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Billy Crudup Is the Best Kind of Chaos

‘The Morning Show’ could’ve been generic, but the actor behind Cory Ellison makes every scene beguiling and highly watchable

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Late in the first season of the Apple+ dramedy series The Morning Show, a cocky and slick-haired TV executive named Cory Ellison tells a colleague to maybe try smiling once in a while. Tale as old as time! Except that in this case, the subject of unsolicited feedback somehow isn’t a hassled underling at United BA, the cutthroat, sexist, and only-sorta-fictional entertainment behemoth at the heart of the show. No, Cory is actually addressing one of the few people above him on the org chart: the big boss, Fred, a guy Cory would love nothing more than to topple from his position atop UBA.

“I know you have a wife, a couple houses, and a network,” Cory says to his superior. “But you don’t seem very fulfilled by any of it. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile for more than a second or two in a row. Which is too bad, because smiling? It’s fun to smile. It feels good.”

If that were always true, Cory ought to feel fantastic. Played by Billy Crudup with award-level vigor—the Tony winner, longtime voice of Mastercard, and golden/blue god earned his first Emmy for this The Morning Show role—Cory spends much of the debut season flashing those pearly whites, sometimes as an invitation and sometimes as a warning. An ambitious relative newcomer to the hectic network, he smirks quietly from boardroom sidelines and enthuses loudly on midtown sidewalks. He serves up the menacing warmth of a Stepford wife programmed to give a TED talk; he operates with the erratic charm of a corporate Joker. In The Morning Show’s first season, Cory quotes Robert Frost, Sun Tzu, and Eater dot com with impenetrable and thus unsettling cheer. He smiles as he compares UBA workers, variously, to sea otters covered in oil from the Exxon-Valdez spill and to ambush predators waiting quietly for a kill. He positively beams whenever he is in the middle of stalling or dissembling, which is often.

The more fraught a situation, the more it fuels him. (In one episode, Cory speaks of SoCal’s fire-starting Santa Ana winds with reverence, as if they are a role model to him; he is, after all, a man who lives to stoke.) “This is exciting!” he hisses with genuine emotion during one potentially catastrophic Season 1 speaker-phone negotiation between the UBA brass, a quorum of lawyers, and The New York Times. Cory is a latter-day Littlefinger, hollering into a closing elevator that “Chaos is the new cocaine!” and orchestrating fresh havoc behind closed doors.

When the first season of The Morning Show left off, Cory was in the middle of successfully pulling off a takeover of the airwaves with the help of anchors Alex Levy (played by Jennifer Aniston) and Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon), giving him plenty to smile about. Except that—judging by the first episode of The Morning Show’s entertainingly messy” and “absolutely bonkers” new second season, which premiered last Friday—it appears as though audiences are in for something different this season. This is a version of Cory whose perma-grin has collapsed into something more like a grimace.

Throughout The Morning Show’s debut season, Cory is successful in large part because he is so unpredictable, both by nature and by careful self-design. And the same can be said about Crudup’s bespoke and beguiling treatment of what could easily have been a generic or even grating role. (And show!) To watch Crudup ham and zag is to feel like a character sitting in a meeting over which Cory is presiding: The observer is left captivated, and also left saying, “Wait, what?!”

In a series rich with talented actors, including reliable stars Aniston and Witherspoon and harried standouts like Mark Duplass, it is Crudup who makes for the most memorable scene partner in the first season, whether he’s singing show tunes with (extremely Cory voice) Alex Leeeevy, or eating surreptitious falafel with Duplass’s producer character Chip Black, or being the kind of dude who replies, when a cater waiter offers to take his coat at a party: “Permission granted.” In an interview with GQ in 2019, Crudup said he wasn’t totally sure what possessed him to pronounce the word “never” with a random flourish during one of Cory’s lines about woke Twitter, but that it was possible that florid Yankees announcer John Sterling was an influence. Speaking with Vanity Fair last summer, Crudup said that “one of the wonderful things for me about playing Cory was, they said there is no mandate for this guy to be cool.” After all, the people in power often aren’t.

In a conversation with IndieWire around the same time, Crudup said that in thinking about how to play Cory, he’d envisioned guys he’d crossed paths with through the years, especially around New York City. There was the “CEO of a major corporation at 37,” he said. “He shat sunshine. Wherever he went, there was never going to be a problem because he was there, because the world had not told him about complexities and failures. He had had nothing but the thrill of his own imagination in real time.” There was the pro poker player who would “talk to you constantly to get information, doing social calculus and poker calculus at the same time,” Crudup said. “That’s how you see Cory do a sideways glance in the middle of something, checking to see if there’s any information he needs to get to add to his ever-changing algorithm.”

In interviews about his role, Crudup often returns to this quality as one of two things essential to Cory—this ability to, basically, read a room. (It’s an observation reminiscent of a line in Season 2 of Succession when one brother mocks another: “Look at you, scanning for influence like a yuppie Robo-cop.”) The other quality, the way Crudup tells it, is the possession of a certain type of arrogance borne of never really having failed.

Cory may cut a chaotic presence, but “I don’t think he’s an agent of chaos,” Crudup told GQ, “because I don’t feel like he’s an anarchist at all. He loves the system, are you kidding me? The system is the thing that gets him nice suits. The crucial thing is: He understands the system as it is, and he’s not afraid of the system as it’s changing because there’s no evidence yet to support that he doesn’t know how to figure it out.”

Just one episode into the new The Morning Show season, however, such evidence is already beginning to accumulate. In Season 1, Cory had the benefit of not actually being the top dog, giving him the freedom to brightly make cutting, if accurate, remarks like: “Watching a beloved woman’s breakdown is timeless American entertainment!” But in the Season 2 premiere, Cory is like the dog who chases the car and doesn’t know what to do when he catches up to it.

He is fired, he is hired, he is foiled. He is forced to contend with a disruptive, creative new him, of sorts: a sharp go-getter named Stella, played by Greta Lee, whose superpower isn’t her smile, but rather her unimpressed stare. Ratings are down under the reign of Cory’s favorite morning anchor [extremely Cory voice] Bradley Jackson. When Cory suggests a staff shake-up involving Alex’s return, Stella’s level “I don’t know that bringing her back is the event that you think it is” is both a devastating own and a suggestion that Cory isn’t the wunderkind anymore—if he ever really was.

Playing Cory is a physically strenuous task: The character talks so fast, and so much, that Crudup often finds himself working up a full sweat while performing. In Season 1, “I would often tell my wardrobe supervisor, ‘Can you please have another shirt standing by?’” Crudup told ET.

In Season 2, though, Cory’s cracks seem designed to show. The camera slows down so viewers can register the stress on his face; his grins look more forced. (Fear not, though, he’s still quoting poetry at random and can still smarmily drawlsclaim the name “Maaaagggiiieeeee!” like no other.) He is the Fred now, and a new side to him is showing: the desperate one. When Bradley confronts him on New Year’s Eve about a personnel decision that leaves her high and dry, he no longer has the same capacity for clever banter that he once leaned on. He has too much on his shoulders to be reliably disarming. He’s no longer a skilled snake oil salesman, he’s just a snake.

“I’m doing the best I can here, OK?” he complains to Bradley. Complains. “This job is hard! I know it doesn’t seem that way to you, because I walk in and out of the room grinning like a Cheshire cat, but it is fucking hard!” If last season was about Cory’s smile, this season looks to be more about what happens when that look gets wiped off his face. The first part might have been fun, but the second part? That’s entertainment. And if there’s anyone who understands the difference, it’s our man Cory.