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Billy Crudup plays with power, ambition, even a little goofiness in ‘Morning Show’

Billy Crudup is photographed on the set of "The Morning Show."
Cory Ellison may seem crazy, but Billy Crudup knows his “Morning Show” character is outfoxing everyone.
(Apple)

It’s a confusing time, but Billy Crudup is here to solve mysteries. For starters, it’s pronounced “Crewed up” (not “Crud-up,” as it has been screwed up in the past). And who is Cory Ellison, Crudup’s character on “The Morning Show,” really? When the mirthful, brutally effective executive first appears, he seems ready to jettison longtime anchor Alex (Jennifer Aniston) for younger blood (including Reese Witherspoon’s Bradley). But is he really the latest hotshot corporate killer for the powers that be? Or is he a handsome saboteur, a kind of double agent taking aim at the patriarchy while making a handsome living doing it? And is he a bit nutty?

The answers, of course, are yes.

How would you describe Cory?

An extremely capable leader with a facile intellect and desire to create as much power for himself as possible. There are any number of people in New York City who I’ve encountered who have that kind of quick capacity, ambition and obscured motivation that makes them fascinating figures. Not altogether trustworthy but certainly entertaining. It takes a certain kind of capitalist, particularly one that has never met tremendous failure, to have the kind of thrill Cory seems to have with each new discovery.

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He’s not embarrassed by what he feels is an extension of the American dream, which is: “Exploit every opportunity to gain financial and social status.” It’s not necessarily tied to morality or ethics or social code; it turns out Cory has [those], but they’re veiled under all the ambition.

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He looks like he’s having fun. He seems to enjoy the jiujitsu of it all, rather than trying to bulldoze everyone.

In martial arts there’s an appreciation for someone who is greater than you. That appreciation will typically take the form of learning from them so you can grow, so you can understand the way they countered your typical tap-out move.

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Cory’s got a great poker face. “I bet I know what hand you’re holding. And I bet I know how attached you are to that hand.” If he can read they’ve got a great hand and they’re super-attached, he’ll just move on to the next hand. [laughs] He’s playing the long game. There’s a kind of social-scientific aspect to his general demeanor that is off-putting to some people and totally curious and insane to other people. His way of being is generally upbeat and his way of interacting is strange, the way his mind works. So you could imagine he’s a goofball, he’s not formidable, he’s failed upward. That’s a wonderful mask to wear. You’re constantly underestimated. [It] gives you enormous power.

Billy Crudup as Cory Ellison in "The Morning Show."
Cory on, my wayward son: Billy Crudup as Cory Ellison in Apple TV+'s “The Morning Show.” Ellison seems like the newest edition of the cold-steel corporate killer, but influences from his youth have led him down a less-traveled road.
(Apple TV+)

I was interested to see how he’d react to Alex’s power play [when she springs a major surprise]. Would he be outraged or would he say, ‘Game on!’?

She’s very predictable in the beginning [to him]. Alex’s revelation that she still has the motivation to stay in the game and be a full-time player is a delight to him. That changes the entire social-corporate equation. He’s had these [patterns] in his head all the time of how people are going to manage certain situations .... When the situation changes, he’s not diminished by that; he’s thrilled at the discovery of a new addition to his social algorithm.

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Were there anecdotes or people from real life that inspired moments for him, tactics or perhaps his point of view?

A friend of mine from college who is one of the most interesting intellects I’ve encountered — he had enough AP credits from high school that he only needed two and a half years to graduate; also kind of a hippie, thinking outside the box on a lot of things. When he has an idea for something, inevitably, he has this little giggle. It’s such a thrill to him to have discovered something cool. So I had to bring that to Cory. There’s a joy to the discovery.

Despite his hidden motivations, he strikes me as baseline-honest. Is he totally sincere when he gives his bio as “Smart kid, dad left, I vowed to take over the world someday and kick everybody’s ass into submission”?

No question about it. His mom is a touchstone, somebody who clearly shaped his worldview. If you want to be ultra-competitive in a capitalist environment like present-day America, you will most often be competing with rich, white males. Cory has all the trappings of that, and it serves him in those environments. But in his core, he is for what I think the best version of the American dream could be, a meritocracy. You won’t get people exploiting their full potential, if there’s not a level playing field.

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That’s something I’ve discussed with [showrunner Kerry Ehrin] that I thought would be so fun: ‘What if this guy that we’re presenting as a part of the almost Evil Empire has this agenda, almost like a scorched-earth policy, to blow up the patriarchy?’

Season 2 has been confirmed?

Yes, we’d started production on Season 2 and had to shut down [due to the pandemic].

What’s the best part of being on this show?

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The rigor of the work. All those monologues, and his easy-breezy attitude [laughs]; that’s me putting my nose to the grindstone. I get some of those monologues, and I get a couple of weeks, sometimes a couple of days, to internalize them, and I don’t memorize things as easily as I used to. And with Cory’s contorted intellect, I’ve got to make all those links readily apparent to myself so I can render it.

All that and working under the pressures of the TV environment — it’s incredibly rewarding. When you feel like you’ve pulled off one of those interactions with the other actors, from a practitioner’s point of view, when you’re covered in flop sweat and meant to be cool as ice, and you see the shot and you actually do look cool, knowing underneath I am covered in sweat ... is incredibly satisfying.

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Trailer for the Apple TV+ series, “The Morning Show.”

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