Billy Crudup talks ‘20th Century Women,’ playing the strong, silent type

In his latest film, Crudup plays a handyman surrounded by strong, California women.

If you want dependable, quality work in your movie or TV show, no matter the subject or the setting or the genre, Billy Crudup offers one of the surest bets in the business.

And he’s done so for years and years, in everything from “Almost Famous” to “Watchmen.”

amNewYork spoke with the prolific actor, 48, about “20th Century Women,” his latest movie, in which he plays a handyman surrounded by strong California women (played by Annette Bening and others) in the epochal year of 1979.

“20th Century Women” and “Jackie,” in which Crudup plays the famed journalist Theodore H. White, are in theaters now.

Your character in “20th Century Women” spends a lot of time silently reacting to things. What was the key to making sense of him?

That was a major question for me when I read it. And it’s a question that nearly every actor uses as a starting point for trying to understand what role the character plays in the overall storytelling. … So when you’re playing a character that exists as a reactive character, it can be difficult to define what that motivation is. I think what [writer-director] Mike [Mills] said to me that was so powerful is that there was a sense of male identity, there were men who were struggling to understand what the model of success for an American man was meant to be now, what the model for strength in an American man was meant to be in the midst of the discussion of sexual politics, the empowerment of women, the understanding of what kind of subjugation has been routinely taken for granted. … Looking for a way to understand yourself is a totally different thing than being lost.

To what extent is that job made easier opposite an actor like Annette Bening?

It makes you better times, say, 17. You are so much better when you collaborate with people artistically who have the kind of skill and authority and intellect that someone like Annette has. One of the currencies on film that actors use is something I would describe as immediacy. That is, you as a viewer are watching the acting and it appears as though things are happening for the first time. … One of the ways you do that as an actor is you make yourself available to what the other actors are doing. So if you’re with somebody who wants to share that experience, you have a much better opportunity to make that stuff happen.

How do you see yourself — as a character actor, a leading man, or both?

Since I was a kid, I was a class clown. Moved around a lot. I was about two feet tall. And I always, when I started acting, identified with character actors. It wasn’t really until I got the first movie that I saw myself as a leading man, and it was only through the eyes of others. I never felt like that. I was always interested in the character parts.

What’s the key quality in determining whether a role is worth taking for you?

Getting the opportunity to play characters as diverse as Eric MacLeish in “Spotlight” and William in “20th Century Women,” it’s not at all an impediment to me if the characters appear for half a second in the movie, or whatever they do, as long as the time I’m working on it, I feel creatively engaged. What it really takes for me is somebody, a person, whose experience is outside of my own, to get me really excited. Getting older, I’m getting more opportunities to do that.

Both “20th Century Women” and “Jackie” depict periods in which the U.S. experienced significant turmoil. We seem to be, currently, in another one. What sort of responsibility do actors and artists have during these periods?

It just occurred to me that I’m going to get a lot of work in about 30 years (laughs). It’s crucial to be conscious at these moments, obviously as a citizen, as an American. As a person who has experienced a tremendous amount of privilege in their life, there’s a moral imperative to be a wide-eyed citizen right now. But also, for actors and creative people and artists who are living in this time, you’re like a raw nerve. I think most people are provoked, whether it’s by enthusiasm, or excitement, or nervousness, or terror right now — such emotional extremes that many people shut down. … You have to steel yourself, calm down and be as present as you can be, because these are rare opportunities to be expressive in a lasting way.

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