Joel Murray, kid brother of Bill, gets a starring role
The face is familiar. The voice too. Yet despite a quarter-century of acting — in everything from TV’s “Dharma & Greg” and “Mad Men” to “The Artist” — not to mention 11 years speaking as Chester the Cheetah in Cheetos commercials and being the younger brother of Bill Murray, Joel Murray says few people can instantly place him.
“I don’t often get recognized for my work, but I look familiar,” Murray says. “I’m just a working-man actor. I go and audition and you just hope the work keeps coming.”
More than 25 years into his acting career, Murray has his first leading role in a feature film with “God Bless America,” a raucous, violent, provocative media-culture satire currently available via video on demand and opening at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles on Friday.
The film is the latest directorial effort by Bobcat Goldthwait, but Murray’s association with the comedian goes back more than 25 years. Murray’s very first audition got him hired for the 1986 John Cusack film “One Crazy Summer,” in which Goldthwait also had a role.
Over the years, Murray has been in some 250 episodes of television comedy, a regular on a handful of series including “Still Standing” and “Love & War.” He recently had a short run on the show “Shameless” and received attention for his role on “Mad Men” as Freddy Rumsen, the drunk who peed himself in the office and then later sobered up.
He’s directed some television episodes, both for shows he’s been on and a few he hasn’t. In the Oscar best-picture winner “The Artist,” Murray played the cop who’s alerted by Uggie the dog to the fire at George Valentin’s residence.
Over the years, it’s maybe been a bit up and down, but essentially steady. As for his relative anonymity, Murray, 49, says it suits him just fine.
“You know, I have a famous brother” — Murray calls him Billy — “and I see what his life’s like. He can stay places 15 minutes and then he’s got to leave. So I’ve seen what it’s like to be famous and I haven’t really aspired to be a huge mega-star, not that I’ve had that opportunity. I’ve had a great career. I like the level that I’ve been at.”
In “God Bless America,” Murray plays an everyman named Frank who’s disgusted by the coarseness, impoliteness and general meanness of modern culture. Divorced and increasingly estranged from his young daughter, laid off from his office job for an HR infraction, driven up the wall by his noisy, inconsiderate neighbors, and finally diagnosed with a brain tumor, Frank is pushed to his limit and lashes out.
He shoots a teenage reality TV star and then kills her parents too, setting off on a rampaging road trip to kill those who fall afoul of his moral compass. From early on, he is joined by a young sidekick named Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) who shares his outlook.
The script is full of long, ranting (and hilarious) speeches about what’s wrong with today. Goldthwait originally wrote “God Bless America” as a gift for his wife — “It was more of a manifesto than a screenplay,” the filmmaker says — and though he usually writes with an actor in mind, he wasn’t thinking of anyone specific for the role of Frank.
Goldthwait had back surgery after he wrote the script and Murray came by to visit a few times as he recovered, leaving boxed sets of “Mad Men.” It was Goldthwait’s wife who first suggested the idea of Murray playing Frank.
“And it wasn’t like, ‘Well, I don’t see it,’” Goldthwait said. “It was totally like a piece of the puzzle snapped in then.”
Goldthwait sent over the script without mentioning what role he wanted Murray for.
“Starting out, I was always the Buddy. This is my first shot to be the Guy,” said Murray. “When he sent me the script and I read it and called him, I said, ‘It’s great, do you want me to be the guy in the office, the boss, what do you want me to be?’ He said, ‘No, I want you to be Frank.’ ‘You want me to be the Guy?’”
Concerned about the physical demands of his new spot at the top of the call sheet, Murray turned to his brother for advice before filming began. Turns out, Bill Murray’s notorious, elusive mystique extends to family as well.
“When I was about to start shooting this, I called my brother Billy and wanted to know just about the stamina that you need, any tips with that kind of thing,” Joel Murray said. “I don’t get up to do the lead in a movie every day. I was looking for some pointers and I think he called me back four weeks later and we were already done shooting.”
Though the character is at times contradictory in a way specifically designed so that no one should completely agree with him — “The guy is a psycho killer, so you don’t want to be building him up too much,” said Murray — the character of Frank is at times speaking directly for Goldthwait. Well, kind of.
“Here’s the funny thing — Joel says Frank is me and I deny that. And my wife says Frank is me and I deny that,” said Goldthwait. “Because the movie is about loneliness and I’m not a lonely guy. But I agree with some of those things; I really do believe, as I like to say, this is a violent movie about kindness. I really do wish people would be nice.”
Murray is doing voice work on the upcoming Pixar film “Monsters University” and is attached to a number of television projects. Even with his first leading role in “God Bless America” under his belt, Murray is back for now to his working actor routine of waiting to hear about the next job.
“When we went to do ‘One Crazy Summer,’ he played a young guy, and even though we were all in our early 20s it was almost weird because Joel was always a middle-aged dude,” said Goldthwait. “I’m hoping he really comes into his own and this movie is a launching pad and not a footnote.”
-- Mark Olsen
Photos: (top) Joel Murray, left, and Tara Lynne Barr in a scene from "God Bless America." Credit: Magnolia Pictures. (bottom) John Slattery, Jon Hamm and Murray in a scene from the television show "Mad Men." Credit: Carin Baer / AMC