Wrangling Bill Murray for an interview is a feat — he has no publicist or agent and is famously slow about returning phone calls. So when we arrived at The Four Seasons back in April to talk to him about his new movie, Get Low, we weren’t surprised to learn that he was MIA. When the movie’s publicist finally ushered a somewhat bedraggled Murray into the room an hour later, he apologized: He’d been upstairs in his hotel bed, unable to tear himself away from a Richard Harris movie, The Field. Tardiness, you might say, is part of Murray’s individualistic appeal, and it bears mentioning that he was unfailingly charming and polite, offering water or tea several times. In Get Low, he plays a slick undertaker who is hired to arrange a funeral bash for a very-much-alive hermit, played by Robert Duvall. We talked to Murray about his spate of serious movie roles, the “hogwash” Ghostbusters 3 rumors, and his curious Internet fame.
How did the director, Aaron Schneider, first contact you, since you don’t have an agent or a publicist?
It kind of came sideways. I had a friend in California who said there’s a guy that wants to call you up or send you a letter, and it was a letter from [producer] Dean Zanuck. And I liked his letter. Maybe there was a treatment with it, but I called him up on the phone [yawns]. Excuse me, would you like a glass of water or coffee or anything?
Oh, I’m good …
We had a very nice talk and then it really just went little by little, because it takes a lot to get me to go to work. I’m like, “Well, he seems like a nice guy.” And then Aaron wrote a letter and, “Aw, he seems like a nice guy.” And then he sent the movie that he made that won an Academy Award, the short, and so I liked that. I went, “Aw, that was good.” And then I watched the making of the DVD and I kind of liked all the people. When you get the DVD it has all these different things you can push on the disc, and the making-of made a strong impression on me. Then there was the script, and the script was really good. And when they said Robert Duvall, I was like, “Well, no one’s ever asked me to work with Robert Duvall before.”
Did you learn anything from working with Robert Duvall? When you’ve been in the business for so many years, do you still feel like you can learn from other actors?
That’s the reason you take a job like that, because if you don’t keep learning, you’re just sort of dead. Or at least you have to know that you don’t know everything, otherwise you’re no good to anybody. But he’s quite a character, Bob. There’s a lot that goes … [very long yawn]. Sorry, I was laying on the bed watching that movie. Uh. So, I just saw how much he could do in a moment. He could show you everything he was feeling, all of the history of the story in just a few seconds. It was boggling to see it. He has such great access to his emotions.
I would say the same for you, as far as showing so much in a moment.
Well, thanks. Mine’s very well-edited. I give the director a lot of credit. But Bob was really something and I enjoyed working with him. Basically, we’re there to serve his character, and everything that happens until that final scene is to get us there. All of our performing is designed to get you to that moment safely. Then he just plows right through you.
I thought the film did a nice job of raising the question, “How do you want others to see your life after you’re gone?” What do you want your legacy to be?” Is that something the film brought up for you?
I hear people throw that word around, “Legacy, what’s my legacy?” I always just think, Boy, that’s really putting the cart in front of the horse or something. Your legacy? Because if you’re not here right now, there is no legacy. You didn’t even exist. There’s graveyards full of people that think they left a legacy that left almost no impact on the Earth except as fertilizer. I guess we’re in kind of a funny business in that your film is alive after you’re dead. This morning I was watching Gilda [Radner] on the movies. And there’s Gilda, and wow, what an amazing-looking woman, what a great performance. Did she think that’s her legacy? I don’t think about it. I don’t think about legacy. I kind of am amused that I have something like, not legacy, but stature or something. I walk out and people know who you are and they like your movies and so forth. And look, l like them too, but I don’t really take it too seriously. My legacy’s gonna have to be something different from my work.
You’ve been taking more serious roles than comedic roles in the past decade. Does it give you more satisfaction to do movies that make people think versus movies that make people laugh?
No, I think maybe the opposite. I think it’s much harder to make people laugh. If you can make people laugh, that’s really special. There are a lot of people that can make you cry, I don’t think that’s such a big deal. I’ve just done the films that I liked, I didn’t have any plan, but I did end up having a run of them that are all kind of on the serious side. Some of them are downright sad, and I gotta get out of that. Because it kinda, I don’t know, just thinking about being sad and acting sad all that time kinda makes you feel sad. I don’t wanna feel — you know, it kind of makes you feel sad. And if your life is in any way hard or sad at all, then it really gets hard. Then you get a little moody. So I’ve sort of decided that I want to start making funny movies again.
I know I’ve heard rumors that you’re going to be a ghost in Ghostbusters 3?
Ah, it’s all hogwash. It’s all imaginary. But I may do it just to keep people from talking about it, because it’s driving me nuts. It’s like a did-you-sleep-with–Marilyn Monroe kind of thing. You’re like, huh? What? Someone starts a story that we’re making a movie and it has this amazing life. I don’t know why. I guess people really wanna see it or it’s just the only newsworthy thing in my Internet file or something. I don’t know why everyone asked me about it because I’m not talking about it, except to you. But even on the street people are talking about it.
Speaking of Internet files, there are all these random stories about you on the Internet. You did the bartending thing at South by Southwest.
There’s a story about you attending a party with students in Scotland a few years ago.
People love hearing these stories about you mingling with normal people. Why do you think that is?
It’s like seeing a bunny rabbit come into your house or something like that, or a bird fly into your house. It’s like, “Hey, there’s a bird in the house.” It’s just kind of a strange thing. It’s like, “Well, that’s kind of unusual, there’s a bird in the house.” Or even a bug, more like a big bug. But, like, if you see a bunny rabbit and you’re close to it, and it’s something you don’t usually get close to, it’s kind of amazing. You’re like, “Hey, it’s alive,” you know? “Look at that thing. Even its eyes, it’s really interesting. It’s alive, it’s a creature, look at that thing.” Some of those stories are kind of funny. I mean bartending, someone said, “Well, they’ll get more tips if you bartend for a little while.” So I bartended for a little while. And the party was just, you know, Scotland closes kind of early and it was just a whole bunch of people saying, “Oh, we’re going to the next thing.” So we’re walking to a party, we were just way behind, the party was way ahead of us, and there was no way to catch up. So I looked around and it was like a college dorm, not a dorm but a house. And, like a college house, it was kind of a mess. And I realized, Well, I gotta do something; I can’t stand still because everyone’s way ahead of us. So I just started washing the dishes. And it was great fun because we got to wash the dishes and you could talk a little bit and keep washing the dishes. My friends were like, “This is right, this is good.” They couldn’t believe that we were doing the dishes. And before you knew it we’d done all the dishes and it was like, you can go, because you can’t just walk in and walk out. That feels strange. But if you walk into someone’s house, do all the dishes and leave, then you feel like you’ve made a contribution.
Do you get many strangers in the street asking you what you whispered to Scarlett Johansson?
Mmm hmmm, pretty much every day.
Really? Do you have a stock answer?
Now I just laugh. I used to tell them all kinds of things. Once I told someone the real thing and they didn’t believe it, so I was like, there goes that. There’s no point. The fact that you don’t know is what makes it interesting.