It's been eight years since actor Billy Crudup made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and began his steady ascent to film stardom. Yet, he — like his longtime companion, Mary-Louise Parker — has never completely abandoned the stage for the screen. Crudup has returned to New York (no doubt ignoring his agent's pleas) in plays big and small, from Bus Stop on Broadway (starring opposite Parker) to a modern version of Oedipus Off-Broadway to Measure for Measure in Central Park. Proof positive of Crudup's apparent devotion to stage work was his ready acceptance of the daunting title role in The Elephant Man — a part that would fill most Hollywood stars with dread due to its potential physical challenges (traditionally, the actor in the title role contorts himself to suggest deformity and much of his body is exposed to the audience). Previews for the play, about the grotesquely deformed Victorian Brit, John Merrick, began March 26 at the Royale Theatre. It opens April 14. Crudup recently discussed the play and role with Playbill On-Line's Robert Simonson.
Playbill On-Line: It was director Sean Mathias who came to you about The Elephant Man. Had you ever thought of playing the role?
Billy Crudup: To be honest, I had never read the play. I didn't know it at all. [And] I was maybe 13 when the movie came out.
PBOL: Typically, the reason actors are attracted to the title part in The Elephant Man is, in part, the sheer challenge of it. Was that the case with you?
BC: Not so much, actually. There were two things that I found really inspiring about it. One, the character of John Merrick is such an optimistic character, he was full of life and vitality. He is probably the most optimistic character I've played in the past five years. I was really thrilled at that opportunity. Obviously, that's a tremendous challenge, because we live in a cynical age where irony is the trait du jour. And Merrick has none of that. He has a very open and truthful essence to him, one that isn't hindered by any fashionable sense of wit and humor. So, I was very interested in that.
PBOL: And the other reason?
BC: More than that was the ability the play has to become something completely fresh and new. The way that it's structured and fragmented — it's not your typical Act One, Act Two, Act Three, with two or three scenes in each — it's almost as though it's a photo album of this specific journey of Treves [the doctor studying him] and Merrick coming together and then moving apart. Merrick actually stays pretty much the same from an emotional point of view. And you find Treves, when put in the context of Merrick, slowly descends, his judgment of himself, his self-esteem, what his life is worth. I think the way that it's done in the play, again with the fragmented short scenes, is a great invention of creativity. It says we can create our own world. And that's what I find most fascinating in theatre. I like going to a play and there being a black box and suddenly people take me to Antarctica.
PBOL: Part of the legend of the original production is the physical rigors the lead actor had to go through. Philip Anglim wore no make-up or special costuming, but contorted his body to communicate Merrick's deformity. To counter this, he exercised a lot, had a masseur, etc. Are you going to attempt a similar sort of body language?
BC: I've tried to prepare myself physically, working with somebody over the last couple of months to become as flexible and strong as I can, so we can make those choices.