With origins in Chicago’s Second City Theater, appearances in films like One Crazy Summer and The Artist, and TV shows like “Dharma & Greg,” “Mad Men” and “Shameless,” actor Joel Murray has seen many different aspects of Hollywood. A self-professed character actor, the hardworking Murray (brother of Bill) now has a lead role in God Bless America, a film written and directed by his long-term pal Bobcat Goldthwait.
In Goldthwait’s latest film, Murray plays a divorced father named Frank who decides he has had enough of bratty reality TV stars, jackass political commentators, people who talk during movies, etc. With the help of a young girl named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), Frank decides to kill some people in hopes of making our world a nicer place.
I sat down with Joel Murray to discuss working in the film, the status of his part in Pixar’s Monsters University, and who he would personally like to kill on a Goldthwait-like rampage.
God Bless America is now available on VOD and opens in Chicago on May 11.
There’s a lot in this movie about the “Oh No You Didn’t” generation. From a devil’s advocate perspective, isn’t this movie also playing into the free-ness of such a generation?
A little hypocritical itself? Well, Bobcat says it is a violent movie about kindness. But always, even in the wild west, the way to get everyone’s attention real quick was shooting a gun. If this is how you draw the attention to it, with violence, then it’s like, “Alright, now we’ve got your attention. Why don’t you be nice? Why do you have to be such a d*ck?” A gun is always a good attention grabber.
There’s also this somber tone in the movie when it comes to music. It’s an interesting choice about the mood that follows up this stuff.
Matt, who did the music in the movie, was a PA. They were redoing Chloe’s mom’s wound and it was a long clean-up. Matt was noodling on a keyboard and Bob said, “Oh, that’s pretty neat.” All of the sudden he was just elevated to composer. It was all a part of this small movie camp we were in. You never know – look at me, I’m the star of the movie now! It was fantasy camp for some people.
Was there anything disturbing about working on this movie, and do you have any fear about having this in your resume?
I’m excited to get the shot at a lead. Usually I work on a movie and I’ve got four lines and I’m done that day. It was kind of a trip to think, “I’ve got that three page speech tomorrow, and another fifteen hour day tomorrow.” As far as trepidation and doing the role, I always think I am younger and cooler than I am. I was thinking I’m going to look like Charles Bronson in this thing. But then I saw it, and I thought “No, I’m just kind of an old guy who is overweight … with a lot of chins. Who is shot from a lot of bad angles.”
Would you mind if this is what people remember you most by?
I’d rather have it be the thing that jump-started an already wonderfully mediocre career that flat-lined for a long time. Who knows. It’s a long career, you never know.
That being said, you have a very diverse filmography.
I think it was Kim Novak’s obituary, and she said that her one regret was that she turned down so many things. She wish had done more. I don’t turn down much, just because of Kim Novak saying that. I just did another horror thing for some guy. It’s a learning process. You’ve got to be in front of the camera to get better at it. People who say they don’t watch themselves are either idiots – or liars. How are you gonna learn if you don’t watch yourself? Why don’t you just perform in a vacuum then?
How easy is it for a person to get into performing, than it was when you first started?
I think it’s a lot harder to get into some things now. A lot of places have become money-making schools. When I was at Second City, there was a beginners class, and an advanced class. If you were in the beginner class twice and didn’t make it up to the advanced class, they kind of tapped you on the shoulder and sent you home. Now, you could take classes at the [Los Angeles improv group] Groundlings for eternity. On the other hand, you and I could go out with a hand-held camera that looks like it shoots pictures, and shoot a movie that is in amazing quality. You can make stars out of people with Youtube hits.
How has being an actor and working on so many different sets informed you on how you view people and whether they are nice?
Well, it’s weird. I have always been one to show up early, be nice to everyone on set, learn the crew’s name, be a good a guy, and continue to work because you are a good person. But then you see people that are just complete a**holes who are working all of the time who are huge stars, and get so many chances after drug addictions, etc. Sometimes it’s like, “Wow, maybe I was completely wrong on the nice guy thing. Maybe I should have tried heroin. What was I thinking?”
How would you do this story differently if you wrote the script?
I would have killed some more specific people. I would have offed some of the “Housewives.” I have a problem with reality television in real life. I think if your life is that boring that you have to watch other people’s lives, that’s kind of sad. I think that all of these shows that are just stealing work from actors, because it’s cheaper to hire real people … the shows are outlined and scripted, I think it’s just a scam to save money. What if dentists were replaced by people with pliers? And also, [SPOILER ALERT] I might have had that bomb go off at the end. Or, I would have lived. Somehow snuck out through a trapdoor, to make a sequel. But I won’t be back on “Shameless” either. [END SPOILER]
How did you go about nailing your long monologues?
That was a lot of work. You’re Bob’s voice, and there are some scenes when I improvise, but those speeches you have to really know them to make it look like you’re not just reciting them. The office scene speech was three days that long. We shot in order. So, very depressed early, and got to kill later.
Have you had any horror stories of people talking during this movie?
We did a screening in Calgary. Beforehand, this guy was talking way too loud while no one is listening to him. He just wanted to be seen and heard. Bobcat was introducing the movie. I said to this guy, “Are you going to talk throughout the entire f**king movie?” He was shocked that anyone could be that rude to him. It turned out he was some reviewer. I fake apologized to him after and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you didn’t get the joke because you haven’t seen the movie yet.” But I was dead serious. People who knew the guy from Calgary knew he was a blowhard.
What’s your status with your role in the new Pixar film Monsters University?
I’m going back for my third time. I’ve done four hours. You do all of your lines in the movie, all of your yells, etc. They really know how to do it. They test-screen stuff. I’ve seen my character animated now; when I first saw him he was just a drawing. They actually screen it to test audiences and make changes. It’s like a really expensive sitcom episode where you rehearse everyday.
Although that’s going to be your first animated movie, you have a lot of voice-over work from before – you were the voice of Chester Cheetah (from Cheetos). What do you like about voice-over work as an actor?
You get to wear your pajamas to work, that kind of thing [laughs]. But some of those projects are insanely lucrative. I’m looking forward to see how much this Monster’s University makes. I’ve seen Joan Cusack’s house from Toy Story money. And the casting guy at Pixar has been like, “Yeah, I’ve been trying to get you in for a long time.” And I’m like, “Uh, not a difficult process! You just call.”
Getting back to the end of the film, [SPOILERS] you think the ending is defeatist? Is there futility about trying to make a change? He also doesn’t set the bomb off, which I think is interesting.
Well, the bomb is fake. That line is cut. Someone in the balcony looks through binoculars and says, “It’s road flares.” If it was a real bomb, I think the out would be the bomb going off. I think at that point, it’s really like, “This is all wrong. I didn’t have the brain tumor, this kid was not being mistreated, now this girl is here and I ruined her life. Wow. Let’s go out strong.”
I grew up across from a convent, and we used to steal apples all of the time. I’m into Fuji apples, because they are always crisp.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
The countryside skillet at Yolk. It was more of a medicinal hangover cure today, that I ate three kinds of meat for a dish.
Favorite summer movie?
I’m a big fan of that One Crazy Summer. Making it, and watching it. And no matter what time of year. It just makes it that summer weekend. Summer of 42 is great too.
Age of first kiss?
Kim Couri, and I want to say seven or six … I gave her half of my Snickers bar. We sat there, we chewed the bar, and then she just grabbed me and kissed me. Snickers can’t even write that stuff.