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Free Billy

Tony nominee Billy Crudup has a scandalous rep and a role as a murder suspect. Why is this man smiling?

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The annual Tony Awards press junket is always a silly, slightly surreal circus. So this year, it’s unsurprising to see those Dirty Rotten Scoundrels jockeying for position with Glengarry’s bastard salesmen, or the Spamalot goofballs competing for face time with James Earl Jones. Still, it’s downright confounding to see Billy Crudup—Broadway’s most press-shy and gossip-plagued leading man—grinning at reporters like the winner of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

An hour later, the Best Actor nominee is still brandishing that matinee-idol mug in his cluttered dressing room, all chiseled cheekbones and grin lines, exaggerated as e-mail emoticons. Shaking my hand firmly, proud as a new daddy (which he is, but that’s another story), Crudup is pumped up for today’s early show of Martin McDonagh’s Tony-nominated The Pillowman, Broadway’s goriest drama. “And, man, it’s kick-ass to be able to do it!” booms Crudup, his stage voice too big for this tiny space.

It’s “kick-ass” to play a dark fantasy writer named Katurian Katurian Katurian who’s accused by police-state cops (Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek) of killing three kids in a gruesome manner. “Gloriously entertaining,” Crudup says, to trample through nearly three hours, five severed toes, two suffocated parents, two inquisition electrodes, and one crucified little girl—eight times a week. “I love that people love it; I love that people hate it,” he says. “I watch them every night from the stage. Every night, people walk out. Why? Because they don’t like me? They don’t like my hair?”

Maybe it’s the kid-killing?

“There are a lot of terrible things that happen!” gushes Crudup, sitting cross-legged on his dressing-room couch, sucking soda through a straw. “And, okay, it’s manipulative, but we gooo to the theater to beee manipulated!” he trills, popping his eyes wide open.

“In fact, that’s the oooonly reason we go! And Martin’s not doin’ it gratuitously; he’s doin’ it in a tremendously intricate way; he’s doin’ it”—here, he seems to channel Philip Seymour Hoffman channeling Lester Bangs in Almost Famous—“in a fuckin’ artful way, man!”

Clearly, Crudup is in a great mood. He’s starring in a virtuoso play—and he’s just survived a year of personal drama that became public gossip. In fall 2003, Crudup split with actress and longtime girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker while she was seven months pregnant, then shacked up with his Stage Beauty co-star Claire Danes. (Crudup wisely refuses to discuss it.) Though columnists and gossips attacked him, the acclaim for his latest role seems to be evidence that the scandal has begun to fade. Perhaps Crudup’s so upbeat because after that experience, even Martin McDonagh’s nightmare has to be a kind of sweet relief.


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