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Free Billy

Or maybe Crudup’s so giddy because he’s finally found a project that suits his surprisingly antic personality. It’s natural enough to think of the cleft-chinned leading man as Hollywood and Broadway royalty, but he’s actually worked small throughout his ten-year career. Crudup won praise for his roles in the independent films Jesus’ Son and Waking the Dead, and almost became famous with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, but he’s pointedly never become a star: The actor famously turned down lead parts in Titanic and Hulk. Most recently, he delivered a heartbreaking performance in Richard Eyre’s lovely Stage Beauty—a period-piece marvel—but that, like most of Crudup’s films, barely registered at the box office, netting just $780,000 (quite possibly in part because of the bad tabloid press).

Crudup has been on Broadway only five times—and almost never for long: He was Tony-nominated for The Elephant Man in 2002, but that closed in less than two months. His Three Sisters was a limited three-month run. And Bus Stop, in which he co-starred with Mary-Louise Parker, closed less than a month after its Broadway opening. “Arcadia was the only play I was ever in that actually ran for a while,” Crudup says. That was his big break—ten years ago.

Since then, Crudup’s been free to pick and choose, thanks to his lucrative second job, as the voice of MasterCard’s ubiquitous ad campaign. You know: “Priceless.” Crudup has repeated that line in disembodied voice-over for the past seven years—until recently, when he emerged in a series of TV ads, sporting a goatee behind a convenience-store counter. “Satisfying a much-needed Slushie fix?” he intones. “Priceless.”

“Those ads changed my life,” says Crudup, utterly sincere. “It’s made everything I’ve done in the past seven years possible. To take this part in The Pillowman, I had to turn down everything for a year.” Now he plans to stick with the play for “at least six months.”

I think people who only write about what they know,” Katurian Katurian Katurian declaims in The Pillowman, “only write about what they know because they’re too fucking stupid to make anything up.”

Crudup shares with his character a contempt for people who attempt to find too many parallels—like this one, say—between their art and their lives.

Crudup shares his character’s contempt for people who attempt to find parallels—like this one, say—between their art and their lives.

“Yeah, I think I’ve actually said something like that before,” agrees Crudup, grinning. Unlike many of his peers, he’s not a fan of touchy-feely Method techniques. “Do you have to kill someone to play a murderer?” he asks. As an acting student, he says, his challenge was, “How strange can you deliver that line?”

Crudup’s enthusiasm for the more extravagant, less interior approaches to acting matches nicely with McDonagh’s wild ride of a script. As a result, both playwright and actor have received their share of critical suspicion. Reviewers have almost universally applauded The Pillowman’s jujitsu wordplay, but called McDonagh himself a “stylist of little substance.”

“People say it’s all style over substance? It’s not—but fine! Great, man, terrific!” Crudup says. “You got your money’s worth. For my entertainment buck, I like to spend a portion of it on mind-numbing crap, I like to spend a portion on childish thrills, and a portion on being challenged. This play offers a lot of two of those.”

Which brings us to the Tonys. Right now, The Pillowman is the overwhelming underdog to hometown favorite John Patrick Shanley’s timely Doubt, a very somber Pulitzer winner about child molestation in the Catholic Church. Both are worthy plays, and both deal with children in peril—but Shanley’s wears its relevance on its sleeve, while McDonagh’s makes torture jokes. Fans (I’m one, obviously) may hope that voters cackle and notice the deeper themes that—despite McDonagh’s and Crudup’s nonchalance—shimmer in the play’s brassy surfaces.

Pressed to defend the play, the MasterCard pitchman touches his stubbled chin, then leans way back on the couch before launching into a riff on “a culture that boils things down to one-star and two-star and grades.” He rattles off rhapsodies about how the play tackles “what it means to be alive, to be in love . . . [how] life is a fucking hard place to live in.” He hopes the play spurs people to think: “How do I prioritize art? How do I prioritize family?

“But what do I know?” asks Crudup, grinning impishly, enjoying his audience. “I mean, I’m onstage all the time . . . I haven’t even seen the damn thing.”

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