Claire Danes, Naomi Watts... Billy Crudup could set some records straight. But he’d rather not

The Morning Show and, now, Hello Tomorrow star has always resisted selling himself, skipping the talkshow circuit and keeping his personal life private

Billy Crudup has memorable roles in two Apple TV+ series: The Morning Show and a new one, Hello Tomorrow! Photograph: Philip Cheung/The New York Times

Billy Crudup’s father, Thomas Henry Crudup III, was a gambler, a hustler, an occasional loan shark and a bookie of questionable gift. Sometimes on the way to his son’s weekend soccer practice, he would stop the car on an interstate hard shoulder and sell king crab out of its boot. He sold red-and-white-striped umbrella hats, coffee additives, Farrah Fawcett posters and an inflatable ice chest. “Which is not a flotation device,” the younger Crudup clarifies in a video call on a weekday afternoon.

Despite two and a half decades in entertainment, this Crudup has lived a somewhat more conventional life governed by rigorous professional ethics. The risks he takes are mostly artistic. To watch his early films – Stage Beauty, Without Limits, and Almost Famous among them – is to see a performer making audacious choices, executed with deep feeling and meticulous control.

He’s an indifferent gambler. (The Simpsons actor Hank Azaria, a poker buddy, confirms this: Crudup, a performer who often trades in inscrutability, apparently has no poker face.) Then again, his whole career has been a kind of gamble, a long game. Though he has movie-star looks, he bet that they wouldn’t last, and so the parts he took, often character parts, were meant to secure longevity by demonstrating his aptitude and range.

In one way he lost that bet. As I break it to him, his looks have held up very well. “I appreciate that,” he says, strong-jawed and elfin beneath a New York Yankees cap. “A lot of niacin and B-root.” Niacin and B-root? “Those are the first two things that came into my head,” he says.


But in another way it paid off: at 54 years old, he is enjoying the best roles of his life. Since 2019, he has played Cory Ellison, a bright-eyed, coldblooded news executive in the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show. Now he has added Jack Billings, a fast-talking slickster who heads a lunar timeshare concern in Hello Tomorrow!, another Apple TV+ show, which debuts on Friday.

Billy Crudup, Nicholas Podany and Haneefah Wood
Billy Crudup, Nicholas Podany and Haneefah Wood in Hello Tomorrow! Photograph: Apple TV+

An evangelist, a huckster, a consummate salesman, Jack reminds Crudup of his father, who died in 2005. Travelling salesmen are akin to gamblers, Crudup argues, always playing the odds, always counting on the big win.

“I get to be in some proximity to my dad, by playing a version of him,” Crudup says.

There are two narratives that people like me tend to spin around Crudup: that fame has always eluded him and that he never wanted it anyway. He acknowledges that both are somewhat true. He didn’t avoid mainstream projects (see: Watchmen), as long as he could play flawed and fractured characters within them.

But while acting is a kind of selling, Crudup has always resisted selling himself. For years, he wore his own clothes to award shows. He mostly skipped the talkshow circuit. He has tried to keep his personal life private. (“Billy Crudup has a personal life?” his friend and Morning Show co-star Jennifer Aniston jokes.) A decade or two ago he would have submitted to an interview like this, if he submitted at all, only out of contractual obligation and under sufferance. A New York Times writer, interviewing him in 2004, wrote: “He shields his life from would-be inspectors as if it were a nuclear facility in North Korea.”

This avoidance was partly in service of that gamble. He wagered that a public persona would make receding into roles more difficult. “I figured the more people knew about me, the harder it would be for me to convince them that I was somebody else,” he says. Avoiding publicity was, he says, “a protective mechanism”.

It was also a way to protect himself when the tabloids swarmed. In 2003 Crudup left his girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker, to pursue a relationship with his Stage Beauty co-star, Claire Danes. He has not spoken publicly about this, just as he doesn’t speak about what seems to be his current relationship, with the actor Naomi Watts. He could set a few records and Wikipedia pages straight, he says. But he prefers not to.

“Because that’s a lifelong pursuit – constantly trying to manage how people think about me as opposed to thinking about my work,” he says.

The work has been consistent, but in the 2010s it became less visible. In films like Jackie, 20th Century Woman and Spotlight, he inhabited characters so fully that he didn’t seem to be acting at all. It was easy to admire his performances without thinking much about them. That changed with Harry Clarke, a 2017 off-Broadway play about a pansexual con-artist. The play has a dozen roles. Crudup played all of them.

Leigh Silverman, who directed the play, was surprised at how much Crudup struggled during rehearsals. In his films, he had made it look so easy. “I was so captivated, really, by his suffering, and his continuing to show up every day,” Silverman says. But during previews Crudup began to suffer less, abandoning himself to the various roles, switching fluently between them.

To anyone watching him alone onstage, his reach and capacity were irrefutable, as was his charisma. “He’s both holding you at a distance and beckoning you forward, which is so sexy,” Silverman says.

Billy Crudup and Jennifer Aniston
Billy Crudup and Jennifer Aniston in The Morning Show. Photograph: Apple TV+

One of those watchers was Aniston, who immediately turned to her producing partner, Kristin Hahn, and told her that Crudup had to be in The Morning Show. The show’s character Cory had been originally envisioned as a 30-year-old villain. But when Crudup flew out to Los Angeles to meet Kerry Ehrin, the original showrunner, she was quickly convinced. “Billy has an intensity to him, an energy to him, that felt really right for the character,” Ehrin says.

Cory is staunch in his determination to win the ratings game. But there’s a volatility to the man, an unpredictability. The Morning Show, like Harry Clarke before it, allows Crudup to live in the contradictions that have made him a thrilling performer: his boldness and precision, his childlike enthusiasm married to a coolness that borders on opacity. Crudup enjoys these tensions. His co-stars do, too.

“It’s electric,” Aniston says of acting opposite him. “Every time, I’m going, Oh, I wonder what’s going to happen next?”

This electricity impressed Amit Bhalla and Lucas Jansen, creators and showrunners of Hello Tomorrow! Set in a retrofuturist world in which hovercrafts are a given and travel to the moon commonplace, the show centres on a group of salesmen hawking lunar properties in a development called Brightside. They’re led by Crudup’s Jack, who attacks the project with missionary zeal. Other actors had shown interest in the role. They’d seen Jack as a smoothie, a charmer. Jansen recalls Crudup’s take: “He said, ‘Oh, this guy isn’t a salesman; he’s a priest.’”

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The truth about those lunar properties remains elusive through much of the season. What’s important is that Jack believes in them, and his belief is so unswerving and sincere that it has a way of inspiring those around him. “Jack’s a genuine believer that providing somebody with a little bit of hope during the day is a true commodity worth valuing,” Crudup says.

Here are some of the things that make Jack a good salesman: his energy, his flexibility, his superlative people skills. These are qualities Crudup’s father shared. They are also among the abilities that make Crudup a great actor. Like an actor, Jack is selling people on a story. He believes in the dream so that others can believe it, too.

Billy Crudup has generally sought to avoid publicity. Photograph: Philip Cheung/The New York Times

“Good salesmanship is truly believing what you’re saying,” Crudup says. And Crudup has that belief. It’s why he can deliver a line like “Chaos, it’s the new cocaine” in The Morning Show with absolute conviction. It’s why his Jack can conjure intimacy even when surrounded by computer-generated automatons.

“Sometimes giving folks a new dream to dream can make all the difference,” Jack says. And in Crudup’s mouth it sounds just about plausible.

Crudup has come pretty far. His career has been the opposite of a Ponzi scheme: He put the work in early on, and he kept working. It’s only now, in these rich continuous roles, that he is seeing the return on his investment. And knowing he has made good has allowed him to hold himself a little more lightly. He’ll wear anyone’s shirt to an awards show now, he tells me.

“I feel less protective because I’ve been able to establish the career that I hoped to,” he says. Raking in the chips feels good. Maybe not as good as cornering the highway king-crab market, but pretty good all the same. “It is miraculous to me,” he says. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times