Words by Karen Anne Overton
Bill Murray is one of the most legendary eccentrics in Hollywood. He doesn’t have an agent. He maintains a private phone number that only a select few people can access. Directors often wait months before he will commit to a project, and even Sofia Coppola wasn’t sure he would show up in Tokyo to film 2003’s Lost in Translation, a film that earned several Oscar nominations, including one for Murray as Best Actor.
When people think of Murray, they may think of his penchant for ludicrous outfits, how he hands out $20 dollar bills to homeless people in New York, that he invites himself to strangers’ karaoke parties, or how he once stole a golf cart in Sweden and crashed it. He can be prickly with fellow actors on the set when he feels they take themselves too seriously. During the filming of Groundhog Day, he hired a deaf assistant who spoke only sign language to be an intermediary with director and good friend Harold Ramis, with whom he was feuding at the time.
Murray grew up in Wilmette as the middle child in a family of nine siblings in a traditional Irish Catholic family. He developed his comic skills while part of Chicago’s fabled Second City comedy troupe before Saturday Night Live gave him massive popular appeal while working alongside fellow comic greats John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Dan Aykroyd.
Murray and his brothers caddied at Indian Hill Club in Winnetka to help pay for their Jesuit education at Loyola Academy after their father died when Bill was only 17 years old. The script for hit comedy Caddyshack, which was written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Brian Doyle–Murray (Bill’s older brother) was largely based on the brothers’ experiences as caddies with hilarious results.
Even the scenes of the enormous family around the breakfast table and children clamouring to get into the bathroom were autobiographical.
Though the Murray family didn’t have a lot of money and were crammed head-to-toe in their suburban home, the overall feeling was one of great love and his siblings have talked fondly about the family dinner times being like a stage at which to entertain and practice their comedic timing. Murray’s upcoming film is the highly anticipated, live-action version of The Jungle Book in which he voices the charismatic and loveable Baloo. Due out in April, the film promises to deliver much of the same Disney magic of the original. In the trailer for The Jungle Book, Mowgli is seen floating down a river on the belly of Baloo who is whistling “The Bare Necessities.” This is Murray’s magic—his ability to make any character feel beloved, whether it be one that is newly introduced or the reprising of a classic. At the Toronto International Film Festival, where his movie St. Vincent made its world premiere in September 2014, Bill Murray showed a rarely seen sensitive side to his personality. As the film reached its touching finale, Murray had to wipe away tears from his face. “It’s an emotional movie, but I had to stop crying. I didn’t want to be caught crying when the lights came up or my career would be finished.” After the Toronto audience gave the film a five-minute standing ovation, Murray took to the stage with the rest of the cast wearing a plastic crown and a beauty queen sash. After all, the festival had declared that day “Bill Murray Day.”
Bill, there’s a lot of excitement about the prospect of a female Ghostbusters reboot this summer. What can you say about your time on the original Ghostbusters?
Well, Ghostbusters paid for my children’s college education, which means that they were able to flunk out much earlier than they would have if they had to pay their own way. That was such a big experience for me. It was more than I could handle. I had to leave town, move away, and get out of the country.
What’s different about making movies today as compared to that time in your life?
Back then, movies, we didn’t take them so seriously. It wasn’t such a serious business. We used to do them for fun and because we liked the work. Back then, we really had a lot of fun. Working with that group—Harold Ramis [who died last year], Danny [Aykroyd], Ivan [Reitman], Annie Potts, and [Rick] Moranis—these were all people you’d love to be trapped with for a couple months. Really, true hilarity all the time. You could feel free to try anything you wanted to do and perform for each other. Just perform for each other all the time. And when you do that, it’s a gas.
What did you make of the (Toronto Film Festival 2014) festival declaring a “Bill Murray Day” in your honor?
It was a bit embarrassing, but pleasantly embarrassing. I got into the groove. I did the royal smile and wave. People smiled back. No one threw fruit at me. It was a pretty good day, like a birthday, except with strangers coming up and congratulating you for no real reason. But I will take love in any form. Life isn’t always a barrel of laughs, you know. You gotta make the most of public adulation. The next day they might declare you persona non grata and have you deported if your film really sucks.
Over the past decade or so, you’ve increasingly made your mark in dramatic films playing rather serious characters. Do you feel it’s hard for audiences to appreciate your dramatic work given your legendary status as a comedian?
I like the way you asked that question. Nicely passive-aggressive. I’ve always felt that people who don’t think that comedians are actors are damaged—really damaged. If you’re a real true comedian, you can act. Because it’s the ability to say a line straight that enables you to do comedy properly. It’s usually the irony and the contradiction that makes a line funny and you’re acting being serious when the intent is to make people laugh. Every good comedian is by definition an actor.
Why is comedy seen as less valid than drama?
It’s because we need to associate seriousness and depth and hence quality with drama. But people forget that when you laugh, you’re breaking some sort of tension. You’re untying a knot. Somehow, that’s not something that people take into their emotional bank… even though people value it.
You’ve been described by your co-stars over the years as being a melancholy person. Do you see yourself that way?
Well, I don’t think melancholy is a bad thing, you know. It’s sort of an adult emotion that you get when you realize that the way you see the world and the way you want it to be, aren’t necessarily the way it is—you know? It’s a space in between the ideal and the reality, that’s where the real suffering is. Melancholy is nicer than depressed though. It’s almost like a little bit of “aw, shucks.” But it’s not the same as getting down about things.
One of the remarkable and perhaps odd things about how you work is that you make it difficult for directors and people in the industry to get in touch with you when they want you to work on a film.
I decided at one point in my life that I was fed up with answering the phone and dealing with a lot of crap. It became unmanageable for me and once I created some distance between me and the industry, my life became better and I didn’t feel the pressure to work anymore. I learned while I was at Second City that there’s a lot of honor and nobility in being able to turn down work. You don’t have to take the dog food commercial if you don’t want to. If people want me to do a film, they have to work a little harder to reach me but usually they find a way. I carry a cell phone, even these days, although I don’t always answer it. I text my kids and sometimes they text me back.
Where do you get your particular brand of comic swagger? You have this fearless attitude and a sense that even if you don’t know where a comic riff is taking you you still want to follow through?
I got that from Del Close who was my teacher at Second City. He was incredibly gracious to talent and always tried to further it. He got people to perform beyond their expectations. He really believed that anyone could do it if they were present and showed respect. There was a whole lot of respect. He taught lots and lots of people very effectively. He taught people to commit. Like: “Don’t walk out there with one hand in your pocket unless there’s somethin’ in there you’re going to bring out.” You gotta commit. You’ve gotta go out there and improvise and you’ve gotta be completely unafraid to die. You’ve got to be able to take a chance to die. And you have to die lots. You have to die all the time. You’re goin’ out there with just a whisper of an idea. The fear will make you clench up. That’s the fear of dying.
When you start and the first few lines don’t grab and people are going like, “What’s this? I’m not laughing and I’m not interested,” then you just put your arms out like this and open way up and that allows your stuff to go out. Otherwise it’s just stuck inside you. You’re single these days.
Do you miss being married or in a relationship?
I’m more interested in taking care of myself right now and figuring things out. I have more trouble connecting to myself and that makes it harder to be able to or want to connect to someone else. When I look in the mirror, I don’t always see someone I like. But I do love being with my children and making sure their lives are happy and that I can be there for them and help them find what they’re looking for. That’s really satisfying for me.
Was making the decision to do more dramas like Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers an important transition in your life?
I’m someone who had success in the past doing comedies and one kind of acting, and you worry about whether you can continue having the same level of success and have the same appeal to the public doing other kinds of work. So I was searching for a way to take my work to a different level and be happy with that choice. A few decades ago I asked myself, “Do I want to be a big movie star?” And I decided I didn’t. I chose to live my life and to see what happens, and at the same time to take on jobs that don’t necessarily pay the huge amounts of money you can earn by making certain kinds of films, but which let you work with interesting directors like Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, and with talented people who want to do the kind of work you like doing.
So are you happier today making those kinds of movies instead of the big studio films that you did in the past?
For the most part, yeah. I’d rather live my life out of the glare of the spotlight doing the kind of little films I want to do than making big studio films that keep your name constantly in the public eye. I always hoped that one of the smaller independent films I would do in my career would have some recognition and would connect with audiences. And then low-and-behold Lost In Translation had that kind of success. For me, that was a welcome confirmation that I was doing the right thing with my career. I’m very thankful for that film and I feel I did the best work of my career in it.
Lost in Translation was written by Sofia Coppola with you in mind. Did you find it very easy to get your head into the role?
I’ve been around actors and movie stars most of my life, and I knew this kind of guy. I didn’t really base my interpretation on any one person I’d known because I didn’t have to. I felt that my whole life had led to that moment, to what my character was living, and that everything about who I am went into my performance and my being there in Tokyo making that film. It was that kind of moment where you feel you’ve synced everything in your life and there’s no disconnect. That doesn’t happen very often.
What does “Bob” see in life that you yourself understand about the world?
(Smiles, and covers his face in his hands.) I didn’t prepare enough for this…can you come back in a year and ask me that question again. No, wait, I know this. (Pretends like he remembered the correct answer to an exam question.) Bob [Harris, from Lost in Translation] realizes that there was this beauty and kind of pure peace to being able to talk to this young woman whom he barely knows and how he appreciates that he would rather be with her and enjoy her company than anything else or any other relationship in his life. But he doesn’t say it. He feels it and they both know it even though they also know each of them will be going their own way and on their separate journeys. It was all about the beauty of that moment or series of moments that linked them at that point in their lives when their paths crossed. The scene in the bed, where we lay next to each other talking, is one of my favorite scenes in the film and one of the best I’ve ever done. We needed to spend a very long night walking the corridors of the hotel before we got the dialogue right.
We spoke earlier about your melancholy perspective on life. Do you tend to see more sadness than joy out there?
It depends on your state of mind. I see a lot of the beauty and good things that are out there. I’m not miserable and moping around the house all day worrying about man’s battle against a dark universe. But I think we have to fight a bit to come up with the right answers, to see the light that’s out there, and have some faith in the world.