(Photo by David Giesbrecht/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

Billy Crudup opens up about playing against his usual "shattered" type in "After the Wedding

Salon talks to Crudup and writer/director Bart Freundlich about their gender-flipped remake of a 2006 Danish film


Alli Joseph
August 14, 2019 10:59PM (UTC)

When Billy Crudup first read the script for “After the Wedding,” a gender-flipped remake of a 2006 Danish film where he stars alongside Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, the character he was set to play, Oscar, was unlike other roles he played before.

“He's quite opaque, he keeps everything close to the vest, and he seems really well organized as an adult, which I often don't get offered those kinds of parts,” Crudup shared with me in this interview for “Salon Talks.” “The parts I get, they're typically complex people who are shattered in some way or another, and either behave poorly or have to recover from behaving poorly.”

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The film, written and directed by Bart Freundlich, follows a mysterious story about Williams’ character, who is trying to fund an orphanage in India, and a revelation that upends Crudup’s character’s relationship with his wife, played by Moore, who is also Freundlich's wife and longtime collaborator in real life.

Read or watch our conversation about "After the Wedding" (now playing in New York and Los Angeles), growing up in New York and stories from Crudup and Freundlich's long-time friendship, including why they don’t golf anymore.

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I remember the 2006 version [of "After the Wedding"]. I looked at some of the trailers to get a sense of familiarity again and also to see what had changed. What made you want to remake this particular film for an English speaking audience besides the emotional content of it?

Bart Freundlich: It really was the emotional content. I guess it was two-fold. I mean, I couldn't see why we would remake this movie just because Susanne's movie is so good. She did it already. But what was unusual to me is that it is this emotional ride, and it's this exploration of these inner lives of these characters. It's all this stuff I love in movies, the movies I grew up watching that were bigger kind of Hollywood movies, but still emotional movies. Like "Kramer vs Kramer," "Ordinary People," "Terms of Endearment."

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But this had plot and it had character. There's a producer named Joel Michaels who was so in love with the movie, kept the rights for 12 years, finally kind of found me. And as I started to try to adapt it, I just couldn't find a way in because I didn't want to diminish Susanne's work or just copy it. I needed to find a way to put myself in there. And then my wife, who's also in the movie, Julianne [Moore] saw it and was really interested in Rolf Lassgard, who plays the part that she ended up playing. Just liked his arc. So we started playing around with the idea of what would it be like to change the genders of the three leads and that kind of ignited it and made it into like a reimagining rather than just a remake.

Tell us a little bit about the plot without revealing too many twists.

Freundlich: Michelle Williams plays someone who has devoted her life to working at this orphanage in India, and is drawn back to New York City by the the promise of a couple million dollar donation to her orphanage by a big business person played by Julianne. That's the beginning of the story; that's what gets the plot started. And when she gets to New York, it becomes apparent that there's something else going on, and another reason she's been called back.

But the unfurling of this mystery is really what the film is about. And the first third of the movie is very much just introducing these characters, understanding the two different really contrasting worlds of India and New York, and the poverty and the affluence. And then the plot begins to kick into high gear. And what's so unusual is there's three big, big turns in this movie. And for me, sometimes if you have a very, very emotional movie, I think people think of it as not as entertaining: You know, it's like suffering. And in this movie you have the entertaining and the suffering.

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Billy Crudup:  I agree. Too much to look at.

Freundlich: In fact there is a wedding.

It's like an Italian or a Jewish dinner.

Freundlich: The preparation for it, and then the recovery, and then how you manage how the arguments went. The histories come up.

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And that was something that Julianne, who is a producer on the movie also, we talked a lot about that, that we love these kinds of movies where you really dig into the stuff of life. You know, you have not only the difficulties but also what it's like to be at a wedding and the speeches and the food and the beauty of it and the anticipation. So we wanted to make sure that it held all of that stuff: the joy and the excitement of the texture of life, as well as these big, big kind of emotional realizations that that I think ends up being the heart of the movie.

If you watch the trailer, it does reveal one of the secrets, which is that there's a connection between Michelle's character and Billy's character. Billy's character is married to Julianne in the movie. But so that does reveal that, but there's much more to come from that.

There is. It will surprise you. So Billy, as he mentioned, you are coupled in the film — your character Oscar — with Julianne Moore, who is Bart's real-life wife and frequent collaborator. And what about the role for you — other than you know, I think the inherent value of playing opposite Julianne as actors — grabbed you?

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Crudup:  Well, it was elusive to me at first actually, because he's quite opaque, you know, he keeps everything close to the vest and he seems really well organized as an adult. I often don't get offered those kinds of parts. The parts I get, they're typically complex people who are shattered in some way or another, and either behave poorly or have to recover from behaving poorly. And Oscar seems like he's in pretty good shape, and he doesn't say a whole lot. He's a bit of a stoic and it seems like a great dad and a great husband and a contributing member of the community. When you read that on the page, it seems so straightlaced. I didn't have a way into it. It didn't seem that there was some kind of emotional connection that I could afford.

And when Bart began talking to me about those as virtues, about how having Oscar in their lives has become such a foundation for everybody's sanity and clarity and love. And we can set that up in order to then undermine it. That becomes a much more exciting thing. But on the page, it was hard at first for me to quite understand how Oscar was active in it. And sometimes as an actor you want to know, how is this character activated? What do they do in the film? Because it being reactive as an actor, is not always so much fun. You do it sometimes. Obviously you run from monsters, or you hide from weather. But the most fun thing is somebody who is in pursuit of something, and life offers a change or it doesn't offer a change, and then they have to manage the emotional consequences of that.

So finding a story like this that Bart had navigated so interestingly with this new dynamic, this new power structure, I thought once he explained it to me in a way that I could understand it, because I obviously need some explaining, it became really intriguing to me.

Freundlich: Billy would say to me that he wished he could play the backstory, you know,? Because there's one very crucial moment that is a very active decision that his character has made in the past, that really sets forth this entire narrative. So I imagine that's hard. For me as a writer, it was exciting to imagine this thing that had happened, and I didn't ever write it, but for Billy as an actor, I guess what you were saying [was] I wished that I could play that. I wish you could show that.

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You've done a tremendous amount of stage and screen [work], and you choose these roles where men really wrestle with their choices, rather than just going for the big money roles. Some of my past favorites — I'm going to date myself here — were Will Bloom in "Big Fish," which I saw with my dad. I watched it again the other year. God, I love that movie. And Steve Prefontaine in "Without Limits." So what's your most important consideration when you're picking a character to play?

Crudup:  I think you have to have some sort of psychological or emotional connection to whatever journey they're going through. And whether it's a creative connection, where you can imagine that kind of world, or personal connection is totally irrelevant. But you have to be able to see yourself walking around in that person's shoes. And I was telling Bart, I think we were talking about this recently, when I can read a script and I start to drift off, and I imagine the character in space — not drift off as in I'm not thinking about the story anymore, but drift off because I've started to internalize parts of it — that's when I know I've got some kind of access into it. And the truth is, I don't ever know when that's going to come. And sometimes you just have to work, so you make that access for whatever it is that you're doing, even if it hasn't caught you.

Steve Prefontaine was such a fascinating figure to me because he's not the kind of athlete that I would have rooted for growing up. And so for me it was quite the opposite, it was that I didn't identify with him. So that's a connection. I began, how does a person like that have that kind of confidence? How does a person like that go about their day and not feel flawed and distressed and filled with anxiety? How can they actually run out front in front of people and want to be seen? I feel so much time, I feel I want to recede. Even being an actor, it's a strange contradiction.

I did a play recently, and I would run out of the theater afterwards. I was just so filled with shame.

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I imagine as an actor, even when you are in a character, it is so difficult that afterwards you really feel the effect of that.

Crudup: You do. And having shared something and exposed yourself, even if they're not your own personal vulnerabilities, you're still rendering some idea of what you think it is to be alive. And so that question, that's putting a point of view out there, and a point of view that's just right for judgment. And you have to keep steeling yourself as an actor. And I find that one way to do that is to find characters that I have a creative connection to, because then the process of making it, becomes the thing that you're involved with, not the product.

And for Bart and I, we've been talking about process since the first time we worked together, and that's been a 20-year conversation. So he's been such a great creative collaborator for me, because not only has he indulged my own ideas of what it means to create together, but he's introduced me to other ways of working that have expanded my potential.

I think it is always amazing to collaborate with someone for whom you have a lot of respect and a long history. How did you guys meet? I read that you kind of do a little golfing together?

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Crudup: We did, and then he quit.

You quit?

Freundlich: I saw someone in a sand trap doing this [Makes a golfing gesture], and I thought this is ridiculous.

Crudup: And I have a feeling too, I contributed to it, because I get very competitive.

You?

Crudup: As you can see from "Without Limits." I don't cover it well.

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Freundlich: I had been introduced to Billy at this tiny movie that he made called "Grind" a long, long time ago. And then I wanted him to be in "The Myth of Fingerprints," my first film, and we met and talked about it, and we were going to do that, and then we changed schedules, and he got offered another job and it just didn't end up happening. But we were always looking for something else. And then my second movie, "World Traveler," he starred in with Julianne.

And I met you and Julianne at Sundance in 1997. You had just started dating, and I remember I was sitting interviewing her for like IndieWire or something, and she was getting her makeup done and she was so excited about your relationship. Isn't that adorable? Now I have kids that are 17, one of whom was a PA on this film.

Freundlich: Yeah. Yeah. And in fact my son who's actually, he's going to be 22 this year, he's studying to be a film composer, and he's also a basketball player and plays basketball at Davidson College.

My niece just started there.

Freundlich: Oh my God. Well, you know, D-I school. Steph Curry went there. I'm not bragging about it, I'm just telling you the truth.

So we are in the steamiest part of the New York Summer, and by birth at least, we're all New Yorkers. Long Island, New York City, New York City schools. So growing up I feel like in this steamy hole, gives people really like an interesting sensory memories. And I know you moved when you were young, but I was wondering, if either of you guys have something that really stuck with you about New York growing up, and especially, I know you used some locations in this film that I remember from growing up in Little India down in lower Manhattan. A couple of farmer's market scenes in Union Square, grew up going there.

Crudup:  Well, yes. I mean we were living on Long Island, but that was the weekend obligation is to make your way into Manhattan.

Money would come and go with my dad, so all of a sudden he would have a whole pile of money that he would want to spend for somebody's birthday. And my brother convinced them to give us a helicopter ride in one of those bubble helicopter rides around the Statue [of Liberty] and whatever.

Freundlich: I never heard this story.

Crudup:  So that's the first thing that came to mind then. And then the lights would go out for a couple months. You know?

But you got the helicopter ride to remember to reflect upon while you're in the dark.

Freundlich: I grew up in Kips Bay, which is sort of near here. My memories were Madison Square Garden, because I grew up going to Knicks Games, and Yankee Stadium. I got mugged five times. But it was at the same time. It was five to eight in a row, one day.

This pre-Giuliani New York.

Freundlich: Yeah. It was Ed Koch actually. They were the good, old-school, decent, clean muggings, you know, it was just like, "Hey kid, give me your money."

And it was, "Can I get a ride on your bike?" And I'm like, "No. It's my bike." It was actually my neighbor's. He's like, "No, no, no. I want a ride." I'm like, "No, I can't give you." "Get off." And then that was it. Then I would watch them ride away, and I'd sprint back and I remember my dad-

I love, love, New York City and I'm so happy I get to bring my kids up here. I feel like you kind of feel set to go anywhere from here.

I liked some of the locations I saw in this film, including the inborn New Yorker digs at New Jersey, where I now live.

Julianne says in the film: "Look, you can see New Jersey. It's so clear today. Why anyone would want to, I don't know."

Freundlich: Yeah, I don't know why you'd want to.

Crudup:  I don't condone that comment, fans in New Jersey.

Freundlich: Yeah, it was not condoning that, it was a depiction of New York regional attitude of superiority that I've witnessed, but certainly do not have.

It's been a rough week again here in America [in the wake of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton]. I asked why Julianne wasn't able to be with us and you said she has been involved in working against gun violence. 

Freundlich: She's very involved with Every Town for Gun Safety, which is an awesome organization that is doing everything they can, along with several other organizations, to try to get legislation passed to keep us safe. My daughter works for Students Demand Action, and they were both down in D.C. this last week while these two horrific shootings were going on. I work with them occasionally making PSAs, doing whatever I can do, just trying to push this boulder up the hill. And I feel like there is progress.

Julie is particularly dogged about this, and one thing that she really wants to get the message out about is just the way in which we talk about this. We need to talk about gun safety. It's not gun control, because this is about gun safety. This is not control. It's such a negative word, and it's not what we're really looking to do, which is common sense gun laws. I am very exceedingly proud of her, and my daughter, for their work on this and want to get more and more involved and encourage as many people to get involved as are willing.


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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