WAITING FOR BILLY CRUDUP TO ARRIVE, I’m not sure what to expect. Several figures stroll by and I keep looking up, wondering if any of them are him: an unshaven guy in sunglasses, a clean-cut guy in a tailored blazer, a guy in track pants on his cell phone—nope, nope, and nope. When he does arrive, I’m pleasantly surprised to see him sporting a quirky moustache and a friendly grin, dressed in unassuming jeans and a T-shirt, looking far more approachable than any of the others.
Over the next hour, I realize how important being approachable—or rather, being grounded—is to this accomplished actor of stage and screen. He’s quick-witted and eloquent, disarming yet entirely professional. Though his personal life has been expounded upon in the tabloids for the past few years, he hardly seems like a controversial figure—he’s just a devoted dad to his two-year-old son, a very private boyfriend to Claire Danes, and a fine, New York-based working actor who’s just glad his MFA from NYU paid off.
His fans—earned through his marvelous performances on the New York stage in The Elephant Man, Arcadia, The Pillowman, and many more, as well as memorable roles in films like Jesus’ Son, Waking the Dead, Inventing the Abbotts, Stage Beauty, and Almost Famous—are in for an enormous treat this month, as a mammoth production of Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia hits Lincoln Center. Joined by a huge cast that includes Ethan Hawke, Jennifer Ehle, Martha Plimpton, Amy Irving, and Richard Easton, Crudup will take on the trials of 19th-century Russian intellectuals in Stoppard’s marvelous, mind-bending piece, first produced in London in 2002.
GOTHAM: So, did you enjoy the photo shoot for our cover? We hear you were very charming.
BILLY CRUDUP: Doing a photo shoot isn’t my favorite thing…. It’s a kind of performance, and I prefer to have a role when I’m performing. Some actors are great at being able to think of that environment as a performance, but I’m not one of them. I’ve never been too game for trying to create or perfect a “personality.” I see so much energy put into style in our profession, and I’ve always felt that it’s disproportionately weighed.
G: Well, your moustache looks great. How are people reacting to it?
BC: It’s for the play. All of my friends are giving me tons of shit, which is totally understandable. And people I’ve never met before are thinking of me as the “moustache guy.” It comes in red… it’s awkward all around. If I weren’t playing a character who needed an awkward moustache, it wouldn’t be there.
G: How long will The Coast of Utopia run?
BC: Six-months. The performance schedule is incredibly complex. It’s a trilogy: Once we finish rehearsing the first play and put it up, we perform it for a month, then start rehearsals during the day for the next play. After a month of that, we have four performances of the first play, two performances of the second, and gradually build up to where we’re alternating. Eventually, we’ll be performing the first two plays and rehearsing the third during the day.
G: That’s a lot….
BC: Then we have a couple of days when we do all three in a row.
G: Isn’t that an extremely intimidating concept to tackle?
BC: Actors get so few opportunities to do something ballsy, and all the actors involved are excited about the prospect of this kind of marathon. There are only three Saturdays in February when we do all three, and I’m only in the first two. So, comparatively speaking, The Pillowman—which was only two and a half hours long—was much more difficult for me.
G: How is the New York theater community going to fare, committing to nine hours of Stoppard in Russia?
BC: Right now we’ve got people spending 24 hours just to see three hours of Brecht [the playwright’s Mother Courage, in Central Park]. Now, we don’t have Meryl Streep, for there’s only one Meryl Streep, but I suspect there are enough theater geeks in New York and the tri-state area to fill up three days’ worth of shows. There are the fans of Russian literature, fans of live theater, fans of Stoppard, and then all of those people who want to say they saw it.
G: Did you see the London production?
BC: No, I didn’t get over there for it.
G: Well, you didn’t know you had to.
BC: Exactly. And, actually, had I known I was going to do the play, I probably still wouldn’t have gone and seen it, because you can’t help but be influenced by another performance. For something like this, when I’m the second person playing the part, I don’t want to have a context. It’s different when playing Hamlet or Othello, when context is really important. For newer plays, I don’t see the benefit.
G: This is your opportunity to put a stamp on it.
BC: The director, Jack O’Brien, is fantastic. He did one of my favorite Tom Stoppard plays, The Invention of Love. He did such an incredible job of focusing the audience’s attention on the emotional journey of the characters. And he kept all the literary humor for the people who would enjoy it, but didn’t let it get in the way of the movement of the play—and that’s really important for the play we’re about to do now.
G: What do you think of Stoppard?
BC: When you’re a student, studying acting, you study the great actors [and writers]… and one of the great contemporary writers is Stoppard. You can’t avoid him. And, sentimentally, the first big production I was a part of in New York was Arcadia, and he was there for it… and that play really launched my career. I have an enormous amount of gratitude for that part he wrote.
G: So, you’re committed only to this project for these six months?
BC: Yeah, I’m not doing anything else. I like that aspect of doing theater. It’s one of the few chances you get as an actor of having a normal job. You’re working nights and it’s an odd schedule, but it’s consistent.
G: And since you’re a New York actor, it must be nice to work here.
BC: To be at home is perfect. You get so tired of being transitory. Trying to dive in and create a home for yourself somewhere else for six weeks, pulling up roots—it’s discombobulating.
G: What are the challenges you face, as an actor, by being here and not in LA?
BC: The challenges are the same as they are for everybody. New York can be really oppressive. If you’re not doing well psychologically or emotionally, the city often doesn’t help. But by the same token, I’ve never lived anywhere I’ve felt a stronger sense of community. And that comes from everyone feeling like we’re all in the most difficult and rewarding city in the world. When you’re in Los Angeles, there’s a sense of segregation. You have to make a concerted effort to break the normal patterns of behavior that take you from work, to dinner party, then home. You just don’t ever interact with people who aren’t like you. Whereas in New York, you don’t have an option—and I love that. I like the way that challenges people.
G: How was studying at NYU?
BC: It was remarkable; I didn’t ever want to leave. The teachers were the best in the country. I hadn’t committed to being an actor until my first day of graduate school. I thought about teaching, but from the first day I started classes at NYU, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. My friends still make fun of me, because I’d be pissed when we had a day off.
G: And you’re pretty much the artist of your family.
BC: Nobody in my family comes from a creative background. They’ve never made a living at it. There wasn’t a template in my family to pursue acting as a career. But my mom was thrilled; she’d been taking me to the theater since I was a kid. That’s one of the reasons it was so interesting to me. We’d take trips to see Fences or Starlight Express, and I developed a real appetite for theater. It was always a way of being well rounded. Once I started pursuing acting, she was a vigorous supporter—but my dad didn’t know what to think of it. Until I started making money, it was awkward. My grandfather refused to admit that I was getting an MFA. He kept saying I was getting an MBA. He was scared for me.
G: Your friend Julianne Moore was on Gotham’s September cover.…
BC: She looks hot!
G: You just worked with her and her husband, Bart Freundlich, on Trust the Man.
BC: That was another rare opportunity to get to work in New York, on a movie that was so lighthearted and good-natured, with my friends. I had one of the greatest experiences. Bart is a great friend of mine and one of my favorite directors to work with. We communicate very easily—something you definitely can’t count on.
G: Is there a type of big Hollywood vehicle that would interest you enough to commit to it?
BC: There are tons of roles I’ve wanted that were big. The Coen brothers are doing a movie now—they make big movies that are extremely interesting. My career isn’t totally designed to be under the radar. I just haven’t gotten some of the things that have become huge and popular; and some of the things I thought would appeal to a broad audience, didn’t.
G: Are people here respectful of your privacy as an actor?
BC: People usually only recognize me from my work, not from magazines. If they remember me, it’s usually something obscure. I’ve got an idiosyncratic group of fans.
G: How do you like to spend your time in New York?
BC: I just discovered the Cloisters for the first time—you feel like you’re in a different world. And, I have a Vespa… Manhattan just shrinks when you have a scooter. I spend my time walking around the West Village or Uptown running errands, or strolling through Washington Square Park with my son. One of my favorite things to do is walk from the East Village to the Upper East Side, with no particular agenda. It feels like you get to walk through 30 different climate changes. It’s a great way to experience Manhattan. You go from neighborhoods filled with struggling artists to successful artists to insurance salesmen to the wealthy. It’s an incredible journey.
The Coast of Utopia opens at Lincon Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on October 17.
The complete article appears on page 162 in the October 2006 issue of Gotham Magazine. (and there are 6 pages, I only found the cover and one scan)