In “20th Century Women,” Billy Crudup plays the token adult dude. He’s William, a 40-something mechanic and handyman who’s moved into a house in 1979 Santa Barbara. His landlord is Dorothea (Annette Bening), a lefty matriarch whose tenants also include a cancer-survivor (Greta Gerwig) and a teenage girl (Elle Fanning), plus her teen son (Lucas Jade Zurmann). The movie, by “Beginners” filmmaker Mike Mills, observes all of them as they navigate both their own tiny world, as well as a country that doesn’t realize it’s about to be taken over by Ronald Reagan.
Crudup, 48, talks to us about playing a late ’70s guy both macho and progressive, and how he never picks up any of the skills he does in movies.
I remember you saying you can’t play guitar even after making “Almost Famous” and “Rudderless.” Can you still not fix a car or put up dry wall after doing that in“20th Century Women”?
I have to say that one of the great virtues — and also drawbacks — of acting is you get the opportunity to learn how to fake new skills. People are always under the impression you actually learned a new skill. That’s not true at all. I don’t know how to do any of the s— I’ve ever done on camera. But I do know how to fake-doing stuff really well. So I can fake-fix your car, and fake-fix your wall, and fake-make you a pot. I couldn’t tell you the first or second step in how to do any of it. With a car, I open the — what do you call that thing? — the hood, then you tinker around in there, and then they yell “cut.”
So, tell me how one excels at fake-learning new skills.
You talk to the guy, who says, for example, “You put this wire with this wire.” You don’t actually have to understand why you’re doing it. You do the action, you pretend you know what you’re talking about, and then you’re done! It’s pretty much the trick for every part of acting, whether it’s feelings or engine wiring.
Obviously, not every actor feels the same way.
I know some actors — professionals — who do learn how to do this s—. I’m more of a fake-it kind of guy.
Daniel Day-Lewis likes to go super-method and learn how to do everything. I remember for “The Crucible” he learned how to build 17th-century houses. That was clearly foolish.
How many times have I said that! [Laughs] Come on! He’s gotta find a hobby.
Seriously, when is learning how to build old-timey houses going to come in handy later on?
Never! Unless he has to build a bookshelf for all his awards.
One thing you might know something about is 1979, when this film was set. You were 10 or 11 then, so you probably weren’t listening to, say, all the great music that’s in this film.
Unfortunately, I was not terribly hip at the time, so I was not aware of the music scene. But I was very aware of the political scene. The household I grew up in, there were a lot of opportunities to talk about politics. At the time, sexual politics were changing pretty dramatically; they were in the midst of an upheaval. American men in general were struggling to find a way to find what their role was going to be in the modern age.
That left a lot of people like William behind. He was incapable of finding the words or the models to manage this new life. William lucked into his relationship with Dorothea, because she ended up being the lynchpin helping him define himself anew. Without that encounter, I don’t know if he would have moved on to another relationship and another chance to grow up. I have the sense he might have been fixing houses, for lack of a better gig, for the rest of his life.
Instead, he becomes a manly guy who’s progressive and likes women and listens to women.
That’s right. And empathetic and sensitive to understanding his own identity crisis, which is through the empowerment of the women’s movement. I remember when President Carter was elected, and the discourse in sexual politics was pretty vigorous. It was a great opportunity for Mike [Mills] to cling to his own upbringing and the lack of that kind of masculine archetype as a child. Mike’s experiences are an interesting prism through which to view not only the characters’ journeys, but the journeys of a lot of Americans who were trying to understand their country in a new way.
It is surreal watching “20th Century Women” now, since the ending jumps from this progressive era to Reagan taking over. I’m a little worried, after eight years of Obama and giant social strides, we’re about to get Reagan 2.0.
Well, I can only hope it’s Reagan 2.0. [Laughs] There’s a couple other 2.0s I’m concerned about.