×
Back to IndieWire

Billy Crudup Could Win an Emmy for Stealing ‘The Morning Show’

The actor found joy in playing a network executive who wants to blow everything up.

Billy Crudup speaks at the "The Morning Show" panel during the Apple+ TCA 2020 Winter Press Tour at the Langham Huntington, Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Billy Crudup speaks at the “The Morning Show” panel during the Apple+ TCA 2020 Winter Press Tour.

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

“Everything is a bit strange at the moment,” said Billy Crudup on the phone from New York. That’s partly due to the pandemic — he welcomed finally being able to dine outside in the East Village with a good friend. “It felt glorious to be in the city sitting outside on the street,” he said. “People by and large in New York have really done a magnificent communal job of keeping the pressure on and trying to remain vigilant. It has not been easy. We did have the experience of being really punched in the face. It was so gutting to lose so many. New Yorkers felt the strain of the virus so close.”

Crudup is also absorbing his first-ever Emmy nomination (Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series) for a rare television role, the devilishly disruptive network executive Cory Ellison on “The Morning Show.” Crudup, who grew up on ’70s movies like “Fort Apache the Bronx,” “The Verdict,” and “Norma Rae,” tends to gravitate toward roles like “Almost Famous” and “Big Fish” that offer “the sociopolitical part of a fully balanced meal,” he said. “Part of the joy is I’m old enough to know a good character like that when I get it.”

In this case, he had heard about the Jennifer Aniston- and Reese Witherspoon-produced AppleTV+ series eight months before he saw the script for the much-revised pilot. He didn’t get to read it until six months before they started shooting. “The scripts were being written and invented in different ways because they were firing at moving target,” he said. “This was a real-time discussion of power and equity in the workplace.”

Crudup was intrigued, and went on an evolution of discovery with creator Kerry Ehrin about “who the character could be and might be and become,” he said. “In the first two episodes, you had an inkling that he was interested in upending the power structure at this network and the entertainment business itself. But it was unclear what that mean to him, and what you were meant to glean from that from a narrative point-of-view. Was he an antagonist? A buffoon? The last thing they were imagining was that he might be in possession of some moral ethical center. Also, the idea, in a show like this, that it might be in the body of the rich white man seemed absurd, but therefore interesting.”

Billy Crudup is a disruptive force on “The Morning Show.”

AppleTV+

That the producers were willing to let him work on the character gave Crudup the confidence to stick around. “There was also another feature of this character that was so alluring that I didn’t use my best judgement to run away from it,” he said. “I couldn’t understand him. It was so intoxicating. Something seemed familiar to me about this type of person, but at the same time it was impossible to know what could be motivating him. I wanted to figure it out by playing him. The allure was the mystery.”

For one thing, Crudup wondered, who was this guy new to the newsroom to lecture other people about their jobs and speak so volubly and constantly? “He pontificates on the nature of the news business to a news man in the first episodes with Mark Duplass,” he said. “Who has that kind of audacity?”

Crudup’s answer: “Somebody in love with their ideas who has had no evidence of failure,” he said. “He’s been right again and again. I did know one person, a CEO of a major corporation at 37. He shat sunshine. Wherever he went, there was never going to be a problem because he was there, because the world had not told him about complexities and failures. He had had nothing but the thrill of his own imagination in real time.”

He borrowed another Cory Ellison attribute from a college friend “who loved theorizing, because he was smarter than the people he met,” Crudup said. “He’d giggle when he’d come up with ideas that were actually startling intellectually. His response wasn’t egocentric, it was more, ‘Wasn’t that an amazing idea?'”

The Morning Show Billy Crudup and Mark Duplass

“The Morning Show”

Apple TV+

Another inspiration was an entertaining and successful poker opponent who beat Crudup out of hundreds of dollars. “You’d never know what the fuck was going on with him,” he said. “He’d talk to you constantly to get information, doing social calculus and poker calculus at the same time. He had a superior intellect to mine, which was infuriating. That’s how you see Cory do a sideways glance in the middle of something, checking to see if there’s any information he needs to get to add to his ever-changing algorithm.”

Two things seem to be working to Crudup’s advantage right now. One is age. At 52, Crudup has some gravitas and brings an edgy danger to anything he does, whether it’s the handyman who’s always happy to make love to a beautiful woman in “20th Century Women,” the squirrelly lawyer working on behalf of the Catholic Church in “Spotlight,” or the preoccupied career exec longing for his missing wife in “Where’d You Go Bernadette?”

He also brings a watchfulness, a theater actor’s quick-footed alertness to his performances, as he looks out for surprises from his scene partners. “I am interested in the idea of immediacy,” he said, “something an audience member will adore watching, so they feel like they’re privy to a moment of discovery and get to witness something that happened in real time.”

He put this to good use with Ellison. “I began to think of him as a chameleon and a room reader,” he said. “I would often ask to be placed on the sidelines, to be able to take in the whole room, so you could see Cory trying to figure out where was the problem, who’s in power, how he can use or usurp that power. Ultimately every favor is a building block. He’s playing a long-form chess game with a number of powerful extravagant personalities.”

Crudup’s years in New York provided good fodder. “New York people watch and listen, and when they get the info they feel is most useful to them,” he said, “then they act seamlessly without hesitation. They have a verbal and mental skill set that is disarming and disconcerting, and leaves other parties on their back foot, and so they maintain a level of control.”

He’s delighted that “The Morning Show” keeps an audience asking, “Where is this going to go, is it going to be good or bad?” As far as he’s concerned, “This is the best representation of what it is to be an actor, in service of a story that has a complex approach to navigating real-world events.”

Jennifer Aniston and Billy Crudup sing Sondheim at a “The Morning Show” party.

Apple+

As for being the latest actor to attempt to sing Stephen Sondheim in public, Crudup did the best he could in his party scene with Aniston, recorded at Capitol Records in Hollywood. “Deb Lapidus coached me through the crucial singing it as the character,” he said. “He doesn’t have to be a great singer, in fact, he’s not a singer. I had to accomplish it well enough so it was not distracting, and the audience can be caught up in the story.”

Next up: Two weeks into Season 2, “The Morning Show” shut down. Witherspoon, Aniston, and Crudup were committed to filming the next 10 episodes originally set to show in November. (Steve Carell was on a one-year contract.) They were hoping to shoot over the summer, and then, to come back in October. Now the creators are writing and rewriting in real time, again. “I had a feeling as soon as we shut down, after the George Floyd discussion about the tentacles of this power distribution that has corrupted so much of the fabric of our society and our sense of trust in one another,” said Crudup, “that they have got a lot to discuss. I’m not sure two seasons is enough. Apple: We need 10.”

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox