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Tribeca Interview: Billy Crudup's Secret to a Strong, Lasting Career

Indiewire By Melina Gills | Indiewire April 23, 2014 at 9:40AM

The articulate, good-humored Crudup spoke to Indiewire about his long, lucky career, and how his acting approach has matured ever since co-starring with Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro in “Sleepers,” his first released film back in 1996.
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Billy Crudup in 'Glass Chin'

Billy Crudup has mounted an impressive resume of film and theater roles, currently appearing as an eccentric businessman in "Glass Chin," in competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. His characters always have an edge to them, but this is the first time we see him as a straight villain, completely confident in his maliciousness. Crudup relished the role and the opportunity to work with director Noah Buschel, who challenged him with his unconventional, surprising style. Crudup’s alluring glee and slick charm seduce audiences as much as they do the film’s hero, a former boxer (Corey Stoll) to whom he promises to help restore his social status.

In addition to winning a Tony Award (out of three nominations), Crudup has garnered extensive critical and public praise for his performances in such films as "Almost Famous," "Charlotte Gray," "Jesus’s Son," and "The Good Shepherd." The articulate, good-humored Crudup spoke to Indiewire about his long, lucky career, and how his acting approach has matured ever since co-starring with Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert De Niro in "Sleepers," his first released film back in 1996.

At the start of your career, did you ever feel that you were being typecast, and did you resist this?

Definitely. I never felt that I was typecast, but I was concerned about it. I certainly made an effort to take as many parts in theater and film that resisted that. If you only learn how to act a certain kind of role, it is very difficult to grow as an actor. I was concerned about that, and I wanted to have as long and interesting a career as possible. When I was offered roles early on, I was more inclined to take the parts that were different from what I had done before. 

"I’ve become less sure that I have any approach at all."

Is there a kind of character you’d like to play that you haven’t already?

I just got to do a character that I had always wanted to do: an east London thug, in "No Man’s Land," a play by Harold Pinter. I’ve been really lucky; I’ve had the opportunity to play so many roles. I can’t imagine a more fortunate career for an actor. I feel incredibly lucky.

How was it working with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on that play?

It was amazing. They’re absolute legends. They’re incredibly hard-working actors. They’re in their early 70s, and they did two plays where neither leaves the stage for more than two minutes for ten months—and they never missed a show. In addition to my thrill as an actor sharing the stage with them, having the opportunity to bear witness to their work ethic was a blessing.

Would you consider starring in a television series?

Definitely. I just haven’t found anything that I felt fit right, but I hope that it happens soon. There’s exceptional work being done on television. Some of our great writers are writing for television. When you have things to choose from, you typically go after the writing—unless you’re going after the money. There are fewer opportunities in film to make money with good writing, unless you’re an action hero. So, you look for the best material, and that’s often in television right now.

You were Doctor Manhattan and Corey will be appearing in "Ant-Man." Any advice for playing in a big action movie? 

I wish. I can’t say that I have much good advice for anything. Maybe Corey will give me some advice. That’s Paul Rudd [as "Ant-Man"], right? I really want to see that.

Your career took off from the very start, with your first appearance being in "Sleepers." Is there a principle you follow to maintain such a strong career despite the pressure of immediate fame?

For the first portion of my career, I wanted to be able to look back and respect all the choices I had made. For me, that ended up manifesting itself in working with people whom I had esteemed and admired, taking parts that were unconventional; and continuing to do theater, which benefited me as an actor in addition to me loving the theater scene in New York. That was a guiding principle for me for quite some time. 

I went to acting school, and there were twenty other actors in my class who were exceptional. It’s hard for anybody to get work. When I was trying to get jobs, I felt a responsibility to be respectful of the opportunities and take challenging things that could be interesting both for me as an actor and for the audience. I’m only an actor, not a director or writer, so all I had was the promise of something. I feel proud of the choices that I’ve made for my career and extremely fortunate to have had so many incredible opportunities.

Is there a movie you turn to when you need to reinvigorate your passion for acting when and if you find it waning?

I typically don’t find it waning. There are a couple of movies: "Dog Day Afternoon" comes to mind where there is truly exceptional acting. "Midnight Cowboy" and "Kramer vs. Kramer."

There hasn’t been a real alteration in the style of acting since the 70s. It was that group of people, in American movies, that brought gritty realism and behavior to cinema. It wasn’t stylized or melodramatic anymore. Things haven’t really changed since then, and those guys are the archetype.

In what ways have you changed your approach to acting since your debut in 1996?

I’ve become less sure that I have any approach at all. When I first started out, there’s a part of me that couldn’t believe I was getting jobs at all. You have to manifest false confidence when you go in for an audition, even though you’re probably scared shitless. The truth is that I didn’t know how to act in front of the camera, and I also had a rudimentary understanding of how to act on stage. You learn quite a bit when you leave acting school and work professionally.

You have to manifest this false confidence, especially for all the interviews I was expected to do. All of a sudden you’re being asked these questions. You can only say, "I don’t know" for so long before people stop giving you jobs. So, you come up with reasons, philosophies, and an acting ideology before you even know what actor you want to be. I’ve been humbled by the experience of trying to act professionally, and I have a much more open approach to how I create characters and how I collaborate with people. That’s been a great thing for my career.

"Inventing the Abbotts"

There’s that false confidence – although in very different kinds of characters – in both "Inventing the Abbotts" and "Glass Chin."

Jacey [in "Inventing the Abbotts"] is manifesting that false confidence, but much of what you see is my own insecurity. But I didn’t see that in "Glass Chin." I see Billy, as an actor, is comfortable trying to portray this guy, and I’m definitely satisfied by that. It’s an interesting journey to have gone from what I thought was educated to ignorant again, and that seems to me a step forward.

Do you ever look at the interviews, perhaps as a record of your idea of your career?

Sometimes I do. They’re more a record of you—the writer—than of me. You’re interpreting me. The raw material that is me is obscured in the article you’ll write. As an actor, you have to detach yourself. The subject matter that appears to be me is not really me at all. Otherwise you drive yourself crazy, wanting to have corrections.

I don’t want people to know too much about me because it makes it more difficult for me to make them believe I’m someone else. I’m happy to talk about my process, the subject matter, and the character, but I try to keep the details about me as obscure as possible. I’m happy when there are contradictions in articles about me. I don’t want to be a part of the story when it comes to the parts that I play.

People try to find the person behind the actor.

Some people do very well by creating a persona. Some people have that innate capability to bring themselves to their work in a way that is appealing. I’ve always just felt that the best I can do is to try to create a character that can only exist in that film. I don’t want to blur the line between the two.

This article is related to: Interviews, Billy Crudup, Billy Crudup, Tribeca 2014, 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival





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