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Billy Crudup opens up about 'Blood Ties' and playing complex characters

Billy Crudup in "Blood Ties"
Billy Crudup in "Blood Ties"
Roadside Attractions

“Blood Ties” (set in New York City in 1974) is a remake of the 2008 French film “Les Liens du Sang.” The story is about two brothers on the opposite side of the law: Fifty-year-old Chris Pierzynski (played by Clive Owen) has just been released on good behavior after several years in prison following a gangland murder. Reluctantly waiting for him outside the gates is his younger brother, Frank Pierzynski (played by Billy Crudup), a cop with a bright future. Chris and Frank have always been different, and their father, Leon (played by James Caan), who raised them alone, seems to favor Chris despite all his troubles.

Billy Crudup at the New York City press junket for "Blood Ties"
Carla Hay

Yet blood ties are the ones that bind, and Frank, hoping that his brother has changed, is willing to give him a chance: He shares his home, finds him a job, and helps him reconnect with his children and his ex-wife, Monica (played by Marion Cotillard). But Chris’ inevitable descent back into a life of crime proves to be the last in a long line of betrayals, and after his brother’s latest transgressions, Frank banishes him from his life. But it’s already too late, as the brothers’ destiny is bound together forever. Here is what Crudup said when I recently caught up with him for this interview at the New York City press junket for “Blood Ties.”

You had to do a lot of running and physical stunts in “Blood Ties,” where your characters get into physical fights. “Blood Ties” is probably one of the most physically exerting films you’ve done in a while.

I did. It was pretty exciting. I like exercise some athletic rigor from time to time. You don’t get to do that much as an actor. It’s mostly a lot of feelings and crying. So, I’m always excited to do something kind of butch. I say “kind of” because my stunt man did probably most of it.

One of the things that’s really fascinating is that Chris Pierzynski is a criminal, but Frank also has a dark side. What were the certain interactions that you wanted to tap into in this role?

Something about the contradictions that Guillaume [Canet, director and screenplay co-writer of “Blood Ties”] was trying to explore — not just in the family but within these guys’ lives — part of what they were endowed with from their family is this kind of strange moral compass. When the good cop is the black sheep of the family, it’s a very perverse family dynamic you've created there. And I think that influenced these guys in such a significant way that they didn’t know how to relate to their own successes and failures in their lives.

This sense of identity, like they know themselves the best when they’re together, and they’re repulsed by that, too. And I certainly know from my two brothers growing up that the sense of sibling rivalry and how that creates for you your own mythology about where I fit in the family structure and who I am. And it’s only revealed during Thanksgiving and Christmas as we get older, but it’s vivid as can be on those days, that’s for sure. I’m reduced to being 12 years old, like that.

You and your brothers used to get into fist fights, and there was even hospitalization once in while?

Yes, that’s true, every once in a while, my older brother Tommy and I — we spent a lot of time grappling. And at a certain point, unlike the characters in this film, we realized “We’re getting too old for this, now,” because there’s only one more place it can go right and that’s fist fights, and you don’t want to be fist fighting when you’re an adult. But Clive [Owen] and I, the characters that we played, they hadn’t learned that lesson yet, so you get to see that moment when they do learn that on film.

I think part of the practice when you’re younger, certainly for me, with siblings is that you work out all of your difficulties in what is essentially a safe environment. Yeah, I might have to go get some stitches or I might break my thumb, but ultimately, I’m not putting myself in real jeopardy there. You get out a lot of aggression. I found that very easy to relate to in these characters, for sure.

Your co-stars in “Blood Ties” include Clive Owen, James Caan and Lili Tayor, who plays Chris and Frank’s sister, Marie. How was it creating that family atmosphere with all those great actors?

Phenomenal, and it came super easy. I mean, Lili Taylor and I have worked together before we did production of “The Three Sisters,” about 15 years ago here in New York. I’ve always adored her work. James Caan (Leon) is one of the great American actors and someone who I’ve admired forever, so to be able to have those two and Clive and I in scenes that were written really, really well for those kinds of conflicts, and observing such interesting nuances in the way in which those scenes turn was great fun and super-easy, considering how complicated the scenes could be.

Did you watch “Les Liens du Sang”?

I did not. I never found that totally helpful. As I’m thinking about it now, I should start exploring that. I’ve always tried to create, whether it’s a play or a film, with the people I’m collaborating with, in the moment, and keep our references to the work that we’re working on. That is to say, based on the material, let’s use our own imaginations, our sense of creativity.

I mean, I carry with me my own history, I carry my own aesthetic, I carry with me all of the films that I have seen when I approach something creatively. So you don’t necessarily have to reference it in order to know that those are the kinds of nuances that I’m after in film.

It was interesting. Guillame [in “Les Liens du Sang”] played the character I played. And he was totally disinterested in sharing that experience. He didn’t want me to do a version of what he had done before. He wanted us to create it in a new way.

The screenplay already had went so far in such a good job of illuminating who those characters were that we didn’t have any reference to it. But I should watch it now. I want to watch it now.

“Blood Ties” looks like it could have been made in the 1970s, when anti-heroes first became very celebrated in movies. What films from that era were some of your favorites?

“The French Connection,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico.” And a little later, “Fort Apache: The Bronx.” I can remember going to see that with my dad at a drive-in.

It was a period of time in cinema, and in America, where people weren’t taking the iconic personalities for granted anymore. There was this real sense that our government was not exactly what we thought it would be. Our military wasn’t what we thought it would be. Our infrastructure, our country, there was all this second-guessing so I think that bled into second-guessing our heroes and these archetypes that we had. I’ve always had a great affection for that.

We’re never going to be absent simplistic stories told about protagonists and antagonists. Those are always going to be mainstream. So in order to broaden the scope of the continuum, I think it’s great to tell these stories where the characters are neither good nor bad, but they’re conflicted like so many of us in the world are, and still it can be very dramatic and entertain us for a couple of hours, but also give us something to think about.

In “Blood Ties,” Zoe Saldana plays, Vanessa, who is Frank’s on-again/off-again girlfriend. So you had to have this whole history with her in the movie. Did you know her previously?

I did not, no.

So you had to create this romantic environment with her right from the start?

We did. Guillaume was adamant that we spent time trying, the three of us, creating a very vivid sense of what that relationship was like. So we talked extensively about what our relationship was before, what had happened in the time since.

So in the moment when we first see each other, it’s already filled with all of that history. It took creating, writing it down, brainstorming ideas — nothing terribly exciting to read about or hear about, all kind of actorly office work, but it did require some more work than Clive and I required in being brothers. Both of us knew what sibling rivalry was about. That took no time at all.

When you’re working on stage, what happens if you forget a line?

It happens all the time. Will, it depends on the production and on the actors. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are kind of amazing. They will improvise occasionally but it’s more paraphrasing around a line. I’m doing “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett and “No Man’s Land” by Harold Pinter, and they’re both masters of the English language so you don’t want to paraphrase around them too much.

The idea of doing a play is getting it word for word. But, the other option, when you “go up” as they call it or you “dry” — those are things they call it when you forget your lines — is to sit and wait. So we have a lot of times where the other actors don’t come in because they can see you’re forgotten a line and they’re just sitting and waiting and there are these long, extensive pauses, which actually build a lot of tension and you have to have great trust in the other actors that they’re going to come around in the end.

I can remember doing a play a number of years ago, a Tom Stoppard play called “The Coast of Utopia,” and there was this long monologue where I was lecturing everybody and there were maybe three or four actors on the ground looking up and listening to me and one night I went up in the middle of the monologue so there was no other actor that could come in with another line because I had a couple more pages that I was supposed to say.

And I didn’t know where I was. I could’ve been New York or Paris, I could’ve been anywhere and to watch the actors go from pretend listening to real listening when they realized I didn’t know my lines was fantastic, because you can watch an actor … do a subtle body shift with real tension because they’re on stage with someone who doesn’t know what to say. So sometimes it’s a real thrill. It can also lead to panic attacks and hospitalization but mostly it’s a thrill.

It worked out because you won a Tony for it.

That’s right. Thank you for bringing it up. [Says jokingly] I brought it here with me.

You worked with William H. Macy on his first feature film as a director. What was that experience like?

That was film called, “Rudderless” that we did last year, which was just a phenomenal opportunity for me. It was a really daring, interesting screenplay. I’ve always been a big fan of Bill Macy.

There are actors that you look to because you hope that you share the same aesthetic. I look at his work and he creates such a complicated, nuanced, entertaining, charming, vivid characters and I’ve always been interested in being that kind of actor. I mean, I’m not the kind of actor that he is, but he’s somebody who I’ve always admired and aspired to be like. So to get a chance to work with him — he did such a confident job of directing this — it was a remarkable experience.

He stars in the TV “Shameless.” Would you want to do a TV series at this point in your career?

I’ve been lucky enough to be able to voiceovers and stuff and have a consistent income, because it’s a major challenge. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career. Living in New York, doing plays, even when you’re working on Broadway, it can be a difficult way to sustain an income over the course of a year. It’s also a big grind on your life.

So that being said, if you want to live in New York, you need to supplement it in one way or another. And that would be one reason, for me, to do a television show. That being said, some of the great writing right now is in television.

But I’ve been fortunate so far to be able to do theater and film and getting very good opportunities there. You know, that’s one of the things about being an actor. If you can’t manufacture your own material, you’re at the whim of the market and right now it’s got me on stage, but I’m happy to go wherever it takes me. Good work is good work.

Is your son interested in acting?

Well, he’d better finish school first. I was very excited when he came to the set for “Blood Ties” and got to see me knock down some doors and fire some guns, because usually I’m sitting in my dressing room putting powder on. He still thinks that’s cool though.

For more info: "Blood Ties" website

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