With his chiseled features, lithe body and magnetic presence, Billy Crudup is the ultimate matinee idol. Certainly, he's the last person you'd dream of casting as John Merrick, the tragic Victorian figure whose face and body were so grotesquely misshapen that he caused people to shriek and faint when he was put on display as a carnival freak. Nevertheless, Crudup was director Sean Mathias's only choice to star in the revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 Tony Award winner, The Elephant Man . But fans hooked on the looks of the mercurial performer, who won the Outer Critics Circle's Outstanding Debut of an Actor Award for Arcadia and a Clarence Derwent Award for Three Sisters onstage and made his movie mark in Jesus' Son and Almost Famous, need not fear. As Merrick, Crudup avoids putty and prosthetics, relying instead upon his artistry and the imagination of theatregoers.
"Merrick is defined primarily by the way people in the play react to him," Crudup tells me, looking cool and casual as we sit in a hallway just outside a rehearsal hall off Times Square. "When you see characters again and again turning away from him, you as an audience member begin to use your imagination and try to see what they're seeing in him, try to smell what they're smelling in him, and you come to your own conclusion about what's horrifying in him. The interesting thing to me is, when he's finally given the seal of approval by those in power, there is something deeply cruel about the way these people embrace him. He becomes a way for them to feel good about themselves. There is still a lack of recognition of his humanity. Mrs. Kendal, the actress, is the first person who sees his humanity, and that gives Merrick a newfound courage. She sees vastly different characteristics that exist within him, not the least of which is his own sexuality."
The actress who sees inside Crudup in The Elephant Man is Kate Burton, but in real life it's Mary-Louise Parker, his true love since they were teamed in Bus Stop in 1996. Don't expect to hear the details, however. "My personal history is uninteresting," insists the 33-year-old, New York-born actor who ripened into a boy scout and class clown in Dallas, finally earning a Master's in Fine Arts at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. "The more that people think about me and my personal history, the less they're thinking about the characters that I create."
One character he did not create was the one Leonardo DiCaprio played in Titanic, reportedly because that blockbuster was not the sort of vessel he wished to board. "I was never offered that role," Crudup sighs. "That was a creation of somebody's imagination. Listen, I never intended to shy away from admiration or adulation. I want people to like my work, I want people to see my work. I feel that a movie like Jesus' Son should have been seen by millions and millions and millions of people. Why it wasn't is beyond my comprehension, but it is not my intention to appeal to a limited audience."
In the end, the rapport between Crudup and his audience is what counts most; that's why his heart belongs more to the theatre than to film. "The biggest part of who I am as an actor is being onstage," he says. "That's the environment I was trained in, it's what I feel most comfortable in, and it's the process that I like to explore the most." And there's less emphasis on perfect looks in the theatre, a fact that seems to please Crudup, even though his looks come criminally close to perfection. "The reasons one feels good about oneself rarely come from the way that one looks. I go through the same sort of sweeps in feeling good about myself and my own virility and sense of self-esteem as I would think anyone else does. It rarely has anything to do with how good I think I look."
However good or not good he looks in The Elephant Man, what is it that Crudup wants the audience to come away with? "Hopefully, it'll be a very personal experience for everybody," he says. "I think there are people who will be incredibly uplifted, who will be able to celebrate this guy's humanity. And there are people who will be devastated, who will be forced to confront things about their own existence that are difficult to cope with. And I think there are some people who'll simply enjoy a good night in the theatre."