If I were a doctor (of cinema), I would prescribe at least four viewings of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous to every single teen. Few films capture comings-of-age so perfectly with an earnestness that rarely, if ever, crosses over into corniness. It’s a movie about crashing headlong into the adult world a little too soon, about bumping into its sharp corners and stumbling down its dark alleyways, but also discovering moments of ineffable magic, and emerging a little scarred but mostly thrilled. It’s become a nearly meaningless cliché to say, “They don’t make movies like this anymore,” but the fact of the matter is they don’t make movies like this anymore: big-hearted, big-budget, 35-mm. movies about self-discovery and heartbreak and Elton John sing-alongs.
The movie, based on the director’s own teenage experiences, follows Crowe avatar William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a sweet, brilliant 15-year-old who skipped a few grades and doesn’t fit in with his classmates. After his mother, Elaine (Frances McDormand), a college professor who abhors nearly every capitalistic impulse, bans rock music from their house, his sister, Anita (Zooey Deschanel), storms out to become an airline stewardess. William finds deep solace in the rock records she leaves behind, eventually striking up a friendship with rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who helps him land a small music-writing gig that evolves into a Rolling Stone story after William befriends a group of “Band Aids” — including the disarming Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) — who take him on the road with the fledgling rock group Stillwater. That’s where the magic happens, both for William and the film itself, which turns into a kaleidoscopic dive deep into the soul of the 1970s, replete with rock and roll, forbidden love, great drugs, several near-death experiences, parental panic, loss of innocence, and incredible hair.
I still remember watching Almost Famous when it came out in 2000: I was 12, and I snuck behind my parents’ couch to secretly watch the whole thing there (it was R, and they were as strict as Elaine). I wasn’t even close to alive during the 1970s, but the film hurt like my own memory, and it incidentally informed a large chunk of my personality as a culture writer who has spent 14 years searching for Penny Lane’s exact coat. Though the entire cast is pitch perfect, the main reason the movie resonates so deeply is because of Patrick Fugit. The Salt Lake City native and total newcomer was cast in the film at age 16, and his own journey on set mimicked that of William’s — a young, relatively clueless kid thrust into a world he wasn’t prepared for, surrounded by his heroes, trying desperately not to fuck it all up. His resulting performance is vulnerable and gentle, punctuated by a sort of wide-eyed fear and naïveté that you can’t really fake. In turn, the rest of the movie feels believable and lived-in. In advance of Vulture’s Friday Night Movie Club showing of Almost Famous (join me on Twitter June 26 at 7 p.m. ET), I called up Fugit to talk about his memories of shooting the film: his crush on Kate Hudson, what it was like to be the object of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ribbing, and that time Bijou Phillips attempted to “corrupt” him.
You were so young when you were cast in this movie and essentially unknown. What do you remember about the first time you heard about Almost Famous?
I had actually driven my best friend to his audition for the movie — I did a lot of theater and different stuff growing up with him. I was waiting for him to be done, and I could hear him doing the scenes, and I was like, Oh, wow, these are really good scenes. So I asked him about it afterward; he was like, “Oh, it’s Cameron Crowe’s new movie.” Admittedly, I was not familiar with Cameron or his work, so my friend had to explain that he was the director of Jerry Maguire and Say Anything. And he said, “You got to get on your agents to send you in for it.” And sure enough, I got a call from the [casting directors] to go put myself on tape in their studio. I think I did three or four scenes on some rickety old VHS machine in a room with zebra-print carpet and a bunch of strangely placed mirrors. There was a big three-month gap before I heard anything back.
At what point did you understand the magnitude of what you had gotten into?
I lived in Salt Lake City, and they used to shoot shows like Touched by an Angel out there, or Promised Land — more religious-centric shows. As a Salt Lake City actor, that was what I was doing at the time. But [Almost Famous] wanted me to do a callback, which meant that they were going to fly myself and my mother out to California first class — it was the first time I’d ever been in a first-class seat. They picked us up, took us to Cameron’s production studio at the time, and in the waiting room, I hung around for probably an hour before I went in. Rachael Leigh Cook was there, who I was very familiar with, being a 16-year-old boy in the late ’90s. And John de Lancie from Star Trek was there — his son was auditioning. So I was like, Wow, there’s some, like, movie stars here. This is serious.
Then I ended up in the room with Cameron for probably two hours, doing stuff with him.
Do you remember what you were doing, what scenes you were working on?
He talked to me for a good half-hour before we even started. He was asking me questions: what kind of music I was listening to, if I was into Led Zeppelin or anything like that. And what’s funny is, he had disguised the nature of the film by writing sides that were based in a political genre. So it was not about William Miller, the rock journalist. It was about William Miller, the political journalist, following a candidate or a congressman on his campaign tour. So when he asked me about music, I was like, “I don’t really listen to music. I have a Green Day CD. I have a Chumbawamba CD, that’s kind of it.” And he’s like, “What about Led Zeppelin? You ever listen to Led Zeppelin?” I was like, “Nah, I’m not too familiar with him.” I was like, Led Zeppelin is the name of one person, some Swedish guy probably, I don’t know. So after he contained himself he was basically like, “All right, well, we’re going to put on some music. And I’m just going to film your response to it. We can talk about it.”
And then he ended up filming me listening to Simon & Garfunkel while he was describing William’s sister leaving for what William thinks is the last time. It ended up actually being in the film.
How long till you found out that you got the part?
A week or so later, I got a call that I was going to come do a screen test. And at the time, Brad Pitt was playing Russell Hammond. So I was flown back out to L.A. again, and I screen-tested with Bijou Phillips [who plays Band Aid Estrella]. I think I met Fairuza [Balk, who plays Band Aid Sapphire] that trip.
And I screen-tested with Brad Pitt. Of course, I knew who Brad Pitt was, and he was super, super nice, very easygoing. He could tell I was nervous. So he started talking to me about this video game Cool Boarders, because I’m from Salt Lake City. So he’s like, “Do you snowboard?” I was like, “Yes.” And he’s like, “Do you play video games?” I was like, “Yeah.” And then he’s like, “Have you played Cool Boarders?” And we just geeked out about it, because my friends and I were playing the shit out of some Cool Boarders at that point.
Do you know why he ended up leaving the film?
I don’t know all of the reasons. I think he probably had to choose between doing that and doing Fight Club. It was a super-smart decision on his and Cameron’s part, because I think the tone of the film would have been much different with someone like Brad Pitt in the role. At that point, Brad Pitt was like, the leading man. So the fact that they put Billy [Crudup] in the role was just brilliant.
At what point did you become aware that you were essentially playing Cameron?
I think during the screen-testing process, because Cameron had come clean with me at that point and been like, “Hey, so this is not actually about politics. This is about rock music. It’s kind of about my experience, writing about rock music growing up.” Cameron gave me a good talk, where he was like, “I don’t want you to imitate me and I don’t want you to feel pressured to be me in any kind of manner or intonation. You don’t need to worry about that.”
There’s this cool meta-narrative going on in Almost Famous — the movie is about someone your age coming into contact with his heroes and all these rock stars and figuring that world out. And you’re doing the same thing as an unknown actor coming to work with all of these huge stars. Was that something that you thought about?
After I got the part, I realized that Cameron and DreamWorks were taking a pretty big leap of faith casting some random kid from Salt Lake City. I know they had other names that were well-known young actors that would have crushed the part themselves. But Cameron decided he wanted somebody totally green. I think he appreciated the way that my experience was paralleling William’s experience in a lot of ways — both the awe of it and the challenge of it.
A through-line in the movie is this idea that we should be careful about befriending our heroes and befriending rock stars. Did you have that experience when you were getting to know your acting heroes — that it was in some ways disappointing?
I’ve learned that that’s no real way to gauge who somebody is — if an actor is doing their job, they’re deceiving you. When I met Philip Seymour Hoffman, he was nothing like any of his characters. Billy was so different from Russell in so many ways, though they had some similarities. Everybody was like that: Kate, Frances McDormand, nothing like their characters. Frances was a total hippie, she wanted to be wearing the ’70s clothing and rocking out to music herself.
Who in the cast did you befriend quickly, and who took a little more time?
Very quickly, very quickly, it was Billy. I had a lot of scenes with Billy, and there were a lot of layers going on in them. Layers that I didn’t necessarily track at that age. They had a great acting coach on set — Belita Moreno — and she saved my ass on that movie and worked very closely with me. We sat down with Cameron and Belita and Billy to talk about these scenes, and I was like, Oh, okay. Fuck, I didn’t think of that during my cursory read-through and memorization of the scene. So right away, I was put into these situations where I was growing quickly and learning quickly with Billy as one of my mentors.
Jason Lee [who plays band member Jeff Bebe] was fun to hang around. He used to be a pro skater, and I was, at the time, 100 percent a skate rat. But I would say probably the first one, and the one that I remained closest to throughout, would be Billy.
Do you guys stay in touch?
We do now and then. But it’s one of those relationships where you can pick up where you left off. We won’t fucking talk for, I don’t know, six years — I haven’t talked to him since 2011, 2012, something like that. I saw him in New York, and he was pissed at me because I was so much taller than him. He’s like, “I thought he would get shorter and uglier. Goddammit.”
What was your relationship like with Philip?
Well, Philip was only there for a few days. He was another well-known theater actor with a lot of training, and he was less accepting of me than Billy was. They both would give me shit. They’d ask me, like, “How old are you again?” And I’d be like, “16,” and they’d be like, “Fuck you, man. You’re from Salt Lake City? Okay, great. What have you done there to earn this part?” But Philip was also kind of like, “Kid, you have a big part here. You need to show up to work. Make sure you do a good job while you’re here. Don’t just throw this away. There’s actors out there who scrape, and beg, and starve for this kind of a role.” I was like, “I get it. God!”
Did you feel like he was kind of in character when he was doing that, or he was actually breaking your balls?
Both. I mean, it was a very, very parallel relationship to William [and Lester] — saying things that are not so easy to hear, but also, being a mentor, being somebody that’s setting an example. I remember sitting in this little diner where we were having a scene with William and Lester, and Philip and Cameron were talking about [how] the filmmaking industry is in its golden age and how it’s about to die. And I was like, “Hold on, I just got here. What the fuck, no!” And they’re like, “Yeah, they’re going to be using digital cameras now. You saw Toy Story — they’re not even going to use actors anymore. They’re just going to animate. They’ll just use your voice from a bunch of different films. They won’t even have to pay you anymore.” I was like, “Great. Okay, I guess I’ll go do something else.”
Did he soften up toward you at all as time went on?
[Laughs.] It was always like that. But in that diner scene, there was a very large light that had been placed outside the window, and it was killing my eyes. I could not look at Philip and keep my eyes open. So I would just look at my notepad, because William was taking notes. I’d be sitting there just furiously taking notes, and I would kind of look up to Phillip, and my eyes would close, and I would go back to my notes.
Philip stops the take, and he’s like, “Hold on. Hey, Patrick, you can’t even look at me. You can’t even act right now. I feel like the light is too bright.” And I was like, “It is actually fairly bright.” But we’re talking about John Toll, one of the masters of cinematic craftsmanship. We’re also only a couple weeks into shooting; I was still very much the new kid. So it did not even enter my mind that I might be able to say, “Hey, John, do you think we can actually dim or move the light? I can’t see.” But Philip started talking to John Toll about it. He and John Toll had a very sort of on-brand back and forth from actor to director of photography about light placement. Eventually, they changed it around, and I realized Philip was standing up for me, but also pointing out to me that we may be pretty close to court jesters and dancing monkeys, but if something’s impeding you, you have to say something.
I love that story. At the time, you told The Guardian that it was “very much a rock-and-roll lifestyle” shooting the movie. What were you referring to exactly?
Well, I was a minor. I’ve never smoked. I drink very, very rarely — my family never did it. [But] a lot of people had grown up in the ’70s; Frances had grown up then, some of the other guys playing the roadies had grown up then. And Billy and Jason were embracing this band rock-and-roll lifestyle — which Cameron encouraged, by the way, because it came across on camera like their manner with each other. [I said that] one, because they’re great performers but also because the atmosphere was created [off set]. Cameron was just recounting the experiences to us while we were on set. Each scene was basically either an exaggeration or a verbatim re-creation of something that had happened with some bands somewhere — Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers or whoever.
And then Cameron always was playing music from the era; he had like a 25-disc playlist that he’d made for the film. He gave it out as a wrap gift, which is amazing.
Were there parties going on that you weren’t invited to?
Absolutely. But by the way, I was invited to some of those parties. Bijou Phillips was hell-bent on corrupting me. She would call me up at my apartment — this is before cell phones, so she got ahold of my apartment number. I either had my mom or my dad with me during the filming, and at this time, my mom was there. And the phone rang, and my mom picks it up and is like, “Oh, hi, Bijou.” Mom knew what Bijou was fucking up to.
So she hands me the phone and I get out [of the room] and Bijou is like, “Hey, what are you doing?” I was like, “I just finished my homework, getting my lines ready for tomorrow.” And she’s like, “Uh, that’s boring. A couple of us are going to go out. Do you want to come?” I was like, “Where are you guys going? Hold on, I gotta ask my mom.” I said, “Mom, Bijou and a couple people are going out. Can I go?” And I didn’t really want to go, but I thought, My mom will say no for me. Mom was like, “Ask Bijou where they’re going.” So I said, “My mom wants to know where we’re going.” Bijou was like, “We’re going out for ice cream.” My mom laughed and was like, “No, tell her you’ll see her at set tomorrow.”
Was there ever a point where they successfully got to corrupt you a little bit? Or did your mom always lay down the hammer?
Mom is like fucking Thor’s hammer.
I remember one of the more egregious trespassing events was when Bijou stole a golf cart and pulled up in front of my trailer as I was about to go to set. She’s like, “Hey, are you going to set?” I was like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “Hop in, I’ll take you.” And I jumped in and then we did not go to set. We went driving down Sunset Boulevard in a stolen golf cart, modified to look like a Mercedes, that belongs to DreamWorks. We’re in traffic dressed as hippies from the ’70s and Bijou is just pulling doughnuts on Sunset and Fairfax. On the radio in the car, they’re calling to try to get ahold of me, because somebody saw Bijou drive off with me. Bijou got in some shit for that one.
What was your relationship with Kate like?
Kate was like every bit a starlet as you would think. Though she hadn’t done much at that point, when she came on set, she created this aura around herself where you were like, “Oh, this is Kate the movie star.” She took that whole production very seriously and turned out such a wonderful performance. But also, she was 19 at the time, and I was crushing on her.
Of course you were!
And she knew it. I was not slick. I was not good at concealing it, nor was I good at trying to capitalize on it. I was just nervous. So she would kind of fuck with me, knowing that I was crushing on her.
How would she fuck with you?
[Laughs] Oh man, I don’t want to throw her under the bus. Okay. So we were at a concert one time that Cameron’s [ex] wife, Nancy Wilson, was doing, a Heart reunion concert. The whole cast went, a bunch of the crew went, it was amazing. It was in the middle of filming, and Kate sat down next to me. I really hope I don’t get in some shit for this. But she said [affects flirty tone], “So, how are you doing Patrick? How are you doing on the film?” She was sitting very close to me on a couch up in a VIP box, we’re watching Heart perform Barracuda, and I was like, This is insane. She’s like, “Are you having fun?” That kind of thing. I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” She’s like, “So tell me about Utah. Like, what’s Utah like?” And I started talking about it. She’s like, “Do you have a girlfriend in Utah?” I was like, “No, no, I don’t. I don’t. Not yet.” And she’s like, “Huh, what if I was your girlfriend?”
Oh my God. I love it.
We’re teenagers, and she’s fucking with me. I was trying to decipher, to put two and two together. But I had no experience around girls, and none around any movie-star girls. I was like, “Is she fucking with me? Is she being sincere? Am I being propositioned? Is my mom watching?” I was just sitting there staring at her with my mouth open. And then she laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. She’s like, “Patrick, I’m joking.”
Did you ever confess your feelings?
No. I mean, I was 16. I had a crush on her, and then I had a crush on Anna [Paquin, who plays Band Aid Polexia Aphrodisia], and then I had a crush on Fairuza. And then I had a crush on one of the other girls that played one of the other Band Aids. I was a fickle 16-year-old. But I got to know Kate, and Kate treated me very much like a younger brother, and after a while I just didn’t see her in that way anymore. We were scene partners. It was a big lesson for me, separating my actual feelings from what’s happening in the story. It can be confusing for a lot of actors, but especially a hormonal 16-year-old boy.
What was your bond like with Frances?
Well, we were making a film that was produced by DreamWorks in 1999. So it was really the golden age of 35-mm. filmmaking. We had a big budget. There was some serious money just spent on trailers. As the lead in the film, I had my own trailer, which is also something SAG requires. So I was pretty stoked on that. And the first day, Frances showed up — they had a huge single trailer for her too, because they were like, “Dude, this legend is coming to set.” Cameron basically was like, “I feel like Frances McDormand is doing me a favor, playing this little role in this movie.”
So they had this big trailer for her — and she refused to go in it. She’s like, “No, I’ll stay in a honey wagon.” I don’t know, like, how many readers would know what a honey wagon is, but it’s basically a stall that’s just a little bit bigger than an outhouse. It’s enough room to kind of sit down, and it has a toilet in it. It’s usually where the communal bathrooms are. It may not be intended this way, but [the trailer situation] is for sure a hierarchical system, and Frances just refused. She was like, “No, I don’t care.” They were like, “Well, the trailers here, Frances, nobody’s going to be using it. We can clear out a honey-wagon space for you.” And she’s like, “Good, do it.” So they cleared her out a honey-wagon space and she hung out on the steps of her honey wagon until she was ready to go to set. And they towed away her trailer.
Man, she was amazing. Total gravitational-power center. When she came on set, the weight of the set changed. The weight of the set got heavier, in that there was some serious fucking skill on set now. Everybody better step up their game. But she presented with the most mellow, easygoing, creative, sort of collaborative energy you could think of.
There’s a scene where we’re meant to be rocking out to “Stairway to Heaven.” It didn’t end up in the theatrical cut — but we filmed the whole scene and it’s in the extended cut, I think. In this scene, Cameron lets the entirety of “Stairway to Heaven” play. We were filming the scene for two days, and Frances was dying at the end of every take. Because they would play it over the loudspeakers and I would be rocking out and the other characters would be rocking out — and Frances had to sit totally straight like she was not enjoying any of it. So at the end of the take, she would go bananas. She’d be like, “No, keep it playing, start it over.” And she’s air drumming, air guitaring, just loving it.
There are so many iconic scenes in this movie that I want to talk to you about. There’s the airplane scene, there’s the “I’m a Golden God” scene, there’s the deflowering scene. Which sticks out to you as the most memorable to film?
The deflowering one was a big day. I was, like I said, inexperienced with girls. I’d been around a lot of women growing up — my mom is a ballet teacher, and so I grew up backstage in the Utah ballet. So I was used to being around very athletic, beautiful women but not talking to them. Certainly not in my fucking underwear while they’re in their underwear and we’re supposed to be kissing and Fairuza Balk is putting strawberries in my mouth.
That was a hell of a day. I obviously was a teenager, so I was worried about certain physical responses to the stimulation. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be kissing right. I was worried that I wasn’t going to look good in my underwear. But ultimately, it was great. It was this sort of playful, easy, flirtatious but also kind of bittersweet moment.
The phone call with Lester Bangs toward the end of the film was another big one, because I was very tired toward the end of filming, and I think it was starting to show. There were some times where I could really track what it is Cameron would want me to do … but then there were also a lot of times where we had to do a scene a lot of times for me to get what he wanted out of it. And try as I might during that scene, I wasn’t really getting it.
[In that scene], William calls Lester Bangs to say, “I don’t know what the fuck to do,” and Lester’s like, “Hey, you got to go with your gut on it. You got to be true to the craft.” And they have that great conversation about being not cool. And Cameron basically said to me, “How do you feel about the end of the shoot?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s crazy.” I mean, we’d been working on this for six months or something. And he’s like, “Yep, yep. Well, it’s a sad thing to think about, but you will probably never see most of these people ever again.” And I was floored. And he’s like, “I know it’s sad, isn’t it?” I was like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “Think just about that during this next [take].”
I know it sounds fucked up, but we got back to set and it put me in a reflective mood. I had heard from people that friendships don’t normally persist long after filming, but I had felt such genuine connections to these people, so I was confused. I got on the phone and enough rawness released from me … I just started crying. And the scene came extremely easily after that. We cut and Cameron came out and he’s like, “That’s exactly it, brother. That’s exactly it.”
What is it like to have a career-defining role so early on? What kind of pressure did that put on you? Did you end up at all being resentful of this notion that this was what you’d always be known for?
To start off at such a huge apex — the joke is, well, I’ve got nowhere to go but down from there, which is kind of true. But I don’t necessarily see it that way. I think I saw it as an opportunity to be able to play roles that were interesting to me and maybe not so widely appealing to an audience. [To make] indie movies that were kind of weird that I cared about. So I was afforded a lot of leeway after Almost Famous. I could stay in Utah, for instance, and be with my family while my younger siblings were going through their teenage years. I loved that time in my life. And if I had not done something so big my first time off, I probably would have had to move to L.A. right away and my soul would be a bit different.
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