He coulda been a contenduh for DiCaprio's role in 'Titanic,' but Billy Crudup just says no to the drug called superstardom
February 1999
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo Editor Jennifer Crandall

There are actors you meet in four‑star hotels and actors you meet in expense‑account restaurants. Billy Crudup you meet in a diner. For years ‑ since his electrifying 1995 Broadway debut as the tutor in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia ‑ movie people have been telling Crudup he's about to go big places. But for now, the 30‑year‑old actor prefers the downscale eatery in his Greenwich Village, New York, neighborhood where, dressed like a college kid in jeans, black leather jacket and post‑bed hair, he can slip into a booth unnoticed. Make that blissfully unnoticed. Two years ago, Crudup pulled himself out of final contention for the Leonardo DiCaprio part in Titanic to portray Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine in last fall's Without Limits. Why didn't he want to be Jack Dawson? "It wasn't really up my alley," Crudup says. "Because if I'd done it, this right here" ‑ he taps the diner table ‑ "would be impossible. And I like this."

Not that he's opposed to working with A‑list co‑stars and top directors. Crudup made his screen debut in 1996 in Barry Levinson's Sleepers with Robert De Niro, Brad Pitt and Dustin Hoffman. The next year, he sang in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You and then played a disgruntled youth in the ensemble drama Inventing the Abbotts alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Liv Tyler. Robert Towne's Without Limits was Crudup's first starring role in a Hollywood film.

This month, he appears opposite Woody Harrelson and Patricia Arquette in the modern‑day western The Hi‑Lo Country. "He was a delight to work with," recalls the film's director, Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters). Frears, too, sees Crudup as an actor edging, reluctantly, toward fame. "I think he can handle anything, because in the end what he wants to do is act, and as long as he's doing that, he knows he's onto the right thing. But he's also astonishingly beautiful and sexy and all those things that everybody likes."

Indeed, many people would probably pay just to watch Crudup eat his diner meal of a fried‑egg sandwich and a Coke. Simply put, he's extremely handsome, and it seems odd, a bit contrary to human nature even, for him to resist using the power of his looks. What guy wouldn't want to walk a mile in DiCaprio's loafers? "OK, but how do you do that only once or twice?" Crudup asks, laughing. "You tell me how to turn it off, and I'll tell you I'd love to do it for a day"

Since that madness has no on/off switch, Crudup continues to deflect attention and remain a mystery. "I'm trying to make a living by pretending to be different people," he says. 'And if people know too much about me, that makes it really hard to do a job that I already find very difficult. Then there's nothing I can do to convince anybody that I'm, you know, an ex‑con from Queens."

This much information he is willing to impart: Born in suburban Manhasset, N.Y., Crudup, his older brother, Thomas (who, ironically, now makes his living as a Hollywood publicist), and younger brother, Brooks, spent their childhood on the move. Their father had a variety of "business opportunities" (which Crudup won't specify), so he shuffled the family from New York to Florida to Texas. Crudup adapted to each environment via the role of the class clown. "One way you learn how to bond with people is by trying to make 'em laugh," he says. "I'd go to just about any extent to get a smile, get some attention. I'm sure it's one of the reasons I'm an actor."


There were other reasons to try to keep the laughter flowing. Crudup's parents divorced when he was 6, remarried each other, then divorced again when he was 12. Six years later, in 1986, Crudup enrolled at the University of North Carolina, intending to major in business. "I did speech communications," he says, "which was basically a way for me to act that left my dad and granddad not asking too many questions." By graduation, he had decided on acting. He sat down and considered the practicalities like an ex‑business major. I wanted to be smart about it," he says. "Is this a feasible option? How many people who decide to act can actually make a living?" To improve his odds, he went straight to New York University's graduate theater program, and soon after getting his master's degree, he landed the role in Arcadia.

That triumph led to another Broadway role a year later, in the revival of Bus Stop, which in turn led to love. Crudup and Bus Stop co‑star Mary‑Louise Parker (Fried Green Tomatoes) are still going strong. But start to ask about the relationship and Crudup will only smile. "Leave that chapter out," he says. "My grandfather used to say that to me all the time. I'd ask how he was doing, and he'd say, 'What are you, writing a book?' You get to be a smartass, you'd go, 'Yeah, I'm writing a book.' He'd say, 'Well, leave that chapter out."

You can leave out the chapter about Crudup's looks, too. He hates discussing the subject. "People talking about your features and stuff ‑ it's excruciating, man," he says. "Then they think, 'Oh, he's only acting because he looks a certain way, not because he worked for it.' It's one thing if you're dressed up and somebody says, 'Hey, man, you look really nice.' But if some casting director spends 20 minutes telling you how excellent you look in a T‑shirt and what great roles there'd be for guys who look like you do in T‑shirts, it's debilitating."

Yet the question remains: What star‑turning role is there for a guy who looks like Crudup does in a T‑shirt? "I think he's gonna be a major star ‑ if he wants to be," says director Towne, who has worked with Mel Gibson, Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. "There's no actor I've ever worked with who gave more or who I admire more. I think he's going to have the same heat that DiCaprio has on him."

That's a fine prediction, but it's hardly Crudup's goal. TO him, happiness is a series of fried‑egg sandwiches stretching out toward the horizon. Says Crudup: "I'm not looking for my life to change in anyway."