From "Morning Show" to "Hello Tomorrow!" Billy Crudup reveals what his antiheroes are really selling

"He's a preacher for capitalism": Crudup tells "Salon Talks" about his new TV role, his dad and the American dream

Published February 24, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Billy Crudup (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Billy Crudup (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

"Sometimes giving folks a new dream to dream can make all the difference," says actor and producer Billy Crudup as his character Jack in the new Apple TV+ show, "Hello Tomorrow!" The 10-episode dramedy is set in a retro-futuristic world full of robots doing human tasks and centers around Jack and his company of traveling salespeople hawking lunar timeshares in a 1950s era where humans long for a better tomorrow and are willing to suspend their disbelief to find it. 

It's clear Crudup's character Jack is conflicted about the work he does, but somewhat impossibly, really believes in what he's actually selling — optimism. "The hope that he is providing to people will at least be enough to get them through the day," Crudup told me on "Salon Talks."

While Crudup was developing the role, he was reminded of his dad, who was a salesman peddling anything people would buy. Also a descendant of Congressman Josiah Crudup of North Carolina, Crudup admits that sales is in his blood. "That's what we do as actors: sell a story," he said. "Just the act of watching a story is a part of the human feature. It takes us out of our lives for a second. It allows us to empathize, brings us joy, distracts us, whatever it is. I can't help but believe that that is something I inherited."

Watch Billy Crudup's "Salon Talks" episode here or read our conversation below to hear more about the making of "Hello, Tomorrow!," Crudup's acting process and his moral assessment of his Cory Ellison character on "The Morning Show."

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

We're glad you decided to come back and visit us again. I know you don't love interviews, but they're the obligation that comes with the job, right? 

I like them more and more.

Why is that?

Well, because the things that I was worried about early in my career, you don't worry about so much when you get older. It becomes a really nice experience to get to try to communicate with people about a piece of material that you love. So I'm in a much better place with the interviews these days.

Last time we spoke, we talked about what motivates you for a role and why you would take it. You said that you had to have a psychological or an emotional connection to the character's journey. What was your tie to Jack's story in particular?

You have to have some kind of in to them. For me, the way that I experience it when I'm reading it is, if I pause and start to daydream and imagine the way the person's moving in the world, then I know that I've got some kind of intuitive in to the character. And this guy, Jack, reminded me so much of my father and my father's sense of optimism that I thought I understood a primary feature of the character that gave me that way in. 

"This optimism that you're selling, this hope that you're selling, will never really be completed with these products."

It turns out I employed a lot of the behavior of my dad to try to bring Jack to life. There were a lot of aspects of it that came very naturally to me because what Amit [Balla] and Lucas [Jansen] wrote was so universally true of certainly one kind of American experience, and that is this generation that came just after World War II, that the sense was we'd conquered evil. And in the process of doing so, we had become ingenious in creating things. Technology had developed at exponential rate. And one of the ways that we could improve people's lives are things in their household that make day-to-day chores of living easier. And so these door-to-door salesmen started to become a feature of the American landscape. 

There's a great documentary called "Salesman" that takes place in the '60s. It shows the decline of that industry because at the heart of it, there's really no way to achieve upward mobility being a salesman. There is the death of a salesman in that sense, that this optimism that you're selling, this hope that you're selling, will never really be completed with these products. And consequently, you keep hawking products, but it's not like anything is going to catch on in a big way because everybody is really looking for just the next small thing that they can afford.

I think a lot of the sales people became disillusioned with this version of the American Dream and became tragic figures that were a symbol of what happens to a society that's only clutching on to things.

Materialism can be the death of us all, indeed. There's a line that your character Jack says, "Giving folks a new dream can make all the difference." This line, along with the sort of sad sales pitch that Jack gives about visiting the moon, to a confused but moved audience, including your co-star, Hank Azaria, gives just one pause about Jack's real feelings and intentions. How is Jack more than just a smarmy sales guy?

Because he believes it. He believes because he feels it himself. That sense of, "Geez, what am I really doing with my life? Why is today so uncomfortable that I have to keep thinking about tomorrow? What is it that I've done in my life that I can't keep track of now, that is sort of catching up to me in my mind and I'm just trying to run from it?"

People who haven't really attended to their lives because they're so busy dreaming for tomorrow is one of the key features of Jack's life. And the way that he goes about his day is trying to sell that to people. So he spends all day really interested in people, trying to understand their problems. That keeps him feeling like he can be an optimistic, positive force for the future. He's never really concerned with things that go wrong or things that other people might feel like were disingenuous or something because he knows that that hope that he is providing to people will at least be enough to get them through the day.

We all do that in a lot of ways. Going to church is like that, having faith. I go on Sunday to church, put something in the tithe, and I get a beautiful story about the way it is to live and hope for the future. It gets you through the week. I think Jack thinks of things like that. He's a preacher for capitalism, and he believes that is enough to get through a life every day, dreaming of tomorrow.

Well, you do have to be a believer, whether it's in the Kool-Aid or something else.

He's a believer. That's what it is. He is an absolute believer, which is the thing that keeps him from getting caught up on the things that he does that we as a viewer find questionable at times. Hopefully that conviction is the thing that keeps drawing you in to such a complicated character.

Absolutely. And he is complicated. You do a beautiful job with that nuance because you can really see those moments where –

– it breaks through, yeah. That's all in the writing. I mean, Amit and Lucas, they choreographed it beautifully. Because it's also filled with such chaos and hijinks and hilarity, and there's a kind of mystery surrounding it, and there's family drama. They've woven together this incredible tapestry of Americana. The design itself is enough to, I think, draw a kind of romantic interest into it. And they've planned it on top of this incredible story with really phenomenal characters. A classic American fable.

I feel like you might have a little nostalgia for that 1950s design aesthetic. The show is really beautifully designed. Do you have that?

"That's what we do as actors: sell a story."

When you're around it, you can't help but be in love with it. When you look at these cars and the way that they were designed and the interest that went into trying to create a vehicle that alluded to a better future. I mean, that's really what was in the design. These wings on the side and the kind of tail lamps that were on it, they're not functional at all. They're aspirational. And you can't help when you're around them to feel that same kind of optimism.

Then of course, the robot that serves you beer, the beer bot, you're going to get a beer from the robot's belly, which is super convenient, but it might have a little bit of motor oil in it. It's just a hair, a touch, just enough to give you a buzz. But the things in this retro future world work in the same way that things work in our retro future world, which is pretty good.

Yeah, just don't be flammable, I guess, is the message. No open flame.


You have sales and politics in your family history. You've spoken a lot about your dad as a salesman of many things and you're also a descendant of a congressman from North Carolina. Actors are of course selling characters, so do you think sales is in your blood?

Unfortunately, I do. I think you hit the nail on the head. That's what we do as actors: sell a story. One of the ways that you do it is you figure out what does the audience want? What does your audience for "Hello Tomorrow!" want? You try to sell them the story that Amit and Lucas have created.

We are the go-between, in the same way that my dad didn't invent the products, that he was there at the doorstep trying to sell it, letting them know why it's interesting. That's the same thing that I'm doing with Jack. I'm giving them insight into Amit and Lucas's world because just the act of watching a story is a part of the human feature. It takes us out of our lives for a second. It allows us to empathize, brings us joy, distracts us, whatever it is. I can't help but believe that that is something I inherited.

In one of your concurrent roles, you've played Cory Ellison since 2019 in "The Morning Show." As a former local news reporter, I can say that your portrayal feels so right and yet so wrong. 

"You can have drama that's not so cut and dry. It's not just heroes and villains."

That's awful. I'm sorry that you had to be exposed to a kind of Cory Ellison, for sure. 

There's something about Cory still worth rooting for too, I think. Do you think he is a hero or a villain?

I always love the antihero, and that's the character that I was thinking about earlier. Seeing so many Paul Newman movies growing up, this American antihero, he spent a lifetime pursuing this character. To me, there's something richly humane in that. You can have drama that's not so cut and dry. It's not just heroes and villains. It's people who are occasionally able to rise above their limits and fail at times, and still keep trying. That's kind of all life is, right? You have a moment of success where you feel like a better version of yourself than you ever could have, and then you're the flawed human that you are. And then you have to get up the next day too.

There is something really beautiful about that story and about that kind of character. Cory, to me, falls in that tradition. He is somebody who has been on the winning side for a very long time in his life, and finally has to meet some of the challenges of failure. People don't always respond in the most heroic ways in times like that.

Absolutely. And you can even draw a parallel between Jack and Cory.

I think so. I think they're a part of the same salesman kind of figure that is a feature of American society. They represent that hope and optimism in a creative future for which they're responsible. That's the other thing about these kinds of characters. Jack wants to be the one to save the world. Jack wants to be the one. And why that is, in his brain, I'm not entirely sure.

I know in my dad, it was because his dad told him he wasn't good enough, because he thought that's the way to make him strong. My grandfather fought in World War II, and I think he thought the most loving thing I can do is toughen up my son by telling him he's not good enough. That created a feature in my dad that he was never going to be good enough. So he had to basically win the lottery to come home one day and be like, "Hey, I did OK, Dad." I see that a lot in people. That story never gets old. It's woven into the fabric of this country.

Is it hard to play characters that have something to prove? 

Yeah, for sure. My dad died in 2005, and underneath all that optimism and that hope is a real reluctance to live in the present moment. I think the reason there's a reluctance is because it's incredibly uncomfortable. There's a kind of heartache at the bottom of it, a little bit of despair, because what if it doesn't work? Can I tolerate just being a human being? Can I tolerate just going to work and coming home without this dream, without this vision of a better future? Will today be enough?

Well, there is that thesis, that road less traveled thesis, that life is hard and accepting that analogously is once you get there, which so many people are unable to do, you can move on.

I'll never forget the moment somebody was like, "Hey, you should pick up 'The Road Less Traveled,' it's a really helpful book." And I pick it up and the first line is, "Life is suffering." I was like, what the heck?

It's a little Buddhist. The solution, it's a little Buddhist.

I know. Well, now in my 50s, trust me, I am a believer.

Did you get through more than page one? I have trouble past page five.

Oh, I read it all. I read it all and took notes on a road trip, actually. I mean, it's right on the nose. Right on the nose. Me and my buddy were driving across the country, I'm reading "The Road Less Traveled."

After making "Hello Tomorrow!" how do you feel about America and everything that we're selling here?

I'm like Jack in terms of I'm an optimist. I think the arc of human history bends towards justice. The upswing in the next evolution of our society may be out of the reach for our generation, and may be just for our kids to do and our grandchildren to do, and we may not get to see it. But my firm belief is you keep aspirationally reaching for a more equitable society and a society that enriches the most people and creates the most gratitude and love and all of those things, that just the effort of reaching for it makes for a better day.

"Hello Tomorrow!" is now streaming on Apple TV+.


By 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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