By Brendan Lemon
Billy Crudup and I are sitting around talking, and it's the point in the conversation where we've started swapping favorite lines from films.
'Do you remember the moment in Tootsie,' he says, 'when they're doing a kind of screen test on Dustin Hoffman's not-very-pretty female character? The director asks that the camera pull back, and someone says, 'How far?' and the cameraman growls, 'How about Cleveland?''
Crudup and I are in New York City at a sidewalk caf', and had a cameraman been trained on him, he would have been much kinder, zooming to medium close-up: The 36-year-old actor's dark-haired handsomeness, always apparent but never overpowering his thoughtful comments, would require it.
As a woman, however'which Crudup plays at times in his new movie, Stage Beauty, set in 1660s London'the lens might want to retreat only as far as, oh, Pittsburgh. In the picture he is pretty but never quite a threat looks-wise to his costar, played by Claire Danes.
Crudup must have intuited my thoughts. He admits, 'I was disappointed that I wasn't hotter. I felt that potentially I could be a very hot woman. And I was not attracted to me. My ass is kind of flat.'
It may be that Crudup's screen female is encrusted with too many layers'of Kabuki-white makeup and emotional defense'to possess comeliness with much oomph. Throughout our conversation I wonder whether Crudup's allure might increase if his costume had been more Carrie Bradshaw than the character he in fact plays in Stage Beauty, Ned Kynaston.
And who was Kynaston?
He was an actual actor in 17th-century London, just after the restoration of King Charles II. Kynaston specialized in female roles, especially Shakespeare's: When the movie opens, the camera prowls around a smokily lit stage where Kynaston interprets Desdemona, about to be smothered by Othello. Kynaston had a gift for devouring audience focus: The social chronicler Samuel Pepys (a character here, whose diaries spurred Jeffrey Hatcher to construct a play and then a film script based on such information) wrote that Kynaston was the most beautiful woman in London.
Kynaston's beauty attracts the attention of the Duke of Buckingham, with whom he has an affair; and two gentlewomen, who kidnap him for a carriage ride and are granted a peek at his 'thingy.' When the king bars men from playing women's parts, Kynaston is made obsolete. He is jilted by the duke and must watch as his biggest fan and former dresser, Maria (Danes's assignment), wins acclaim and, eventually, perhaps a piece of Kynaston's heart.
Even though Stage Beauty takes place around 70 years
after the time frame of Shakespeare in Love, some people see
parallels. Both movies involve gender-bending; both involve an artist being brought low; both end with actors jumping into Bardic roles unexpectedly. Crudup sees the similarities, mentioning in passing that he auditioned for the earlier movie, but insists that they are fundamentally different: 'We're a drama with levity; they were a comedy.'
Only a technically accomplished, highly disciplined actor could have a prayer of succeeding as well as Crudup does in Stage Beauty. And he has had a first-rate rep ever since, fresh out of graduate school at New York University, he Kynaston'd a 1994 New York stage production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. He played a 19th-century English tutor, a Byronic figure of sorts.
Sir Richard Eyre, who coproduced that staging and directed Stage Beauty, recalls that performance. 'At first I thought Billy was British,' he tells me. 'He has an extraordinarily good ear.' Eyre ticks off the reasons why casting Kynaston was such a challenge and why Crudup was so right: 'The actor needed to be young, beautiful, experienced in Shakespeare, and a plausible woman.' Eyre adds that the demands of the role were so great that he thought that only three actors could play it: Crudup, Jude Law, or Robert Downey Jr. 'And Robert Downey lacked Shakespeare experience,' Eyre remarks, 'so, in a way, there were only two.'
Eyre confesses that when he mentioned Crudup's name in London some people couldn't quite place him. 'But when I mentioned movies like Jesus' Son and Almost Famous''in the former Crudup played a heroin addict, in the latter a rock-star god''then everyone knew immediately who he was. Billy's Kynaston is so flamboyant that I suspect many more people will know his name soon.'
For more about Billy Crudup, pick up the October issue of Out.