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It was ‘crystal clear’ showbiz wanted Billy Crudup for his looks. He had other ideas

A headshot of a man in a light-blue collared shirt
Actor Billy Crudup at home New York City. Crudup currently stars in “The Morning Show” on Apple TV+.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

For years, Billy Crudup wasn’t interested in the song-and-dance of the Hollywood promotion machine. So deep was his aversion to it that he tells a story, in the few interviews he’s done, about trying to negotiate his way out of doing press.

It’s the sort of idealism about his craft that would make his character in “The Morning Show” smirk. Cory Ellison, the smarmy network executive Crudup has made a fan favorite on the Apple TV+ drama, is the sort of guy who will entertain altruism and assuage talent — as long as it leaves him a few moves ahead in his game of capitalist chess.

And Crudup, who has made a career out of leaving a lasting impression on stage and onscreen, has finally come around to playing as well.

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“To me, it was counterintuitive, because what I was trying to do was tell a story that made people assume that I was somebody else entirely — so, the more that they knew about me, the harder it was going to be for me to convince them that I was somebody else,” Crudup says. “Thinking about the opportunities that I missed out on because I became such a contrarian, I think it’s a fair argument to say that you could think about it in a different way. What happened over the past probably 10 years or so is I’ve gotten to the middle part of my career and I have been able to be a character actor, and so I don’t feel so protective of that anymore. Also, after the pandemic, I’m really excited to be talking to people.”

In addition to his Emmy-winning work on “The Morning Show,” which is currently in its second season, Crudup will next be seen in “Hello Tomorrow,” a dramedy about a group of traveling salesmen peddling lunar timeshares. (He also serves as an executive producer.)

Video-chatting from his home in New York, energized and glistening after a visit to the gym, Crudup discussed how playing a media executive has given him perspective as a performer, harnessing one’s ambition, and imagining a world in which Cory Ellison is in a room with “Succession’s” Logan Roy.

Whether the series’ look at our #MeToo moment works is debatable. But its combination of personal drama and topical satire is definitely fun to watch.

OK, I’ve read you some tweets about how much people love your portrayal of Cory Ellison on “The Morning Show.” What do you love about playing him?

I couldn’t believe some of the s— that was coming out of his mouth in the pilot and I was so curious as to what [showrunner] Kerry [Ehrin] was after, that [she] imagined the human being who would feel confident and present enough in the moment — and capable to speak in paragraphs, metaphors, analogies — and to be in such a high-pressure situation with such dexterity and ease and confidence. And then my imagination really went to some of the people that I have encountered in New York. There’s some eccentrics in high-leverage situations, whose primary understanding of the way the world works is by reading people — trying to understand in a group of people who’s the most powerful, how they have ownership over that power, and whether or not there’s any way in for them to be included or overtake them. There’s a magnetic quality that he wields as well, which is this inscrutability about his motivations. And anybody who can often obfuscate their motivations in such a high-stakes poker game is fascinating, because they’ve got to have some level of confidence and belief in themselves — that if they lose everything, they’ll be fine.

Has playing a media executive concerned with the bottom line given you a different understanding of what they’re after as businesspeople versus what you’re after as a performer?

There are people in every sector of our society who are exploiting wild ambition on various scales. I probably spent most of my career avoiding people who were not on the creative side just because I didn’t understand what they do, really. It was probably gonna be too terrifying for me. But there are people in the business community that I have seen display a vivid, self-aware ambition to produce something to the best of their ability.

I had done a play off-Broadway, and there was a guy named Don Katz, who runs Audible, who had the idea to begin exploring the potential of theater being recorded for Audible audiences. And I remember I kind of recoiled at it. He was like, “I want you to do that show, again, at a different theater, but it’s going to be sponsored by Audible. And at the end of it, you will record it for Audible.” And I can remember thinking, “That is missing one essential element of the theater, which is that we’re communing together live — that is the crucial component of it.” And while agreeing with that, he also said, “But I hate the fact that there are people out there who have no agency to come to New York to see that kind of show; that they don’t get to experience any part of it at all.” Subsequent to that, theater shut down during the pandemic. And during that time, he told me this recently, he was able to produce 77 shows to keep actors employed. So he’s a guy who’s a big part of a big corporate monolith, delivering some of what I think are pretty rad and interesting, subversive ideas.

An executive and a producer look on during a TV show taping
Billy Crudup and Greta Lee in “The Morning Show.”
(Courtesy of Apple)

You’re obviously on different platforms, but I do wish there could be a “Succession” crossover with “The Morning Show.” I want to see how Cory would interact with a media mogul like Logan Roy.

Well, that that makes two of us. I’m trying to think of all the tools that he [Cory] would employ, because of what he would have to do, obviously, with somebody that powerful, who really wields their wealth as a sledgehammer. You have to discombobulate them in some way. Logan is not somebody who is easily discombobulated, so Cory, as a master chessman, I’m sure would have a 13-point movement that gets him close enough to just get a smile from Logan. It would be a slow burn. [Logan’s] not somebody that you can push around.

You’ve played driven people before — people with unparalleled ambition to win or excel in their career. Where do your ambitions fall as a performer? What is winning or being the best for you?

When I was in acting school, there were people from all over the country, different walks of life, and some really extraordinary talents. I was not one of them. I had a real interest in it, and a kind of open curiosity and a lot of energy. But in terms of a refined instrument capable of transforming into wildly different characters in different contexts, I don’t know. The whole game of being in graduate school is to try to build an instrument that you can utilize your entire life: Whether your best opportunities are happening in regional theater, whether they’re happening on daytime television, whether they’re happening in movies, you should be able to accommodate that. That’s kind of the aim of being a practitioner of the craft of acting.

When we got out of school, based upon the way that I looked, purely, I was getting opportunities. And I can remember having a conversation with an agent that made it crystal clear. You do these things called showings, where it was the graduating class of Yale, which that year included Paul Giamatti, and the graduating class of NYU. And so there’s about 40 of us in total that do scenes for casting directors and agents in New York City in one location; after that, they essentially post on the board which agents or managers or producers want to talk to you. And I went to one meeting with an agent who was quite articulate and had already begun to build a following of really interesting actors — actors that I liked. And she spoke for a good 45 minutes about my talent. And at the end of it, she said, “Well, I just can’t wait to see you in something.” She actually hadn’t been at the showings. She got the news from her assistant that I was a potential, and right then I knew, “Oh, crap. I’ve got to be cautious about how I enter this business, because there are people who are going to be trying to leverage something about me that is not the thing.”

It ignited a desire to be a part of the most ambitious thing I was being offered, and sometimes that meant playing supporting parts. I did a production of two plays, “Waiting for Godot” and and “No Man’s Land.” We did them in repertory, just four actors, and I played a supporting part in both of those. But the idea of being able to do [Samuel] Beckett and Harold Pinter on Broadway with Shuler Hensley and Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, it didn’t matter that it was a supporting part. It didn’t matter that there were going to be people in Hollywood who thought that I quit acting.

Showrunner Kerry Ehrin took the helm of Apple’s “The Morning Show” after it was underway — and decided to make #MeToo central to the story.

Like its debut season, “The Morning Show” had to pivot this season to address current realities. It’s taking on a range of topics — #MeToo, the pandemic, the streaming wars — which has resulted in some wild turns. What did you think as you got the scripts? Did you worry, “Are people going to buy this?”

I figured one of the conceits of this show in and of itself is that it is taking enormous risks with very high-profile figures, studying a very high-profile environment, and thinking extravagantly in terms of plot and character development. You wouldn’t have a Cory if it wasn’t a show that thought like that. So, to that end, I feel like the viewers have some level of expectation that the writers will continue to shoot for the stars. And with so much going on, I think it was going to be impossible for them to not take on everything.

To me, there’s a correlation between that and how we’re all managing our days. We have to pick our battles day in, day out — it could be a micro-encounter with your family or it could be something you need to change in the workplace environment and maybe something you need to change on the governmental level. There’s so many different ways in which we are being forced to exercise our own personal agency and author our ideology. We’re being asked that every single day, so it’s not a surprise to me when I see that in the show. Whether it can work, narratively or not, I definitely take the coward’s way out and defer to the writers. I am an interpretive artist. I get their work and I say this: Can I make that work for me or do I think I have a little idea about how to make that work?

A man in a denim shirt lying on the floor
“The grays in my hair, the lines on my face — they’re earned,” says actor Billy Crudup.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

“The Morning Show” is only your second TV series after 2017’s “Gypsy” on Netflix. But straight out of school, you did get a taste of pilot season, right? What about that experience made you stay away for so long?

My whole training was predicated on seeing text, being able to navigate that text, understanding the totality of that story, and imagining that I had some part in that story. So when somebody sends you a pitch about the arc of a story over 24 episodes, immediately my mind was thinking, “But what’s the dialogue? Because if I don’t know how the character talks, or I don’t understand what they’re going to say, how can I commit to doing the story?”

And in order just to audition, you have to do something called a test deal, which I had never heard of before. I remember I was standing on the corner of 57th and Seventh Avenue at a pay phone talking to my agent. And he said, “So they’re going to need an eight-year commitment.” And I’m standing there going, “What are you talking about, man? I thought this was exciting that I got a call back. I can’t plan my next eight years right now.” And he was trying to explain, “You know, most people are very excited about the opportunity of working.” And the fact of that matter is there must have been some part of Cory in me at that moment, where I thought, “You know what, I don’t care if this doesn’t play out to being a financially lucrative career for me, I would much rather scrap my way through an interesting career than buy into something that I don’t really understand right now.” If I spent the time before that being a child actor, and I understood television in a different way, that’s a different conversation. But to me, I didn’t understand it at all. And it took a long time before I could sort of see the forest through the woods.

Apple’s “The Morning Show” has come under fire for its clumsy handling of #MeToo, but it’s the first series to dramatize the movement’s thornier consequences.

You have an enviable list of credits: “Almost Famous,” “Sleepers,” “Without Limits,” “Big Fish.” When you look back, do any stand out as a turning point in how you navigated your career or what you wanted out of it?

One of the things that is, recently, an interesting turning point is the understanding — that profound and obvious understanding — that I am past the middle of my life; that I am well into the middle of my life. That I have a different kind of agency as a middle-aged man than I did as a younger man in terms of playing characters of depth and complexity. And that the experience that I had trying so hard to deliver on, things that were maybe beyond me when I was younger, actually has some value now that I’m older. The grays in my hair, the lines on my face — they’re earned, and I can exploit them as an actor in the same way that one can exploit your youth. And there can be incredible value to that.


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