Dozens of recent publications have touted actor Billy Crudup as the "Next Big Thing." The cover of Esquire declared, "He's about to be a big star. Whether he likes it or not." For a man on the edge of fame, it's odd that the performer is known for little-seen films such as "Without Limits," "Waking the Dead" and "The Hi-Lo Country."
"Every time I do a movie, I think it's going to be a huge hit," Crudup says during a roundtable interview in Los Angeles. "I don't do stuff that I think, 'Ho! Ho! This is going to be awesome; nobody will see it.'" When reporters rattle off a list of his commercial underachievers, he interjects, "And the list goes on. One million dollars! Wow, that's huge!
"There's so much product out there. (The studios) have to go where they think they can make money immediately because something else will be coming up very soon." Crudup's taste is starting to mesh with the public's. His latest movie, "Almost Famous," moved up from No. 8 to No. 3 at the box office last week, even though it has only played in limited release (it opens nationwide this Friday). Writer-director Cameron Crowe's own experiences as a teen-age rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine inspires the post-hippy, pre-punk comedy. Crudup describes his contribution to the movie by saying, "I play the lead guitarist in a band in the '70s who is trying to grapple with fame."
To be convincing, Crudup took guitar lessons from '70s legend Peter Frampton (who also plays a grizzled road manager in the film) and attended a six-week "Rock School" at Crowe's insistence. "It's a world that Cameron knows very well," explains Crudup.
As Russell Hammond, axe man for the fictitious group Stillwater, Crudup plays what the other characters refer to as "the guitarist with mystique." In other words, it's a perfect Crudup role. "Maybe it's a way of justifying my own complexities to myself," he says. "The things I am drawn to tend to be people who are not easy to pigeonhole. I've never done it with any consciousness. It just appears to be a recurring theme. I must accept some responsibility for it, although I'm only secondary in the process. Other people want (that quality) as well."
The enigmatic nature of his roles and his "team player" attitude may be part of the reason why he is not yet a household name. When questioned about "Almost Famous," the first thing he mentions is another actor's work. "The lead (actor) is a young kid named Patrick Fugit, who is awesome. He plays this kid who goes on tour with Stillwater," he says.
Crudup's role in "Jesus' Son," which debuted on video last week, features the actor inhabiting an even more bizarre role, that of a dim-witted but compassionate drug addict. "He's somebody who struggles with his relation to life," Crudup explains. "He sees the beauty and the poetry of life, but he's constantly screwing things up. I think we can relate to somebody who is trying to do good in their life and keeps screwing up and doesn't know why."
Will such a quirky role help his career? "I think ("Jesus' Son") has great popular appeal, but then again I don't know if I trust my judgment," he says laughing. "I should probably say this will be a 'very limited, exclusive audience.'
"To be honest, I'm not too interested in that discussion," he admits. "I'd be much more interested to discuss the film. My movies haven't made very much money, but it's given me the opportunities to work on stuff that I enjoy. I'm not exactly sure what the steps are that led me to a hotel room in Los Angeles, and it would probably not make for a good two-hour movie."