3:42 PM EST, December 13, 2012
For Bill Murray, playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the new film “Hyde Park on Hudson” meant risking some serious derision. Now 62, Murray carries with him a huge recognition factor thanks to a host of comedies: "Stripes," "Caddyshack," "Groundhog Day," "Ghostbusters." More recently he has brought a weary, witty gravitas to more bittersweet material, a la "Rushmore," "Lost in Translation" and others.
And now here he is, the world's premier deadpan minimalist, taking on an exuberant president whose face is common currency (not just on dimes) and whose moneyed, distinctly well-bred vowel sounds are well-known.
Murray as FDR? Potential failure looms over each drag on the cigarette holder.
Whatever one thinks of director Roger Michell's "Hyde Park on Hudson," written by dramatist and screenwriter Richard Nelson, Murray's performance conveys a sly confidence in its depiction of a president orchestrating a house party for the visiting king and queen of England in 1939. Much of the picture deals, speculatively, with FDR's relationship with a distant cousin, played by Laura Linney.
The Wilmette native and I talked in a hotel room in Toronto three months ago during the Toronto International Film Festival. To ease him into a comfort zone, Murray said, director Michell shot a few days' worth of undemanding, largely dialogue-free footage of FDR driving, smiling through photo ops, that sort of thing.
"Roger was very smart about getting me into it physically," Murray said. At first he did not wear FDR's polio braces for all his scenes, but soon it became clear to both him and Michell that they were necessary. "There's never a second where you're not in discomfort," he said of the braces. "And that discomfort creates something to play."
One of Murray's sisters, who lives in Wilmette, contracted polio as a child and wore braces for years.
"I called her a couple of days into the movie and said: 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I never had any idea,'" Murray said. "She had permanent marks from those braces. To go through that, in the midst of a large family, she really had to hustle to keep up. ... It was a big struggle. But she never complained. And she's incredibly resilient. She's bouncy."
The braces brought one dose of reality to the actor's preparation. FDR's pince-nez brought another. On this topic, a different side of Murray — the sidewinding wiseacre — emerges.
"Man, I love those things," he said of the so-called pinchers. "I recommend them. I'm always breaking or losing reading glasses, but I really enjoyed those things. My distant vision's great; up close, I'm not so good. Anyway. I strongly recommend them." If anyone could bring pince-nez into general circulation in America again, it's probably Bill Murray.
"Give 'em a stab!" he said, grinning. "They're comfortable!"
Said Linney in a separate Toronto interview: "Attempting to do FDR would induce fear in anybody. Bill took it very seriously. But with a light heart. Very committed. Whatever fear he was encountering, he kept to himself."
Olivia Williams, Murray's co-star in "Rushmore," plays Eleanor Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson." Regarding Murray: "He's a man who's utterly comfortable and confident in his own skin. And he has a hint of anarchy. I think Bill and FDR share that quality."
A few days into the filming, Murray said, there was an aha! moment — a scene in which the Roosevelts usher their guests into the dining room after cocktails — that for Murray was the launching pad. For a while, he acknowledged, the actor playing FDR was aware of "everyone hearing your voice and wondering: Does it sound right? Does it sound good? Everyone's kind of judging it.
"And then there was a moment when I wasn't just saying the words, but started improvising in character. And I thought: This feels right. I've got it now."
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