Billy Crudup when he was almost famous and devoted to Mary Louise

                                            June 2000  By Philip Berk

Billy Crudup — after all the chances he’s had — you could call him Billy Screwdup (they rhyme)

But he has an answer for that at his press conference for Almost Famous in which he plays a rock star loosely based on the Led Zeppelin guitarist Robert Plant.

“It’s always disappointing to me that success is measured by the cover of a magazine.”

The latest copy of Esquire magazine is lying around and he’s on the cover.

Is he uncomfortable being called movie star?

“I’m not a star and I have no desire to be one. People confuse movie stars with actors forgetting that most actors don’t work too often. They struggle at auditions. They do commercials. They don’t make much money. I feel I have been extremely successful as an actor. I’ve made a living doing the things I wanted to do. I’ve been working for six years doing lots of different things. I happen to think I’ve had a very uncommon career as an actor. So there’s no real excitement for me  in being on the cover of a magazine.”

So what is  his definition of success?

“Success for me came when I saw Jesus’s Son (his other current film) and when Cameron Crowe (the director of Almost Famous) treated me as a collaborator. It’s thrilling to be able to work as an artist, and that’s my goal. I know how fleeting fame can be. Someone recently said, being an actor is like a time bomb. It’s going to go off at some point, so I’m extremely grateful for the things I’ve been given.”

Among those were starring roles in Inventing the Abbots, Without Limits, and  The Hi-Lo Country,’ all of which were supposed to make him the flavor of the month; but none of them did.

Does he expect Almost Famous to change all that?

“Truthfully people have been expecting that for five years and nothing has happened, so I don’t feel any more urgency now than before. I’m grateful to have the jobs that I’ve done. And when I realize that most of the actors I know are struggling to find jobs, I see myself as being enormously successful.” 

When I interviewed him three years ago, it was apparent that he had no interest in being a star. He preferred spending a quiet evening with his girl friend actress Mary Louise Parker than showing up at a Vanity Fair party or a glitzy premiere.

In fact after making those three movies, he chose to do a four and a half hour off Broadway play, a new version of Oedipus Rex, which got some of the worst reviews in recent memory.

But one thing good came out if it.

It was was seen by (director) Crowe who not only cast Crudup in Almost Famous but signed his costar Frances McDormand for a key role in the film. In a part originally intended for Meryl Streep, she could well earn a second Oscar. 

So why is he so reclusive? 

“I think it does a disservice to your work if people know too much about you. They’re going to be less likely to believe that you’re somebody else. The less they know about me the better off I am in doing my job well.”

In Jesus’s Son he plays an aimless, clueless young man.

A far cry from the real Billy who’s not only remarkably intelligent but has a master’s degree in theatre arts.

In Almost famous he plays a charismatic rock star with a soft heart.

Critics have complained that the film, like his character, is too soft at its centre — rock and roll was never that wholesome — but Billy comes up with a good answer.

“Essentially the story is told from the boy’s point of view. Cameron was only fifteen at the time (it’s the director’s actual experiences) and he was kept  from much of it. It was as though he could watch everything but the door cracked open just so much, so he barely saw the person run across naked. And for that reason it isn’t explicit.”

With his intelligence he might have become a lawyer like his maternal grandfather, Florida trial lawyer Billy Gaither, but he didn’t.

How come?

“When I was in college, acting was the only thing I was really  passionate about.  I wasn’t a drama major. But then I auditioned at N.Y.U. and spent three years there getting a master’s degree in theatre arts.”

Is that where he was discovered?

“It’s the way NYU works: you go through casting directors and agents while you’re there. You meet a lot people, and it just started from there.”

Was Arcadia his first professional job?

“No I first did a play in Ithaca, New York, after that an independent film (Grind,) and after that an off Broadway play before I got the part in Arcadia.”

For which he won an Outer Critics Circle Award as newcomer of the year. 

The fact that he appeared nude on stage didn’t hurt!

Would he do it again?

“Only if in the context if you didn’t do it, it would obstruct the story. Obviously if you’re making love in a scene or it’s appropriate for the story, you don’t think twice about it.  But unfortunately we live in a society where people don’t really care about the context, all they see is the nudity, so I’d be more reluctant than not to do nudity on film.” 

Does he get a lot fan mail?

“I don’t, but if I do it’s generally from young girls wanting autographs.”

How devastating was getting those bad reviews for Oedipus?

“As far as I’m concerned reviews are trash the next day. You can’t give them too much credence. They’re either a thumbs up/thumbs down or a star rating and that’s nonsense. It diminishes the quality of dialogue about art and most of the time it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

So it wasn’t demoralizing?

“Not at all. I stick with the theatre because I love it. As an actor or an artist you strive for things that are beyond your reach, otherwise you never grow; so you take chances, do roles that are beyond you. Oedipus was a blessing for me in many ways.” 

Where did he and Mary Louise meet?

“We were doing a play (Bus Stop) together on Broadway three years.”

Was it love at first sight?

“No, it took a while. About a week.”

Any plans to marry?

“No comment.”

Might they do a movie together?

“We are both students of acting. We talk about acting all the time. There’s nobody in the world that I would rather talk to about it than her. Apart from being one of the greatest actors I’ve ever seen , she is also one of the greatest minds about acting that I know. I would love to work with her again, but it’s difficult to find something that you both want to do, that has good roles for both of you, and producers want both of us. But we continue to look.”

Does his intelligence ever get in the way of his acting?

Without denying it, he ingenuously replied, “Definitely.”

In what way?

“It’s essential for preparing for a role, but if you think too much, you have no chance for inspiration, and inspiration is the commodity that’s most elusive and interesting. When you think too much you cut yourself off from being inspired by something that will take you further than you thought you could go.”

How painful are auditions?

“I really like auditions. But if you’re not prepared or if somebody doesn’t really want you for a role, they can be excruciating. I like them because it’s a chance to be really creative and to get to play another part.”

Does he ever have opening night jitters?

“Every night, even on closing night. My heart is in my chest every night, but that’s one of  the things I find really exciting about theatre, and I don’t want to get over it. Not that I want to be visibly shaking, but that adrenaline rush is what I find exciting about doing theatre.”

Ever forget lines?

“It happened in Oedipus, but I had over 200 pages of lines to memorize, and quite often I forgot them. But you learn to think on your feet. If you understand who you are, who you’re talking to, you can get through that.”

When he was a struggling actor, did he ever do other jobs?

“Well I parked cars, I was a waiter. When I was in high school I parked cars on the weekends. My claim to fame was parking Peter Frampton’s car at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale.Ten years later Peter Frampton was hired to teach me guitar for Almost Famous, so life moves in interesting circles.”

What in his opinion was the best and the worst aspects of the seventies?

“Of course I was only three or four when that was happening but I think both the best and the worst were probably the same thing, the rampant euphoria for living in the present that created inspirational music and at the same time destroyed lives through drugs.”

Is that essentially what Almost Famous is about?

“I see it as an ode to being a fan, what it means to being a fan of music. But what Cameron (Crowe) is able to do so deftly is carry three or four themes eloquently through the course of the film. The relationship between the mother and the daughter,  the kid learning about the wizard behind the curtain who controls rock and roll. The fact that in life we compromise sometimes . All these themes develop without any one taking over and that’s what I liked about the script.”

And so will you.(The film promises to be a big hit overseas.)