Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Billy Crudup’s considerable résumé is filled with prestige projects. This illustrious tradition began when he started out two decades ago in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, starring alongside Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Along the way he’s taken on iconic roles like Almost Famous’ Russell, Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, and William in Big Fish. You’ve also heard his melodious voice announce MasterCard punchline “priceless” for several years. At this point in his career, Crudup seems able to pick and choose his prestige projects, racking up appearances in a number of recent Oscar nominees. His latest movie, 1 Mile To You, comes out on video-on-demand April 7. He plays a running coach, graduating from the track star he played in Without Limits.

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Crudup talked to The A.V. Club about some of his most noteworthy roles, as a well as a few also-rans. As you talk to him, you get the feeling that he’s one of those actor’s actors, the type that thinks so much about the process, he was more concerned with getting into Dr. Manhattan’s head than how that high-stakes movie would be received.

Sleepers (1996)—“Tommy”

Billy Crudup: I did a couple of plays. Then I got Sleepers. I briefly appeared on the set of a film that I was basically fired from. I only had three days of work, and I went and worked two of the days, and then I came home, and they said I didn’t need to come back for the last day. So there was another movie that I did, but Sleepers ended up being the first big-budget studio film that I was on. To go from being in acting school to being on set with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt, it was a thrilling experience. The acting felt just a certain way on the set. Barry Levinson directed some of my most favorite movies growing up, so to get a chance to work with him was unbelievable. Working with Kevin Bacon and Ron Eldard and Minnie Driver and Jason Patric.

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Ron Eldard and I had just visited the craft table, super serious, watching De Niro up on the stand trying to figure out what he was doing. While Dustin Hoffman, who has given some of the most spectacular film performances of the last 50 years, is sitting next to us as our defense attorney blowing spit bubbles at us. He had a special kind of stench, because he was on some kind of diet where he only ate garlic and onions in the morning. It was a confluence of completely sophomoric behavior from people that I completely idolized. And of course, when the cameras are rolling, they’re just complete forces of nature. It was a pretty monumental experience.

I brought my mom to set, and we were the middle of a scene, and I told Dustin Hoffman my mom was there. He just jumped up, interrupted the scene, called attention to her, ran over to her, jumped on top of her. She thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened. It was a pretty rare kind of experience. And then I had a couple days on a Woody Allen movie. I get to approach a filmmaker who had been making extraordinary movies my whole life. None of it felt logical to me. It all felt like I was on some kind of Hollywood tour, and I had won a prize, and they were going to give me guest spots in movies. It was pretty amazing.

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)—“Ken”

The A.V. Club: In that movie, you’re the guy who just shows up in a cab, with Natasha Lyonne, toward the end?

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BC: That’s right, exactly.

AVC: You have to sing right away.

BC: Yes, I did. And I was not a confident singer. It was a big joke among my classmates in school. Despite the phenomenal training, it felt like the hour session that I spent with the musical conductor trying to find my key was going to give this poor guy a stroke. But it still was just a one-of-a-kind, ridiculous experience to be in the recording booth with Woody Allen back in the shadows, with him disapproving of my taste. It was weird. I couldn’t explain it to myself, I couldn’t explain it to my friends. I just tried to keep my head down and not get fired anymore.

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AVC: Was that movie that you were fired from a movie that people would recognize?

BC: Probably not. And it’s probably better if I don’t say what it was. Unfortunately, it was a big-budget movie. I got the job just before I went to a wedding for some high school friends of mine, and needless to say, told everyone within earshot that I was going to be in this upcoming major film. So when it came out and I was not in it, I had a lot of explaining to do.

Being fired is something… you’re used to rejection because you go to a million auditions. You don’t often get the part. I was very lucky—I was getting lots of parts. You have to really want to be an actor after you go through something like that. Because the level of self-doubt and insecurity that creeps into your psyche is monumental. All you really have when you’re acting is that confidence and your ability to manage and tell a story by creating a character. So when somebody on a professional scale says “you did it wrong,” it has a pretty intense impact. If you don’t have some kind of opposing force to say, “that’s all right, that’s their opinion,” or, “I may have screwed that one up but I’ll do better the next time,” then you’re screwed. It’s great to have that. It was also pretty amazing because several years later, I’d occasionally get a check for like $15 from the movie I got fired from, and I thought, “this is a great profession.”

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Almost Famous (2000)—“Russell”

AVC: You’ve worked with so many famous directors, but of course, many people automatically associate you with the film you made with Cameron Crowe. Do you love that movie as much as the rest of us do?

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BC: Well, the making of it was a pretty singular experience. Cameron Crowe is one of the most generous and thoughtful people that I’ve come across in the entertainment industry. So to get to work so closely with him, he was incredibly inclusive about whatever it was that I considered my process at the time. I felt pretty rigid about what I thought my process was at that point, because when you get all these opportunities early on, and you have people who have been working for a while counting on you, you have to at least pretend that you know what you’re doing. So any actor that’s pretending, you start to develop philosophies. Without years and years of experience, you kind of go with an attitude that you know what you’re doing. And so I think right around that time, I was kind of at the peak of rigidly thinking that I knew how to work in film in a way that I wanted to. Cameron was extremely patient and generous with me.

We got to do shit like have band practice every night for four weeks, five weeks or something like that. We had a great rehearsal process out there. Where Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson would show us how to become rock stars. We saw Bruce Springsteen play live. It was a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s more romantic than you can even imagine in so many ways. But also, it wasn’t always a big yuck fest, because I didn’t know how to play guitar before that, and learning guitar sucks. It’s a pain in the ass. It’s one thing if I was playing a guy who was kind of shitty at guitar, because I could have done that great. But to play a guy who was meant to be this iconic lead guitarist, there was lots of room for failure there. So I was working pretty constantly and taking myself pretty seriously about trying to make it as authentic as possible. So that ended up being quite a rigorous kind of process, in addition to being astounding to work with everybody.

AVC: What advice did Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson give you about guitar playing?

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BC: I can remember seeing some footage of The Allman Brothers Band, and thinking I wanted to play the guy like Duane Allman, and sort of sit there back in the shadows and just jam. I thought that suited [Russell’s] personality and would be an interesting contrast to the fact that managers kept trying to promote him as the major talent in the group. But what he really wanted to do was focus on the music and his own exploration of his talents. Nancy and Ann [Wilson, from Heart] were like, we need you to open up more, we need you to make that performance a bigger part of his stage presence. It’s one thing to fake being a rock god. We can all kind of do that, and it’s all pretty terrible. But it’s another thing to try to find your own rock god, that loves that attention and that experience.

Performing as a musician is a lot different than performing as an actor. As an actor, you can hide behind the character in the play, and there’s a director and other actors. When you’re a musician, you’re right there. It’s sort of like being a comedian. You’re giving the audience in real time something authentic from yourself. As an actor, my bullshit meter was going off like crazy at my first attempts to find my own rock star. Nancy and Peter were pretty instrumental. Cameron asked them to help me find a way to be filled with vigor and energy and also cool and a music nerd.

Jesus’ Son (1999)—“FH”

AVC: Right before that you did Jesus’ Son, which is a pretty bleak depiction of drug use. How do you even approach something like that?

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BC: Interesting. Actually, last night, I just did a reading of one of the stories in there called “Work,” because they were celebrating the 25th anniversary of publishing that book at an evening at Symphony Space here in New York. They had Michael Cunningham and three other phenomenal authors talking about [Jesus’ Son author Denis Johnson’s] work. I read one of the chapters. It was really interesting, because when I was still in the movie, the screenplay had a quality of magical realism to it, which I’m sure any writer would be disinterested in that evaluation of Jesus’ Son. There’s an element of fantasy, the fantastical, where the real world meets the mystery world in real time for this guy, Fuckhead. The devastating parts of it, to me, were explored in a poetic way.

I didn’t come to it with this weight of misery. Fuckhead’s central virtue seemed to be his potential to see a vivid poetry in the most bleak or banal situation. There’s a kind of hopeful quality to that, a quality that I admired about the hesitating and that humanity is valued not for its resources, but for its experience. Therefore, you can find the richness in any moment, even the most seemingly bleak. To try to do a movie about that was a joyful experience. So actually, it was really the context of it that made the experience so worthwhile, rather than the actual subject matter, if that makes sense.

Big Fish (2003)—“Will Bloom”

AVC: Going back to famous directors, what about fan favorite Big Fish with Tim Burton?

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BC: Tim was as straightforward and clear-minded and organized a director as you could imagine. That story, to me, I thought was really beautiful. I was fighting for the point of view of the son, because everybody else was so charming, and he was meant to be a bit of an antagonist. Tim was great at allowing me a chance to try to fill in some of the rough edges of that character. People like Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi and Ewan McGregor, who I’ve admired for a very long time. So to get to meet them—Jessica Lange, of course, Albert Finney. That was Marion Cotillard’s first English-speaking role. It was staggering people to be around. Tim is—for the breathtaking quality and the vivid waking dream that his movies are—the director, for me, he was quite soft-spoken and to the point. So that was a really great experience.

AVC: It makes me cry every time.

BC: I know, he did a terrific job with that ending there.

Watchmen (2009)—“Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman”

AVC: Were you familiar with the Watchmen graphic novel before getting cast as Dr. Manhattan?

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BC: No. My younger brother was a big fan of graphic novels and comic books growing up. So when I read the screenplay—Keanu Reeves had been attached to do it—and then they were just changing things around or something and he didn’t want to do it, I don’t know what the story was, but they called and said, “So, he may not do this part. Would you take a look at it and see if it interests you at all?” That was the first superhero movie that I read that had what I thought was something very complicated going on, which was a deconstruction what it means in the history of human storytelling to have these superhuman archetypes. What are we trying to say about ourselves, our need for these people in the stories? And so what happens is if we were to actually encounter someone who might try to take on some of those qualities—to me that became something I liked. It seemed subversive. Because I think at the time, too, you could feel the gravity of the movie industry starting to revolve around any kind of superhero franchise, so this was a movie that was categorically trying to break that apart. I loved that ambition. I thought that was killer.

It was also a high degree of failure. Since I didn’t know the source material before, I called my younger brother and I said, “Hey man, do you know this graphic novel Watchmen?” And he goes to me, “Yeah, why?” And I said, “Well, they offered me a part.” “What’d they offer you?” I said, “Dr. Manhattan.” He paused. He goes, “Fuck you.” And at that point, I knew this was something good. I immediately called the director back and I said, “Is this what I think it is?” Zack [Snyder, the director] is so low-key about everything. He’s like, “Yeah, man. I think that’d be pretty cool if we could do something like that.” I was like, “I think that would be pretty cool, too. Let’s give it a shot.”

AVC: Did you guys feel pressure while you were making it? Comic book fans were pretty devoted to the original Watchmen series. Plus, you were on green screen and you had to be blue and bald and naked.

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BC: I didn’t feel it at all. The truth is, having one person tell you you suck is about the same as having 20 people tell you you suck. It all feels bad when you fuck up something. There is always the pressure to deliver the best version of your creative output that you can under any circumstances in any storytelling. But if you go after stuff that has a high degree of difficulty, that means you’re going to fail a lot. So you have to become friendly with that if you’re going to make a confident choice in your career. So the pressure didn’t affect me at all.

The pressure, understanding Dr. Manhattan—what would it be like to try to communicate as a being who had transcended space and time, but still had the remnants of a human mind, if not some humanity? That part was really fucking hard. If you know everything that’s going to happen, I mean, one of the great tools we use in acting is this idea of immediacy, that the audience gets to see you witness something apparently for the first time, so you create a lot of tools to kind of trick yourself into making it appear something is happening for the first time.

But if you play a character who knows what’s going to happen and can’t get out of the way of it happening, but can reflect on it while it’s happening, it has the potential to just dull everything. Because there’s no more connection to the genuine discovery of a new moment. So that was a great acting exercise. Of course, when you’re in pajamas that are sagging in the ass because you’ve got a battery pack that’s weighing them down, and covered in 2,000 LEDs, and your face has 150 black dots on it, and you’re probably standing in six-inch heels, it is a big challenge to imagine that you’re the master of the universe when the rest of your cast members are laughing their ass off at you. So there’s no question that there was a very difficult task that I had, but it wasn’t living up to somebody else’s expectations of the story. I was just trying to do the screenplay that was written. But yeah, [the green screen filming] was pretty silly.

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Dedication (2007)—“Henry Roth”
20th Century Women (2016)—“William”
1 Mile To You (2017)—“Coach K”
Without Limits (1998)—“Steve Prefontaine”

AVC: We haven’t even hit this decade yet! Just recently, you were in Oscar-nominated movies like Spotlight, Jackie, and 20th Century Women. You usually play the guy that we root for, and one of the only times where you’re actually scary is in Dedication. You’re a misogynistic, anti-social children’s book author who works with Mandy Moore. Did you take that because it was a different side for you?

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BC: Justin Theroux is a very good friend of mine, and it was his first chance to direct. This was something that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was going to be hard to pull off. But I really liked the ambition of that. Undertaking that, there was a character study and a romantic comedy taking place at the same time. That was the character that was actually not fun to play. I can remember somebody who was very close to me at the time seeing the movie afterward saying, “No wonder you were such an asshole during that month and a half!” It was a very cynical and destructive mind-frame to play around in all day long.

That being said, I loved the opportunity to create such an eccentric character, and hopefully give him the opportunity—the movie attempts to do that. I thought that was a fair thing to try to do. But I loved working with Justin and Mandy and Tom Wilkinson. We were together on Stage Beauty before that, and I just love that man and think he’s a fantastic actor. That was a pretty rich experience. I guess I have some pretty devastating confrontations with people. Actually, some of the most wicked and interesting lines were cut, so it got worse.

Actually, this movie I just did, 1 Mile To You, this guy saw the world completely in the opposite way. Everything had the potential at being wondrous. If not wondrous, then just fine. Where in Dedication, everything had the potential to humiliate or eviscerate his soul, and that’s a horrible way to walk around the world. This guy in 1 Mile To You, he has very little going on in his life, and yet the things that he does undertake have such warmth and beauty connected to them for him that I never wanted to stop playing that guy.

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It was the same with 20th Century Women. That character, he was just as well-meaning and sweet as can be. And both of them, I think, slept like rocks. In Dedication, that guy never slept. So it’s funny how those traits do find their way into your life in subtle ways. I mean, if you’re constantly tricking your body all day long to be scared of the stuff around you, you’re going to have some of the residual effect of that left over, whether you like it or not. If you’re working every day and it’s an independent movie where your hours are like 12 to 15 hours a day, you don’t ever get really enough free space to kind of let it go. So there’s a cumulative effect. It does end up being a nicer experience playing a nicer person. It’s not always more rewarding. But it’s often more nice.

AVC: In 1 Mile To You, you’re a runner again, like in Without Limits. But now you’ve graduated to the coach.

BC: That was the big part of it. Leif Tilden’s the director, and he was a runner, so we bonded over running. When this came up, the opportunity to play the coach just seemed like the symmetry was too hard to pass up. I had a great experience working on that. I hope that people will get out and see it, because I think it’s a really heartwarming story.

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Stage Beauty (2004)—“Ned Kynaston”

AVC: Is there a movie that you were in that you really felt strongly about, and you felt like it didn’t get the audience or the recognition that it deserved?

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BC: You have to let go of stuff when you act for a while. You stay too attached to things that have worked or haven’t worked, it kind of makes it harder for you to move forward. So I try to concentrate on the experience that I have and then let the public expression of it be its own deal. But that being said, I think Stage Beauty was a really interesting movie and was a really enormous challenge for me, personally, and I was very gratified by that experience and hope that more people would have seen it. But we’ll see.

It was challenging because, for me, I played Desdemona, I played Othello, I was doing a British accent, I was playing a man who was in the midst of an identity crisis and wore corsets. I had to learn a vaudevillian song. We were using heightened language that required a lot of precision and rigorous rehearsal. I had to lose about 20 pounds to get into the corset. I had choreographed movements that [the character] came up with to kind of identify what my femininity was to him, playing a woman. There were other challenges, too.

AVC: That’s a long list.

BC: It was so fucking hard! It was so hard. It was also one of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had. I was grateful for the opportunity.

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