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From 'Almost Famous' to definitely famous, Billy Crudup is enjoying his new TV roles

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

Our guest today is Billy Crudup, an actor you've probably seen more than you realize. He won critical praise and an Emmy Award for his performance in the series "The Morning Show," with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. Its third season just premiered on Apple TV+. His film credits include "Almost Famous," "Sleepers," "Jesus' Son," "20th Century Women" and "Watchmen," where he played a DC Universe superhero who's bald and blue. He's performed for years in theater, earning four Tony nominations and winning once for the Tom Stoppard play "The Coast Of Utopia." Crudup also stars in "Hello Tomorrow!" a futuristic series on Apple TV+, where he plays a salesman marketing timeshare properties on the moon to frustrated earthlings who look and dress like they're in the 1950s. I spoke to Billy Crudup in March, well before the actors and writers strikes began, when "Hello Tomorrow!" had just premiered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Billy Crudup, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BILLY CRUDUP: Well, thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I'd like you to begin by just describing the world that is presented here in "Hello Tomorrow!" And you could call it futuristic, but that doesn't quite capture it, does it? It's kind of set in the future that you would have envisioned in the 1950s. I mean, people...

CRUDUP: Precisely.

DAVIES: ...Are driving...

CRUDUP: Yes. If you went to the expo - the World Expo...

DAVIES: Right.

CRUDUP: ...They've got the hover cars and jetpacks. As Nick Podany, who plays my son in the series, noted, the hover cars hover, but they don't seem to go any faster.

DAVIES: Right.

CRUDUP: And there's that kind of imaginations. It sort of - they took a wink-and-a-nod approach to, I think, all of the gadgets that occupy our lives now that, you know, may or may not live up to the expectations that we had hoped.

DAVIES: Right. The hover cars have big fins, like the cars in the '50s. And the robots have these big cylindrical bodies with these little spindly arms. It's quite funny in a way.

Well, let's hear a clip from "Hello Tomorrow!" This is in the first episode, where you're at a counter of a diner grabbing a bite. And ever the salesman, you spot a guy a couple of seats over, a middle-aged guy who's down in the dumps, and you strike up a conversation which he wants no part of, in which you tell him you can see he's the solid working man who just wants the best for his family, and he was replaced by a robot - a tin can, as you put it - and you have something that will help him. You're selling timeshares on the moon.

I'll just mention that in the middle of this scene, there's a point where you show him a special token of the life that awaits him. That's a moon rock. You drop it on the counter. You'll hear that as we get into the scene. So we'll pick this up after you've been talking to this down-in-the-dumps guy, played by Michael Harney, for a couple of minutes. You speak first. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELLO TOMORROW!")

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) Tell you, the fact that you haven't slugged me yet - it means that you've got enough hope left in you to hear the one word that is going to save your life.

MICHAEL HARNEY: (As Sal) You get hit a lot?

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) Well, every time I'm wrong - but it's been a while.

HARNEY: (As Sal) You left out the part I got a daughter don't pick up the phone when I call. You got a magic word that fixes that one?

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) First, I just want to show you something, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCK CLATTERING)

HARNEY: (As Sal) What's that?

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) That is from the Sea of Serenity. It's 243,000 miles above us on the bright side of the moon. My son picked that out for me. That's my prized possession.

HARNEY: (As Sal) Wow.

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) Well, there you go. You said it yourself.

HARNEY: (As Sal) What?

CRUDUP: (As Jack Billings) Wow. That's the one word none of us can live without. And I will promise you this, hand on heart, hundreds of happy folks to vouch, you'll be saying, wow, I love living on the moon.

DAVIES: Where do I sign?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: And that is from "Hello Tomorrow!" the new series on Apple TV starring our guest, Billy Crudup. You were such a committed salesman. You are so good at this. And I understand your dad was a great salesman. Is this right?

CRUDUP: He - well, I don't know if he was a great salesman, but he was a salesman. In fact, I'm sure he wasn't a great salesman when it comes to the bottom line. But he was a devoted salesman.

DAVIES: What kind of stuff did your dad sell?

CRUDUP: Well, there's nothing that he wouldn't sell - usually stuff that fell off a truck. But there were some, you know, rather colorful objects, like an inflatable ice chest that he wanted to market to professional sports teams. And he was living in Austin at that time, so he thought it would be a great accompaniment to some rafting. There's a lot of rafting around Austin. And so if you had an inflatable ice chest that kept your drinks cold while you floated down the river, that would be a tremendous idea. It didn't work was the one problem. It didn't keep things cold, and it was not a flotation device. So he had to have them reordered and have that printed on the outside.

There was all sorts of golf gadgets. There were Farrah Fawcett posters, an umbrella hat that he got Lou Brock to endorse at one point. It was called the Brockabrella. And if he had hit his Pet Rock, yes, I think that would have been satisfying. That was the object in the '70s that was every salesman's Shangri-La. All you do is you pick up a rock. You put it in a box, and you say that it's your pet rock. And needless to say, the margins are pretty good on that.

DAVIES: Yeah.

CRUDUP: And my dad was always looking for that and never found it, but I think he liked moving from commodity to commodity more.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about "The Morning Show," the Apple TV series that you won an Emmy for. You play a studio executive with this morning news show with - in which the anchors initially are Jennifer Aniston and then, eventually, Reese Witherspoon. The shake-up there is part of the story. How did you get involved in the project?

CRUDUP: Well, mercifully, Aleen Keshishian, who is my manager - she also manages Jennifer Aniston. And when I was doing this play, "Harry Clarke," that I really loved doing - but it was quite taxing. And it was in a small theater called the Vineyard Theatre here in New York, directed by Leigh Silverman, written by David Cale.

DAVIES: You know what, Billy? I'm glad you brought that up 'cause I had heard that this had played a role. Tell - just - yeah, take a moment and tell us about this play. It's an amazing part. It's - what? - a dozen roles you played?

CRUDUP: It was an extraordinary part. And there's a wonderful performing artist named David Cale, who is a songwriter, and he started to develop what would be one-person shows and had some incredible success. At a certain point, the Vineyard Theatre asked him if he had anything 'cause they wanted to produce one of his works, and he said, well, I've written something, but it's for somebody else. And he had actually, before he had contacted Leigh or myself, written this play called "Harry Clarke," which was a film noir in his mind - solo performance. And it was going to be starring Billy Crudup, directed by Leigh Silverman. He showed us the actual page that he had written this out on well before we were involved.

And so they sent me the script, and I thought, no, this is a terrible idea. Who's going to memorize 48 pages? This is a fool's errand. I can't possibly do this. It would be more than I can handle. And obviously, I went to sleep that night, woke up in the middle of the night. Who else gets offered a solo performance in New York, no out-of-town trial? You have to do it. And so I signed up for it. And Aleen Keshishian saw it. She said, well, I have to get everybody to come and see it. You're terrific. You play all these different parts. And Jen came, and she enjoyed it, too. And her producing partner, Kristin Hahn, and Amanda Anka - they were there. They said, we're doing a new show. We'd love for you to take a look at it and see if there's any parts.

DAVIES: When you say Jen you mean Jennifer Aniston. Yeah. Right.

CRUDUP: Jennifer Aniston.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah.

CRUDUP: And so she was really the catalyst for my involvement. And I owe her a tremendous amount. So I read it, and there was this one weirdo that I really responded to. And I think it was part because - in part because having performed in "Harry Clarke" and managed 40-odd pages of text, I was at that moment adept and primed to work with text - the - you know, all the things that I was talking about early on in my career about building an instrument that works. Well, when you're doing a play like that and you're playing a - you're playing so many different characters who have different kinds of accents, you need to have a flexible instrument, for lack of a better word. Your mouth has to move fast. You have to know how to breathe at the right time. You have to stay on your voice. You have to use different placements of your voice. Your physicality has to be flexible.

And so when I saw this guy who had all these big ideas about the changing landscape of news during this critical time in our - and sort of social upheaval, it really appealed to me that somebody thought in paragraphs. And so after some - I had to do a little selling, but after some selling, they came around. And it has been a glorious experience for me.

DAVIES: Billy Crudup co-stars in the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show," now in its third season. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUAN MONASTERIO'S "HELLO TOMORROW! MAIN TITLES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to my interview with actor Billy Crudup, recorded in March before the actors strike. He co-stars with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show." Its third season premiered last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about "The Morning Show." But first, I figured let's listen to a clip. This is from the first season, where your character, Cory Ellison - he's president of the news division, kind of a disruptor in the role - is talking to the executive producer of "The Morning Show," this morning news show. And the producer's played by Mark Duplass. And they're talking about what, you know, the show and the network need to do to compete in this new media world. And you - I'll just note, you begin by referring to a competing show called "Your Day, America," or "YDA." So let's listen to your discussion here. You speak first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MORNING SHOW")

CRUDUP: (As Cory Ellison) We have to get well ahead of "YDA." We can't stand a blow to the news division. Broadcast networks - they can't stand a blow to anything right now (laughter). It's kind of funny, you know, how the entire world of broadcast could just fall off a cliff in a few years - like, boom, bang, lights out - unless we reinvent it. We're all going to get bought out by tech unless something changes.

MARK DUPLASS: (As Chip Black) I don't know. Tech or not, there will always be a need for reliable, quality journalism.

CRUDUP: (As Cory Ellison) People get their horrible news delivered to the palm of their hand 24/7, and they get it the way that they like it, colored the way that they want it. And news is awful, but humanity is addicted to it, and the whole world is depressed by it. That's why what we really need on television right now - it's not news or [expletive] journalism; it's entertainment. This is just like during the Depression, when people wanted to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance around on expensive sets and live in a dream world. Dream worlds are essential. Depressed people - they need escape, you know?

DAVIES: And that's our guest Billy Crudup in "The Morning Show."

So tell us about Cory Ellison.

CRUDUP: If memory serves, that was the first day that I actually worked on "The Morning Show."

DAVIES: Wow.

CRUDUP: And as soon as I heard the top of it, all I could remember was the flop sweat that I was covered in because I had tried to convince everybody that I had this part in the bag, and then I had to deliver in the moment, and it was a very nervy kind of experience. But Mimi Leder, who I just adore beyond words, was doing these really extravagant, cool shots that - they, you know, required a kind of dance, you know, with the camera, which is not uncomplicated to do when you're playing a guy who already speaks faster than you do. He thinks faster than you do. He has a kind of joy - joy at his own imagination that is kind of rare to come by. And you have to be unencumbered. You have to have as little self-consciousness to play those kinds of characters authentically. And that was not what was happening on the day. (Laughter) I was sweating my butt off.

DAVIES: You were encumbered (laughter).

CRUDUP: I was encumbered. But the character itself, the way that I saw him, was as an unapologetic capitalist and somebody who was very capable of reading a room and understanding where the power structure - how the - where the power was in social structure and doing the best that he could to ascend in whatever way he could in that moment. Everything is transactional for him. He's always thinking of sort of upward mobility. He's always thinking of magnificent problem-solving. He's sort of fabulist in that way. And he hadn't yet experienced a kind of failure, professional failure, to give him the humility to calm down. So he's unbridled by his enthusiasm for being able to solve the world.

And there is an incredible joy playing that character when I have enough time to prepare so I'm not stumbling over the words 'cause he doesn't stumble, and he gets through those paragraphs in a single breath. And it's been a totally life-changing experience. Being on television, there is no more going under the radar. And I've had the experience of 25 years of being an actor, and very rarely was I stopped before, but subsequent to that, it's a pretty common occurrence. So it has been extraordinary creatively and extraordinary practically.

DAVIES: How do you like that, being seen on the street and recognized all the time now?

CRUDUP: A lot more now than I did when I was first starting out. Actually, there were - there are entertaining parts about it. And some people, you know, they get it wrong. When I was doing "Arcadia," for instance, the - we did a preview. I came the next night for the next show, got there early, and there was a young girl who was waiting by the door with a piece of paper or what seemed like a photograph. And she said, I saw the show last night. I just thought you were absolutely extraordinary. Could you sign this for me? And it was a picture of Robert Sean Leonard on horseback.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CRUDUP: She obviously thought I was Robert Sean Leonard, who was also in the play - a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. And so I signed it Robert Sean Leonard.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUDUP: So you get those experiences sometimes, too. Or people just come up and poke you, and they say, where do I know you from? And I say, I'm not sure. We went to high school together. I don't think we did. Sure we did. Why are you being such a jerk now? You know, you get those kinds of experiences, too. But this has been, I think, so nice for me because people are very entertained by that character. So they typically come up to me with a warmth and generosity, which is really nice.

DAVIES: Yeah. It is great fun to watch you doing that. I mean, there's boundless confidence. It's really fun.

CRUDUP: I know. It is - I wish you could see. Like, as soon as they yell cut, I just crumble.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CRUDUP: It was Duplass who was really, like, keeping me upright the first season. He's a guy who understands how to manage the entire machine.

DAVIES: Right. Right.

CRUDUP: He's a producer, writer, director and actor. And, I mean, I was really terrified.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you mentioned that being on television gave you a different level of recognition. And, you know, you got into TV kind of late in your career, I guess. Like, "Gypsy" in 2017, I think, was the first TV series.

CRUDUP: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: And it struck me that, you know, one of the things - you do a lot of preparation for your roles. And if it's a movie or a play, you've got the script, and the character arc is all there for you to study and work from. And sometimes in TV series, you don't know where your character is going to be going by the end of the season. Sometimes the writers haven't even written all the episodes. Does that make it harder?

CRUDUP: You hit the nail on the head, Dave. That was the sticking point for me early on. And, you know, fortunately I had other opportunities, but I didn't quite understand that process of not knowing where it was going and the notion of committing to a character for potentially six years. That - I had to confront that on a payphone on 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in 1994. And I was not interested in having that experience again. There was a television show that I had screen tested for. They wanted me to fly out to Los Angeles and test again with the executives there, and in order to just fly out there, I had to sign a deal memo which said if I got the part, I was committed for six years. And I was just out of school learning to be a character actor. And I thought, if I do this, I am screwed. I won't know what I'm doing. I'll get stuck in habits that may not be applicable to some of the other things that I want to do.

And I think it just took me time to actually build up enough capability to manage doing a TV show. Even still, it is incredibly, incredibly difficult, difficult work for the exact reasons that you mentioned. The scripts are evolving. You don't have the same kind of preparation. The tools that you've relied on your entire career are completely obsolete, and you still have to do it (laughter) and hopefully do it well. So having had the experience of doing a number of television shows now, some for a couple of years, it's a remarkable challenge and not for the faint of heart.

DAVIES: So you still struggle sometimes with feeling confident about a part. The vulnerability never goes away.

CRUDUP: Oh, my gosh. Yes, really. When I was doing "Harry Clarke," I routinely had panic attacks onstage. And even doing Cory, the pressure sometimes of managing those pieces of text, those monologues with an extravagant camera move is - (laughter) it's uncomfortable, Dave. So that has not diminished. In fact, I think what happens when you're - you have all this confidence and hubris when you're younger - when that evaporates with your ability to memorize text, there is a very real vulnerability that appears that is not, like, just the sadness from not getting a part that you really wanted.

DAVIES: Actor Billy Crudup, recorded in March. He stars with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon in the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show." We'll hear more of our interview after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUN RA ARKESTRA, ET AL. SONG, "I DREAM TOO MUCH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to my interview with actor Billy Crudup. He's had a long career on screen and stage. His films include "Almost Famous," "20th Century Women" and "Watchmen," and he won an Emmy Award for his performance in the Apple TV+ series ''The Morning Show." Its third season premiered last week. We recorded our interview in March, long before the actors and writers strikes began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: You went to school and studied communications and then went to the graduate school of acting at NYU - the Tisch graduate program - which I guess was a good place because New York is a great place to learn acting. There's a lot of actors around. I'm wondering, obviously, other than the experience of doing a lot of acting while you were there, do you feel you learned, got tools or approaches to acting that had a lasting impact when you got into the business?

CRUDUP: The way that they - Zelda Fichandler, an incredible artistic director and a great mind for the theater, gave an inspirational speech at the beginning of every year that made you feel like being an actor and being a part of the tradition of storytelling was necessary, which was an unbelievable feeling to have. You're often so put off by your desire to be in front of people and the sort of vanity that goes with it. You need it and you want it, and you despise it. And she gave an alternate point of view, which was, this is a glorious human tradition. And if you're going to undertake it, you should undertake it as a professional and a craftsperson. So make sure to build an instrument that can sustain you over time and build a way of being that allows you to be reflective, allows you to pivot, allows you to adjust and grow.

And I don't think there's any chance I could have played Jack Billings with the kind of dexterity that Amit and Lucas demanded without not just the three years of training, but the 20 years of application of that training. It was essential for me. I mean, I could go on and on. It was that important an experience to me. The last play that I did was in 2017 or '18, I think, and in it, I played over 10 characters. And I would never have been able to manage that situation practically and (laughter) emotionally and psychologically of standing up onstage alone for an hour and 15 minutes and telling a story, playing all those characters. And it really was - what I trusted in, what I put my faith in was the foundation that I learned at NYU.

DAVIES: Right. I know that you learned how to prepare and that you prepare diligently for every role. It wasn't that long after you got out of graduate school, I understand, that you managed to get a role in Tom Stoppard's play "Arcadia," which is - I haven't seen it, but, actually, our producer Lauren Krenzel, who booked our interview, saw you in that performance. This - we're going back a few years here.

CRUDUP: Oh, wow.

DAVIES: Yeah.

CRUDUP: 1995.

DAVIES: Yeah.

CRUDUP: Yeah.

DAVIES: And was enormously impressed. I mean, you play this guy, Septimus Hodge, who's an English - 19th-century English tutor tutoring a young teenager, and he knows Lord Byron and all. I mean, it's quite a tale. There's an interesting story about you getting the part and the audition. Do you want to just share this with us?

CRUDUP: Sure. Daniel Swee was the casting director for Lincoln Center. And I got an audition, as you do - your agent calls you and says, OK, there's a part for a 22-year-old guy in a play, a new Tom Stoppard play. And as an acting student, the notion of even reading a new Tom Stoppard play that was incidentally going to be directed by Trevor Nunn, who I had been watching since my junior year of high school on these cassette tapes - I think they were called "Acting Shakespeare" (ph). I can't remember. But lions in the theater - not just in my imagination, but practically speaking. I think he was the youngest person ever run the RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company. And so these names are sort of thrown out there in a way that is heart-stopping to a new graduate from school. And so there was a kind of magic already attached to just being able to audition. And when you started to read the part, you could see that it wasn't just a great Tom Stoppard play. It was a masterpiece of theater.

In any case, I went in. I did my audition. I had a British accent, so I was a little bit clumsy with that because I have to work at it. And Daniel Swee gave me an adjustment, and I kind of understood what he meant. But, you know, there's - with acting, there's a cerebral understanding and then there's a visceral understanding. So until you have the visceral understanding, you don't really process it in a way that feels authentic. It feels kind of like you're in your head. You're thinking about your choice. So in any case, I did it and he said, thanks very much. I close the door. And as soon as the door closed, the echo in the hallway reverberated. And I thought, oh, crap, now I know what he meant. And you could - you know, like, the door is locked now. I can't get back inside. So I went outside to the payphone, called my agent. I said, I really feel like there's an adjustment that I could make. Could you get me back in? And I was new enough as an actor to not understand that agents hear that every day. That's probably all they hear is calls from their clients saying, oh, can you get me back in? I finally understand it now. Or I messed it up. I was just a little - the pressure got to me. Can I get back in? And so sure enough, he called Daniel Swee. And Daniel said, no, he did fine. He's just not right for the part.

But I was so invigorated by the understanding that I had about the character by way of Daniel that I was taught in school to keep learning. If you reach a point where you have a threshold of - or your threshold of understanding is exceeded in some way or you grow in some way, keep on that path. Pursue growth at all costs. And so I started to rehearse it. And sure enough, a couple of weeks later, Daniel called and said, well, we haven't been able to find anybody. If you really feel like you were able to make some adjustments, come back in. And by that point I knew it, like, back-and-forth. I could do that first scene for you right now. And the next day, I met with Trevor Nunn, and the day after that, I got the part. And it totally changed the trajectory of my career.

DAVIES: Wow. You got some good movie roles not long after that with some serious actors. And while you were building your career, you did some voiceover work, as a lot of actors do. And one was in a commercial that made a phrase iconic. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CRUDUP: Two tickets - $28. Two hot dogs, two popcorns and two sodas - $18. One autographed baseball - $45. Real conversation with 11-year-old son - priceless. There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's Mastercard. Accepted all over, even Major League ballparks.

DAVIES: What a great piece of ad copy. You did versions of that ad for how long?

CRUDUP: Thirteen years.

DAVIES: Wow. Wow.

CRUDUP: It was truly incredible. And not to mention the fact that I took the job just to lay down a demo track for a woman who was working for McCann Erickson, the ad agency that was trying to win the account. But they hadn't won the account. So I just went in for the $200 session fee to set up a demo track. And then when they landed the account, they said, yeah, use whatever voice you used in the demo.

And I can remember the first couple of years feeling a little tied down. I was excited to be doing films, and I was off in Santa Fe working on a film called "The Hi-Lo Country" with Woody Harrelson. And one weekend, I had to drive to Albuquerque to lay down some tracks for Mastercard. And I can remember it being annoying at the moment.

And it was probably a year after that - I wasn't working; I didn't have any prospects or something - that I realized I had the dream job, that I could maintain this as long as possible and make a little bit of money that would enable me to make the kinds of artistic choices I wanted to to still be able to live in New York.

DAVIES: So the pay was good, right? I mean, for...

CRUDUP: Well, at the beginning...

DAVIES: Certainly by the hour, at least.

CRUDUP: ...It was regular.

DAVIES: Yeah.

CRUDUP: And, frankly, if you're an actor - you know, I think probably after the first couple of years, we would negotiate a contract. And whatever it is, you - they say, you know, you'll do 20 commercials for $10,000. And I do them over the course of six months or 12 months, whatever it is. That's steady, predictable pay. That's very unusual as you're an up-and-coming actor. So that was the crucial part for me. It was steady and predictable.

DAVIES: And so, well, you don't need to give me a number, but the years of doing the Mastercard commercials was really able to sustain you and let you do the work you wanted and...

CRUDUP: Most definitely.

DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

CRUDUP: Most definitely. It was - and I've, Dave, probably auditioned for 400 voiceovers in the time since then, and I think I have landed three.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Wow. Actor Billy Crudup. He co-stars in the Apple TV+ series "The Morning Show." Its third season premiered last week. We'll hear more of our interview after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANK WESS AND JOHNNY COLES' "WHISTLE STOP (TAKE ONE)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to my interview with veteran actor Billy Crudup. You can see him in two Apple TV+ series - "The Morning Show," now in its third season, and the futurist series "Hello Tomorrow!" where Crudup plays a salesman marketing timeshares on the moon. We spoke in March when "Hello Tomorrow!" had just premiered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: I wanted to talk about "Almost Famous," which is a film you did with Cameron Crowe, I guess, in 2000 or so. It's set in the 1970s. I'm sure a lot of people saw this. It's a movie about a teenager with writing talent who talks his way into an assignment from Rolling Stone to travel with a rock band called Stillwater and write a story about them. And you're in the band. You're the band's best musician, a virtuoso guitar player. There are a lot of great concert scenes in here. I gather you had not played guitar when you got this job. We've all played some air guitar, right? But this had to be a little more authentic. How did you learn to do what - you know, to sell yourself as a rock guitarist?

CRUDUP: Well, (laughter) in the same way that you fake everything else. You have to understand the narrative device that the filmmaker or the playwright is trying to use to establish that you're a virtuoso, whatever it is. And for Cameron, it was really one shot that he wanted a close-up on my fingers during a solo and then wanted to be able to pan up to me. And so I essentially spent four months trying to learn that one riff. And the other components of it - about handling the guitar, being a part of the band - we had band practice for five weeks or four weeks or six weeks. I can't remember now. But every night, we would end up in, I think, Westwood somewhere at a studio. And Peter Frampton and Nancy Wilson and Cameron Crowe would try to teach the four of us how to become a band.

DAVIES: That's Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, right?

CRUDUP: Correct. And I confess, whether or not we had actually filmed the movie, the experience of band camp was worth the price of admission, I mean, into being an actor. It was so glorious to be there with Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton and Cameron Crowe, hear their stories. There was an enormous pressure 'cause I didn't want to suck as a virtuosic guitarist. But the joy that came from being a part of a rock band, it was there in the room. So it was one of those lucky experiences.

DAVIES: Well, so, I mean, you're in a room. I mean, that's not like being on a stage in a huge auditorium of screaming fans, right? What was the...

CRUDUP: So with that - and that was yet to come. We had that moment at the Palladium when we were shooting a live show that appears in the movie. And Cameron starts off backstage. We're all sort of - I've had - just had this conversation with William's mother. And she's sort of chastised me. And then we have to go out.

DAVIES: That's the young writer. Right, yeah.

CRUDUP: That's the young writer, played by Patrick Fugit. And we go out on the stage, and it's pitch black. And there's 1,500 extras there, which is an enormous amount of extras. I'm not entirely sure how they managed it, but they did. And it was packed in there. And they played the music over playback. And let me tell you, the effect of even a fake audience screaming for you while you're playing fake guitar is (laughter) beyond anything I've experienced. I can understand immediately how musicians become contorted in their psyches, because you are truly idolized and worshipped in a way that's unusual.

DAVIES: Right. As I recall, there's one scene where the place is dark, and it's your guitar lick that starts the set. And the lights come on.

CRUDUP: That's it.

DAVIES: It's this explosion of light and sound and music.

CRUDUP: Exactly.

DAVIES: Wow.

CRUDUP: I just got chills thinking about it again. It was so - it's such an incredibly visceral moment.

DAVIES: Yeah. Part of the story is about, you know, road culture among rock stars - you know, guys in their 20s and groupies and roadies and all of that. And I thought we would hear a short scene here. This is the band - I think in the story you're in Topeka, Kan. And a concert has ended badly. And you end up, after the concert, with this writer, William. And you encounter some high school kids who invite you to a party. And you...

CRUDUP: Some real people, Dave.

DAVIES: Yeah.

CRUDUP: I think that's what they're called.

DAVIES: Yes. (Laughter) Right. Well - and so the scene we're going to hear, you're at the party, and you're really high, I think on acid, actually. And you're talking to these - I guess they're high school students. And you're holding forth to them in a way that...

CRUDUP: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIES: ...In your altered state, seems profound. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) You, Aaron, are what it's all about. You're real. Your room is real. Your friends are real. Real, man, real, you know? Real. Real, you know? You're more important than all the silly machinery - silly machinery - and you know it. In 11 years, it's going to be 1984, man. Think about that.

CHRIS MCELPRANG: (As Aaron Amedori) Want to see me feed a mouse to my snake?

CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) Yes.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Great line to finish with. That is our guest, Billy Crudup, in the movie "Almost Famous." You know, I want to just play one more little scene from that party. This is a short one. You end up on the roof of a garage, which is over a swimming pool. And you're standing there. And, you know, dozens of kids are below you, just loving having this rock star at their party. And you get carried away. And here's a little of what you say. Let's listen.

CRUDUP: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALMOST FAMOUS")

CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) I am a golden god.

(CHEERING)

CRUDUP: (As Russell Hammond) I am a golden god.

(CHEERING)

DAVIES: A golden god - has that phrase followed you throughout your career, when you see people on the street?

CRUDUP: (Laughter) Well, most notably when I encountered Robert Plant at LAX. Apparently, as reported by Cameron, that line came from him. He witnessed it. He had long, golden locks. But I saw Robert Plant. And I was like, OK, I'll go up and talk to him, and maybe this will be true. And also, this will be my chance to talk to Robert Plant. How awesome would that be? But I panicked, and I went the other way. And then I boarded the plane, and there he was, sitting adjacent to me. And so again, I panicked for five hours.

But when we landed, as I pulled my carry-on off - out of the compartment, he took the moment to remark on how crappy my carry-on was and said, (imitating English accent) well, that looks like that's seen better days. At which point I said, my name is Billy Crudup. I played Russell Hammond in "Almost Famous." It's reported that you said, I'm a golden god, and Cameron saw that. Is that true? And he was like, (imitating English accent) oh, it is you. Wait; that's my line.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CRUDUP: And I said, well, it's my line now, and hopped off the plane. And hand on heart, the flight attendant goes, oh, the two golden gods. So it has followed me around only when I employ it, Dave.

DAVIES: Well, Billy Crudup, thanks so much for speaking with us. It's been a lot of fun.

CRUDUP: Dave, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it, and I hope people enjoy "Hello Tomorrow!"

DAVIES: Billy Crudup, recorded in March. He stars in the futurist series "Hello Tomorrow!" and co-stars in "The Morning Show," both on Apple TV+. The third season of "The Morning Show" premiered last week.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "A Haunting In Venice," an Agatha Christie adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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