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Tonys 2011: Nominee Billy Crudup gets all heady on us (in a good way) about 'Arcadia,' relativity, and the ghosts of parts past

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Arcadia2 Crudup
Carol Rosegg

Four-time Tony nominee Billy Crudup has racked up more awards nods — and more roles in Tom Stoppard plays — than any of his four fellow Best Featured Actor in a Play nominees. He won his first Tony for Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia: Voyage and Shipwreck in 2007. And is now nominated for playing the eccentric present day Byron scholar Bernard in Stoppard’s century-hopping, academia-skewing Arcadia — the same play in which he made his Broadway debut as young 19th century tutor Septimus Hodge 16 years ago. But don’t call him a Stoppard expert — he doesn’t feel like one. He feels about ready to do a comedy. With only three weeks left in Arcadia’s run, Crudup recently called EW for an edifying pre-Tony chat up of the play. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s it like to return to a play you’ve done before?

BILLY CRUDUP: When they originally asked me about this, I had nothing but warm, fuzzy, romantic feelings about the entire experience. I was shortly out of graduate school and working with Trevor Nunn, Victor Garber, Robert Sean Leonard, and Tom Stoppard at Lincoln Center. They were heroic figures to me. And Septimus is the conduit for the audience to a very complicated play. They align themselves with him. So, if you are lucky enough to sit in that seat and don’t screw it up too badly, people really have a great deal of affection for you.

And 16 years later in a different role?

Once you’re up and doing it, the passage of time becomes immediate. The 16 years that have transpired since feel like they’re gone in a flash. You end up with a thrill. It’s provocative, because you also remember all the hopes and aspirations that you had 16 years ago, that you now had an opportunity to either fulfill or forget. And you’re constantly reminded of the ghost of your former self through the loud speaker every night. It ends up being a fascinating experience that I wasn’t totally prepared for. And, you know, matching that with the complexity of playing Bernard is a tough nut to crack.

He’s not your typical tweedy academic. He wears a smart suit and wants to be a celebrity, basically.

One of the things that you have to fulfill in playing Bernard is meeting the description that everybody else has of him. He’s one of the most talked about characters in the play. They’re constantly commenting on what type of person he is and what sort of behavior he’s exhibiting. So you have to try to find a way to meet those pretty eccentric expectations and match that with the kind of s— that he says. I really don’t know a person quite like him.

You seem so full of joy up there playing him.  

Despite all of his flamboyance, I interpret Bernard as someone who has a genuine appetite for knowledge. He actually does understand what’s brilliant about somebody like Byron. You know, we’re taught that writers are great, but really understanding why they’re great actually eludes most people in the same way that understanding the mathematics behind relativity is going to elude almost everybody. I think Bernard actually does get what’s important about Byron and I think he longs for that vitality in himself and he doesn’t have it. So the best he can do is be sort of a sycophant and I think he relishes that role. And certainly, by the end of the play he’s gotten everything wrong, but he’s going to brush this off, put on a new jacket and dive right back in. One of the hard parts about doing a play is the cumulative effect of a lot of emotional turmoil. But to play someone like Bernard, there’s not a cumulative effect in that way because there’s no great cost to him. He really is going to pick himself up and be the stronger for it and that’s kind of fun to do.

This is your fourth Tony nomination, for a pretty heavy part. Do you ever want to do a slapstick comedy?

I would say this is definitely my version of that. I would absolutely love to, but the truth is, you typically get cast based on the first couple of things that you do as an actor — and most of the things that I did early on were dramas, melodramas, intellectual dramas…

And Stoppard. Do you feel like you’ve taken on a role of interpreting him for the masses?

Boy, that would be great if I did. His language is so complicated, you have to be so vigorous in trying to understand it, much less interpret it. I always feel as though I’m catching up, so the idea that I might somehow feel a sense of authority at interpreting his plays seems very foreign to me. The parts are pretty extraordinary — they’re the most impressive things to people and I’m happy to ride on their coattails.

Your role in Almost Famous gives you more of a leg up with a younger audience than most Broadway stalwarts. Do you feel any extra pressure to get them to come to the theater?

I would kill if they came to the theater. I’ll do anything to get them into the theater, frankly. You know we had trouble getting them to see Almost Famous. It’s become a much bigger hit after the fact. I’ve had so little luck with that that I feel almost no pressure at all. I haven’t been in too many things that have been, you know, extraordinary box office successes. I leave that pressure to my more successful peers.