling, but at the end he understood who he’s in front of, just like the audience does,” Larrain said by phone from his home in Chile recently. “That kind of performance is what Billy does so well — not always somebody you like but someone you can come to agree with.”

For all these supporting-actor moments, Crudup’s prospects may be somewhat  dinged by his unwillingness to do press. That media reluctance has made him less of a household name — and consequently less bankable as a potential hire.

Though a charming and garrulous presence who’d likely do well on the late-night and morning-show circuits, he rarely appears on them.

"It always seems to me that being an actor is working really hard so people forget the person and only think of the character. And being on those shows is about reminding audiences of the person. It means you need to work that much harder [on set] to convince them of the character.  And I always think, 'I'm already working as hard as I can.'"

Indeed, an elusiveness trails Crudup, whose personal life and even professional choices can remain cloudy. Quick, what were the last three movies he starred in? “Spotlight,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and a rare leading part in school-shooter drama “Rudderless" is the answer, a notable trio that might prompt a forehead-slap of recognition after you’ve heard them but ones you might have struggled to name in the first place.

When the proprietor of the restaurant where the interview was taking place — a spot where he happened to shoot a scene in the 2005 family dramedy “Trust the Man,” directed by his good pal Bart Freundlich —stopped by with a dessert in honor of that movie, he quipped: “You could write that that kind of recognition happens all over town.”

Then he added, almost sheepishly, “It doesn’t really happen all over town.”

He also hints that his acting career may have been affected by the now-infamous tabloid stories of 2003, when he left longtime girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes when Parker was pregnant with his son.

Crudup does not make explicit reference to that incident, but it, or at least its fallout, clearly still weighs on him.

“I went through a period of time when I was offered a certain kind of character. Charles Manson. David Koresh. Jeffrey Dahmer,” he said. “I think the worst was Hitler. And I kept thinking ‘I don't want to play the devil this time. Thanks, though.’ I’m not interested in playing them because it’s not complicated. I’m not interested in darkness. I’m interested in the lightness through the morass.”

He paused. “Not that I haven’t behaved like an …” he said, using a seven-letter synonym for jerk. “That’s common to human experience, and maybe I’ve done that as a public figure in a way that’s hard to handle. But that’s part of existence — dealing with frailties.”

That typecasting as the slickster, and a general perfectionism, has led him to turn down roles, a position he has also begun to reevaluate in recent years.

“I’ve tried to take more agency in what I choose, so that even if something doesn’t have the complexity, I tried to find the most interesting thing about it and make the material what I want it to be instead of saying 'I don’t want to do it.’”

Larrain said he actually thinks Crudup’s edge, far from limiting him, is part of his appeal.“What I like about Billy [as an actor] is he’s someone who’s extremely charming and at the same time he can be extremely dangerous,” said the director. “He’s someone who’s very hard to grab and say exactly who he is.”

Crudup says he’s not sure that hard-to-pin-down quality has always worked to his advantage in mainstream Hollywood. But he’s hopeful that he’ll experience some kind of midcareer renaissance just the same. “I keep joking that my 50s will really be my decade.”

 

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