It was all happening for Patrick Fugit on the set of Almost Famous. At just 16, the then-newcomer found himself being directed by Cameron Crowe and sharing the screen with Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Fugit, now 38, played William Miller in the 2000 film, a high school student who gets the chance to write a story about rock band Stillwater for Rolling Stone. He hits the road with the group, leaving behind his worried mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), to enter a world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Lead singer Russell Hammond (Crudup) didn’t make it easy for William to meet his deadline. In real life, the Morning Show actor, 53, didn’t make it easy for the wardrobe department either.
“Billy did not look to me to feed his ego or to do anything like that. Billy liked hanging out with me. Billy was awesome,” Fugit exclusively told Us Weekly. “When we were on set, we really just were hanging out and laughing. He liked pratfalls and I was really into pratfalls at the time. So we would do pratfalls and wardrobe would get pissed at Billy because I would have grass stains on my T-shirts. They’d go to Billy and be like, ‘What the f–k is going on Billy? You’re an adult. This is a 16-year-old kid. We should expect more from him, but you are for sure the adult. You should not be doing pratfalls with Patrick when he has to be camera ready in 20 minutes. Like, what are you thinking?’ We were just having so much fun.”
Admittedly, Crudup did rag on Fugit at times though. “Billy was very complimentary about me, too, to my parents. He never said this to my face while we were filming — because he had a chip on his shoulder — that he struggled his way through Broadway and off-Broadway theater and stuff like that. He’s a trained actor and I’m, like, some redneck from Salt Lake City, Utah, and kind of lucked out,” he explained. “They would constantly give me sh-t for that. But then I found out later that he would go and say to my mom very complimentary things about me.”
Hoffman also took him under his wing in his own way. The Oscar winner guided him in one scene between William and his character, music journalist Lester Bangs, which later gave Fugit the confidence to speak up on future projects.
“Philip was a pro and a heavy, heavy hitter. He didn’t really give me notes on my scenes. That wasn’t his style,” Fugit recalled to Us. “But what he did do, when we were filming the scene in the diner, William and Lester are talking about the methods that William should use. And William is sort of taking notes and looking up at him and loving life and loving this lesson. And when we filmed that there was a huge light that was put outside the window that was shiny and kind of right in my eyes. And I could not keep my eyes open while I was looking at Philip’s space. And it was super distracting. My eyes would water up and I’d start squinting really bad. So I would look down at my notepad and I would play most of the scene just to take notes, like, not acting really.”
“I didn’t know how to overcome the scene. They gave me some tips where you can look at the light with your eyes closed and then you look away and open your eyes and it’s supposed to make it better. That has never worked in 22 years of f—king acting as many times as I tried it. And it didn’t work that day, so I was getting frustrated. I was worried because Philip is serious and everybody’s watching, and I’m supposed to be doing a good job, but I can’t keep my eyes on Philip,” he continued, noting that Hoffman could tell that something was wrong. “He stops the whole thing and he’s like, ‘All right, guys. I’m not doing this anymore. Patrick can’t even look at me. The kid can’t even f—king act. He’s got this light shining in his face. You got to move the light or dim it or something.’ He was in Lester Bangs’ headspace so he was pretty aggressive about it. John Toll, who was our brilliant DP, was like, ‘Well, I don’t know that I want to move the light or dim it. I think it looks very good. So I don’t think you get to tell me what to do with my lights.’”
Luckily, Hoffman eventually got his way once Crowe stepped in. “And after the tape where they fixed everything, Phil kind of looked at me like, ‘Hey man, you know, I’ll give you that one, but, like, that’s up to you. You have to be sure to stand up for yourself. If you’re in a situation where you can’t get the stuff done that you need to get done for the scene, you need to speak up. … People aren’t going to know about some light when they watch the movie. All they’ll know is that you didn’t do a good job at the scene.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good point.’”
Fugit noted that he had “no inclination” to speak up at that point in production, but he learned to do so in a professional matter.
“It was kind of Philip’s way of passing me that lesson,” Fugit noted. “Like, ‘Hey man, you’re here to do your work and if you can’t do it because of some external thing, you have to say something.’” (Hoffman died 14 years later of an apparent drug overdose at age 46.)
Surprisingly, Fugit would instead redo another scene if he could. Following Russell and Penny Lane’s (Hudson) split, William stands up for her when the band starts to freak out on a plane that is seemingly about to crash.
“That’s maybe one of the scenes in the film that I have always kind of thought, ‘I wish I could get another go at that one,’” the First Man actor revealed. “I think it turned out well enough, but as my knowledge of my own skill set and as my experience changed throughout the years and evolved, I will see that scene and be like, ‘Man, I could have done more. I could have done better.’ But I do remember being nervous. My mom kind of taught me this idiom from when I was a child. She teaches ballet. She’s, like, master level ballet professor. She would always tell me, ‘Hey, pressure is just another opportunity that’s waiting to be taken advantage of.’ And I was like, ‘OK, that’s a comforting way to look at it when I’m about to puke before a take or whatever.’ But then I would think about that. So that was one of the things I thought about before that scene.”
And he wasn’t kidding about the puking part. “They had a fuselage, a real airplane on top of a hydraulic system and some crazy person over in the corner would move the miniature and then the hydraulics would mimic his movement. So he was shaking the fuselage for us while we were filming. We were actually getting tossed around during that whole scene,” he told Us. “And so everybody’s got to do their performance that they’re giving while hyperventilating, while being tossed around and having motion sickness. It took a long time as well. It might’ve taken a day and a half to film that.”
William’s crush on Penny, meanwhile, is something Fugit could relate to. “What was great about Kate is that she sort of comes into a room and as soon as she’s in the room, it doesn’t matter who was in there before, whether that’s Cameron or Billy or Steven Spielberg, or any of the heads of DreamWorks’ production team. It’s Kate’s room at that point. And that’s how Kate was in her personal life. And that’s kind of the effect Penny Lane has. As soon as Penny Lane comes into those hotel rooms, it’s not the Stillwater room anymore. It’s all of a sudden Penny Lane, which is part of how William becomes infatuated with her and raptured with her, her presence and just her energy. Kate was really doing hard work,” he told Us. “She was really putting all of herself into that performance. I know she really wanted that role and she worked very hard just to get the role. As they had planned on casting somebody else.”
Initially, Hudson was going to play Anita, which ultimately went to Zooey Deschanel, Fugit revealed. “They had the casting open up, Kate went for it, campaigned for it, talked to Cameron a bunch of times and they gave it to her. And so she really had a lot to prove on set. She was full on committed and passionate, which were great lessons for me because she was only three years older than me,” he told Us. “She was 19 at the time. I was 16. I had my own inhibitions. I was going through puberty. I had a big crush on her. I had all my sort of neuroses wrapped up behind the character. Seeing her just so freely commit to everything that we were doing, it sort of gave me permission to drop my inhibitions.”
One of William and Penny’s standout moments occurred during the comedy-drama’s distinctive scene: the sing-along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on the band’s tour bus.
Fugit “was not super familiar with the song” when they filmed but knew enough to sing along. William followed Penny’s lead as one by one everyone belted out the hit to ease some awkward tension.
“There were things that Cameron wanted to really prep and really make sure we had down. But that scene was going to rely on such a transition of tone and energy that we really didn’t rehearse it at all. He wanted all of the sort of small mistakes in trying to match the lyrics that people were going to make. He wanted it to feel very raw and unpracticed and spontaneous. So we didn’t rehearse that one at all,” he explained. “And that came in a time where everybody was really sort of on the same page and fully in the flow of production. I think we shot that scene over the course of two full days, which is crazy. …Front of the bus, back of the bus and then everywhere in between. All of the little connections between the characters and what’s going on with them, it all got filmed. And so we were singing ‘Tiny Dancer’ for two straight days.”
Fugit never got sick of it, though — for the most part. “I loved it,” he said. “It was an amazing acting exercise. If you do something that many times in a row, you start to find new layers of what’s going on with the character and what’s going on with the different characters’ relationships in the film. It’s hugely valuable. Now, after the film came out, when I would go to a bar and then people at the bar would play ‘Tiny Dancer,’ that’s when I started cringing.”
Fugit would go on to work with Cameron again in 2011’s We Bought a Zoo. He bumped into Crudup a few years ago in New York and “Kate, I haven’t seen in forever,” he told Us.
The coming-of-age film, which turned 21 this year, continues to find new audiences. Even back then, those on set knew they were creating something significant.
“They told me it was special, people who were there. Not Cameron. Obviously, he’s not sitting there telling me like, ‘Hey, this film I’m making is special,’” Fugit joked to Us. “But the wardrobe people, my set teacher, they were like, ‘Patrick, this is very special. Like the amount of care and craft that’s being put into this project is unbelievable. And DreamWorks is really behind it. And the story itself and the performances that are happening are unique and it will resonate through time.’ They were like, ’It’s going to be a classic.’”
He continued: “But I had no grasp really of how much it would universally resonate with audiences. And over time. I know people who were not even born when we filmed who tell me it’s their favorite film. And that’s kind of a true testament to that and to Cameron sort of, you know, hit the vibration that you can tune into with audiences. It’s really amazing the way that he does that. Kind of just plays to everybody’s heartstrings.”
In honor of its anniversary, Almost Famous was released in a 4K Ultra HD in a limited-edition Steelbook, as well as in a new limited-edition Blu-ray on July 13.