Billy Crudup has a knack for playing people living in the 1970s. Look no further than his work in films like Waking the Dead, Without Limits, and, of course, his work as Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. Crudup realizes this is a trend and half-jokingly hopes this doesn’t preclude him from movies set in the 1980s. (The good news is Crudup is in the upcoming Alien: Covenant, which is set in the future, so he’s bucking this time period trend.)
But, for now, Crudup is back in 1979 playing William in Mike Mills’ wonderful 20th Century Women. William is an all-around handyman (sporting a very Russell Hammond-esque mustache that Crudup really should trademark) who lives with Dorothea (Annette Bening), her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), and another tenant named Abbie (Greta Gerwig). There’s no traditional plot structure, we just share some time with all of these interesting people as they go through this phase of their life – and we are all better for it by the time the film ends.
Crudup is having quite the year, just based on 20th Century Women and Jackie alone. (Not to mention he was in last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight.) Ahead, Crudup discusses why he doesn’t take professionally rewarding years like this for granted, he look ahead to what we will see in Alien Covenant, and looks back on the ups and downs of starring in “box office disappointment/now one of the most beloved films of the last two decades,” Almost Famous.
I was told you’re on set. Are you still filming Alien: Covenant?
Oh, that was an awesome experience. But, no, I’m doing a Netflix show, which is also an incredible experience. I’m feeling enormously grateful at this point in my career to be able to do so much incredible shit.
You’re having a good year.
I know, man.
Just 20th Century Women and Jackie alone…
I know. Sometimes, through a lot of my earlier career, I was trying to muscle certain projects. And we get in the habit of, if you’re given some opportunities early on, to really take care of the choices that you make and shepherd certain projects through production into distribution. Then sometimes in your career people just call you to do stuff and you kind of back into great opportunities. And these were two films that I got really lucky. And it’s kind of continued with Alien and Gypsy, the show I’m doing right now. I probably shouldn’t talk about it because I’m going to jinx it! To be working with directors that have the kind of vision and ambition that Pablo Larraín and Mike Mills have is one thing, but to get to work with the level of actors I’ve worked with over the last year, giving the kind of performances that they were giving, that’s unique. Luckily, I’m old enough to recognize it.
And Pablo and Mike are very different directors.
And you worked with both in a short span of time.
I have to say, as an actor, you have to be pretty facile at adapting to different circumstances. I can remember when I was younger, I just did a production of The Elephant Man with Sean Mathias and it was an incredibly collaborative environment. And then I worked on a play after that, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, that Simon McBurney directed and he was completely different. I can remember offering the opinion early on, and it was clear he was in the middle of making a point, and I was devastated the collaborative experience wasn’t exactly the same. Those days are long gone. You find your way of fitting into that.
Based on past movies, and now 20th Century Women, you seem very comfortable living in the 1970s.
Dude, I’m telling you…
You’re very good at it.
Have ‘stache, will travel. I don’t know what it is, but starting early in my career with Without Limits, Waking the Dead, and Almost Famous I feel there’s a million movies set in the 1970s. And I’m thrilled it was such an exciting time people want to write about, because it’s provided me with a wealth of opportunities.
You’re in the Rolodex under, “If a movie is set in the 1970s, we have to cast Billy Crudup. He’s the go-to 1970s actor.”
Well, precisely. My worry is it goes the other way, too. Which is like, “Well, this one is set in the ‘80s? No, Crudup can’t do that. He can do 1970 to 1979. If you want to do 1969, we can try that?”
Well, you’re in Alien now and that’s set in the future. So you’ve broken that.
That’s exactly right! That’s a very, very good point. And that was another unbelievable experience. Michael Fassbender is just on fire right now.
I saw a recent presentation of footage. It looks legitimately frightening.
That’s awesome. Well, I can tell you it wasn’t frightening to make it during, but I know what we were going for should be fucking terrifying.
A lot of aliens popping out of people’s backs this time.
Was I in the footage shown?
That’s my only question.
You are exploring a planet while an alien attacks the ship, then the ship catches fire…
Yes, with my wife on board. I remember it vividly.
It looks horrifying.
That’s awesome. Ridley Scott, I would jump at the chance to work with him again. I don’t know, man. When you start talking about it, it’s just been such a great ride. And being old enough to appreciate it is a gift on top of it, because I don’t take any of it for granted.
You’ve said that a couple of times. Do you think you used to take it for granted?
Well, you just don’t know it. You have the expectation. I started off, the first play I did was a play called Arcadia, which was a Tom Stoppard play that had been performed once before in England and we were doing the American premiere. And it was nominated for awards and tons of people saw it. And that was one of the first things that I did! And when you have those experiences early on, it’s embarrassing but you don’t know how hard they are to come by. Now 20 years of doing stuff, it’s pretty clear to me how lucky you are to be a part of something special. So like being part of Spotlight last year and Jackie and 20th Century Women this year, I’m extraordinary grateful. And it does make you smile a little bit more through all the processes.
Was Almost Famous like that? Were you thinking that would be a huge hit? People forget that one took a while to become, now, a beloved film.
[Laughs.] They for sure got the title right. The experience, you have to learn how to divorce yourself from the product and the reaction, which is a really hard thing to do – especially when you put your heart and soul into the work. And especially when the expectations for the people you’re collaborating with for the movie itself are high. I know that because I’ve had to do it again and again and again.
It’s really hard. I can count on two hands the number of actors who have sustained that level of excellence over years or decades. If you’re a director and you do one superb movie, you’re going to get chances to do more. If you do two superb movies, you know for sure you’re going to be one of the people getting to make movies. Three and you’re a legend. That was hard knowledge. I wanted everything for what I was a part of. I made choices to do movies and plays that were ambitious enough to be exciting and relevant, but you just never know how they are going to turn out. But if that’s your intention when you’re doing it, it can be really disappointing when they come out and nobody sees it. Or people see it and they think it sucks. Or people see it and love it, but they hate you. There are so many ways you can fail after the fact. And if you’re kind of sitting at home waiting for that experience, more likely than not you’re going to have a very challenging life.
But speaking of things that turned out well, one of my favorite images of the year is you and Annette Bening dancing to Talking Heads.
[Laughs.] Well, it was one of my favorite experiences. I got to do it! What Mike wanted from William in terms of his dancing, you know, it was kind of an embarrassing thing to search for. And thank the beloved God I had Annette there who was just game for all of it and made it a joyful experience.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.