NEW YORK - More gamin than advertised, Billy Crudup no sooner pops up - unassuming and unrecognized in his leather jacket and boot camp haircut - from the Eighth Avenue subway than he veers into the catacombs beneath the Royale Theater. There, polite as a Shubert Alley tour guide, he picks the safest path past a gantlet of Dumpsters.
This may not be the only way for a Broadway star to access his dressing room, but it is Crudup's way.
Artifice does not become this button-eyed actor. That's why, when he took on the role of John Merrick, the monstrously disfigured Englishman whose 19th-century travails are re-created in The Elephant Man, he opted to forgo prosthetic enhancement, consult his inner pain and simulate Merrick's agonies the natural way.
The process unfolded without him consulting a mirror to check the end result - he is not keen on mirrors and vanity. Though no doubt the squeamish look on the faces of his cast mates told him he'd nailed the part despite, halfway into the six-week rehearsal span, being instructed by the director Sean Mathias to start from scratch, a prospect Crudup said he found exciting.
The experimentation continued practically until opening night; when he first glimpsed himself as Merrick in the show's publicity photographs, "It was pretty terrifying."
With a grotesque contortion that requires a stubborn will and stronger muscles, he transforms his face into a skewed mask; his speech is necessarily slurred; his limbs, with the exception of one arm that gesticulates with the grace of a butterfly's wing, are gnarled and brittle, like a sick tree's.
It almost hurts to look at him, but Crudup makes the audience look.
"It really is impossible to imagine anybody actually being right to play that role," says Crudup, who tends to subvert his reputation as a film industry pretty boy (Sleepers, Everyone Says I Love You, Inventing the Abbotts, Without Limits, Almost Famous, World Traveler) by gravitating toward flawed, de-glamourized characters.
By using big, erudite words no airhead - he earned his MFA at New York University after getting a degree in communications from dad and granddad's alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - would bother tackling.
Being articulate is important to Crudup. He won accolades, including a 1995 Outer Critics Circle Award, for his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, yet what he remembers most about his role as an 18th-century tutor is that the character was smarter than he. "I felt my self-esteem lower nightly."
"I do not pretend to understand in any way whatsoever the type of pain and humiliation this guy suffered," he says of John Merrick, "but if you sort of extrapolate the notion of being objectified for your looks, then I do know something about this."
Not losing sleep
Sounds like a theme worth revisiting once we get beyond the basement Dumpsters. Up the stairs we go, circumventing a bouquet intended for his co-star, Kate Burton, and arriving at a closed door that bears a terse yellow sign meant to discourage interlopers. "Don't bother me, I'm sleeping," it says. No bluff. Crudup's petite dressing room is dominated by a sleigh-style daybed he ordered from a catalog: this matinee idol sacks out between matinees.
And don't dare make jokes about a beauty sleep. "I think the themes of the play resonate for me in a very special way," he says, getting back to objectification - his and Merrick's. "Like him, on first impression I've been valued, or devalued, for the way I look. Not everyone thinks good-looking people are smart, that high cheekbones mean sensitivity, that dark hair means depth. Some people loathe these characteristics. Some people admire people for the way they look. How horrible to be admired because of the way you look! How ludicrous is that?" Point taken.
To prevent him from stressing out before curtain time, friends and fans have sent toys and relaxation devices. There's a collapsible golf putter (he got his start by sneaking onto the fairway behind his grandfather's house after hours), a soothing plug-in waterfall, a dozen candles of the aroma therapy variety. "People seem to be a little worried about me," he says. Because this role, and his investment in it, is intense enough to send him around the bend?
"You become egocentric on your character's behalf," he explains, grabbing a bottled water (the bottled Bass is for later). "Each moment, each scene, each line is dissected in the most detailed fashion it can be so that when you're finally playing it, you can let go and not think of any of it. I would imagine anyone who embarks on psychotherapy, the ideal would be at some point not to think of it at all, so there's my guidebook to the correlation between psychotherapy and acting. Both are for crazy people."
Finding his calling
Not that Crudup, who spent his early years in Port Washington, N.Y., then reveled at being the only Episcopalian and the class clown at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is unhinged, not counting an addiction to The Simpsons.
It didn't occur to him, until he came to NYU, that he could earn a living acting; he thought movie stars were "on another planet."
These days, when he's not being a star, he plays golf, guitar, and keeps a low profile in Greenwich Village with the actress Mary-Louise Parker; they met performing Bus Stop on Broadway several years ago. Crudup says her mind is nimbler than his, and that they talk endlessly about their craft. "Sometimes we even bore ourselves."