Billy Crudup plays enigmatic television executive Cory Ellison on “The Morning Show,” the Apple TV+ drama starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. The actor has already won a Critics’ Choice Award and nominated for a SAG Award for his performance.
Crudup recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about what struck him about Cory, his reaction to getting awards attention and what might come next for Season 2 of “The Morning Show.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: The character has a pretty good poker face, so as a viewer, you’re not always sure where he stands in any given situation, or with any other given character. What did you think about Cory when you first read him in the script?
Billy Crudup: Well, you just named some of the key features that were appealing to me. When you read a television pilot, you don’t have any idea, really, where it’s going to go over the course of 10 episodes and the mystery that was attached with what were Cory’s motivations, I found really exciting particularly in such a heightened environment. For somebody who has the capacity to manage a situation like that with the level of calm and powerful disease for everybody else, seemed like something that would be really enjoyable to be a part of, in terms of the character. The story itself was something that I was already deeply attached to and felt like everything that Kerry Ehrin and Mimi Leder and Reese and Jen were trying to do was the kind of ambitious content that I could only keep my fingers crossed that I would be a part of at some point in my career.
GD: Even reading the pilot, did you have an inkling about where that story arc was gonna go for him in the first 10 episodes? At what point did you find out about things? Was it as you read each script as they came in?
BC: Well, when you read a part like that initially, your instinct is to reach out to whoever wrote it and go, “Can you please tell me what the hell is going on with this guy?” Because I want to chart some sort of trajectory for him that gives the character an arc within the story’s narrative. And when I began to speak to Kerry about what his moral center might be, the lack of clarity and also the thrill of discovery became really exciting for me. Cory is the kind of character that I feel like I’ve encountered in New York quite a bit over the course of my career, as this is a highly ambitious town and people are constantly on the move looking to either usurp or understand the people in power, and that kind of social interaction that is all about discovery of the potential of somebody’s power is, I think you use the word poker before, it’s just a classic high stakes poker guy. There is a thrill playing that sort of person in this situation when everybody is feeling already so disorganized and on their toes. If he can veil his motivations, he has a tremendous amount of power in addition to being the president of the news division in the entertainment division.
GD: Approaching such an enigmatic character as an actor, did you find yourself giving him a kind of inner life that isn’t necessarily on the page? Did you have to sort of write him out a little bit more deeply in your head to figure out what he was like and where he was coming from?
BC: I have got pages and pages of notes trying to describe the motivations of every head turn, blink and stutter. There is no end to the discovery that goes into somebody with this kind of mindset. Everything is observed by him. Everything is considered. He has incredible predictive powers and he’s also ready to pivot on a dime. So when you go to actually film that, you don’t want to wing it. You want to have an idea of the sorts of things that you can exploit as both a character and an actor that will confuse and disarm the other characters and leave him in more of a position of power. But what that requires from my point of view, and the way that I go about trying to prepare for a character, because I’m not as smart as Cory and I’m not as quick a thinker, and I certainly don’t speak as fast as he does, his brain is organized so that he can take in a number of different highly complex features at once and draw a big picture for people. That’s not the way that I manage my interactions with people (laughs). So in order to render somebody like that, it comes down to work. You simply have to take the script at face value and try to build your understanding of the character from the words that you’re given. And if there were certain circumstances that I felt confounded by, that I felt oppose any way that I could approach it, Kerry was extraordinarily collaborative in not only educating me on what she felt Cory’s motivations were but pivoting with me if I had a different interest. To be a part of that group dynamic and the creation of such an eccentric character is some of my favorite kind of work.
GD: There are times when Cory does “the right thing,” but even in those situations, it seems like it just happens to be whatever works for him at the time and whatever is beneficial to his career and his ambitions. Do you think of him as a villain? Is any of that moral compass real? Where did you fall on him as you were considering him throughout the season?
BC: Well, that’s an interesting question. I try to reserve judgment about the characters that I’m playing, personally. It’s hard to imagine that in the United States of America, somebody who is a successful capitalist would be considered a villain. Seems to be one of the presuppositions of the entire idea of claiming your own opportunity in this country. So for Cory, if that includes stepping on people, discarding people, not considering the feelings of others, it’s irrelevant in the bigger picture of somebody who continues to rise in a position of power in a society that rewards ambition. So I leave it to the audience to decide whether or not that kind of appetite is one that you want to model or enjoy from afar. In addition to that, I do believe that Cory has some empathetic and deeply personal ethical values that aren’t necessarily at play in this game that he calls work. So I don’t think “The Morning Show” is a full expression of who Cory is in the world and I think you see some of the extensions of that ethical moral center just through the crack, and it’s enough for me playing him to believe that that might be exposed in a more dynamic way in a different environment.
GD: One of Cory’s most interesting relationships on the show is the sort of friendship he develops with Bradley, played by Reese Witherspoon, who, through his machinations, is sort of pulling her into the storm of “The Morning Show.” There’s a kind of friendship there. But there’s also, again, Cory’s ambition and his own personal goals. What was it like playing those scenes and having that kind of tension of, “Well, is there really friendship here, or is he just kind of out for his own interests?”
BC: I think from the beginning, I think it was the first scene that they had together, where he makes a cavalier discovery or conjecture about her where he decides that she’s just a weirdo. She’s not an anarchist. She’s not somebody who’s intentionally undermining things left and right so she can leave a wake of carnage behind her. She has her own personal take on the way that you should live in a community and the way that she should survive as a journalist in that community and the way that she should behave as a woman in that community and the way that she should behave as a human being in the world. That is very specific, and she’s living in a gregarious way. So it’s easy to observe all these different features and the way that Cory processes it is that she’s just on the fringe of sort of straightforward, successful society. I think that’s where Cory feels. He has, I think, probably since he was very young, been set aside for his intellect and rewarded for his ability to think faster than other people and give him praise for making it through very complex situations. And the way that he’s done that is by careful social observation, which in some ways leaves you apart from the social interaction, which makes you a weirdo. So I think there’s something that he really identifies with in Bradley that is at the core of who he feels he is at his center. So I do believe that that observance is a way in for him to a human connection. But it’s very difficult to understand his motivations because clearly he’s interested in what she can do for the network as well.
GD: Cory has more of an openly antagonistic relationship with Jennifer Aniston’s character. There’s a little bit more tension there. But it leads to this very interesting scene where the two of you duet “Not While I’m Around,” which feels like just him singing that is learning something new about him. What was it like doing that scene and having everything going on under the surface with those two characters during that?
BC: Yeah, man, me reading that was discovering something new about the character for myself (laughs). I remember Kerry writing to me, saying this is going to be a make or break it scene for you when you read it, or something to that effect, because it was such an interesting pivot. As far as I was concerned, I could easily understand how Cory could find himself in that position. It was exciting for me to work into his own history this sense that he was a musical theater lover and was adept enough at singing to chance performing in front of some of his peers. The relationship with Alex, in particular, starts off antagonistic because Cory feels that she’s given up and he does not want to play with anybody who’s given up. He is interested in being in the most ambitious, most cunning, most successful environment of people who are capable of being kicked down again and again and again and they keep coming back in different, surprising ways. And when he feels as though Jen’s character’s given up, he writes her off as somebody who is not a part of the game, and I think it frankly angers him as the president of the network because she’s been given such a position of power. Once she exposes this notion that she’s not giving up at all and that, in fact, it’s time for her in her own life to take over. I think he’s thrilled by it. And I think he genuinely wants to join forces with her because he hadn’t seen that feature of her professional life until that point.
GD: The show premiered last fall, the first sort of flagship launch show for Apple TV+ and then right out of the gate, you received a SAG nomination, as did Steve Carell, and Jennifer Aniston and you won a Critics’ Choice Award. What was it like for this thing to come out, for people to finally see it on this new platform and then to kind of get that recognition?
BC: Well, boy, it feels like so long ago now, doesn’t it? The truth is, I guess I’m old enough and I’ve been around long enough that I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in terms of what success feels like or what characterizes success. The thing that I continue to attach myself to is the collaborative experience and what it’s like working with people who are creatively ambitious and are asking a lot of you, and therefore giving you an opportunity to exploit your potential that you haven’t been able to expose before. Nobody gets that chance. My life is populated with actors and I know the kinds of roles that actors get and I know the kind of pieces that people typically get to perform in. This was a rarity from the beginning for me. So I already felt a tremendous amount of satisfaction and gratitude for being a part of it. To then be recognized with my peers and get to spend some time in the room with people that I admire so deeply and profoundly was an embarrassment. I felt terrible that I was the benefactor of such incredible attention. In addition to that, I was so happy for “The Morning Show” and everybody in the cast and crew that had worked so hard. It was complex material that was unfolding over the course of the shoot, and it was meant to target life in real time. So, to the point of some of the themes that it was exploring, these notions of the redistribution of power in the workplace were happening to us day in, day out and evolving day in, and day out, and therefore, the writers, Kerry and the writing team and Mimi and all of our producers, they had to constantly work to pivot with it and to try to understand how they were going to explore this theme in the context of the show and all of its different confusing, complex manifestations. When you see all that hard work rewarded by your peers and you’re a part of it, it’s really rewarding.
GD: Now, the show was renewed for a second season and it had started production before the world kind of exploded. What were your thoughts without giving anything away, obviously, on where you see Cory going in the new season?
BC: My thoughts on where we’re gonna see Cory going? (Laughs.) That was exactly it. I had no idea. I didn’t have any ambitions about it other than the excitement in discovery. I’m not a storyteller myself. I don’t have that sort of creative engine in me. I’m a sort of secondary interpretive artist so I count on the writer and the director to tell me how this character is evolving within this narrative. So it’s hard for me to even imagine what Cory’s future might have been like after the end of the 10th episode. I couldn’t wait for the first couple of scripts to come through. And unsurprisingly, they were thrilling. So I can’t wait for the opportunity to get back to work on it.