Back in 2005, Bill Murray had made what he thought would be his last film. He had just starred as an ageing lothario in the overlooked comic drama Broken Flowers, and was sure he was finished with acting. “I was going to stop,” he says. “I just loved everything about that movie, and afterwards I thought: ‘Honestly, I don’t think I can ever do anything better.’ So I wanted a new career.” He ponders what might have been. “I could have made hats. I’m not entirely joking. I was definitely open to something else. But nothing came up.”
Murray smiles serenely. Now, eight years later, he peers out over London, a slightly jetlagged 62-year-old in tourist-casual jeans and polo shirt. The latest film he has chosen to make, instead of retiring, is a deeply Anglophile affair. Hyde Park on Hudson tells the story of the 1939 visit to President Franklin D Roosevelt by George VI, seeking to gain America’s support in the coming war. Though set in upstate New York, not far from Murray’s own home, it was – fittingly for a film about the special relationship – actually shot in the Chilterns and rural Hertfordshire.
Cast as the roguish Roosevelt, Murray found country life agreed with him. “I truly never worked on such a civilised movie. We got up at a normal hour, we worked until a normal hour. No starting at 3.45am. No panic. Every so often, one of the producers would come up and say [he slips into a comically proper English accent], ‘Bill, I just want you to know how much I loved what you did yesterday.’
Two details may be telling. First, before the introductions, the film’s publicist mentions in passing that Murray isn’t here out of contractual obligation, but was simply coming to Britain and volunteered for an interview. And second, at no point does he hijack the conversation to sell the film. Instead, he answers everything thrown at him graciously and amiably. Once, his reputation was prickly; here, the tensest moment comes when he insists I share his lavish cheese plate: “Listen, I have enough cheese for days.”
Finding Murray to be such a gent comes as a relief. For many of us, his status falls somewhere between cherished and godlike, his career a procession of much-loved roles. A graduate of 70s US TV comedy show Saturday Night Live, he became a star with the box-office phenomenon of Ghost Busters, before a professional middle act including the likes of Groundhog Day. Then came the transition into deadpan elder statesman, with Lost in Translation and the singular films of director Wes Anderson, which saw him treasured not just as a funnyman but also as a fine, melancholic actor.
“I never intended to do this for a living,” he remarks of his career. “I just realised I could.” He says this with the same nonchalance his characters are famous for. “And I realised that, to be good, it helped to be relaxed; the more fun I had, the better I was.” Now, while other film stars demand on-set pampering, Murray insists most forcefully on a stress- free atmosphere. “Oh, I’ ll fight with people to make sure it’s more relaxed.” He breaks into a mock fit of rage: “No! We’re going to be more relaxed here!”
Off-set, too, he has never been quite like other actors. Few movie stars would have responded to new success as he did after Ghost Busters in 1984 – by leaving the business to spend the next four years studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.
I ask if he also considered not coming back to acting then, but other things are on his mind. “At this stage, I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t have more cheese.” Finally satisfied, he gives his answer: “Well, you can’t be a philosopher on top of a mountain. You need to get out in the world and put it into action.”
On the other side of the Sorbonne years, his performances have been accompanied by a growing off-screen legend. Stories abound of his willingness to hang out with fans and strangers – a website (billmurraystory.com) is devoted to surprise encounters, including karaoke nights in New York, kickball games on Roosevelt Island and house parties over here in St Andrews. Yet he seldom mixes with Hollywood.
“No, if you come to my party, there will be all kinds of characters, but there probably won’t be showbusiness people. I don’t live in LA for that very reason. Everyone there is in showbusiness, and when you bump into a person who’s in showbusiness you’re going to spend the next six minutes talking showbusiness. And I don’t want to say that’s boring, but it’s not… elevating. It’s not a normal existence.”
The movie business has been diligently kept at arm’s length. For many years, he has had no agent, manager or publicist. The only way potential employers can contact him directly is by leaving a message on a toll-free phone number.
“I don’t even get many calls,” he says. “I don’t think people believe the number works. But that’s just one porthole. Not everything comes from there.” In fact, he says most offers that reach him come via old friends and colleagues. The company he keeps is, he admits, important to him. As is his family. Though twice divorced, he has six sons aged from 11 to 30 and the jobs he takes, he says, have to let him “get the other thing done right”.
When I ask if he’s glad he didn’t quit the movies back in 2005, he recalls finishing a particularly satisfying scene for Hyde Park on Hudson (in cinemas from today). He stepped outside, “and there was this glorious sunset, and music was playing, and the crew were loading trucks to the music. And I did think, you know, that was a great day’s work. And we were all responsible for it.”
For Murray, “the films are monuments. They’re what we did. But to me, it’s the doing that matters. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who put up Notre Dame. Think how they felt when the last stone was in place. ‘Man, we did some cool s**t today. We rocked it today!’ That’s what I like.”
Hyde Park on Hudson is in UK cinemas from 1 February 2013