How A 16-Year-Old Patrick Fugit Landed His Part In Almost Famous

"Almost Famous" is easily one of the best coming-of-age films of the past few decades. Just about everyone with a pulse is touched by this road film about an aspiring young rock journalist that joins a band on tour in the early 1970s as they grapple with their newfound commercial success. The cult classic is made all the more compelling by the breakout performance from the teenage lead, Patrick Fugit.

Writer-director Cameron Crowe and casting director Gail Levin were "late in the process" before they stumbled upon Fugit's self-taped audition, Crowe revealed to The filmmaker achieved huge commercial success with his previous films, "Say Anything" and "Jerry Maguire." By contrast, Fugit was "a complete unknown from Salt Lake City, Utah," as the actor himself admitted. Luckily for the 16-year-old, "​​it turns out that was exactly the kind of thing [Crowe] wanted."

William, the protagonist of "Almost Famous," has an innocent sensibility that makes him stand out backstage among the pot-smoking, free-loving rockstars. Fugit's lack of experience in the industry made him perfect for the role. "He was a pure soul, an authentic Utah kid with a bowl cut and a funny, put-upon manner," Crowe recalled, per Independent. "He waved his arms around a lot. He made us laugh."

Fugit thought the movie was about politics

Patrick Fugit actually found out about "Almost Famous" because a friend of his was auditioning for the lead role, according to an interview with Independent. "He needed a ride to do this audition tape at his agency," the actor remembered. "And I was like, 'OK, cool,' and I listened to him do it outside the room." Fugit continued, "Afterward, I was like, 'These scenes are very good — what is this film?'" His friend told Fugit it was a Cameron Crowe picture and introduced him to the films "Say Anything" and "Jerry Maguire."

The premise of "Almost Famous" was totally shrouded in mystery during the early audition process. "[The audition scenes] were all written to be about a political journalist following a politician on his campaign, because Cameron didn't want to let on that it was about music at first," Fugit explained. He filmed "three random, rapid-fire scenes throughout" that included his introduction to Penny Lane and their confrontation in the forest, per Of course, Fugit had no idea he would be delivering those lines to a groupie — sorry, band-aid — played by Kate Hudson.

Two months after submitting his audition tape, the teenage actor got a call to Utah from Hollywood — he had received a callback. "They flew me and my mom out to LA first class and put us up in a hotel and I did my audition there," Fugit told Independent. "Anyway, I went up into Cameron's office and I didn't know what he looked like. But there he was, this guy with long dark hair, a T-shirt, a pair of cargo shorts on and, I think, he was in flip flops. He was super informal."

Crowe kept Fugit innocent for the sake of the role

Cameron Crowe seemed more laid back than Patrick Fugit expected at his "Almost Famous" callback, but the director caught him totally off guard with a slew of music-related questions. "At this point, I still thought the movie was about politics," the actor admitted. "So I told him I wasn't into music at all." Fugit told Crowe that he liked Green Day and owned the new Chumbawamba album, so Crowe played him some music and recorded his reactions.

"Almost Famous" was a huge break for Fugit, but Crowe was careful to maintain his innocence during the film's production. "I wasn't into party stuff, I wasn't really looking for it," Fugit admitted to Screen Rant. "But even if I had been, Cameron was like, 'We gotta keep this kid's naivete intact. We gotta keep how green he is intact. Nobody is gonna be offering him drinks or to smoke pot.'" Crowe's goal was that anything Fugit was experiencing for the first time, he'd be experiencing in front of the camera. Not everyone onset was as committed to maintaining Fugit's innocence as the director. "There were other castmates that had a kind of side mission to corrupt me," Fugit joked. "But between my mom, who was there, and the hawk crew [of the set teacher and set acting coach] and Cameron, it just was not going to happen." 

The director kept it real

The 16-year-old actor also had to maintain his high school education while shooting, which created a natural separation between him and the older cast. "I would go to set and I would work and then I would go do school in the trailer while everybody else was playing Allman Brothers on acoustic guitars," Fugit lamented to Screen Rant. "We had some amazing musicians in there and they're playing their own music, and they're playing rock 'n' roll together, all in costume in the dressing room of an actual concert venue, and I'd be like, 'Cool, I'm gonna go learn some geography, I'll be back in 40 minutes whenever we're ready [to film] again.'" Fugit said that as much as he feels he missed out on a lot of the fun his castmates got to experience, in hindsight, he knows it was a good thing. "It kept me feeling like the outsider that William really was."

The fictional band Stillwater is loosely based on the Allman Brothers (among other bands) whom Cameron Crowe joined on tour as a young rock journalist himself. A huge chunk of the film was based on Crowe's experience with the Allman Brothers, including when Russell jumps off of a roof into a pool and his sabotage of William's interview — Gregg Allman confirmed it himself in his memoir "My Cross to Bear." Crowe wanted Fugit to remain as innocent as he was when he joined the band on the road so that the film would be true to his own experience as a teenager, and it worked. The young actor gives an incredibly compelling performance because he is so touchingly naive in a thoroughly indulgent and dangerous world. Innocence can't be maintained forever, but things worked out for Crowe in the end — just as they do for William.