Q&A: Bill Murray
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.