What do we still want from Bill Murray? His unpremeditated film career - in which he has parlayed performances as the happy-go-lucky heroes of 1980s-era slapstick into the existentially uncertain leading men of thoughtful comedies such as "Groundhog Day," "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation" - would seem to be sufficient.
Yet we demand more from this 62-year-old actor, on whose rugged face a playful smirk and a contemplative gaze look equally at home, and he appears happy to give it to us in his life beyond the screen.
Tracking his movements in the wild, as he crashes karaoke parties and kickball games, has become an online pastime; Murray has become the folkloric equivalent of a leprechaun or fairy godparent, popping up at unpredictable yet opportune moments.
His latest role, in "Hyde Park on Hudson," feels true to his resistance to being pinned down in any way. In this film, which is directed by Roger Michell and opened Friday, he plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he manages an affair with a distant cousin (Laura Linney), a visit from George VI of Britain and the crippling effects of polio.
It is a part that almost no one, least of all Murray, expected him to play, and it once again raises the question: Why does he do what he does?
On a recent visit Murray, who recently agreed to co-star in "Ghostbusters 3," spoke about his role in "Hyde Park" and serendipity.
Have you been getting good feedback on your performance?
I'm curious to see what people think of it, just 'cause it is not like an ordinary movie. I don't know if it's great or not. We'll see what you get.
Were you surprised that you were offered this role?
I thought, "Can this guy be serious?" I wouldn't have cast myself. But this guy did, and about halfway through I went, "Wow, he really was right.
When you're playing a real-life figure like Roosevelt, do you do any additional preparation for the role?
I've always tried to be a little bit loose. This great director we had at Second City (improv comedy theater) said: "You wear your characters like a trench coat. It's still you in there, but there's like a trench coat." So I figured this was like a winter trench coat, because there was just a little bit more character that comes to the party. So I did a lot more reading, a lot more studying.
What did you learn from your research?
People ask, "Did this really happen?" Well, if you read the diaries, it's very clear that it happened. The writing changes. You read this later stuff, when we're at war, and he's not telling his wife, he's not telling the cabinet - they don't know where he is. But he's sending messages by courier to her every day. This girl was the vault. I love that expression: "She's the vault." He could tell her anything, and it wasn't leaving her head.
It sounds as if you also wanted to convey Roosevelt's voice as much as his physical presence.
We had a discussion about it, and we agreed that you don't want to do an impression. You want to get it in you, and then you want to play.
When an actor decides to play a president, it's often a signal of larger ambitions or agendas. Is that the case here?
The thing I was concerned about was: The story that we're going to tell, is it going to be a tearing down of an icon? I don't know if I want to be part of that kind of action, where you trash someone. What was the John Travolta movie, "Primary Colors"? I didn't want to do something where you were really just napalming someone.
There seems to be so much serendipity in your life. Are you actively cultivating these moments or just hoping that they come to you?
Well, you have to hope that they happen to you. That's Pandora's box, right? She opens up the box, and all the nightmares fly out. And slams the lid shut, like, "Oops," and opens it one more time, and hope pops out of the box. That's the only thing we really, surely have, is hope. You hope that you can be alive, that things will happen to you that you'll actually witness, that you'll participate in. Rather than life just rolling over you, and you wake up and it's Thursday, and what happened to Monday? Whatever the best part of my life has been, has been as a result of that remembering.
Are there days where you wake up and think: "Nothing good has come to me in a little while. I'd better prime the pump"?
Well, who hasn't woken up thinking, "God, nothing good has come to me in a while," right? When I feel like I'm stuck, I do something - not like I'm Mother Teresa or anything, but there's someone that's forgotten about in your life, all the time. Someone that could use an "Attaboy" or a "How you doin' out there." It's that sort of scene, that remembering that we die alone. We're born alone. We do need each other. It's lonely to really effectively live your life, and anyone you can get help from or give help to, that's part of your obligation.
The roles that you did 10, 20, 30 years ago, are you surprised that they still endure the way they do?
Certainly. When you did the job, you thought you were just trying to amuse your friends who are all on the job. I'm just trying to make the sound guy laugh, the script supervisor. A movie like "Caddyshack," I can walk on a golf course, and some guy will be screaming entire scenes at me and expecting me to do it word for word with him. It's like: "Fella, I did that once. I improvised that scene. I don't remember how it goes." But I'm charmed by it. I'm not like, "Hey, knock it off." It's kind of cool.
Did you ever think that the lessons you first learned on the stage of an improv comedy theater in Chicago would pay off later in life?
It pays off in your life when you're in an elevator and people are uncomfortable. You can just say, "That's a beautiful scarf." It's just thinking about making someone else feel comfortable. You don't worry about yourself, because we're vibrating together. If I can make yours just a little bit groovier, it'll affect me. It comes back, somehow.