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Q&A: Bill Murray

After years of broad comedy, bad temper and epic benders, the comedian is now one big-deal serious actor — they’re already talking Oscar for ‘Lost in Translation’

Bill Murray

Actor Bill Murray poses during a photocall at the 60th Venice Film Festival, August 29th, 2003.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

I met Bill Murray in the Mercer Hotel in Lower Manhattan’s SoHo, past the big front doors and the hipster-crowded lobby, up the elevator and through a network of halls to the room where he was waiting, as in a video game when you reach the highest level, where the master waits for the final showdown behind the screen. For those of us who grew up in the suburbs in the 1980s, Murray has always been the master, the best guide to a malaise-free life.

He is a big planet of a man, lost in an orbit of assistants and helpers and room-service deliveries. We talked about his life in movies, specifically his new film, Lost in Translation, in which he plays a big planet of a man, a married movie star who has broken free of blockbuster junk and drifted away to a plush hotel in Japan, where he is entangled in a disorienting late-life romance with a young woman, played by Scarlett Johansson. Sofia Coppola, who directed the film, wrote the part with Murray in mind. And it does suggest a window on his inner world, the aging, wizened Hollywood star seeking a respite from a hectic, overused life (the twice-married Murray, 52, has five children and lives in New York with wife Jennifer Butler). It’s a performance akin to the sexual and personal frankness of Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris — something painful and hard-earned revealed. In this, Coppola represents a generation of young directors who, as Murray has moved into middle age, have helped uncover the pathos that lurks beneath his comedy. Directors such as Wes Anderson, who sparked this reinvention with Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, grew up on Murray’s comic performances, and so understands that those roles always relied on something deeper, an absurdist pose that suggests an entire system of belief. Bill Murray is not Bob Hope or Jim Carrey; he is Humphrey Bogart.

I heard that early in your career you got a soap-on-a-rope microphone and it changed your life.
That’s true. It was such a brilliant idea, a soap-on-a-rope microphone so you can sing in the shower. That was my first season of Saturday Night Live, and I struggled. I was always playing second cop or second FBI agent. It was difficult being the new guy. So, in the way a dog can become your only friend, I became attached to this soap on a rope. I would sing my guts out in the shower. And it turned into a sketch. This guy introduces characters: “Let’s bring my neighbor into the shower!” I pull back the curtain, and there’s Buck Henry. He gets into the shower and says, “You’re having an affair with my wife.” I say, “OK, let’s get her in here!” So we’re all in the shower doing this gut-wrenching scene.

You were in a shower on the show?
Yeah. I got drenched. After that, things changed for me.

In one scene in Lost in Translation, you take off on a bender, one of those epic nights that most of us don’t have past a certain age. Do you go out like that now?
It becomes harder to do because a) you’ve got other responsibilities, and b) there’s tethers on you. It still happens, but it doesn’t happen like it used to. It used to happen every week. When I had that Saturday Night Live job, it was so much pressure, and you felt like you needed new material all the time. Not just comedy material but emotional material, and you needed to blow it out.

What makes a night a great one?
It’s when you just let yourself get taken. And remain aware that you’re getting taken — because you get taken all the time anyway, when you’re not conscious. But if you can consciously let yourself get taken and see where you go, that’s an exercise. That’s discipline. To follow the scent. Let yourself go and see what happens, that takes a bit of courage. And if you’re with people you don’t know, it’s even more scary.

There is a line in the film when you say there is no moment more frightening than when your first child is born.
People only talk about what a joyous experience it is, but there is terror: Your life, as you know it, is over. It’s over the day that child is born. It’s over, and something completely new starts.

There is a scene of you in the film hitting a golf ball. Great shot. Is that really you?
Yeah. Fuckin’ crushed it. I crushed it. That course is Mount Fuji.

Is that normally how you hit?
When I hit it good, I hit it like that, but I was a little bit more alert. I had cool clothes on, and I had a wooden persimmon driver. As they say in the post-game interview, I wanted to put a good swing on it. And I crushed it. And that was my day’s work. The crew went back to shoot in town, and I played the rest of the course.

Where did you play growing up?
Indian Hill Golf Club [in Winnetka, Illinois]. I caddied there from the time I was ten until eighteen. Most of the characters in Caddyshack were based on people at Indian Hill. My brother Brian, who wrote the script with Doug Kenney, caddied there. A lot of it was based on my brother Ed’s experience. But what was your point? I totally interrupted you.

I didn’t have a point.
Oh, great.

The part in this film was written with you in mind. Were you aware of that?
I’d heard about it. We have a mutual friend who would tell me this script was coming. I saw a lot of elements of my experience in it. I certainly have been in that situation of being very far away from home and dissatisfied and meeting someone who is also dissatisfied — also being a movie actor and at the mercy of someone who may or may not have the right or ability to suggest things for you to do. But if someone says, “I have a script I wrote for you,” it’s usually not good. Sometimes I read it and go, “You wrote this? No, I wrote it, because these are all lines from my funny movies.”

Starting with Rushmore, you have been getting parts with more heft. How do you see the trajectory of your career?
I’ve had the luxury of being able to take time, do it at my own tempo. You can’t force people to see you a different way. I think The Razor’s Edge is a pretty good movie. But at the time [1984], it was just as reviled as any other comedian doing a serious thing now. Like The Majestic [with Jim Carrey], movies where comedians go straight, people don’t like them.

It angers people, like you’re taking something away from them.
That’s the response I got. I thought, “Well, aren’t we all bigger than that?” I wasn’t shocked by it, but I thought that the professional critics would be able to say, “OK, we shouldn’t rule this out, because the guy normally does other stuff.” Unless it’s really despicable, then you have to just jump with both feet on the neck.

So why the improvement in roles?
The scripts keep getting better. It’s partly the fact that I don’t take all the jobs. You find yourself trying to create something that doesn’t have integrity. The first movies I did, the scripts were not there. You have to make it up every day. So after a while you think, “Well, I can make things happen, but I’d like to have something that is better-built.” When you start, all you wanna do is work. But as life interrupts, it’s not just about your career. When you don’t take those jobs, you see other people take them and flounder. Either he didn’t know how to make up for what was missing, or the director said, “This is how it has to be.” I don’t want to have that argument. I’ve had it and can win it, but it’s exhausting. You don’t want to be in the Philippines when the director says, “Let’s just do it as written.” I’ve had that situation. I say, “Send me a postcard.”

Did you do any movies that you thought were a mistake?
I was in Kingpin, which some people thought was too raunchy. It was worth it for the hair.

How did you do your hair for that movie? It was like a streamer on a kite.
When I got to the set, I said to Woody [Harrelson], “What are you doing with your hair?” He said, “Comb-over.” I said, “Me, too.”

You were born and raised in Illinois. Do you think there’s anything particularly Midwestern about your humor?
I think so. People from the Midwest are funny — like [Chris] Farley, he was funny. They make you feel comfortable. That’s how I look at people when watching a movie. I say, “OK, he makes me comfortable. He knows what he’s doing. Nothing to shock or touch, but he knows what he’s doing.” I don’t worry about going, “Oh, Christ, what sappy crap is this guy going to come up with, because he does it every time.”

You talk a lot about the Midwest and good manners. Do people who lack manners bother you?
I’ve managed to meet more people than most. Because you meet so many people, you meet a lot of nasty people, and if you’re a human being it bothers you when you have a bad experience with someone. I’ve found myself still bleeding about it years later. A jerk can make you act like a jerk because… a bad person will just keep pushing the bad button and, OK, here it comes, you’re the sorry son of a bitch that’s going to get my wrath. I used to think that, ’cause there was a righteous-indignation thing I used to have, and still have on occasion, that it was OK to let that fly. But you really gotta pick your fights, you gotta be much more judicious than I once thought. You gotta hold it in. You lose a lot of energy that way.

Did you think you were correcting the bad behavior of the world?
Yeah, I used to spend a lot of time trying to correct people’s manners. If someone came up to me, I would say, “I’m from Illinois, and back there we introduce ourselves before we ask for anything.”

But you seem to have an easier time with fame than your contemporaries. You don’t seem to fight it as much.
I had great help in that area. I was able to go in behind John [Belushi] and Danny [Aykroyd]. They were my friends, and they were famous the year before I was. I got to see them, and the truth is, anybody that becomes famous becomes an ass for a year and a half. You gotta give them a year and a half, two years. They are getting so much smoke blown, and their whole world gets so turned upside down, their own responses become distorted. I give everybody a year or two to pull it together. Because when it first happens, I know how it is. But I got to see those guys, and I was still their friend, and they were acting like that around me, and I was like “Oh, man, come on.” And when I went to work, they were still a year and a half ahead of me, at the next level. Nothing can prepare you for it. But I was lucky. To be right behind it was a real blessing for me.

Is it strange working with directors who are so much younger than you?
It can be unpleasant. Not because of age. I have no problems with [Sofia]. She’s well-read and knows history. I met someone whose birthday was November 22nd, and I said, “Oh, national holiday.” And this person said, “Some years it is.” Meaning Thanksgiving. But I was talking about the day John Kennedy got assassinated. And I thought, “Oh, Christ, where am I?”

Are you afraid of getting older, of losing relevance?
I read a great thing about aging once by Henry Miller called “I’m Turning 80.” He was a kook and a character, and he wrote this great thing: People think if you get to be eighty, you’re old, you’re sad. But when you’re eighty, you know how to act eighty. You also know how to act ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty. You can always act ten. You can always flirt with a younger woman. You now have just a bit more… you can be eighty.

I have a sense you were a big reader.
I read everything in the St. Joe’s library when I was a kid. That’s where I went to grade school. Until I was thirteen or fourteen, I read everything. I didn’t care what it was. There weren’t a lot of science books in those days, although that’s what I like now. Like The Way Things Work. Just the words alone are so powerful. I remember reading a poem by Walt Whitman. It spoke of different professions, the words involved in each profession, and I really got it, I understood the power of the word.

Do you still read?
I stopped. I attribute it to a tragic love affair. I fell crazy in love with a girl. Eighth grade. She went for this other guy. And that was it, I didn’t care. And then I went to a high school of all boys, and there it was, no girls in the class, and she didn’t love me anyway. So that’s when I climbed up to the top of the tower and jumped.

Were there any comedians you emulated growing up?
Bob Newhart was a guy I liked a lot. He hosted Saturday Night Live. He’s the squarest, cleanest-cut guy in the world. But he is really, really funny. I think Jack Benny had a groove. Great timing. Those guys were funny, but most comedians go through a period when they’re funny, and then they’re not funny.

Why do they lose that edge?
I don’t know. I think part of it is fame. Fame is a great negative for many people, and it’s difficult to overpower the pressure and flood of false information that comes from it. It’s just the worst thing. But most people think if you get famous, then you have nothing to worry about. What I tell people: If you want to be rich and famous, why not just try rich?

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