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The Morning Show’s Billy Crudup on the ‘Thrill and Terror’ of Playing Cory Ellison

Photo: Jim Spellman/Getty Images

The Morning Show showrunner Kerry Ehrin calls watching Billy Crudup perform his breakout role in the Apple TV+ flagship series a “mutual joyfest.” From the beginning, creating elusive and charismatic network president Cory Ellison has been a collaborative process between the writers and the actor, with everyone behind the scenes conscious that it’s a tough part to pull off.

“It’s been such a joy to see what he does with it, because it’s a really easy part to do wrong,” Ehrin told Vulture. “It’s a high bar to not just make it ridiculous. But Billy grounds it so beautifully. He’s so authentic and real and it gives me so much joy to see what he gets from playing the character.”

She’s not alone in that opinion. This week, Crudup was nominated for Critics’ Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards for his portrayal of Cory Ellison, the one character on the series who appears to be having a blast no matter what is happening around him. Ahead of the second season of The Morning Show beginning production in February, Crudup spoke with Vulture about his approach to playing the fast-talking executive.

In the beginning, Cory Ellison seemed like a sleazy-villain archetype, but he’s gloriously enigmatic. What was your first impression of him, and did that change as you played him?
I tend to agree with you. When I first read it, I certainly didn’t take the words that he was using literally, and I didn’t take the coldness of some of his evaluations literally. He seemed, to me, to be a statistician in some ways, and the things that he quantifies are not just the ratings for a particular show, but which way the tide is turning in the cultural landscape and who is best suited in either the entertainment or news division to follow that lead. So he seemed, to me, to be more of a forecaster, and he also has some realization that the way in which his mind works is novel, and that to exploit its potential and gain the most efficient authority, it’s in his best interest to not give anybody else the algorithm.

That’s one of the things that I think keeps him enigmatic, and it also gives him the opportunity to grow in his relationships as he becomes more invested in the people who are occupying his day. He is not relegated to some cold authoritarian figure. He’s capable of interacting, because one of the things that seems to be novel about him is that he loves his job. He really enjoys the spirit of competitive analysis. And he’s also straight-up weird. It was right there in the writing from the beginning. I definitely identify with weirdoes in general. The problem might have been that if you put me with an already weird part, that weird-on-weird crime will be too much. So trying to find a way to navigate it and stay true to the form of the story was a focus from the beginning.

Was his mischievousness in the writing, or did you add that layer to it?
If the script says in parenthesis “Grinning” before a line, the writer might have a version of a grin in mind or what that grin actually means. That’s where the interpretive part of it comes in because, for me, that grin was not nefarious, necessarily. In one circumstance, it was delightful. So that was my intuitive reaction to much of the textual clues and hints. But I’m following the lead of what I feel like the writers, and Kerry Ehrin in particular, are approximating and trying to calibrate as to how it will fit into this world. So it’s definitely in the writing. I don’t know that my interpretation is what they exactly meant, but we have all been enjoying exploring each other’s interpretations about where it can go.

I would imagine that grinning comes up a lot in your scripts.
Well, it’s coming up more and more, that’s for sure. At the very beginning, the scene that he has with Chip [Mark Duplass], where he talks about the vacuum that will be left when we openly admit that television viewers have no use for journalism, he is abundantly clear that the space on television is meant to be more entertainment, whether it’s veiled or straight up. There’s a lot of different ways one could have played that. For me, the most interesting one was somebody who is genuinely excited about the intellectual discovery, and then the quantifiable advantage it will put him at to lead a corporation successfully through a chaotic time. And that kind of person I see a lot in New York. I would typically describe them as an angler. They’re constantly trying to read the social tea leaves. So there’s a joy that comes in getting it right, and at the same time, there is no time or interest in disappointment if he gets it wrong. If he gets it wrong, all it means is there’s a different answer out there, so he better open up and look for it. That’s why he makes for a great character, because he can pivot within a chaotic environment. But he has some awkward and clumsy ways of interacting with people that I think make for a really strange and interesting television character.

He seems completely energized by the job and all of the machinations, but at the same time he openly admits that he doesn’t need the job. It seems that makes him enjoy the chaos more.
One hundred percent. I know someone like this, and the way I might describe them is that they shit sunshine. They work at a very high level in the corporate world and walk with an internal height that is disconcerting because your concern is, they either are oblivious to the agony of living or they’re psychotic. And I remember discussing with a friend one time, and he described an interaction that he had had with them as well, that was about the constant encouragement he had heard from his parents while growing up. He was told he was awesome at every stage. And he had yet to encounter a circumstance in life that he couldn’t transform into an advantage for him. It was a totally novel kind of experience of living that made the people around him thrilled. I look at that with utter amazement and disdain, personally, because I don’t experience that at all. [Laughs.] Even the playing of Cory leaves me in a flop sweat underneath my clothes.

He has a trump card, which is that he has time and again landed on his feet and his primary passion is an intellectual understanding of the way that the world works. And when that is your foundation, which is such a strange thing to have as a foundation, you’re wide open. Now, it leaves an opportunity for you to be crushed by the seemingly relentless heartbreak of the human condition, but we have yet to experience Cory either share that kind of experience or have it happen to him in real time on the show. There is a laziness that comes with the inertia of success, particularly for rich white dudes. They take for granted their power and agency, and I don’t think Cory, even as a rich white dude, ever had that experience. I think he’s fascinated by work. He can present his evaluations to people and force them to digest it because there’s yet to be any evidence that he’s wrong. And even if he is, he knows how to move so quickly that people can’t catch him. It’s certainly enjoyable to play. And I don’t know where it will leave him at the end of the day, but it leaves me fascinated in trying to follow him.

One of my favorite Cory moments is when he’s in that tense meeting with Fred and out of the blue he asks, “Are you happy, Fred?”
Yeah! Oh my God. It is such a bald-faced confrontation with the CEO of a major media corporation. He knows, for a fact, that if Fred tries to push him out, that the board will recoil and probably come against Fred, because Cory’s making everybody so much money. He is the one who turned the entertainment division around and started a windfall for the investors. Shareholders would be up in arms. So with that kind of agency, provoking somebody who you disdain for their thoughtless power, there’s so many different ways you could play it. I think you see a lot of this in the way they cut it, which I’ve been really pleased about.

He watches everybody. He waits for things to land. He provokes things so he can see a response, because what he’s really trying to understand is the motivation of the people around him, because those are going to be the things that he’s able to use to his advantage. Whether it’s to push them out or whether it’s to encourage them, him watching Bradley [Reese Witherspoon] manage the first interview with Alex [Jennifer Aniston] gives him information on her intellectual capability and her fortitude and her strength. And those kinds of things he can then wield moving forward to try to encourage that. He has full awareness that if she does have the kind of power and audacity that she seems to carry with her at times, and she has agency with it, it’s going to make for some interesting television. So he wants to encourage that. And with Fred, I think if he asks a genuine question of “Are you happy?” to someone who probably hasn’t asked themselves that in maybe 40 years, he’s going to get a tell on Fred. That’s going to allow him to exploit Fred’s vulnerabilities.

There’s a lot of fan debate about his motivations. Do you understand what he’s up to?
I do think he’s investing in the people around him. If they show him work ethic, I think that’s something he really responds to. It’s what he responds to with Alex where he feels like, at first, she’s not trying, or has become complacent. But if there are people like Chip, and like Bradley, who clearly have an investment, and to whom this experience of the chaotic realm is having a cost, he doesn’t avoid trying to help them in some ways. Both of them need a bit of calm and they need clarity of vision. And he has both in spades. He says at one point, “Let’s get on the train. It can be great.” For the people that he believes engage in life and in business in the way that he thinks is most agreeable, he’s like, “Get on the train. We’re going to ride this into the sunset.” And for the people who are disengaged, he’s like, “Get off the train and stay away from my tracks. I don’t want to be anywhere near those kinds of people.” He has no problems being ruthless with the people he thinks are not engaged.

You mentioned that you sweat a lot under your costume.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, I think that may just be a permanent state of me acting from here on out.

I’m just wondering if it’s because he’s particularly hard to perform. He’s such a fast talker and fast thinker.
What Kerry and the writers continue to write is somebody operating with a sophisticated intellect and a thrill in verbally exploring that intellect in the company of other people. What that requires for me to do, because their writing is really quite precise — and improvising for me is not terribly interesting — is put the work in. He speaks in whole paragraphs because the thought in his head is a whole paragraph. And he revels in having a whole paragraph in his head at his disposal at any given moment, to present as absolute proof of his correct consideration of all events.

I’m constantly being told to speed up. Cory’s often way ahead of where I am. But, because I’ve put the work in, I can just barely keep up with him on the day.

At the end of the work day, did you feel more tired than with other roles you’ve played?
Oh yeah, but in the best way. I just can’t express the extent of the gratitude that I carry for the writers, and Kerry, and Mimi [Leder], and everybody letting me do it because you feel so gratified when you get this kind of character who is constantly eluding you, who has so much to say. Day after day, I get to come in and have a really thrilling experience trying to figure him out, figure the scene out. It is tiring, but it’s rewarding in ways that are hard to express.

He always looks like he’s on the brink of cracking up. Does it feel like that on the inside?
Totally. I remember when I was doing Too Big to Fail years ago, playing Timothy Geithner, and I interviewed some of his aides and one of the phrases that came up more than once was, “He sees around corners.” I think Cory’s like that, too. He thrills in it. He recognizes how unusual that skill is and is joyful that he possesses it and can exhibit it in real time for the benefit of other people. There’s a smile on his face where he drops the mic. He’s like, Have I not condensed the chaos of the universe in a single moment? Come on! This is awesome! That’s his general vibe.

In the context of series revolving around Me Too and workplace relationships, it’s interesting what the writers have done with Cory and Bradley so far. Do you think they will embark on a personal relationship? He seems to care about her.
She’s a gamer in his mind. She’s somebody who is invested in whatever her version of engagement in life is and that’s something he really champions. I don’t think that he’s a guy who is ever going to be or would have been undercut by any of the behavior that would have come up during the Me Too or Time’s Up movement. For him, a level playing field is the most crucial thing to his own success because he wants everybody involved so he can prove he’s the best. He has not been a part of the group subjugating people routinely just because they need to cling to their own power. He reviles the people who have taken advantage of theirs, which is a great counterpoint to what we see so often in this type of figure. It also puts him in a really good position to be engaged from the beginning with respect to Mitch [Steve Carell] being ousted. I think he’s pissed off at everybody who let that happen for so long. I don’t know what’s going to happen in his personal life or within his relationship with Bradley, and it’s exciting.

I can’t let you go without asking you about singing with Jennifer Aniston.
Oh, man. Can I just say that we recorded it at Capitol Records? There were literally pictures of Marvin Gaye as we’re walking into where we were recording. I am not a singer. All of my friends from graduate school I’m sure are in hysterics that I have a Sondheim song in a TV show. Actually, I did go back to my graduate schoolteacher, Deb Lapidus at NYU, to help me prepare for this when I saw it in the script. But recording with Jen and getting to play the intricacy of that particular relationship in that place in front of people with her, with those words and lyrics, was exotic! That is not a scene that I feel I’ll likely see again, so I reveled at that experience. I can remember Kerry saying when she sent it, “You’re gonna either love this show more seeing this or want to get out now!”

Did you also perform it on set?
We did, but I don’t know how much of the actual set recording they used. I haven’t been able to tell by looking at it. It was being recorded and we were singing but we were also singing to a track that was coming through like a little earpiece. There’s no music Kerry could have picked that would have been more intimidating, but in the context of the show it did seem perfect. It really wasn’t any different than other scripts as they came. I am constantly and consistently filled with thrill and terror.

TMS’ Billy Crudup on the ‘Thrill and Terror’ of Cory Ellison