'The Morning Show' Star Billy Crudup is the Real MVP

'The Morning Show' star Billy Crudup breaks down how his character Cory Ellison is the best part of the Apple TV+ original series.

BIlly Crudup on 'The Morning Show'

Image via Apple TV+

BIlly Crudup on 'The Morning Show'

For the first two episodes of the Apple TV+ original series The Morning Show, Billy Crudup's slick-haired news division president Cory Ellison seems like another typical oily, manipulative executive on yet another workplace drama. It isn't until the third hour, when he delivers the episode's titular phrase—"Chaos, it's the new cocaine!"—and manages to make what should've been a clunky line not only land, but pop, that his character's delicious eccentricity comes into sharp focus. The Morning Show doesn't lack for intrigue but it doesn't lack for flaws either, one of which being its self-seriousness. As Crudup himself puts it, his is the only character on the show who isn't treating the power struggles as a matter of life and death.

In that regard, Crudup's Cory quickly becomes a breath of fresh air, a guaranteed burst of energy in any given scene as it becomes clear that he's less oily than he is wily. Crudup's been one of Hollywood's most reliable character actors since the late '90s (Sleepers, Big Fish, Almost Famous, Spotlight, to name a few), but it's not unfair to label this as a departure from the type of role he usually finds himself in. He imbues Cory with a number of verbal and physical idiosyncrasies, opting for the least predictable choice on every line reading, with mannerisms that literally make his more conservative executive-type peers on the show palpably uncomfortable. He is The Morning Show's agent of chaos on a show that is often in desperate need of some controlled chaos to reign all the tonal and narrative whiplash in, a Littlefinger-type eager to nudge the power players in his orbit towards results that he can't predict but is delighted to watch unfold either way.

Watching all 10 episodes of the maiden season, even as I began to figure the show's rhythms out, he remained a wild card—it's always delightfully unclear which way he'll swing on any given scene, what insane metaphor he'll unfurl in his latest monologue, which anchor he's going to shoot his shot with. It's a performance that could veer sharply into camp cartoonishness, but Crudup walks the line well. For the critics and Apple TV+ subscribers still keeping up with the series after its initial launch, that opinion appears to be unanimous. It's the kind of big swing, oddball performance the Emmys might sleep on but the Golden Globes will almost definitely acknowledge. Until then, here's Crudup on the phone with Complex discussing how he built the character, the show's MeToo ambitions, initial response and more.

I don't know if you've been paying attention to the discourse around it yet, but you are kind of the breakout character.
Well, Cory is a very entertaining and unusual character, I think in any kind of scripted drama. So I was grateful from the beginning to be playing him. That's for sure.

How much of Cory was on the page versus you kind of absorbing the character and figuring out where you wanted to take it? Because we usually see you kind of play people who are a little more mild-mannered or reserved, at least on the surface.
Well, your career is typically dictated—unless you can generate the material yourself, which I spectacularly cannot. I've tried to write before and it's just terrible. I depend upon good writers, like [executive producer] Kerry Ehrin, coming up with characters that then I can invest some level of creativity into. And I have to say, this was all Kerry on the page. And it's essentially my interpretation, [which] is filtered through Jen and Reese and Michael Ellenberg and all of the creative people trying to understand what tone we could get away with, with such an extraordinary sort of figure. But all of the language is just straight up Kerry.

And there was little to almost no improvising that I can remember. But there were constant adjustments from Kerry and the directors in trying to find the right tone for Cory that allowed him to be accessible, and at the same time, would obfuscate his motives. Which makes for interesting dynamics when you talk about rearranging the corporate and social power structure within any kind of working community, you want to... There are characters who within those, or people within those environments who they're going to be hedging their bets left and right based upon which way the wind blows. And to do that in a dexterous and entertaining way I feel like is what Kerry and the rest of the writing team were really after with Cory. So for me, it was just the question of, could I deliver on the day? Because he speaks rather quickly, thinks rather quickly, and, I would say, much more so than I do. So it is a tremendous amount of preparation to be able to then make sure that I delivered the intricacies of what they were looking for.

You mentioned that we don't really see characters like this in this kind of scripted show typically. What interested me was, even once I started to get a sense of the show, of your character, and where the plot is going, still throughout the season every time Cory is on screen, I literally can never predict what he's going to say, or where he's going to land on any given issue.
Right, exactly. That's kind of how I felt reading the scripts. When they would come in, I was inevitably giddy at the potential of where they might go, the introduction of his love and capability of musical theater being one of my favorites.And when you begin to create a character like that, you open up the door for all kinds of possibilities that seem to me, certainly in reading it, are creatively possible. We don't know enough about this guy to say no, he would never be involved with that. He seems like an operator and a chameleon who maybe has had a hundred past lives. So that gives him a tremendous amount of creative leeway to explore all sorts of different things within the context of the show.

So the dialogue may be all Kerry, but another thing that really jumped out at me is the delivery and the physicality of the character as well. So what was your approach to defining that? Because at some points it feels like he almost has this Heath Ledger, Dark Knight chaotic energy.
Well, you know, he's not an anarchist.I don't think he's psychotic.

Well, Fred [Cory's conservative boss] might think so.
Yes, of course. And Fred should think that because anybody who's a part of the old guard Cory wants to take down. He is not interested in the former power structure of the white patriarchy. And that is a sort of a conveyable motivation, that I think will become more and more clear. Cory's a gamer. He likes to be a part of the corporate capitalist game. And he's got nothing but evidence in his life that, if he observes, considers all of the information that he's getting from the people around him, that he can manage almost any kind of corporate structure.

And my inspiration for that was living in New York for the past almost 30 years. You can't walk down a block without missing somebody who's wearing their ambition on their sleeve, whether it's the people who, all of a sudden, end up having a hundred small umbrellas outside of the subway as soon as it's raining. There are opportunists left and right.

And for Cory, I think there's a real joy in being a part of a system where he can be so creative in the expression of what is his real virtue, which is reading people. And when a person like that enters a room where there is disruption and chaos, their level of brilliancy, their level of excitement about it is... It can only be perceived as psychotic from the people who are feeling most vulnerable.

So Cory is going to land on his feet as far as he's concerned, whether it's this job or another job. But nobody else who is fighting for their lives here feels that way. This is life or death for them. So, to be in the company of somebody who is really not concerned with that aspect of the monumental change in our social power structure ends up being alarming to bear witness to. So I think people are rightfully drawn to what is an unusual, and kind of fascinating, approach to how some people in power might manage this change in the social hierarchy that were they're witnessing.

Now you mentioned Kerry, the other writers and yourself developing Cory as you went along, figuring out tone. That's interesting because it does feel like he doesn't truly activate until episode three. I remember seeing that episode title "Chaos Is the New Cocaine" like, "Oh, that's...weird".
Yeah. [laughs]

Then when you deliver the line, it's out of this world. And you have this thing as Cory from then on where you sometimes explode-deliver a line like Scent of a Woman-era Pacino.
That's a tremendous compliment. I appreciate that. It's, to me, a way of trying to demonstrate Cory living in the moment and living in the moment with a thrill. But all of that stuff is highly scripted. I mean it's kind of technical, but I'm working on a feature that I would describe as immediacy, which is to make something appear as though it's happening for the first time, even though you've prepared for it. Because the experience of the viewer then is one of delight and surprise, and there's not many characters that you get an opportunity to do that within such an entertaining way. And Cory is definitely one of them.

So every chance I get while we're working to make it appear as though I'm inventing something in a moment and I'm thrilled with the invention of it, I take. Because Cory is certainly thrilled with all the twists and turns that are coming to his life now that he is the head of the news division in one of the major networks. I think it is a total delight for him. And so the experience of lines like that, as he is kind of inventing and coining them, leaves him irrepressibly satisfied with himself.

You mentioned the Sondheim moment with Jennifer in episode five, what was filming that like?
Well, I'm a terrible singer. I also happen to love singing. But nobody in their right mind wants to hear me sing unless they're going to pay me to sing. So when I get an opportunity to do a song, it's just straight-up going to the gym all the time. I worked with my singing coach from graduate school, Deb Lapidus. I worked with a singing coach in Los Angeles who had worked with Reese before. And so essentially, you drill it in a very technical way. And then once you've recorded it, they do all the things that they can do now technically to make it sound as though you're not terrible. And so they employed all of those. So then when we actually got to the shooting of it, it was recorded already. And then Jen and I could just stay in the scene. Which is really about Cory recognizing the expression of power that Jen is now exhibiting in her role as the host and producer of The Morning Show.

She was somebody that he marginalized before because he had a sense that she just wasn't trying anymore, that she had arrived in the middle of her life as a successful anchorwoman, and then stopped trying. And, as from his point of view as the president of the network, you don't get to stop trying. So if you stop trying, then you are on the enemy side. You have to always exhibit some level of ambition, particularly if you're in a position of power. So then when he sees her make that change with Bradley and take over that ignites a newfound interest and curiosity in her.

Billy Crudup and Jennifer Aniston on 'The Morning Show'

And there's a Cory way of celebrating it by singing a song that makes her feel both probably uncomfortable, thrilled, and, I don't know, any of the other things, curious, I suppose, that his motivations that anybody in her position might be thinking. But to get to do that, having the safety net of having recorded it, was a really thrilling experience for me.

I don't know if I'm reading too far into it, but to me, that moment was very charged, there's a lot of chemistry between you and Jen's character in that moment, and you have consistent chemistry with Reese's Bradley Jackson. So I was surprised to get to the end of the season and see that it doesn't go where one might think with either anchor.
It certainly leaves open the potential for a number of different things to explore in Season 2, that's for sure. Essentially it's important to note that the writers are trying to juggle so many different themes and storylines and ideas, that there's just not the room...I would imagine that the first season takes place over the course of a month, or three weeks, or something like that. In terms of real time. So there's only so much that you can really explore, especially in something that's a catastrophe movie like this. This is people basically cleaning up after the hurricane and trying to figure out how the power grid is going to get up and working again, and whether or not the water is fresh.

All of those demands that the writers have in trying to juggle all the different, and disparate, points of view, I think it certainly leaves open the potential that they have things to explore next season.

What was your favorite monologue to perform throughout the season? I think the baseball analogy with the pilot in episode six is mine.
I'm so happy you liked that one.

The executive actually, she says, "are we still talking about the same thing here?" which is a hilariously meta acknowledgment of how WTF Cory can get.
I confess there are some real doozies Cory is given. He's somebody who thinks in paragraphs and he thinks abstractly and makes metaphorical associations left, right and center. He's essentially always trying to communicate what is a rather brilliant mind. He's always rather trying to communicate to people what is going on in that rather brilliant mind, which for him it takes a lot of metaphor because the kind of social calculus that is going on all the time, is probably too complex for most people to really grasp.

I mean if you've ever seen like a high stakes poker game and you see somebody try to describe what they were thinking in the space of the three and a half minutes that that hand took, you will see some wildly ornate points of view. And I think that's kind of the mind that Cory has. I think generally people will react to him like, "What the fuck are you talking about man?" And it takes that reaction for him to then codify it. And when he does codify, it's often in a way that's devastating to the person who he's talking to or talking about.

Like in that scene with Chip at the beginning where he's essentially codifying the idea that your friend Alex has given up and I'm going to get rid of her, and Chip goes into full-blown panic. But the way that he does it is not straightforward. He's trying to keep Chip together too, at the same time. So that constant pull of I'm going to lay down the law, but also I'm going to try to do it in a way that's not going to devastate you, even if the actual effect is devastating.

So in that moment with the baseball metaphor, he is saying to his colleague, you're not prepared for the position that you've ascended to. And I just had to make sure that my instinct was right about that, and you proved it right. So you're going to be gone pretty soon. Which is a really interesting power play to make.

Now with the show being based, loosely, off of Brian Stelter's book, is there any executive here that you're at least tangentially pulling from? Kind of how Ari Gold was loosely based on Ari Emanuel, for example?
No, there wasn't. I'm not a producer or a creator as I was saying before, I'm interpretive as a performer. And most executives don't want to get within 20 feet of a person like me because we communicate in different ways. And the last thing they want to do is have a discussion about demographics when I'm talking about how I want to play the scene, or what kind of clothes I want to wear. That kind of stuff is intolerable for, I think, both parties. So I don't encounter too many of these heads of networks.

However, in New York, again, as I was saying, I've encountered a million of these kinds of people. And so there are probably three or four guys that I've met personally that seemed like idea-people who had a giddiness about their own intellectual ability that I've drawn from. But ultimately, this is me just trying to interpret what I think Kerry and the writers are after. And until somebody says, "Billy, that's a terrible approach", I'm just going to keep trying to do it.

What do you make of the show incorporating MeToo so thoroughly into the story and do you think it had a responsibility to do that?
Well, it's one of the things that drew me to the show was the ambition of the writers to try to hit a moving target that socially all of us are grappling with understanding, I found to be remarkable. And that's the kind of effort that I've always wanted to be a part of, something that can both be entertaining and have a point of view. Or, at the very least, introduces different points of view to things that are happening socially in real time.

And there are so many perspectives to try and explore in the changing landscape of power structure, socially, that to try to do it in a ten-part series is incredibly ambitious. And I just love that effort. I love the way that they have gone about it. For Jen and Reese to choose this as their next chapter in their creative lives just shows incredible tenacity. And when somebody is as ambitious as that and wants to let you get on the train, it is impossible to say no from my perspective.

So every kind of theme that they're trying to explore, and this is again, a collective effort between Mimi [Leder] and Jen, Reese, Michael Ellenberg, the different producers, and Kerry. This is truly a collaborative undertaking. I feel just being a part of that discussion is just a welcome opportunity, but a real novelty for an actor.

Most actors, we're just trying to work. People are like, "why did you take that part?" Well, I really needed a job. I mean that question could happen 10 times a day. It's just so rare that you get an opportunity to say, I took this job because it was a badass enterprise. Win, lose or draw what they're going for here is something that is unusual and you don't get a chance to do that very much. Normally it's like, well, I was free from October to November and I really needed some income. But this was not the case for this show.

That ambition that you mentioned...the initial response to the show was...mixed, but I think a lot of us have been keeping up with it just because it definitely doesn't lack for ambition and range.
Yeah. I have a firm belief that it'll find the audience that it's supposed to find. And, obviously, there's nothing you can do about people's expectations or people's initial reactions. The creative team just has to keep, from my point of view, plugging away at what they're doing because I find it very interesting to be a part of.

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