Billy Crudup in The Pillowman(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup in The Pillowman
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup's exceptional good looks might well have worked against people taking him seriously as an actor at the start of his career. Happily, Crudup gave a brilliant performance in the 1995 Lincoln Center Theater production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia when he was fresh out of drama school at NYU, so this didn't become a problem after all.

Since Arcadia, Crudup's star has risen on stage (Bus Stop at Circle in the Square, Three Sisters for the Roundabout, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for the National Actors Theatre, etc.) and in film (Stage Beauty, Big Fish, Almost Famous, Jesus' Son, and so on). Even on the rare occasions when he stumbles, as in the 2002 Broadway revival of The Elephant Man, he is always fascinating to watch. And though his career was briefly upstaged by the breakup of his relationship with Mary-Louise Parker and his subsequent hook-up with his Stage Beauty co-star Claire Danes, Crudup's talent has turned out to be what matters most to the public.

Now, Crudup is receiving well-deserved praise for his Broadway performance in the central role of The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's disturbing yet thrilling play about a writer in an unnamed totalitarian state who is brutally interrogated in prison because some of the macabre stories that he has written bear striking similarities to several child murders that have recently occurred in the vicinity. Just this afternoon, I had a phone conversation with the actor about the play, the production, and his career choices.

********************

THEATERMANIA: Hey, Billy. There's a lot of noise in the background. Where are you?

BILLY CRUDUP: I'm actually at the DMV, picking up a license plate. The world is going on right behind me.

TM: I hear that waiting at the DMV is not as awful as it used to be.

BC: You know, that's what I heard, too -- but it's not true. I'll probably be here for another hour and a half.

TM: Sorry to hear that. Anyway, congratulations on being in a great show. Did you see The Pillowman in London?

BC: No, my agent sent me the script. He said he was familiar with the London production and thought it was amazing, so that's why he sent it to me. I started to read it and, within a page and a half, I could tell that I was dealing with pretty extraordinary writing.

TM: As gripping as the play is in performance, I would imagine that it's also very powerful on the page.

BC: It's utterly shocking to read it and to imagine playing a part like this, in addition to living in that world and experiencing the thrill of the plot twists.

TM: All of the leads are great -- you and Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek -- but you seem to have something really special going on with Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays your brother.

Billy Crudup with Michael Stuhlbarg in The Pillowman(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Billy Crudup with Michael Stuhlbarg in The Pillowman
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
BC: You know, from the moment we first auditioned together, Michael and I have had a real appreciation and affection for one another and one another's process. I think the fact that we both came out of school the same year and are very close friends with a lot of the same people added to that sense of kinship and respect.

TM: It must be great fun to do a play that prompts such an amazing response from the audience.

BC: Yes, and I have the added, unique benefit of being able to bear witness to the audience's response when I'm telling the stories. I look them straight in the eye. Unfortunately, sometimes the audience isn't lit at all, so I'm staring into blackness -- which is quite disconcerting after I've been able to make eye contact. I find that directly engaging people works beautifully for this type of storytelling.

TM: Still, some actors might be afraid to do so, for obvious reasons.

BC: If you've been doing theater for any period of time, you're familiar with people who are atrophied to your passion. But if there's one person in each audience who's paying attention, you can focus there -- and, with this play, I can definitely find more than one person per performance! It's such a position of power to be a storyteller -- to be able to manipulate people's emotional responses, to really surprise them, horrify them, and delight them.

TM: In speaking with audience members after the show, what kinds of things have you heard them say about the play?

BC: Most of them are dumbfounded. They gesticulate a lot. There's a strong sense that they have experienced some kind of internal connection with the play, but very few people are able to articulate why, and those who try quickly find themselves in a rabbit hole. I know it's hard for me to articulate. When I say that the writing is exceptional, what does that mean exactly? I guess I could go into detail about the three-dimensional characters and so on, but there's something about the play -- a color, a warmth, a sound -- that I can't particularly verbalize to explain its power.

TM: It's interesting that some of the stories in the play are acted out but, in other cases, it's just you telling them. I've read that, at one point, the director had thought of actually having the Pillowman shown onstage but then realized it was more effective to have the audience imagine what he would look like.

BC: Yeah, I think that was a very wise decision. I wouldn't want to see the Pillowman.

TM: You seem to move easily back and forth between the stage and the screen. Do you consciously make adjustments as to the way you work in each medium?

BC: Yes, I do. They're different disciplines, and I think you have to go about your craft differently in order to execute a vivid, useful performance in film or on stage. I've been successful and deeply unsuccessful in both, and I have a lot more to learn, but I really am excited by the challenge of working in movies and in the theater.

TM: Can I ask what performances you consider to have been unsuccessful?

BC: The problem with that is then I seem to indict somebody else, the director, which I don't want to do.

TM: I understand. When you choose a stage role, is it the part itself, the play as a whole, the people you're going to be working with, or a combination of all of the above that's most important to you?

BC: I don't have a single template. My motivation for working varies. In the case of The Pillowman, to be honest, I really didn't want to work on something so challenging right now. But how do you turn down a play and a role like this? I mean, you can't! They come along so rarely. I'm invigorated by being a part of something that is having an impact and provoking discussion.

TM: I remember that you were cast in the Lincoln Center production of Henry IV but you were replaced by Michael Hayden. Can you tell me what happened, or is that another dicey question?

BC: I left for personal reasons. I love Jack O'Brien and the whole creative team, but I was incredibly tired after having just finished a film. I'd overextended myself, basically, and they were gracious enough to give me the opportunity to back out.

TM: Do you have any idea what's up next for you?

BC: I hope I'll be doing this play for a while, but I did a film with Bart Freundlich, who is a terrific director. He wrote this relationship comedy set in New York; it's called Trust the Man. I just did some looping for it today, and I'm excited to see it.

TM: When is it scheduled for release?

BC: It's an independent film, so there's really no telling. It depends on who buys it.

TM: I see. Well, we'll look forward to that. In the meantime, it must be incredibly exciting for you to go to work in The Pillowman every night.

BC: It's kick-ass. I feel so grateful.

TM: This has been a really good year for plays on Broadway, in terms of both new works and revivals. That hasn't been true for a while.

BC: No, it's exceptional. I'm so pleased and proud to be part of a community that's producing stuff like this.

********************

[To access David Finkle's TheaterMania review of The Pillowman, click here.]