Patrick Fugit was only 16 when he played William Miller, the young rock-fan-turned-reporter in Almost Famous. We know now that Cameron Crowe’s film became a beloved classic, but here’s a movie that completely hinged on the acting talent of a 16-year old who had never been in a movie before. That, in retrospect, is a lot of pressure. (And as Fugit explains, yeah there were plenty of “don’t fuck it up,” jokes aimed at him on set that I’m sure really soothed his anxieties. We know what happened next: Almost Famous underperformed at the box office, finishing third in its first week of wide release, behind Urban Legends: Final Cut and a theatrical release of the director’s cut of The Exorcist. But, then, kind of quickly thanks to cable television, developed, well, it can’t really be called a cult following because who hasn’t seen Almost Famous? It’s the rare movie that kind of flopped in theaters, then just ignored the whole “cult” part of things and became a beloved mainstream hit.
Fugit would disagree because of course he has to critique himself when he rewatches the film, but he’s about perfect as William Miller. He has to maintain an innocence, but also has to be able to present himself as a rock journalist. Both the theatrical cut and the bootleg cut of Almost Famous has just been released in 4K, which is big news for fans of the film. (The theatrical version had never even been released on Blu-ray before, and the visual quality of the Bootleg Cut Blu-ray left a lot to be desired.)
Ahead, Fugit takes us through his audition, which was intense. He also explains what it was like being 16 and watching two actors like Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman just tear up the place (with two different, distinct styles). And then there’s the character of Russell Hammond, which we all know as played by Billy Crudup. But when Fugit was cast, Brad Pitt was going to play Russell. And Fugit wound up meeting with Pitt to go over the characters and he explains how that all went…
Even with the Bootleg Cut, which is a very long movie, this film goes by so quick.
That is so true. I remember seeing the theatrical release for the first time, after making the film, and Cameron surprised me with it. He was like, “Hey, do you want to watch the movie while you’re here?” We were doing some other work on dialogues, recording. I was like, “Yes, of course!” We watched it, and I was like, “Holy shit, it’s like five minutes long.”
That’s nearly a year of my 16-year-old life, condensed into whatever the theatrical release runtime was. I was like, “There is so much more to be experienced than I just saw.” And I was like, “This is obviously awesome.” I understand why things got left out, but my God, it felt short. When I saw the Bootleg Cut finally, when he released that a couple of years later, I was like, “Man, this is more what it was like. This felt more like being on set on the movie.”
A lot of actors don’t like watching themselves. You’re 16 in this, can you watch it now? Is that something that’s enjoyable to do?
I mean, there are things because I have, now, 22 years of acting experience on that 16-year-old kid. When I watch it, I’m kind of like, “I don’t fucking believe this kid right now. This kid could do better.”
So you’re critiquing yourself. That’s no fun.
Yeah, no. I mean, I haven’t seen it probably in five, six, seven years, something like that. I would love to watch it again, because the last time I watched it, I was really much more able to just remove myself from the on-set experience. I was able to stop picking apart my own performance, and thinking about those things. In terms of watching myself, I’ve never really minded it, unless I think I’m very bad. There are things that I’m very bad in and I’m like, “Okay, I don’t even like fucking thinking about them.” But, anything else that I’m like, “Yeah, I gave that my best shot.” I don’t mind watching it, because I like to learn what gets put in the film, what gets taken out of the film and why. And what I could do better next time, that sort of thing.
So what do you think of your performance? Like you said, you’re 16, and this beloved movie hinges so much on someone who’s so young. That, in retrospect, is a lot of pressure.
Oh, totally. I mean, they would joke about it. And joke about like, “Oh, don’t fuck it up!”
But, really, they did such a great job of preparing me for it. They had an acting coach named Belita Moreno, who had worked with Cameron before. I worked with them for a couple of months, at least, before we even started filming. Breaking down each scene and doing a lot of scene work. Doing a lot of rehearsal and doing a lot of character work. We went from the first page all the way to the last page in those couple of months of prep time. And really, I mean really heavy and intense rehearsal – which I really loved because I don’t mind going into big scenes and I don’t mind going into challenging scenes if I feel good about it, if I feel ready for it. Obviously, if I don’t feel ready, it makes me very nervous, like anybody would. But they really set me up so that when we were on set. It was just an execution of what we’d been getting ready. It felt, if anything, more immersive to have the camera and the wardrobe and the set there, because I was used to doing it in a production office.
What your audition was like? Because I can’t even imagine how many people wanted your role.
Oh yeah. Yeah, I mean, I went through a big process. Like you said, it hinges on the ability of this 16-year-old kid to be able to perform for the whole production.
And, on top of that, you’re basically playing a version of the director and you have to remind him of himself.
Yeah. I mean, my initial audition was just a self-tape sent in from my local Salt Lake City casting office. They read the lines with me there. It was three scenes and I did them all back to back. I didn’t take any breaths or any breaks. I just went for it. I just was acting my ass off and going for it. That resonated with Cameron and particularly Gail Levin, who was going through all those tapes, and so she showed it to Cameron and they ended up bringing me in. Then that’s when the audition process was a little more unique. And Cameron spent a lot of time with me the first time he met me. I think my audition lasted nearly three hours.
Which, since then, I’ve done auditions that last about 35 seconds. I mean, it was like a full workshop. It was a three-hour acting class with Cameron. He had written the audition scenes as a fake story. He had rewritten it to be about a political campaign, rather than the rock story. I think to keep the real story under wraps and throw people off. I had no idea it had anything to do with music. He would ask me these questions like, “What music do you listen to?” And I had a Green Day CD and a Chumbawamba CD, and that was it. I was 16 years old, just skateboarding and ditching school, and all that kind of thing, and that was it. He’s like, “What do you think about Led Zeppelin?” And I’m like, “I’ve never really listened to him.” I thought Led Zeppelin was the name of the guy.
So had you been officially cast when Brad Pitt was still going to play Russell Hammond?
Yeah. I had done my initial audition with Cameron, and then they flew me back in to do some screen tests. That involved some hair and makeup tests. They put some hair extensions on to make me look like I had long ’70s style hair. I think I did a few scenes with Bijou Phillips, who was cast at the time. I must’ve come back another time, because that was the time it was like, “Okay, you’re going to read with Brad now. You’re going to do your screen test with Brad. He’s playing Russell, so do a good job,” that kind of thing. I went in and Cameron introduced me to Brad. He was sitting in Cameron’s office and Brad could tell I was nervous, but I was also excited to get into things. Brad started talking about PlayStation, and he was like, “Hey, man, I’ve been playing this game, Cool Boarders. Do you play Cool Boarders?” I, by the way, had been playing a fuck load of Cool Boarders.
Oh, that’s great.
So I was like, “Well, Mr. Pitt, I can do these tricks.” And he was like, “Wow, you can land that trick? I’ve only got this one and that one.” And he’s like, “You’ve got to show me how to land that trick.” Just loosening me up and geeking out about Cool Boarders, but really just spending the time to get to know me, make me feel comfortable and that sort of thing. By the way, Cameron had left the room. He sort of introduced us and he left the room and let us talk for about 15 minutes. Then he came back in and it was time to do some scene work. I remember it being a lot of fun. And then, I think by that time, Kate Hudson was being considered for Penny. I did a screen test with Kate and we did some scenes together and then I flew back to Utah.
So, because of your love for the same video game, you hit it off with Brad Pitt and you’re like, “Hot damn, here we go. I just hit it off with Brad Pitt.” Then you get a call, “Hey, he’s not going to be in it.”
Yeah. They were like, “Billy Crudup’s going to be Russell.” He was in the Prefontaine movie (Without Limits), Inventing the Abbotts, those were the references I had for Billy at the time, so I watched those. I loved those movies, but obviously I knew who Brad Pitt was, but not who Billy was yet. I think Brad was deciding whether he was going to do this one or go do Fight Club, so he went and made that classic, and Billy stepped into the role and played in this classic.
What was your relationship with Philip Seymour Hoffman like? You have these amazing scenes with him.
He and Cameron would talk about the fact that we were shooting on 35-millimeter film and that there’s this new digital camera that’s going to be released soon. John Toll, who was our DP, would add in, “Yeah, this is it. This is the end of filmmaking as we know it. It’s going to be the digital crap from now on.” That’s how everybody who was really in love with filming on 35-millimeter would talk about it. Philip was like, “Yep. Same thing with the acting business,” and all that. It was the same experience that William was having. I was like, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. No, it can’t be over. I’m just getting here. Like, come on.”
You’re there for the death rattle.
Exactly! I really actually was like, “Well, at least I get to be in this.” Philip was sick at the time, he had the flu, when he had to do all of his radio show scenes where he’s talking about Iggy Pop and stuff. He was literally just nearly catatonic in his director chair, hanging out on set, listening to music, listening to interviews with Lester Bangs. And then they would call him and he’d reanimate and step on set and crush it. I was watching him do that and watching the way that he was living in the character. And the way that he would talk to me, it was sort of in character, but sort of not in character.
It was such high-level skills that I really hadn’t been totally exposed to before being on set. Frances McDormand was really good at making her mastery feel completely natural. I would walk on set and Frances would just be doing her thing, and then we would roll a scene and she would be brilliant. Then we would cut, and she’d go back to doing her thing. She made it seem so intuitive, and Philip was very focused. Very, very deliberate in how he would do things and why he would do them, and that sort of thing. Getting this gravity on set, that was Philip. It was amazing because I was not familiar with Philip. Cameron told me, “That guy is an amazing actor and he’s going to be one of the best actors as the years go on. He’s going to be the fucking guy.”
And that happened.
Oh yeah. This was at a time when we’re coming off of Pacino and De Niro being those apex heightens of acting, before the next generation, like Philip and guys like him who have a different style than those sort of ’70s and ’80s titans. It was right before that, and I was like, okay, that’s cool. I could definitely tell he was a fucking serious actor. There’s a lot of gravity to him being on set, but then obviously getting to see how he evolved from there is pretty amazing.
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