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Eddie Murphy on Making His First Indie Movie, Celebrating Pluto Nash, and Returning to Stand-up

If you ask Eddie Murphy to reveal the secrets to his career longevity, you may be a little disappointed. The Brooklyn-born comedian turned film icon says that he never felt pressured or conflicted during his meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s — from his Saturday Night Live breakout role to action-film star to biggest stand-up comedian in the world — but acknowledges now that it probably wasn’t an average ascent to stardom. Vulture sat down with Murphy in November in front of a live audience at SAG-AFTRA’s headquarters in Los Angeles for its Foundation’s “Conversations” series to discuss his recent work in director Bruce Beresford’s indie film Mr. Church, how SNL ruined him for the “slow” pace of filmmaking, why he chooses to celebrate panned projects like Pluto Nash on his résumé, and what it would mean to him to play the father of his hero, Richard Pryor, in Lee Daniels’s long-simmering biopic about the pioneering comedian.

In Mr. Church, you play a soft-spoken cook who cares for a little girl and her dying mother. It’s easily your quietest and least comedic role to date. What appealed to you specifically about this character at this point in your career?
It was something I hadn’t done before. It was such a small schedule. It was like, “You guys are gonna make this movie in three weeks?” I was curious to see how that would even be done.

Was that your first indie project?
Yeah, I’d never done a tiny, teeny movie like this. Also it wasn’t a comedy, so there wasn’t an expectation on my part. Usually my performance is the engine of the movie and I have to be funny. But here I was just a character. And I’ve done a lot of different characters. I’ve been making movies for 35 years, and I hope I make ‘em for 35 more. That will make me 90 years old. I’ll be redefining what it is to be 90 in the movies. “Hey did you see Eddie Murphy’s new movie? I’ve never seen a 90-year-old man do no shit like that!”

Looking back, can you pinpoint exactly when you knew you wanted to perform comedy?
I have a really funny, funny family. But when I realized I wanted to be a comedian was seeing Richard Pryor. Oh, that’s what I want to be. It was 1976, and he put out an album called That Nigger’s Crazy. I remember sitting and listening to it over and over and over and over and over and over. That’s where it started. 

How did you have the confidence to step onstage for the first time and know that you were funny enough make people laugh?
It was a different scene back then. There were no comedy clubs — doing comedy back then wasn’t mainstream. When I told my mom I wanted to be a comedian, it was like saying, “I want to be a ventriloquist.” It was that obscure. The first time I went onstage was for money. They used to have this show in the 1970s called The Gong Show. It was so popular that bars started having Gong Show night. My brother Charlie was like [in his brother’s voice], “You have to go down to Gong Show night and win $25, boy. You got to do the Stevie Wonder shit, and Muhammad Ali, play that shit, go down there and do that shit.” And I went and did Stevie Wonder, and Muhammad Ali. This is how long ago it was. And the president was Jimmy Carter. That’s how fucking old I am. But I won the $25! 

You were only 19 when you were cast on Saturday Night Live. How did your experience on the show prepare you for a film career in Hollywood?
If you’re a comic actor, you can’t be in a better place. It’s like Harvard for someone studying the law. There’s nothing like it. You’re going live on Saturday night, even if the show ain’t ready. And if you pull it off, then you go right back again on Monday and start it over again. It’s a high-pressure environment, but if you can thrive in it, when you come out of there, you will work in this business. And it feels like the rest of Hollywood is going in slow motion after you come out of it. The movie business is slow! You’re always just sitting around and shit. There is no sitting around on SNL. Though you might sit down and cry for a minute.   

The show has always been a mix of sketch performers and stand-up comedians. And stand-ups aren’t always natural actors.  We’ve seen plenty of examples where it works and where it doesn’t. Did you ever have any formal acting training?
I have no acting training. This is all natural. [Laughs.] Whatever I’m doing, I had no teaching.  No one taught me how to do this. It just kind of flows out. 

You star in Beverly Hills Cop in 1984 and it’s an insane success. Was it scary and overwhelming or did you embrace your fame?
That all happened really fast — 48 Hours, Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop and Delirious, happened in a year and a half. And I’m on Saturday Night Live and touring, too. That was the red leather suit days. [Laughs.] 

We will never forget those days.
I was really young and took it for granted like, It’s just supposed to be like this. You were supposed to have the pedal to the metal. Now I look back and I’m like, Wow, that was a lot of shit. But I didn’t feel any pressure. I caught this wave and it was just on and cracking. Back then, it was the one-black-person-at-a-time days. “Okay, now it’s your turn.” I was right after Richard [Pryor], he was after Sidney [Poitier]. So it was kind of hard. I was a kid. It wasn’t easier than it is now, just different. Things just always seem to come together — the right project would come along, the right situation, the right people to work with. Shit was falling into place. 

When you directed Harlem Nights in 1986, you showed you could do more than just act. What did you learn from directing that you took with you to other projects?
That movie was a blur. It was Richard [Pryor], Robin Harris — all comedians. I remember Richard and Redd Foxx laughing offstage during the whole movie. The funniest shit was off camera, we’re all just crying. Redd was a really funny dude, he would have the set screaming all the time. But afterwards it was like, Whoa, that’s a lot of work. I was really young when I did it. I had one foot in the club, and one foot on the set, a lot of shit going on. It’s amazing it came together.

How did it feel to work with Richard after all those years of looking to him as your inspiration?
Well, he was sick with MS by then, but nobody knew it was going on. And I was like a puppy to him ‘cause he was my idol. “Hey! Let’s go make this movie!” I never put it together what was happening till afterwards. So it was kind of sad, that part of it.

Is there any project or decision you made in your career that you wish you could do over?
Do over? I don’t know. You learn stuff from each project. Everything can’t be perfect. I don’t even say I’ve had movies that flopped anymore. Anything that you get to actually put on the screen and they gave you some paper for it? That’s a fucking hit. So I’m not sitting talking shit about Pluto Nash. In fact, at my house, we have Pluto Nash week! We celebrate it. And we don’t have Halloween at my house. We have Vampire in Brooklyn night.

Have you ever cared about reviews?
I haven’t read a review in 25 years. I haven’t read anything negative someone has to say about me in 25 years. I don’t read good reviews. I don’t read the “two thumbs up” shit. You know if you liked your movie or not. And you just keep it rolling. And it’s like, two thumbs?  And now they have tomatoes now?

Yes, Rotten Tomatoes.
“It got 100 on Rotten Tomatoes!” [Laughs.]

Who or what most inspires you now? And what makes you laugh?
Lately, my little baby girl has been making me laugh. My biggest inspirations are my kids and my family. 

Are there TV shows you love?
Oh, I’m embarrassed to tell you.

Okay, you have to share now.
I’m embarrassed to tell you that [my girlfriend] Paige and I watch Little Women of L.A., Little Women of Dallas, Little Women of Atlanta. Those shows are great television. I know everyone’s names too. If I met them, I would be like, “Hey, Tara! Hey, Jo!” And we watch Beyond Scared Straight 

Do you enjoy watching your movies when you come across them?
It depends what it is. Sometimes you’ll see something, you might stop for a minute and watch a couple of scenes. Or I’ll be like, “Why are they playing this shit?” I actually said just yesterday, “They’re trying to mock me! Of all movies to play, they’re gonna play this shit!” [Laughs.]

Your most underrated classic for me remains Bowfinger.  Steve Martin wrote and directed it, but how much of what you did onscreen playing Hollywood actor Kit Ramsey and his look-alike Jiff was your creation?
Oh yeah, I love Bowfinger. That’s a funny one. It was all mostly on page — I don’t remember doing a lot of improvising. I kind of played what he wanted to play. It was all Steve Martin’s creation. 

What do you think is something that would surprise your fans to learn about you? Aside from your Little Women obsession.
It’s really a good show. What would surprise y’all about me … I think that I am more of an introverted person than you’d expect. Like, my normal flow at home is not that of an extrovert. I’m a quieter, soft-spoken person. And I’m also a really serious musician. I don’t think you guys know that. I think y’all might know I sang “Party All the Time” and shit like that. [Laughs.] But I don’t think y’all realize the extent — like, I’m very serious about music. I do it more than anything else.

Do you perform in public?
No, I write and record mostly at home. One day I’m gonna do stand-up and music at the same time.

Would you tour again as a stand-up?
Yeah, I’ll entertain it. Eventually I will get back onstage, but it won’t just be stand-up. Music, comedy — I’ve got to figure out a way to put a show together. I don’t know, just me coming out and doing jokes — “What is going on, America?” — I can’t see myself just that.

Who is someone you’d like to work with whom you haven’t?
I would love to be in a Steven Spielberg movie. I think he is the best director of all time. But I don’t be sitting around dreaming about the shit. [Laughs.] And I love Martin Scorsese, [Quentin] Tarantino. Whoever, you know, ain’t trippin’. 

Has the way you learn your lines changed over the years?
Oh, that’s something you guys might not know about me. My memory for words is really like a crazy person. If I read a script, then I don’t read the script again till I get on the set. It’s like, “What scene are we doing?” And not just words either. I remember once somebody played a record for me and I said, “What is that?” And he goes, “I don’t know, that’s just some shit that we sampled.” And I was like, “You know what? That’s from Blacula. It’s the scene in Blacula where the guy is running through the tunnel.” And they was like, “Get the fuck out of here.” And we sent somebody out to go get the movie, and they put it on, and the dude ran through the tunnel. And even I was like, “Now, that’s some freaky memory shit there.”

You’re attached to play Richard Pryor’s father in Lee Daniels’s upcoming biopic. How does that feel considering Richard inspired your entire career?
I hope they get it together because I’d love to do it. I think [actor] Mike Epps could do [a great job playing Pryor]. I love Richard. I just would like to tell his story. He played my father in a movie, and I would play his father in the movie. You get to play your idol’s father?  Very surreal.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Eddie Murphy on Mr. Church, SNL, and Stand-up