Once upon a time, Billy Crudup was breathlessly proclaimed Hollywood's next "It" boy by a gaggle of celebrity glossies. A year out of New York University, he landed on Broadway in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and promptly nabbed a Theatre World Award for outstanding newcomer. Then he scored a part in a major studio film, "Sleepers," with Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon and Robert DeNiro. Later he did the requisite lead roles in independent and smaller studio fare like "Jesus' Son" and "Waking the Dead." Even though everyone still mispronounced his name (it's "Croo-dup," thank you), the strikingly handsome actor was a fast-rising star poised for a breakout role.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the red-carpet premiere. The actor, now starring in the hit Broadway play The Pillowman, decided he didn't want to smile in front of the flashbulbs and pose for the paparazzi. Like his fame-averse rock star in Cameron Crowe's film memoir "Almost Famous," Crudup was uncomfortable with the trappings and expectations of celebrity. Despite the dollar signs that studios saw in his winning smile, high cheekbones and jawline so sharp it could cut glass, Crudup just wanted to act, to improve on his craft, to "melt" into characters.
"I never understood what that celebrity was buying you. Actors talk about artistic freedom, but those who succeed, typically I don't see them continue to explore their own artistic voices. What I see them doing is trying to keep up with the machine," says an engaging and animated Crudup over lunch at a quiet bistro in Soho. "Then they've got four mortgages, and they keep thinking of the day that they'll return to the stage. But for me, I have been given really kick-ass jobs. So I was like, 'Why should I change?' I'm getting to do everything I want. And I'm sustaining myself financially."
While Crudup was exploring unconventional, anti-hero characters and living a relatively anonymous life in Manhattan, the media hype machine moved on to the next big thing. Crudup, of course, couldn't have cared less. His most well-known films — "Almost Famous" and "Big Fish" — were critically hailed and won a clutch of awards, but didn't exactly light up the box office. He had made a series of small, conscious choices to pursue character-driven, not personality-driven roles. Then one day he "realized he had an agenda." And a central part of that agenda involved working in theatre, his first love. He's been on Broadway in Bus Stop, Chekhov's Three Sisters and The Elephant Man. But he seems most proud of his latest role as a writer of morbid, grisly short stories — Grimm fairy tales gone horribly awry — in Martin McDonagh's tautly constructed, thematically complex thriller The Pillowman. Crudup's emotionally scarred Katurian K. Katurian (yes, the play is wryly funny, too) finds himself the subject of an intense police interrogation in a nightmarish totalitarian state. It seem there's been a series of brutal child murders that eerily resemble Katurian's gruesome tales of child torture. Crudup's insistent, multi-layered portrayal earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actor in a Play.
He says he was drawn to the play because of its rawness and complexity, and he relishes the growing critical debate about its ultimate meaning. "It's a blessing to be in something that is a part of a cultural discussion. I like provocative theatre. I like theatre that provokes thought, that asks you to consider ideas about what it means to be alive, to live with people, and search for meaning and truth and understanding."
Admitting he was at first squeamish to be performing a play fraught with horrific scenes of electrocution, crucifixion and premature burial, Crudup says the challenge now is to maintain "such heightened stakes" throughout the play. "It's like when you go to a funeral," says the actor of the exhausting, emotionally draining work. "After an hour of crying, you don't have anything left. Nothing really strikes you as particularly grave anymore. And terrible things become really funny. So it's kind of an unnatural experience of shock and grief and hopelessness."
Performing in such a dark play, the need for laughter after the curtain falls is crucial. Crudup's playful sense of humor offstage is what co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, who portrays Katurian's mentally challenged brother, found most surprising: "That's been a huge joy in the process. Even though I had known him socially for a long time and always found him to be a really sweet guy, I didn't realize how funny he was."
Despite the success of The Pillowman, no one expects to find Crudup in a Spielberg blockbuster any time soon. He could've become a megastar if he wanted (heck, he turned down an audition for "Titanic"), but now he's destined for Ethan Hawke territory: He's an A-lister thanks to his talent and looks, but a B-lister because he's forged his own path.
Although that path doesn't include fame for its own sake, Crudup acknowledges that, like Katurian, he is seeking his own kind of immortality — through bringing complicated, indelible characters to vivid life. "Most people, if they want to create any kind of legacy, have to fit into the establishment. But from very early on I was given lots of opportunities, lots of choices to decide how I wanted to go about it. I was lucky. And I'm grateful for that."