Eddie Murphy Speaks: The Rolling Stone Interview

After years of silence, the comedian who changed everything opens up about going back to stand-up, 'Saturday Night Live,' the Oscars and more

November 9, 2011 4:45 PM ET
Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy
Photo: Mark Seliger

It's a glorious thing, hearing Eddie Murphy say "fuck" again. Few people ever said it better – and down here in the basement of the stone-and-marble mansion he built on a Beverly Hills cliff, it's coming from his lips often enough to make Shrek blush. "Come on, motherfucker," Murphy shouts, over the throb of James Brown's "Hot Pants" on a formidable sound system.

The motherfucker in question is a bowling ball, which is speeding down the center of one of the two polished lanes of the alley Murphy keeps here, along with an arcade full of video games and a blue-lit "club room," inspired by a similar space in his new friend Brett Ratner's house. Hanging in a corner, above an electric keyboard, is Ernie Barnes' iconic painting Sugar Shack – as seen on the cover of Marvin Gaye's I Want You and in the opening credits of Good Times. It is, of course, the original.

Murphy's ball veers to the side, leaving a couple of pins standing. He throws his muscled arms up in exaggerated agony: "Asshole!" Cartoon versions of the pins pop up on the scorekeeping screens overhead, which he's helpfully labeled EDDIE and BRIAN. As he trounces me two rounds in a row (hitting 156 the second time), Murphy sings along loudly to the music, breaking into hip-shaking dance moves and unleashing his SNL-era impression of Brown's signature "Unh!"

It's quickly clear that even at age 50, even after a long run of roles he describes as "family stuff, guys in suits with perfect hair," Murphy's delirious, essential Eddie-ness is intact. His part as a street-smart petty thief in his latest movie, the Ratner-directed Tower Heist, is a similar affirmation – at an early screening, the audience roared when he simply said, "Shut up, bitch." "I haven't done a streety guy, working class, blue-collar character in ages," Murphy says. "So maybe it's like, 'Oh, wow, I didn't remember he was able to do that.'"

When Murphy first emerges today, meeting me on a wicker couch facing a gigantic TV on a shaded veranda behind his house, he seems reserved, cautious, his eyes shielded by black-rimmed sunglasses. Just inside, pictures of his many children are arranged on a shelf, near a bar counter that holds various awards, as well as pictures of him with Muhammad Ali and Barack Obama – the president looks even more excited to be meeting Murphy than vice versa.

This is Murphy's first extended print interview in many years, so his wariness is understandable: He half-jokes that when he posed for his last magazine cover, they printed his smiling picture underneath the headline "Eddie Ain't Shit." He's wearing a gray T-shirt with a LiveStrong logo on the front, black jeans, a diamond-studded watch and a diamond ring not much smaller than a golf ball. His shoes are polished black leather, until he switches to sparkly black running shoes to bowl. At first, we just watch TV for a while as he sips from a Dr. Brown's soda – live coverage of the Conrad Murray trial; a few minutes of Casino ("I think it's funny when Pesci hits Rickles with the phone"); a Good Times episode that Murphy instantly recognizes as the one where they think there's dog food in the old lady's meatloaf. "It was so easy back then," he sighs, as the studio audience laughs.

Murphy has his many TVs wired into an archive of his DVD collection, which he seems to have memorized – and he plays me a good chunk of it over the course of the day: a couple of Sly Stone performances, including one where he jammed with Richard Pryor on drums; a 1993 Montreux Jazz Festival show with Murphy fronting his own top-of-the-line funk band; a Soul Train appearance by Joe Tex (with Murphy mocking his "I Gotcha" as a "rape song"); a fake trailer put together by Ratner for a prospective Spinal Tap-style movie called Soul Soul Soul, starring Murphy as a veteran soul singer who's constantly complaining about being ripped off by other artists ("I didn't kill Berry Gordy's cat," he explains. "I had Berry Gordy's cat killed, and he knows why!").

After we bowl, we head toward a small sitting room for the bulk of the interview, displacing his statuesque young girlfriend, who had been watching Annie Hall on the room's inevitable television. On a coffee table is the photo book The Beatles: 365 Days, a Life magazine with John Lennon on the cover and an Elvis Presley book or two. Murphy doesn't introduce his girlfriend, but she smiles at us, asking, "Who won?"

"Who do you think?" he says, adding quickly, "He did good." (I didn't.) Murphy picks up a Paul Reed Smith electric guitar – the kind Carlos Santana plays – plugs it into a tweed Fender amp, and sings in his elastic tenor: bits of Bob Marley; Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley songs, some of Michael's "The Way You Make Me Feel" in Elvis' voice; a newly written, and quite pretty, original love song by Murphy; an improvised blues parody ("I'm a tooth chipper, a busted lipper, a badass kicker/ And I deliver the punch, fight and fuck like no other"). Then, at last, we talk, with Murphy still strumming his guitar as the sun sets over the hills outside.

You had a great line about showbiz: "You get born only once in this business, but you can die again and again."
I said that? You can die again and again. But I've been making movies for so long that now it's all just one body of work. If you have a flop movie, so what? And if you have a hit movie, it's "so what," too, it's on to the next movie. If I do something and I die in it, at least I took a chance. There's this little box that African-American actors have to work in, in the first place, and I was able to rise above that box. I could have done a bunch of movies where I stayed as the Axel Foley or Reggie Hammond persona. But I didn't want to be doing the same thing all the time. Every now and then, you crash and burn, but that's part of it.

When your career hit its first bumps at the end of the Eighties, people seemed eager to say you were washed up.
You have to remember, there was no hip-hop back then, or hip-hop was still novelty music, and for years I'm the whipping boy. Anybody that wanted to vent, I was the one. I got a lot of shit that wasn't fair. The root of it was racist. If I was rubbing you the wrong way, at the core of it was some racist shit: "Look at this arrogant nigger, two thumbs waaaay down" [laughs]. Then I wasn't helping, either. I wasn't giving no humble pie: "Fuck y'all, suck my dick, motherfucker!"

The Nutty Professor was a big turnaround in 1996. How did that come about?
I had a bunch of movies that didn't work. People were saying, "Eddie's not good," so I was like, "Not good? Let me show you what I can fucking do. I'll do something where I play all these different characters." It's a trip, it seems every five or six years, you have to do something to remind them that they like you. Then you get offered a bunch of stuff, because you were in a hit, and some of the movies might be shitty, but they throw so much paper at you that you can't say no to it. That happens a bunch in this town. The problem when you're doing those flicks for a lot of paper, though, is on TV they show your hit right next to your flop, on there forever.

Is it still possible to offer you enough money to do a lousy movie?
It would be harder – I don't whore myself out as easily as I used to. I don't think about money. But I am still from Brooklyn. So in a couple of months, you'll see me at a press conference: "Yes, we are doing Holy Man 2. I can't wait – it's a real roller coaster, about the triumph of the human spirit. Back when we were working on the first Holy, I knew we had something special" [laughs].

Right before Nutty Professor, you made Vampire in Brooklyn with Wes Craven. How did that happen?
The only way I was able to do Nutty Professor and to get out of my Paramount deal, I had to do Vampire in Brooklyn. But you know what ruined that movie? The wig. I walked out in that longhaired wig and people said, "Oh, get the fuck out of here! What the hell is this?" [Laughs] It's those little things. Like one of my youngest daughters, Bella, she was eight and she'd never seen The Golden Child, but as soon as it came on, she was like, "Wait, are you going to have that hat on the whole movie?" I said, "Yeah..." She said, "I can't watch the movie. That hat is horrible!" [Laughs]

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