Photograph by MARY ELLEN MARK

As the dashing lead in Without Limits, actor Billy Crudup gets ready to hit the fast track.


So smitten, in fact, that two films have been made about the legendary long-distance runner in the last two years. The first tanked, and now Billy Crudup finds himself in the nerve-racking position of starring in the second.

At the moment, it appears to have taken away his appetite. Sliding into a booth at a Greenwich Village coffee shop just blocks from his apartment, Crudup orders a breakfast wholly unworthy of champions. "I'll have orange juice to start," he says, "and then I'd like skim milk, a banana and box of Product 19."

He may not eat much, but Crudup still has plenty on his plate. Zig-zagging between stage and screen, he's juggling the completion of two films with publicity on a third, all the while preparing for a major stage role and attempting to sneak off to Florida to visit his grandparents. After five years of excellent reviews and very little hot-young-actor hysteria, Crudup, now 30, is at a crossroads. If his next film role, as the lead in Without Limits, doesn't put him within striking distance of real fame, several other projects in the pipeline surely will.

But first things first. Since Crudup's not a huge fan of discussing roles mid-process, he's far more inclined to chat about the topic at hand, namely his splashy, star-making spin as Prefontaine-"Pre" as he was known to his rabid fans. Although the Robert Towne-directed, Tom Cruise/Paula Wagner-produced film wrapped well over a year ago, one senses Crudup is still trying to understand the grip the handsome sports idol, who died in a 1975 car accident at the age of 24, had on the public psyche.

"I've always been attracted to athletes who had a lot more humility than Pre," he says. "But I think what people were responding to was his arrogance, that he would say, 'I'm gonna beat this guy, and I'm gonna beat him by five seconds.'"

Despite the fact that he's in virtually every scene (including a nearly obscene tryst with a limber gymnast), Crudup says he wasn't especially conscious of the fact that the weight of the film rested on his shoulders. "Maybe I should have been, but I just wasn't," he says. "I couldn't really think about that. I just had to focus on what we had to do each day."

Although Crudup hasn't seen the first go-round of the Prefontaine story, he says he fully intends to if he gets his hands on a copy. Dubbed Pre, and starring Jared Leto (best known as the catatonic cutie Jordan Catalano in TVs "My So-Called Life"), it crashed and burned almost immediately upon its spring 1997 release. Not surprisingly, the release date of Without Limits, originally scheduled for this past May, was pushed back. Of course, Crudup's anxious that his version of the story doesn't suffer a similar fate. "Hopefully it will do well," he says. "But there is definitely a glut of films out there."

Including a few of his own. In fact, another film, Monument Avenue, will arrive in theaters at roughly the same time. The tale, centered on violent Irish gangsters in Boston, stars Denis Leary and Jeanne Tripplehom in addition to Crudup.

Also in the can for Crudup is the recently completed HiLo County, directed by Stephen Frears. Based on a novel by Max Evans, the post-World War II drama teams Crudup with Woody Harrelson and Patricia Arquette. Currently, he's filming Waking the Dead, in which he plays a Kennedy-esque Congressional candidate haunted by visions of a deceased former girlfriend.

"I saw it described somewhere as 'Walking the Dead--a romantic comedy,' "Crudup says, laughing. "And all I could picture was me walking hand-in-hand with a ghost."

Clearly, Crudup's movie career has kicked into high gear. Still, his first love and the source of much critical acclaim-the stage-is beckoning. This fall, he'll hit the boards again in the title role of Oedipus, opposite Frances McDormand.

Crudup, who won an Outer Critics award in 1995 with his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, says he loves the immediacy of the stage, as well as the instant feedback and intense connection with the audience.
The movie equivalent-attending his own premieres-is one of his least favorite pastimes.
"Have you ever listened to yourself on an answering machine? Magnify that by about a million times," he says of the premiere experience. "And you're looking at yourself, too. Imagine if we were being videotaped right this minute."

But what's even more vexing to a veteran stage actor hellbent on perfection is the knowledge that with a movie, because of the editing process there is no way of shaping the final outcome.

"You don't have ultimate control over your performance," he says. "There may have been a scene, or the way you said a line, that you thought was paramount and it just vanishes. Gone. No one will ever see it. "But you have to keep reminding yourself that it's a job," Crudup adds. "And you are getting paid for it."