From 'Almost Famous' to definitely famous, Billy Crudup is enjoying his new TV roles
The Apple TV+ series Hello Tomorrow! is set in a high-tech future that looks surprisingly like the past. The robots have big cylindrical bodies and little spindly arms, and the hovercrafts have big fins — just like the cars of the 1950s.
Actor Billy Crudup stars as Jack Billings, a salesman who markets timeshare properties on the moon. He says one of the thrills of the job was interacting with various members of the tech crew, including puppeteers and CGI specialists.
"You're working with people who are in bright green leotards, manipulating this rather clunky-looking robot," Crudup says. "There's a 100-person crew on a show like this that is involved in nearly every shot. And that makes it a thrill to be a part of the circus in that way."
In the show, it's unclear to the audience whether Jack's vision of inhabiting the moon will come to fruition, but Crudup says his character clearly believes he's on to something.
"When I am playing Jack, there is not a ounce of me that isn't 100% sure that people are going to be living happily on the moon away from their troubles," Crudup says. "Jack tells himself this story again and again and again, that he can beat the odds and make this happen."
Crudup took inspiration for the character from his own father, a salesman in Texas who marketed everything from Farrah Fawcett posters to the "brockabrella" — an umbrella hat endorsed by baseball player Lou Brock.
"There's nothing that he wouldn't sell," Crudup says of his dad. "I'm sure he wasn't a great salesman when it comes to the bottom line, but he was a devoted salesman."
Hello Tomorrow! is the most recent in a long list of Crudup's acting roles. Among his movie credits is Almost Famous, in which he played a virtuoso rock guitarist. He also spent years performing in theater, winning a Tony Award for the Tom Stoppard play, The Coast of Utopia. More recently, he won an Emmy for his role as a cynical TV executive in the Apple TV+ series, The Morning Show.
Crudup describes his recent TV roles as life changing: "There is no more going under the radar. I've had the experience of 25 years of being an actor, and very rarely was I stopped before. But subsequent to that, it's a pretty common occurrence. So it has been extraordinary creatively and extraordinary practically."
On his acting training at NYU's Tisch graduate school
[Theater director] Zelda Fichandler ... gave an inspirational speech at the beginning of every year that made you feel like being an actor and being a part of the tradition of storytelling was necessary, which was an unbelievable feeling to have. You're often so put off by your desire to be in front of people and that sort of vanity that goes with it. You need it and you want it and you despise it. And she gave an alternate point of view, which was that this is a glorious human tradition, and if you're going to undertake it, you should undertake it as a professional and a craftsperson. So make sure to build an instrument that can sustain you over time, and build a way of being that allows you to be reflective, allows you to pivot, allows you to adjust and grow. ...
The last play that I did was in 2017 or '18, I think. And in it I played over 10 characters. And I would never have been able to manage that situation practically and emotionally and psychologically, of standing up on stage alone for an hour and 15 minutes and telling a story, playing all those characters. And it really was what I trusted in, what I put my faith in, was the foundation that I learned at NYU.
On voicing the iconic "priceless" MasterCard commercials for 13 years
I took the job just to lay down a demo track for a woman who was working for McCann Erickson, the ad agency that was trying to win the account, but they hadn't won the account. So I just went in for the $200 session fee to set up a demo track, and then when they landed the account, they said, "Use whatever voice you used in the demo." And I can remember the first couple of years feeling a little tied down. I was excited to be doing films and I was off in Santa Fe working on a film called The Hi-Lo Country with Woody Harrelson, and one weekend I had to drive to Albuquerque to lay down some tracks for MasterCard, and I can remember it being annoying at the moment. ... It was probably a year after that, I wasn't working, I didn't have any prospects or something, that I realized I had the dream job; that I could maintain this as long as possible and make a little bit of money that would enable me to make the kinds of artistic choices I wanted to, to still be able to live in New York.
On learning to be a rock guitarist for Almost Famous
For [director] Cameron [Crowe], it was really one shot that he wanted: a close-up on my fingers during a solo, and then [he] wanted to be able to pan up to me. So I essentially spent four months trying to learn that one riff. And the other components of it, about handling the guitar, being a part of the band, we had band practice for five weeks or four weeks or six weeks — I can't remember now. But every night we would end up in, I think, Westwood somewhere at a studio, and Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe would try to teach the four of us how to become a band. ... And I confess, whether or not we had actually filmed the movie, the experience of band camp was worth the price of admission. ... It was so glorious to be there with Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton and Cameron Crowe and hear their stories. There was enormous pressure, because I didn't want to suck as a virtuosic guitarist, but the joy that came from being a part of a rock band, it was there in the room. So it was one of those lucky experiences.
On how intoxicating it was playing in front of screaming fans in Almost Famous
We go out on the stage and it's pitch black and there's 1,500 extras there, which is an enormous amount of extras. I'm not entirely sure how they managed it, but they did. And it was packed in there and they played the music over playback and let me tell you, the effect of even a fake audience screaming for you while you're playing fake guitar is beyond anything I've experienced. I can understand immediately how musicians become contorted in their psyches because you are truly idolized and worshiped in a way that's unusual. I just got chills thinking about it again. It was such an incredibly visceral moment.
On the staying power of his line "I am a golden god" from Almost Famous
Apparently, as reported by Cameron, that line came from [Robert Plant]. ... I saw Robert Plant [at LAX airport] and I was like, OK, I'll go talk to him and maybe, maybe this will be true. And also this will be my chance to talk to Robert Plant. How awesome would that be? But I panicked and I went the other way, and then I boarded the plane and there he was sitting adjacent to me. And so again, I panicked for 5 hours. But when we landed, as I pulled my carry-on out of the compartment, he took the moment to remark on how crappy my carry-on was and said, "Well, that looks like that's seen better days." At which point I said, "My name is Billy Crudup. I played Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. It's reported that you said, 'I'm a golden god,' and Cameron saw that. Is that true?" And he was like, "Oh, it is you. Wait, that's my line!" And I said, "Well, it's my line now." And I walked off the plane, and the flight attendant goes, "Oh, the two golden gods."
On playing news network president Cory Ellison on The Morning Show, and delivering the character's long, compelling monologues
The character himself, the way that I saw him, was as an unapologetic capitalist, and somebody who was very capable of reading a room and understanding where ... the power was in the social structure and doing the best that he could to ascend in whatever way he could in that moment. Everything is transactional for him. He's always thinking of upward mobility. He's always thinking of magnificent problem solving. He's a sort of fabulist in that way. And he hadn't yet experienced a kind of failure, professional failure, to give him the humility to calm down. So he's unbridled by his enthusiasm for being able to solve the world. And there is an incredible joy playing that character, when I have enough time to prepare so I'm not stumbling over the words — because he doesn't stumble and he gets through those paragraphs in a single breath.
Audio interview produced and edited by: Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner. Audio interview adapted for NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey.
Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.
In the audio of this story, Dave Davies incorrectly refers to Crudup's Watchmen character as a Marvel Comics superhero. The character is part of the DC Universe.