Bill Murray likes to make himself scarce, disappearing off the radar for lengthy periods.
“I’m not giving anyone a hard time,” says the acclaimed actor and comedian, now 62, reflecting on a reputation built and embellished over three decades as the hardest man for Hollywood’s heavy hitters to track down. “My adaptation to survive is to be less available. If the predators can find you, they will kill you.”
Famously, director Sofia Coppola was so frustrated by her attempts to track down Murray to offer him the lead role in “Lost in Translation” (2003), for which he was later nominated for a Best-Actor Oscar, that she had to enlist her father, the legendary Francis Ford Coppola, to embark on an exhaustive manhunt on her behalf.
There are also stories of Murray missing out on roles when his failure to respond swiftly to moviemakers was interpreted as a refusal, or disinclination, to be cast.
“The good ones have found me,” Murray says, conceding that golf courses are usually a smart place to start the search (He is a self-described sports nut.)
The Chicago-born Murray has honed a career over 40 years, first boosted by a three-year stint (1977-1980) on the star-making TV sketch show “Saturday Night Live.” He went on to star in comedy classics such as “Caddyshack” (1980 — Murray worked as a caddy during high school), “Ghostbusters” (1984) and “Groundhog Day” (1993), and later took on more complex roles in “Lost in Translation” and “Broken Flowers” (2005).
Murray insists — perhaps in jest, though sometimes it’s hard to tell — that the only movie he regrets not doing was one he was never in the running for: Peter Weir’s lauded “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982), which starred Mel Gibson.
“I never knew about it [at the time] but it’s the only job I’ve really coveted,” he says, suggesting that it just might have happened “if I’d been a more pushy character or read more scripts or scoured the newspapers.”
Although he’s a big name in Hollywood, Murray usually travels without an entourage of publicists and managers, unlike most other stars of similar wattage. He can be impossible to contact unless introduced by a mutual friend. British director Roger Michell (“Notting Hill,” “Changing Lanes”) — having decided the somewhat recalcitrant actor was his first and only choice to play American President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his new film “Hyde Park on Hudson” — had to hit up a mutual acquaintance, film props expert Kris Moran, to try to reach Murray.
“That was very, very hard,” Michell says, reflecting on his trans-Atlantic quest to lock Murray into the role. About three months after Moran delivered the script to him, Murray called Michell directly to confirm his interest in the film. Michell had to take comfort in that encouragement for more than a year before Murray actually confirmed he was in.
“One day I got a text [from Murray] saying: ‘Hi Roger, I’m on my way to Atlanta with some buddies, and I’m reading it out loud… I can’t wait.’ I showed that to the financiers and they said okay.” He finally had his Roosevelt.
Michell’s film explores Roosevelt’s galvanizing role in American and global politics. It also examines his loving, and apparently sexual, relationship with a distant cousin, Margaret ‘Daisy’ Suckley (played by Laura Linney), at a time when the world was on the brink of World War II and Britain was looking for support from the U.S. Matters personal, political and diplomatic come to a head when Roosevelt hosts King George VI — the stuttering British monarch portrayed in “The King’s Speech” (2010) — for a summer weekend in June 1939, at the president’s Hudson Valley property in upstate New York.
“I desperately needed someone who would keep the film innocent, in a way. I needed someone who you would forgive for his sexual appetites, sexual indiscretion,” Michell says. “[Murray] has the charm and the charisma and the enormous generosity of spirit to allow human frailty.”
Playing FDR represents a dramatic departure for Murray, who has excelled at applying his deadpan comic persona in both Hollywood fare and quirky independent films, such as last year’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” As Roosevelt, he plays a courageous and brilliant man battling polio who became the leader many people believe shaped modern America.
“I just thought I could do it,” Murray says of the role. “I knew I would have to reach a little bit. …He’s a very big American; you have to have a certain stature. He was elected president four times, and he did extraordinarily heroic things.”
Murray, nominated for a Golden Globe award for the role, is typically amusing while still managing to bring sufficient weight to his presidential portrayal. His determination to do something special was clear to his co-star, Linney, right from the start.
“He’s got to be scared to death,” she says, referring to the pressure of playing an American president. “So my focus was really on helping him as much as I could. He took this so seriously; it was very important to him, and he worked very hard.”
His efforts paid off, which isn’t always a great thing for Murray. Recently cornered at a film festival by reporters and photographers and publicists — always an uncomfortable situation for him — he did his best to accept plaudits for his performance and analyze the legacy of Roosevelt. But, in the end, he just couldn’t help but fall back on his comedic smarts. He made gags about presidential sexual proclivity, suggesting it would indeed be tempting to “knock the furniture about a little bit” in the White House.
Then he went on to baffle many in the assembled throng by insisting, deadpan, that all presidents had a tracking device embedded in their skin, so “they can follow you … and of course they can tell when you’re having sex.”
He kept the gag running: “It’s part of the reason it’s so hard. Imagine having people know where you are, all the time. I’ve probably got one now, because I’ve been [the president].”
A few hours later, alone again with his publicity duties attended to, Murray is scuttling about largely unnoticed in an airport waiting area, no doubt hoping to become untraceable again. But he runs into me, and we exchange knowing glances.
“The chip?” he asks.
“Now we’ll always know where you are,” I say. “You can never escape.”
“Watch me,” he says, gleefully dissolving into the crowd.