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"Your job as an actor is to be a raw nerve": Billy Crudup on his roles in 2 of 2016's best films

The actor talks about his roles in Jackie and 20th Century Women, and what artists do in times of upheaval.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Hosts an Official Academy Screening of 20TH CENTURY WOMEN Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Billy Crudup has supporting roles in two acclaimed 2016 films. In Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, Crudup plays a journalist modeled on Theodore White, who’s working on a magazine feature about the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (played by Natalie Portman). In Mike Mills’s 1979-set 20th Century Women (led by a stellar Annette Bening), he’s a burned-out hippie who finds himself unsure of how to connect with women, or anyone.

Both roles showcase Crudup’s strengths as a character actor, skills he’s honed on screen and stage since bursting into most people’s awareness in 2000 when he played guitarist Russell Hammond in Almost Famous. And both films, though stylistically very different, tell stories firmly rooted in memorable, politically charged times.

I recently spoke to Crudup by phone about playing characters in period films and the politics of art in an uncertain age.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

You often choose to play period characters, which you’re doing again in both 20th Century Women and Jackie. What’s challenging about playing characters who are so firmly located in the past?

Billy Crudup

I’ve got to tell you — I think it's the period characters that choose me. I'm not an actor who creates my own material. I tend to wait on directors to come to me. For whatever reason, I get a lot of opportunities to do pieces in the '60s and '70s. Frankly, if you're an actor and you're working, that's it. You can't complain. I am thrilled to get work in whatever decade I'm given.

These are incredibly ambitious movies, artistically. The acting that both Mike [Mills] and Pablo [Larraín] are interested in is deeply nuanced. It’s about the nature of interpersonal exchanges and relationships and growth. Most actors revel in opportunities ... to play these kinds of character parts. I count myself among them. ... In terms of creative fulfillment, these are exactly the kinds of people that you want to be around and working with.

If the thing is written well, hopefully it's accessible to everyone. The time is a backdrop for whatever part of the human experience you're exploring. That being said, it is worth understanding the sociopolitical movements that were underway in both films. They play a large part.

In Jackie, for instance, we have to remember that [Jacqueline Kennedy] was the third-youngest first lady at the time. She was mostly notable, to the intelligentsia, as someone who kind of did a reality television show on the White House. People experienced this as kind of gaudy at the time, I think.

Then this reporter is summoned to her — Theodore White. Pablo was much more interested in the confrontational relationship [between them] than he was in someone that was just there to do her bidding. To his mind, at that moment she hadn't yet become the Jackie Kennedy that we know today. She hadn't curated the legacy of JFK and become the formidable archetype. So he was asking me to play a journalist who had spent 25 years trying to build up his reputation, and that would be undermined if I became a puppet.

Crudup playing a journalist in Jackie.
Crudup playing a journalist in Jackie.

Pablo said, "Despite the emotional and psychological trauma that the nation and [Jackie] had recently undergone, I need you, for the narrative experience, to make sure that she's not going to undermine your role as a journalist."

That was a really interesting, difficult thing to play. It was incumbent upon me to understand the landscape that people were managing at that period of time. It was a bit of a challenge, because I thought, "Man, there's no American watching this movie who is going to understand a journalist coming in there and being antagonistic [toward Jackie]." The woman just lost her husband in front of the world in the most devastating way!

I had a similar experience with Mike [and 20th Century Women], where we were interested in exploring what the role of the American man was toward the end of the '70s. Men didn't have fathers who had modeled what was now being expected of them. Sexual politics, and the role that women were playing in America, was changing graphically. I think that's one thing that Mike was interested in exploring: how those are juxtaposed, how the coming of age of [my] character is kind of in sync with the coming of age of a lot of Americans and their new identities.

Bening and Crudup in 20th Century Women
Bening and Crudup in 20th Century Women.

I had to rethink what ... the experience of a child of the '60s would have been like in the '70s, when the hope he had for this peaceful, pacifist, free love thing had been dashed. He was in the middle of his life, not knowing how to go forward, as an American man. It takes [Bening’s character] Dorothea to help him understand what his role could be in the context of relating to women, and starting a family himself.

Alissa Wilkinson

In a sense, your characters in both films are similar — they're both trying to navigate some kind of change in the world.

Billy Crudup

Their identities are directly related to the landscape of American politics. Those are the very interesting things to be exploring right now.

Alissa Wilkinson

I want to ask you a question about the landscape of American politics, since Jackie and 20th Century Women are both political, social movies. Many artists are struggling right now with the role their work plays in a culture that feels so combative. Why does art even matter in a time of division? Are you thinking about that these days? Do you have any thoughts on what that role is?

Billy Crudup

Of course. One of your jobs as an actor and a performer is to be a raw nerve. ... I don't blame people for wanting to run for the hills. It's really provocative for everyone, whether they find it exhilarating or terrifying.

I think history speaks to one very clear reality in times of tumult, of political upheaval, of drastic change. Art — substantial, lasting art — is created in spades. You can guarantee that there are plays and books and films and albums being cut right now that are going to be with us for decades. This is the kind of environment where artists get a real opportunity to in fact have a voice, and be on the forefront of uncovering and discussing what it is to be an American right now.

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