My background has become the star of my Zoom calls, pushing me to the margins as people ogle the action figures, statues, and full-size muppet that I’ve collected over the years. And I’m a little jealous. But short of reorganizing my office, my only move is to try and go with a fake background. Which I did with my call with Billy Crudup to discuss season two of The Morning Show, which launches its second season on September 17 on Apple TV+. But damned if that muppet didn’t decide to evade the tech magic and poke through, eerily hovering over me like a specter. Something that did not go unnoticed. Speaking of things going unnoticed, as I effortlessly glide back to the topic at hand, Billy Crudup in The Morning Show.
As Cory Ellison, Crudup has found a home, playing a quirky disruptor, sneak, and scamp running through the halls of power with scissors in his hand. In a way, Cory has served as an avatar for a segment of the audience that loves chaos and has an aversion for rules and entrenched power, particularly at a time when those things were trying to shelter toxicity while claiming a recommitment to purity following revelations of sexual misconduct around one of its star anchors. But in season 2, there’s an element to Cory that shifts as he gains even more power and works to keep everything together. We spoke about that, what it feels like to keep people off balance, the evolution (and psyche) of Cory, and why the character had to be someone that had never lost before.
Hey Billy, how are you doing?
Good. Is that Gonzo in the back?
Yeah, he’s apparently poking through and hovering over my head. Sorry about that, I was trying to pull off a tropical aesthetic.
[Laughs] Well you’re in the tropics. You’re just being haunted by a Muppet.
You know what? Let’s start there. In the first episode, you’re kind of the Kermit of the group getting the band back together and everything. What was that like because it feels like a little bit of a change?
There’s no question that Cory has been emboldened by his success. Even if it came at a price that he’s not quite ready to admit. And the enthusiasm that he has for the success of any of his endeavors is impossible for him to keep to himself. So I think he really revels in the first episode at the potential… or the first couple of episodes of fulfilling the promises that he made and ensuring that the people who work under him gain the privileges that come with the power that they have worked so steadfastly for and deserve.
Just like Kermit.
Just like Kermit! But unlike Kermit, Cory isn’t humble about it.
That’s true. That’s very true. Is he an idealist at this point?
That’s a really interesting question. And I’ve never considered him from the vantage point of cynicism or idealism or realism, I guess in no small part because he seems a bit scientific in his analysis of human behavior. So there’s something about somebody who’s an empiricist that removes them from the spectrum of a prognosticator. “So I’m going to be hopeful about this because I know the way the world works, everything always goes to shit” or “I’m going to be idealist because everything may go to shit, but what’s wrong with being hopeful?” Both of those are points of view about trying to be predictive about the future. And I think what Cory is really highly specialized in is understanding the algorithm of the present, what it takes to get through today in a way that will lead him to a better tomorrow. And he can do sort of long division math on that. Or he can do a short addition. All of which he knows how to plug into any given circumstance.
I guess if you were to give him a point of view, that’s an idealistic point of view because it means that you can tolerate and navigate the world as it comes to you. And that’s not the way that everybody responds to the world. Certainly not the way that I respond to the world. I’m intimidated by everything! But there is a kind of boyish quality and curiosity that I think could be mistaken for idealism, when in fact, I think it’s probably arrogance.
You say in life you’re intimidated. Is his analytical nature a trait that you admire and wish you could apply to your own life?
Well, I certainly have an analytical nature. It’s just that he does it by an order of magnitude. My focus is very narrow and very shortsighted, whereas his is extremely broad, present, long-sided, and capable of managing the past, present, and future all at once. So yeah, I do! I am analytical about things and I do appreciate evidence and I do have a strain of trusting empirical data. That being said, I’m an actor, what the hell do I know? My degrees are in acting and stuff like that. So I can’t attest to any great data-crunching talents.
There’s a quality to him where he’s sort of in the audience with every interaction, where it kind of happens in front of him and his reactions — inappropriate laughter at times, or just kind of cutting to the quick with people… I have a sliver of that myself. So I really appreciate it. Is that awkward to play in a scene, though? When you’ve got to really just disarm someone or take them off rhythm?
It’s totally thrilling because I know based upon the script that I’ve read, that I don’t have to deal with the awkward part of it because Cory doesn’t deal with it. So I’m only attending to the script by writing off my natural predilection, which would be to feel the pangs of social awkwardness any time calling somebody on something. But Cory doesn’t have to worry about that. So I take my time as a person to revel in having that experience of living, because I’ll tell you, it’s fucking fun! To have that level of social acumen. Ultimately, I think the thing that is a saving grace for me about Cory is he believes in people actually, and he doesn’t believe that he has to take care of people. He believes it’s within everybody’s power to manage their own situations. So if something deeply uncomfortable happens and he gets an opportunity to observe it in a way that brings maybe some satisfaction or entertainment to the community at large, he’s just not the type of person who’s going to take time and linger upon his responsibility for somebody else’s feelings.
In terms of when the show started, when you first looked at the script to where it is now, I’m curious how much influence you’ve had on any changes from the character. And just in general, how has the character changed from then to where you are now, like the end of season two?
Yeah, well, the first season was a complete exploration and creative collaboration and trying to understand who the hell he was. Who talks like that? Who can act like that? Who can manage these high octane situations with the kind of dexterity and ruthlessness and occasional charm and clumsiness? That was the first seven months of work. And having felt confident that we did the best job we could at describing that in the first season, what the writers cleverly did was put him in a completely new environment, which is when you’re somebody who is poking at the pillars of authority because you believe that they were built in such a way as to keep people out, you better know what to do when those pillars come crashing down and you’re all of a sudden in charge of that plot of land. And I don’t think Cory is totally prepared for that.
So what we see is a level of disorganization in his thinking that wasn’t really present before. I think he would be disinclined in the second season to revel that “chaos is the new cocaine.” I think he would really appreciate some moments of predictability. And furthermore, they introduce the potential that he actually cares about the show and the people who are involved in the show, which will always screw up your capitalist ambitions. So I think they’ve introduced some features to the circumstances that he navigates that has completely changed the way in which Cory manifests itself in me.
I read that the character initially was conceived as someone in their early thirties. I’m curious what you think the draw is for playing him as someone who is a little bit more experienced, a little bit more formidable to stand toe to toe with these titans.
Well, that was actually my argument to them at the beginning when I tried to pitch myself for it. You make Jen (Alex) and Reese (Bradley) and Tom (Fred) and everybody in that dynamic more powerful if you make Cory more powerful and then you can make him more powerful if you imagine that he already had success in another field. That in fact, the trajectory of his career is such that he can say, open up an advertising agency in a middle-market community, explode the entire thing, sell the rights to their management operations or whatever to a global empire, make millions of dollars, and then try and recreate themselves as a competitive person in what perhaps could be the thickest den of vipers: the entertainment industry, or much less, the news entertainment industry. I think he becomes incredibly formidable if he’s chosen to be in this field and manage these kinds of personalities. And that could only have come to a guy like me, if I had had experience winning. And what I told Kerry [Ehrin, the show’s producer and showrunner] was this is a guy who has never had a bad day at the office. Every single day has led to step-by-step success. So you can’t tell anybody who hasn’t experienced failure that they’re going to lose. They won’t understand what you’re talking about. So put them in a place where they have to go up against unmovable obstacles and it becomes entertaining.
How has your relationship with media and watching the news changed since you took the show on? Just curious if you’re paying more attention to it or if you’re staying more away from it.
Well, I think the show and the way the news has evolved is happening concurrently. So I’m not sure I could tell you if it was because of the show or because of the way that we’re all trying to understand the difference between news and journalism that has slowly but surely over the last 40 years altered our perception of the truth and how we get at the truth. But I think the show itself and me as a citizen are becoming hypervigilant about understanding all of those mechanisms.
Season 2 of ‘The Morning Show’ premieres September 17 on Apple TV+