Billy Crudup, Off-Broadway’s Accidental Seducer

A chameleon with a leading man’s good looks, the newly minted Obie winner likes to disappear into his roles


Billy Crudup didn’t mean to seduce you. In the fall and then again in the spring, he played the criminally charming (and sometimes just plain criminal) title character in David Cale’s Harry Clarke. As Harry Clarke is a solo show, Crudup played all the other characters, too. He wanted to thrill, to terrify, to delight, to persuade. But seduce? “I don’t know if we ever really used that word in rehearsal,” he said during a recent telephone interview with the Voice.

Harry Clarke isn’t really a person, not even in the play’s fictive world. He’s an irresistible cockney schemer dreamed up by Philip Brugglestein, a frightened Midwestern boy shamed for his queerness. Philip grows up. He moves away. But one day Harry returns. With his sly smile, his dropped aitches, his sexuality and sociopathy, he manages to bed an entire family.

Maybe Harry got your knickers in a twist. Maybe he made you want to take them off and throw them onstage. That was your fault. Not Crudup’s. He was just trying to tell a good story.

A character actor who’s been blessed or cursed — probably blessed — with a leading man’s good looks, Crudup is mercurial, changeable, incisive. His playful intelligence has made him a Tom Stoppard regular and burnished a highbrow Broadway résumé: Pinter, Beckett, Chekhov. “I guess I am attracted to that rigor and to taking your job seriously,” he said. On Monday night, that rigor paid off: Crudup’s multifaceted work in Harry Clarke earned him an Obie award, a significant sign of recognition from his Off-Broadway peers.

Crudup has always gone black-hole deep into his stage and screen roles. He shaved seconds off his 200-meter sprint to embody Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits, learned guitar to play golden god Russell Hammond in Almost Famous, lost twenty pounds to lace up Ned Kynaston’s corset in Stage Beauty. He likes to disappear into each part. “Listen,” he said. “Every actor wants attention and gratification and recognition. But it is an extreme compliment to me when people say, ‘Wait, you were in that?’ ”

There’s no forgetting that Crudup was in Harry Clarke. His name stood lonely on the cast list, and he was tasked with playing all nineteen roles, assigning each of them a specific voice and stance. The six or so main characters received a full psychological work-up, too. The rehearsal process was, Crudup said, “an extension of all the different ways I’ve learned to build characters applied at once.”

The weeks spent learning the lines and differentiating the characters were arduous — or “tedious,” the word Crudup used. He’d find that toward the end of a day working with Cale and the director, Leigh Silverman, his brain couldn’t take much more. Most of this initial work was mechanical. It was only in performance, he said, that the characters took on anything like life. Eventually, without the help of costumes or props, he could delineate each of them with just a gesture, just a tone. He made it look so frolicsome, so easy. It wasn’t.

If you were in the audience, the play’s eighty minutes probably hurtled by, but for Crudup, alone onstage, “time slows down for me in a very profound way.” During the play’s first performances at the Vineyard Theatre, Crudup would sometimes miss a chunk of text and then have to find some way to bring himself back. (The stage managers, who kept calm and continued to call the tech cues, were the real stars, the actor suggested.) When he forgot a line, his vision would close in, his heart would pound, time would more or less stop, just as it does during a fall or a car crash. “It’s an out-of-body experience,” he said.

The next day, at home, returned to what he called his usual, “boring” self, his body would feel wrecked — Harry would probably say “knackered” — battered by an endocrine hangover. “Part of the process is managing your body when it’s in that state of heightened adrenaline and total exhaustion,” he said. So he’d manage. Then he’d have to come back to the theater and do it all over again.

Why put himself through it? And why, once the Vineyard run had finished, would he agree to an Audible-sponsored encore, at the Minetta Lane Theatre? Well, he’s seen too many of his friends and classmates “busting their ass and running around just to get walk-on roles,” he said. So when a part — or nineteen parts — comes along “that gives you the opportunity to be extravagant and grow as an artist and grow your understanding of the material, you have to take it.”

Besides, he said, “Nobody ever gets a fucking chance to be cool in something. Nobody ever has a chance to have a wicked part.” There it is: With his swagger, his daring, his sexual brinksmanship, Harry Clarke seduced him, too.