Being Bill Murray
From Caddyshack to Lost in Translation, Midwestern-born Bill Murray has created some of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic characters.
From the Print Edition:
Bill Murray, Nov/Dec 2004
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"I loved that time I spent [in Rome]," he says. "Sure, there was great food and a beautiful landscape. But locations always offer that kind of thing, and you can live in it or hide out in your trailer. What I really like about the movies I do is, we have to become our village for a while. The movie business is the only place where communes still exist, and maybe that system works because it's temporary and none of the political complications of communes come into play. And if everyone accepts that, that I'm gonna be taken care of by the state and also that I'm gonna take care of this movie when it needs me, then the movie becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That's what Wes does, and it's what happened with Sofia. And the movies reflect that. But I'm not sure that's so common on movies anymore. It sounds strange to say it, but I think communism—that is, communal living—starts at the top. That means if the person at the top—the stars, or the director—is willing to live with less and say, 'Whatever the movie needs, I'm gonna do,' then everyone benefits."
That kind of constancy is evident going back to Murray's performance in the 1982 inside-the-Actor's-Studio-neuroses comedy Tootsie, in which he played the dazed but intense playwright roommate of Dustin Hoffman's title character, who becomes a huge and inadvertent success pretending to be a woman. Initially hired for two scenes, Murray's offhanded intensity supplied balance and clarity. And he improvised every single line. "He was so good, we kept adding scenes for him. I not only wanted to see more of him, but it was a fight to keep the cameras from jiggling when he was on because we were all laughing," Toostie director Sydney Pollack recently said in Toronto. "Bill had only done those comedies like Stripes and Meatballs. I had no idea what an actor he was. But he is the real thing."
"I think I learned how to act on Meatballs," Murray says. But he doesn't mean understanding how to perform. He's referring to his own comportment. "I could be the guy who hides out in his trailer, or the guy who acts up, or the guy who has an emotional investment in the whole thing. That's something I learned being on stage in Second City. That's really my solace. If I work hard to make you look good—even if it's one in the morning and there are more people onstage than in the theater—you'll do the same for me. It's a matter of responsibility, even for people who aren't in the performing departments. To me, it's not just the actors who are responsible for that environment, or even the director. It's the whole crew that creates the environment. It's why when an outsider walks on the set, everyone knows. You can feel it."
He's most engaged when the demands he makes of himself are matched by his coworkers, as he found when he starred with Sigourney Weaver in the 2002 Off-Off Broadway stage play The Guys, in which he played a fire chief trying to come to grips with the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities and honor the lives of the men he lost. "It was just something that had to be done. It was so hard going out there night after night with a situation that was so raw. She never lost sight of the moment onstage, because she kept focus, and that kept things going right. It helped me keep on track, too. John Belushi, who I've been thinking about a lot lately, was like that, too. It's been over twenty years since he died. He was just incredible on the stage. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He knew what you wanted from him, too, and he could do it."
Devotion to craft is a code that Murray adores. "Seeing my older brother Brian and all of his pals onstage at Second City is what made me wanna act. But until you start doing it, you don't realize how good somebody is. Y'know, you see someone on stage making people laugh, like Brian did, and you just think he's being funny up there. Then, you get up there and learn how tough it is."
Brian Doyle Murray cowrote and appeared with his younger brother in Caddyshack—which, like Groundhog Day, was directed by Harold Ramis—and Bill still marvels at the final result. "It's incredible to me that Harold took four different acting styles—me, Chevy [Chase] Ted [Knight] and [Rodney] Dangerfield—and blended all into one movie, instead of it seeming like four different movies. And I was reaching with it, too. People can feel all of those things just meshing on it.
"I think more people bring that one up to me more than anything else I've done, and it seems to mean more to people as time goes on," Murray observes. When asked about the mini-remake of "Caddy Shack" starring Tiger Woods—the recent American Express ad—Murray chuckles and says, "You gotta say, he committed to it. I was impressed."
Though he doesn't take himself seriously, Murray is serious about the magnitude of a film production and what's required to keep the momentum going. "It is like a military operation, and people have to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done—more hours than there are on the clock sometimes. Even on the worst movies, people work hard, and nobody sets out to make a bad one. Well," he smiles, "almost no one.
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