BILL Murray seems a bit concerned that his career might be over. Despite his 40-year tenure in comedy and film, plus his Bafta and Golden Globe-decorated award shelf, his reaction to watching his latest film, St. Vincent, might just put an end to his life on screen.
“Even though I’m in the movie, it really worked, the movie worked,” explains the actor. “And we all got emotional from watching it. I was crying, and I realised if the lights come up and I’m crying, my career’s finished...”
He’s joking, of course. More likely, Murray, whose popularity is such that earlier this year at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was the subject of his own Bill Murray Day, has probably just added to his already bulging fan base.
Now 64, the actor, who doesn’t have an agent or manager, is internationally adored for his roles in indie hits Lost In Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums, blockbusters Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters and memorable bit parts in Zombieland and the upcoming Dumb And Dumber To.
And St. Vincent looks set to be added to that cannon. Playing crotchety old sop Vincent, the film is about the unlikely friendship he forms with his 12-year-old neighbour Oliver, played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher.
Knowing few people in her new Brooklyn neighbourhood and knee-deep in a tricky divorce, Oliver’s mum Maggie, played by Melissa McCarthy, comes to rely on ‘Vin’ to babysit for her son while she’s at work. It was a plot Murray immediately liked.
“The script was different,” he says. “You’re not drenched in emotion. You just get it. It comes at you, and it comes as the natural outcome of the way the plot goes.”
Taking on the role of the movie’s elder was also a natural progression for Murray, who grew up in Chicago and started his career as a comedian on long-standing American series Saturday Night Live.
“I’m ‘a mature’, not mature, but I’m an older fellow than I was, right?” says the star, who has six sons from his two marriages.
“So working with a younger director, whether that’s Wes Anderson [on The Royal Tenenbaums] or Ted Melfi [for St. Vincent], it’s automatic that I would fulfil the part of an uncle or father-in-law or neighbour.”
And Murray, the fifth of nine siblings, three of whom are also actors, had plenty of real-life inspiration for the role.
“My grandfather was a guy who actually had a light-up bow tie,” he recalls fondly. “It wasn’t too much when he did it. He was really, really funny. He would curse his wife, my grandma, and say stuff under his breath about her because she couldn’t hear so well.
“He had false teeth, so he’d pop his teeth out at little babies and make them cry. He was a fantastic man.”
Like his grandfather, Murray also makes for brilliant company, and has a knack for giving fans memorable encounters.
Once, after a plea from a best man who spotted him at a bar, he delivered a stirring speech at the stag party before hoisting the groom onto his shoulders. Another time, he pulled off an impromptu slow-motion video shoot with three fans, rather than merely fulfil their request for an autograph which, in his opinion, was too impersonal.
“He’s the most generous human I think I’ve ever met,” agrees director Melfi, who spent six months leaving messages on Murray’s answering machine before finally meeting him at LAX airport to discuss St. Vincent. “He’ll stop and talk to anyone, any time.”
And it seems Murray, who also did a spot of spontaneous bartending at the 2010 SXSW Festival in Texas, handing out tequila shots to all the patrons, has a quip or an anecdote for every occasion too.
For instance, when quizzed about the lasting legacy of 1980s comedy Ghostbusters, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in the summer, he shrugs, and notes that it paid for his children’s education. “Which means that they can flunk out much earlier than they would have if they’d had to pay their own way,” he adds, in typical deadpan style.
Ghostbusters clearly holds a special place in the actor’s heart, though. “We’d go around New York in those uniforms and walk into stores,” he recalls. “People didn’t know who the hell we were, and the cops thought we were above them and that we had better uniforms. We had the damned car, so we never stopped at a stop light, we just pulled over, wrong way — anything we wanted to do.”
He’s always pleased when he catches a glimpse of the movie, too, not least because it gives him the chance to see some “wonderful people”.
“I watch it because I haven’t seen them in a while,” he adds, and with three decades of hindsight under his belt, he can appreciate how much of a “big experience” Ghostbusters was.
“It was more than I could handle,” says Murray, whose performance as a jaded actor in 2003’s Lost In Translation scored him a best actor Oscar nomination. “I had to get out of town and leave the country. It had a great effect on my life, in terms of what I could do. It meant that I could be comfortable, and I could concentrate on other parts of life.”
The industry is very different now, he acknowledges.: “We didn’t take movies so seriously back then,” he says, smiling. “We used to do it for fun, because we liked the work, and now we do it – I don’t know why – but back then we really had a lot of fun.”
It’s clear for Murray, who advised Melfi not to let the stress take over while making St.Vincent — his feature film debut, having fun is key to successful work.
“Working with that group, with Harold Ramis and Danny [Aykroyd] and Ivan [Reitman, the director] and Annie Potts and [Rick] Moranis... these are all people you would love to be trapped with for a couple of months,” he says of his Ghostbusters co-stars.
“You could go in there and feel free to try anything you wanted. We performed for each other and when you do that, it’s a gas. ”