The Renaissance of Billy Crudup (Exclusive)

Billy Crudup
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With back-to-back roles in prestige films, rave reviews for his new Off-Broadway play and a rumored romance, the actor is enjoying a string of “remarkable” gifts in his career.

Billy Crudup loves disappearing into characters.

So it wouldn’t be off-base to assume he jumped at the chance to play 19 of them in Harry Clarke, the new one-man Off-Broadway play about a man with multiple personalities that’s recently earned the actor rave reviews. “When I first heard it was a solo show, my initial reaction was, ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me, I’ve never done anything like that,’” Crudup tells ET over the phone from his home in New York City.

Harry Clarke is the alter ego of Philip Brugglestein, “a curiously captivating, but essentially timid” man, in the playwright’s words, who “feels more himself speaking with an English accent” -- even though he’s from South Bend, Indiana. Harry, on the other hand, with his resounding deep voice and knack for personal fictions, is outgoing and magnetic in a way the shy, queer Philip can only dream of. When Harry more or less takes the reins full-time after Philip arrives in New York, he ingratiates himself with a Manhattan family to shocking results. (Think Talented Mr. Ripley, only less macabre.)

“For me, [Philip’s] pantomime and fictional creation is about a desire to connect with people,” says Crudup, who slips between characters with a sly ease, distinguishing one from the next with subtle gestures and intonations. Audible, which is producing the show’s extended run at the Minetta Lane Theatre through May 13, has also packaged Harry Clarke as an audio play, marking the Amazon subsidiary’s first venture into theater. The release allows many more people to connect with Philip, Harry and the whole cast of characters that Crudup brings to life.

“I was also deeply flattered that they’d have enough confidence in me,” Crudup says, referring to playwright David Cale, director Leigh Silverman, and the Vineyard Theatre, where Harry Clarke initially premiered last fall before transferring to Minetta Lane. “I’ve always been interested in trying to support new material in the theater … and this was unlike anything that had come my way before,” adds the actor, who’s been a regular on New York stages his entire career, winning a Tony Award in 2007 for The Coast of Utopia.

Aside from tackling all the characters in Harry Clarke, which the actor says was “undeniably something that I was going to learn and grow from,” the past few years have marked a renaissance for the 49-year-old, with memorable appearances in prestige films -- Spotlight, Jackie, 20th Century Women -- and a cameo in Justice League, in which he plays the Flash’s incarcerated father, Henry Allen. (Of the DC Universe’s upcoming Flash installment, Flashpoint, Crudup admits, “I know probably less than you, [but] it’s the thing my son is most excited about.”)

Billy Crudup in the Vineyard Theatre production of "Harry Clarke." - Carol Rosegg

Crudup has also wrapped production on Richard Linklater’s upcoming Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a dramedy about a missing woman and her daughter’s quest to find out what happened to her, with co-stars Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer. Collaborating with Linklater, whom the actor calls “a compelling creative force,” felt inevitable, not only because their Hollywood circles have so much overlap, but also for their shared passion for diving deep into complex material. “Richard invites [so much] discussion; you get to gain some appreciation of how he’s planning on shooting it, which allows you to then collaborate and dial yourself in to how he’s going to be telling the story,” Crudup says of the production process, which he called an “affirming” and “wicked” experience.

Perhaps the only kink in Crudup’s recent renaissance was his foray into TV, which ended abruptly with Netflix’s swift cancellation of Gypsy shortly after its premiere last summer. Starring Crudup as Naomi Watts’ onscreen husband, the show followed a psychologist who secretly infiltrates the lives of her patients and marked the actor’s first series commitment. “I was for sure disappointed that it didn’t have a longer life. But to be fair, nothing ever fucking works,” he says, referring to the disparity between the number of projects produced in Hollywood and how many are actually released or seen by audiences. “There are certainly features of Gypsy that I’m incredibly proud of, and the working experience was really terrific. I hope we all get another shot at something else sometime.”

The series also sparked romance rumors about Crudup and Watts, who have since been spotted hand-in-hand, with Watts even attending the opening night of Harry Clarke on March 18, marking a rare focus on Crudup’s personal life since he made headlines over a decade ago when he left a then-pregnant Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes.

As he’s made clear in the time since, Crudup would rather fans connect with his characters than the real Billy. “I try to make it a point of not commenting publicly one way or the other about my personal life,” he says on the subject of Watts. “I don’t particularly see the advantage of people knowing too much about me if I’m constantly trying to trick them into thinking I’m someone else.”

Still, with the recent shift in celebrity culture toward granting fans total access on social media and in the press, “you do lament lost opportunity because you don’t exploit the chance to live an expositional life,” Crudup admits. “But the truth is I’m still getting incredible opportunities. I’m getting older, so the opportunities change.”

And if the opportunity provides itself, Crudup could be back on TV sooner rather than later. “Actors typically go where the writing is, and so much of the writing is in television at the moment,” he says, noting that he looks forward to seeing what Damon Lindelof and HBO do with their series adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, having starred as Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s 2009 film version.

“How many times do you get to play a character like that?” the actor asks, another nod to how fortunate he feels he’s been in his career. “So many actors rarely get any good parts, you know? Most actors just crave one good part, and I’ve been offered a wealth of them.

“To be given a chance to grow in a way you hadn’t anticipated is a remarkable gift to receive,” Crudup continues, referring to his current run in Harry Clarke. “You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth when it comes to that.”