Free Billy

Photo: Martien Mulder

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.

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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