Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous is a movie that perfectly reflects the beloved coming-of-age rite of passage. It’s a film that innately understands that experience is what shapes us, molds us into who we are and teaches us the painfully valuable lessons of adulthood that remain embedded in our very souls. If that sounds a bit over-the-top, well, that’s alright. Since its release 20 years ago, Almost Famous does a great job on its own of capturing the essence of lost innocence while remaining hopeful about the future. In the end, it knows that the bumps and bruises we endure as we grow up are all apart of the process.
The movie, based on Crowe’s own teenage experience as a rock journalist, revolves around Patrick Fugit’s William Miller, a kind, wise-beyond-his-years 15-year-old struggling to find his place in the world of awkward and terrifying hormonal adolescence.
When his writing talent lands him a gig for Rolling Stone, he goes on tour with the rising band Stillwater, against the wishes of his college professor mother, played by the always-brilliant Frances McDormand. With the help of his rock critic mentor Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and legendary “Band Aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William is thrust into an adult world he isn’t remotely ready for and must navigate first love, isolation, the painful reality that true friends are hard to come by, drug-fueled rock stars and everything else the 1970s has to offer.
This warm-hearted and endearing tale that sees both children and adults grow through their experiences works for an avalanche of reasons. But the driving force behind its understated brilliance is the fresh-faced Fugit, a virtual unknown at the time from Salt Lake City, Utah, who was cast when he was just 16-years-old. In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary this month, Observer spoke with Fugit to discuss his experience on the movie, screen testing with Brad Pitt, sharing scenes with the intimidatingly professional Philip Seymour Hoffman and his outlook on it all two decades later.
Observer: Almost Famous was the biggest project you had ever auditioned for. What as your initial reaction when you first started to realize how serious and important this was?
Patrick Fugit: I had planned on [acting] since a really young age. So, once I found out more about who Cameron Crowe was and what the project was going to be and who was involved, it added some pressure. But my parents had always taught me that pressure is an opportunity that is waiting to be taken advantage of. So the bigger it got, the more excited I was. I thought, This makes sense. This makes sense that it’s awesome and huge. It’s an even better opportunity than I had imagined. Now, of course, I got more nervous. There’s a lot riding on it for me because it meant so much to me. But it was definitely an exciting expansion of my awareness.
Cameron didn’t really keep it a secret that I had been hired because I was synching up with his vision of the role and also because I was so inexperienced and there was so much in the way that I viewed the world in the way that I was on screen that was natural.
You originally screen tested with Brad Pitt, who was going to play lead guitarist Russell Hammond before he left the project and was replaced by Billy Crudup. How would that iteration have differed from the version we did get?
It’s hard to say. They are both phenomenal actors and they both have very different approaches to portrayal of characters. They both have a very different industry profile. Brad Pitt is obviously a very popular, very famous movie star. Billy Crudup is regarded as a sort of theater crossover, who’s a little under the radar, a little bit of a counterintuitive choice for some roles. I think that’s how he likes to do his thing. I think what would’ve come along with Brad’s involvement would be a gravity that he would’ve brought just from his stardom at the time and his charisma. I think the Russell Hammond character probably would’ve drawn a lot more attention to the character rather than the more immersive feeling that we got with Billy in there.
At the time, if Brad Pitt was in the movie, it was a Brad Pitt movie. So it’s possible that it could’ve been along those lines. It’s also possible that Brad Pitt would’ve turned in a performance that we wouldn’t have expected from him. He’s clearly a great and capable actor. I think it would probably be a question of tone. Where the gravity of the audience would end up settling?
At any point did you draw a parallel between William meeting his musical heroes and being thrust into this crazy world and your own experience as a 16-year-old actor starring in a major motion picture?
Oh yeah, all the time. Cameron didn’t really keep it a secret that I had been hired because I was synching up with his vision of the role and also because I was so inexperienced and there was so much in the way that I viewed the world in the way that I was on screen that was natural. I could give him what he wanted most of the time with concentrated specific planned-out performance. But there was also so much of what’s on screen that Cameron drew out of me naturally by just placing me in a time and place or playing some music or having one of the other actors say something to me that was not scripted.
Do you remember any specific examples?
During scenes that were really rehearsed, I think I could sometimes become too technically focused or too mechanically focused. So Cameron would just start playing songs during the middle of the take or he would start saying things to me while we were in the middle of the scene.
He also liked to plan these little morsels or capsules of interactions. It would be like a set of dialogue interactions that lasted maybe five to 10 seconds at most. These short, sweet interactions that he would have on standby. We had rehearsed them, but they didn’t have a specific time or place in the script. He didn’t have them written as part of a scene. He would just have them ready to go whenever he felt. He would cue one actor and say “OK, let’s do this capsule,” and I would be in the middle of the scene doing what was in the script. Then Kate [Hudson] or someone would walk up to me and start saying this little capsule, and I would recall it from rehearsal and we would do that 10-second interaction. So there were these moments where I was visibly buffering and remembering this little planned capsule and you would get these genuine reactions from me in that sense. Those are very much parallel with William’s filter of this world.
Smart trick. Manipulative in a good way. A Director eliciting what he needs.
Exactly. Hesitation, or shaking—he was so good at that. So much of it was that. I think he needed someone that was not very refined or experienced to have those genuine responses to everything going on.
I was like, “I went to theater school.” Philip Seymour Hoffman would say, “No, what plays?” and I would list off all these summer program plays and shit. And he was like, “OK, so nothing legitimate.” He would give me shit, but he was very kind to me in regards to being supported.
Even though it was a supporting role, this is an all-time Philip Seymour Hoffman performance. He was also an actor with a reputation of being understandably demanding of his scene partners on set. How did you work together? What was that dynamic like?
Like I said before, my parents communicating their perspective of pressure to me also came along with a pressurized environment. My mom is a no-shit master level ballet teacher, so we took ballet whether we wanted to or not. That is a very pressurized environment and it is very demanding. And so I had become sort of used to a creative environment that was very demanding of me, so I was never off-put by Philip’s professional intensity.
And he was never mean to me or anything like that. He would rib me and give me shit because I was so lucky. He would be like, “You’re 16, what theater have you done?” and I was like, “I went to theater school.” He would say, “No, what plays?” and I would list off all these summer program plays and shit. And he was like, ‘OK, so nothing legitimate.’ He would give me shit, but he was very kind to me in regards to being supported. It’s not like he’s going to leave me hanging or anything like that. He came to work and expected the same of me, which is what you should do.
You were 16, Kate Hudson was around 19 or 20. A very young actor. Did you at all feel on the same page as Kate or was it a totally different level?
We were and probably still are from different realities. When and where does this real world occur where we cross paths is crazy to me. It’s brilliant on camera and it was also the dynamic between myself and Kate a lot of the time. Kate was raised with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and they have a very different existence from, basically, a redneck from Salt Lake City, Utah. I was excited to meet her and I was really enjoying working with her. But at the same time, she was used to everything that was going on. I was so fascinated with everything—the way the film was loaded into the camera, why they were changing lenses, or why the light is where it is. All that sort of thing. She was completely used to it; nothing fazed her in terms of the Hollywood aspect of it and it very much fazed me because I was not used to any of it. So it was very different.
There are so many great scenes between the Golden God moment, the phone conversations with Lester, the famous deflowering scene. Is there one that sticks out to you as the most difficult to shoot?
Anything that very difficult was near the end of filming. I was very tired physically and mentally. We were filming a limo scene where we were crossing a bridge in New York City and the band finds out that William has been deflowered. It’s a great scene, but I was super tired and we had to shut down an actual bridge. So we had to show up on set at like 4:30 a.m. and start filming as the sun came up, otherwise New Yorkers were just going to drive through our set anyway. But during that scene, Billy had to kick my seat to wake me up when it was my line. Cameron was like, “Bro, you got to stay awake and you got to hit your line.” I was like, “I’m fucking trying, I’m obviously not taking naps during the take on purpose.” [Laughs.]
The movie comes out to critical acclaim but poor box office performance. How did that feel?
I think it was probably more disappointing for the people who paid for it. [Laughs.]
It was a strange experience. It was my first time being that involved in a production and then seeing the final product. This was nearly a year of my life, from auditioning to two months of rehearsals to, five months or something of actual filming. And then we started the press tours and all the interviews and stuff after that and the premieres and the film festivals. So it was a huge portion of my life at that point. And to see all of that just cut down to about 90 minutes is shocking. You’re like Wow, that’s it?
There is so much more that was going on, all the scenes that got edited out, all the character interactions were edited out, things about my performance that I thought for sure was going to be in the movie but wasn’t. It was my first time seeing the cause-and-effect of all that but also trying to track the reaction. It was like, “We made a great movie, right? Did we make a good movie?” I couldn’t tell. I think it’s great, but I can’t remove myself from it as the experience. So it’s hard to tell. It seemed more like a synopsis to me of the experience than a capturing of it, which is funny, but I learned a lot through watching how that movie came out and what the response was to it. There are sometimes where I appreciate hearing what critics have to say or I will seek a critic’s acclaim or otherwise on a film, but I rarely do it when it comes to any type of art.
I like to kind of absorb the art in the experience and decide what I think of it myself. Definitely part of the reason why I like to do that is how Almost Famous came out, and how it was received, and how it did in box office. It’s like a reality that, if you have a main character that is just some unknown kid from Utah, and you don’t have a Brad Pitt in there to sort of draw the gravity, people may not notice what’s going on right away. Almost Famous was, at that point, a film that you really had to have a conversation with. You had to opt in to Almost Famous and sit down and start watching it, and, by the time you realize you’re really into it, you’re fully into it, I think.
Twenty years later, are you tired of speaking about the movie to people like me? How has it framed and shaped your career?
I live in Los Angeles, and I’m able to support myself by acting in film and TV. And that’s exactly what I had in mind all the way back in grade school. That was the plan, and Almost Famous and Cameron and Gail Leven and Andrew Brown, who are the casting directors, really gifted me the opportunity to do that and to keep doing that, so I am always grateful to talk about Almost Famous, particularly to people who it resonates with.
Part of the reason that you would want to create and produce and publicly put out art is to attract those who resonate with it. And there’s never a time where I’ll sit down and talk to someone about Almost Famous and afterward be like, God, I hate that guy. It’s always a good resonance, and I’m really grateful to be a part of it. And it’s also afforded me more opportunities to work with directors like Damien Chazelle, David Fincher, I worked with Cameron again. And to do weird little indie films like Wristcutters, stuff like that. I get to live the career that I planned on, and it’s pretty amazing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.