Bill Murray: The Man Who Knew Too Much

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Bill Murray is annoyed. He can’t recall the name of the cinematographer who worked on his upcoming film, Passion Play. “He’s Irish, but he’s from Australia and he lives in China,” says the 59-year-old, Oscar-nominated actor, knitting his brow in thought. “I talk about him all the time. The crazy Tourette’s guy. ”Murray takes a slow sip from a bottle of Brooklyn Lager. “I worked with him on that movie I did with what’s-his-nuts.” Wes Anderson? “No.” Ivan Reitman? “Jim Jarmusch. It was that one called… ” Broken Flowers? “No.” Coffee and Cigarettes? “The Limits of Control,” he says. “The guy wears platform shoes when he’s working. He can’t talk for 16 seconds without going into a rant. He once told me this crazy story about living in Hong Kong, next to the world’s longest escalator. He’d strip naked in front of his window for everyone to see. But the thing was almost a mile long—the escalator—so by the time people got to the end of it they couldn’t remember what building he was in.”

He grabs his phone and dials a number. “Hello?” he says to the woman on the other line. “Hi, it’s Bill Murray and I need your help. What’s the DP’s name?” He puts her on speakerphone. She tells him that the man in question is award-winning cinematographer Christopher Doyle, but that he refers to himself as Super-Chris. “We called him Sir Christopher,” she says, laughing. Murray, visibly relieved, leans back in an armchair at Manhattan’s Four Seasons Hotel. He is dressed in a black T-shirt and yellow tape-measure suspenders. “Okay, I’ll call you back,” he says, and, excusing his mental block, adds, “I was just eating Froot Loops. And I had a plastic bag over my head.”

To be fair, cereal and auto-asphyxiation were on the menu at our photo shoot, but it’s unclear if Doyle ever flashed anyone during an invective-filled, Tourette’s-fueled rant. The majority of Murray’s stories—from him, but also about him—are hard to believe. They’re also hard to prove. He is quite possibly Hollywood’s most curious everyman, a press-shy movie star who calls Rockland County, just outside of New York City, his home. He doesn’t employ the services of personal publicists, managers and agents. (The publicist for his next film, Get Low, unsure that Murray would even show up for the interview, wrote in an email, “Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best.”)

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Murray’s aversion to the handler cocoon has affected him in two ways: He has been allowed to live a simple life, largely removed from the public eye, but he has also been unable to temper rumors about his private life and his sometimes notorious behavior. Did he actually show up unannounced to a Halloween party in Williamsburg after spending most of the night with the members of psych-rock duo MGMT? Is there any truth to speculation that he washed dishes for a group of Scottish co-eds at a late-night bash in St. Andrews? How accurate were the allegations that Murray was abusive and addicted to drugs, news that surfaced when Jennifer, his wife of 11 years, filed for divorce in May of 2008? It’s impossible to say. But to meet Murray is to trust, despite the mythology that obscures the man, that he is a decent, if slightly eccentric, guy.

Murray has made a career of playing unforgettable oddballs, from a modern-day Ebenezer in Scrooged to a jaguar shark–chasing oceanographer in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. His latest is an oily funeral director in Aaron Schneider’s Get Low. The film tells the story of a grizzly ascetic, played by Robert Duvall, who spends his adult life atoning, through self-imposed seclusion, for his tragic past. Inspired by the real-life story of Felix “Bush” Breazeale, Duvall’s character enlists the help of Murray’s Frank Quinn to plan his memorial service before he dies, inviting everybody “who’s got a story about me.” Murray, the star of What About Bob?, Groundhog Day and most of the Wes Anderson canon, adds his patented comic levity to an otherwise weighty film about penance and forgiveness in 1930s Tennessee.

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Get Low forced Murray to confront his own mortality. “I remember looking at Duvall,” he says. “He’s made up in the film to look much closer to death than he actually is. He’s an amazingly strong guy who could break you in half if he wanted, but when he put on that mask—the beard and the haggard expression of near-death—I couldn’t help thinking, well, that’s just over the hill for me. No matter how great I am in my career or how successful I am, that’s right over that hill. I’m going to ‘get low’ myself.” It didn’t help that they shot the film in the dead of winter in Crawfordville, Georgia, an area with a population of 572. “There wasn’t anyone there and there wasn’t anyone coming there,” he says. “You could call it a dead town and you would be about right.”

He quit the ghost town for Zombieland—in which he made a cameo last year—and then traveled to Santa Fe to film his next project, Mitch Glazer’s Passion Play. In that film, he stars as a gangster alongside Megan Fox and Mickey Rourke, himself no stranger to tabloid-worthy exploits. “That guy is complicated,” Murray says. “If you’re a journalist trying to get him to talk at 4:20 in the afternoon, good luck! Not a chance in hell! Mickey has a very roundabout way of rolling into things. People think he’s either not serious or he’s trying to make fun of people who are serious. He’s not an easy person to read—you know when you’re working with a jerk and, with him, you’re not really sure what’s going on. But he delivers the goods when he’s acting. When he throws, he throws hard.”

One night earlier, Murray was dining at a restaurant in Brooklyn, where he can often be found blending in with the locals. Josh Hartnett, an actor he couldn’t quite place, approached him. “This guy shakes my hand and says, ‘You worked on Lost in Translation with my [then] girlfriend. Was she as much trouble for you as she was for me?’ But Scarlett [Johansson] was 17 when I worked with her, so no, she wasn’t,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t know who the fuck anyone is. I go through US Weekly, and it’s filled with reality stars I’ve never heard of. I don’t recognize anyone. People? Forget it.”

The exchange reminds him of an earlier experience, years ago, when he was in Cannes for its annual film festival. He was known at the time for roles in Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, but his idol, Jimmy Stewart, didn’t recognize Murray, nor did he feign recognition. “I don’t know if anyone feels the way about me that I felt about that guy,” he says, jumping right into his best Stewart impersonation: “Well, thank you, Bill. That’s very kind. But as you can see, I’m trying to cash this check… ” Maybe Stewart had already started going downhill at that point? “Well, he didn’t know who I was,” says Murray, with a deadpan stare. “Dr. Peter Venkman, Jimmy? Ring any bells?”

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Although Stewart may not have been aware of Murray’s funnyman reputation, the actor’s comic legend was already beginning to take shape. Indeed, Murray has been the subject of considerable lore—going back to when he first joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1975. But there is one story that gets bandied about more than others: It was late one night in New York City. A man walked alone through Union Square, empty at this hour. The man felt a pair of hands reach out from behind and cup his eyes, blinding him for a moment. Frightened, he turned around to find Bill Murray, who said to him, “No one will ever believe you,” before walking away into the night. When asked whether or not this exchange took place, his expression turns to mock-disgust. “You’re out of line! Even to imply something like that… ” And then, just before exiting the room, he turns back and says, “Besides, if it did, who would ever believe him?”

Bill likes… Roebling Tea Room 143 Roebling Street, Williamsburg, NYC 718-963-0760 “I was in Brooklyn last night, eating at the Roebling Tea Room. My son is a cook there. It’s almost like I enjoy going there too much. The food is great, they’ve got good music and it’s a fun vibe.”

Photography by: Martin Schoeller