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Character study

Billy Crudup seeks worthy projects, not stardom



There's no question he's a charismatic, talented actor, but maybe Billy Crudup just wasn't meant to be a big star. A North Carolina native who cut his acting teeth on and off-Broadway, Crudup has been flirting with movie success all along. He's something of a fixture on the indie scene (see Ted Demme's Monument Ave. or Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead), but his shots at a "mainstream" breakthrough have been thwarted (Stephen Frears' The Hi-Lo Country and Robert Towne's Without Limits both flopped). That's OK by Crudup, who says it doesn't bother him in the least that his new film, Jesus' Son, isn't likely to change any of that. Directed by Alison Maclean (Crush) and based on a set of short stories by Denis Johnson, the movie casts Crudup as an idiosyncratic, ostensibly endearing heroin junkie who's aptly known only as Fuckhead. Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown) co-stars, and the supporting cast also features Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper and Denis Leary.

Crudup, 32, talks about the film during a recent telephone interview from New York.

CL: How did this project come to you?

BC: [Co-producer/co-screenwriter] Elizabeth Cuthrell and I were friends at graduate school at NYU. Several years after graduating, she decided she wanted to write and produce, and she picked this story because it was one of her favorite books and because she'd lost a sister to drug addiction. What she told me was she wanted to tell a story about somebody who makes it. She sent me the book, and as much as I had a fondness and an appreciation for the dynamic way in which the story was told, I had no frigging idea how to convert it into a movie. It's a cautionary tale without any extended use of metaphor and with almost no discussion of morality. It's a spiritual story of redemption with no preaching whatsoever and no attempt at profundity. It simply allows for the experience of somebody's life to amount to something. There's no linear narrative, but there's no linear narrative in my life, you know?

What was the initial attraction for you?

I related to the idea that life isn't made up of only the most dramatic or exciting or thrilling moments, that the sad or mundane moments in life amount to something, too. I felt it was unique and unconventional. I suppose in a time when so much of popular entertainment is self-reflective and clearly based on opinion polls, it's important to support people and projects that are trying to create their own very specific voice. There are plenty of films out there that fulfill their obligation to make us feel a certain way. They're designed to thrill us or make us laugh. There should be films that make us think, too, that provoke thought and conversation. This was an opportunity to do that as well as to play a fascinating character.

On what level did you identify with Fuckhead?

The biggest tool an actor has is his or her imagination. If you're curious and compassionate enough about people, if the character is well-drawn enough, then you don't need to have known them in your own life or to have experienced what they've experienced in order to portray them. Certainly, you have more affection for some characters than others based on your own experiences, but if the story is of great worth, you can find a way to be compassionate about it even though you haven't had that sort of life experience.

Do you think theres a risk that some people might be too turned-off by this character to follow his story or care about what happens to him?

You can't try to do things to win people over. My responsibility was simply to elaborate on this character and embrace him. I'm sure there will be people who don't respond to it, and there should be. When you make a movie with a specific voice like this, it's not for everybody, but that isn't to say it's for one kind of specific person, either. While we were filming in Philadelphia, we were picketed by some nuns who probably didn't know anything about the story other than that it was called Jesus' Son. At the same time, though, when the movie played at the Venice Film Festival, we got an ecumenical award from a committee of Catholic priests, you know? This 70-year-old woman came up to me after one of the screenings. She gave me the biggest hug and told me how much she loved Fuckhead. I mean, that's the very last thing I ever would've expected.

Is it by design or by happenstance that you've avoided mainstream success and popularity?

To be honest, I have the sense that I've been incredibly successful. I mean, most of my close friends are other actors I went to graduate school with, actors I knew from college, and none of them have the career I have. I love it when people like my work and when they give me good feedback, but I'm not as interested in trying to cultivate some kind of personality to wield in films. Your career as an actor is governed by two distinct things, the first of which is getting work and choosing responsibly from the opportunities you're given.

The second is dependent on a certain level of success, and I've always felt like I wanted to look back on my career and be comfortable artistically with the choices I've made. Of course, there are many ways to feel comfortable -- making a lot of money, having a house that you love, creating other opportunities -- but I don't want to look back and justify my choices that way. All you can really do is try to find things of worth, things that have the potential to be something interesting.


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