3:05pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Eddie Murphy ('Mr. Church')
"I haven't been in the movies the last five years because I was giving the audience a break," the legendary and enigmatic Eddie Murphy tells me as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast. "After a while, the audience needs a break," he continues, "and you need a break, too. You start taking each other for granted. I'm like, 'I know what you all like!' And the audience is like, 'Oh, yeah, I know what he's gonna do!' So you're taking each other for granted, and the next thing you know you're starring in [the 2002 flop The Adventures of] Pluto Nash."
The 55-year-old, who rarely grants interviews and never had done a podcast before, agreed to sit down with me for a wide-ranging interview because he's returning to the big screen on Sept. 16 in a project unlike any he's done before: an indie drama called Mr. Church, based on a true story, in which Murphy shines as the title character, a black man who helps to raise a white child after her mother is diagnosed with cancer, but who forbids her from learning anything about his own life. The film, which was directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) and had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, already has earned Murphy some of the best reviews of his career.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
Murphy was born in Brooklyn. Despite the fact that during his childhood his biological father was murdered by a lover and he and his brother Charlie briefly were in foster care, he always displayed a terrific sense of humor and an interest in comedy (he loved Richard Pryor). He recalls getting his first laughs while imitating other kids on the bus; getting onstage for the first time as the emcee of talent shows at a local youth center; and then getting paid to be funny at clubs starting shortly thereafter. ("A dollar a minute," he recalls with a laugh.) He graduated from high school in 1979, and by 1980 he was a member of the cast of NBC's Saturday Night Live.
At the time, SNL was barely staying on the air — Lorne Michaels had departed and viewers had rapidly lost interest — but Murphy's talent, everyone agrees, saved it, and he feels it helped him, too. "It was like going to school for what I wound up doing, like Harvard for comic actors. You learned everything there," he says. "It either breaks you or prepares you for anything in show business." As his popularity grew, he began to receive offers to do movies, too, a few of which he took on during breaks from the show, and which quickly confirmed him as the most bankable movie star of the '80s: 1982's 48 Hours, 1983's Trading Places and 1984's Beverly Hills Cop.
Murphy believes that what set him apart from those who came before him and made him such a fan favorite was the fact that he was "the first black actor to take charge in a white world onscreen." He sees his impact as something like James Dean's: "It was like, 'Wow, they'll come see movies about teenagers?!' And with me it was like, 'Wow, they'll come see a young black dude in movies?'" He adds, "Then, after me, it's not just one anymore. It changed perceptions." Murphy feels it also helped that in those early films he played "a streety guy, working-class, blue-collar … the everyman" because "those characters are relatable, they're not Superman."
As a young superstar, Murphy faced plenty of temptation, but he stayed on the straight-and-narrow. "I don't drink — I don't have like this moral thing about it, I just don't do it — and I didn't get high," he notes. At SNL, many of his castmates did, and some later paid a terrible price for it. He recalls a night out with Robin Williams, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd when "Belushi and Robin Williams offered me some blow and I didn't take it, and Belushi called me a 'tightass.' Then, years later, I was like, 'Wow, that's a trip.'" Imagining what might have happened if he'd accepted the drugs, he says, "The Eddie Murphy story would have been totally different," adding, "There are a bunch of things like that that I look back on and be like, 'Wow.' And that just reaffirms my faith. I know that God is real. There's been a bunch of times when I could have wound up crashing and burning."
Murphy soon became as associated with standup as anything — his specials Delirious (1983) and Raw (1987) were huge hits — but in his late 20s he walked away from it. "I stopped doing standup because it stopped being fun," he explains. "And the reason it stopped being fun was it was harder to write — and this was before the internet — it was harder to write new stuff. It had gotten so crazy." Jokes and bits that he would go to a club to test out almost immediately became public fodder, before he could even finish developing them. "It was like, 'Maybe I'll take a little break from standup.' And then the break just got longer," he says. "And then the whole Def Jam thing started with those comedians [a host of other young black comics] and the whole comedy scene just turned into this big other thing. For years I've been procrastinating about it, going, 'I'll do standup again.' And all of a sudden I'm this far away from it."
The good news: Murphy says he's seriously thinking about returning to standup in the near future. "Honestly, now I really am curious about doing it again because it's been so long, and so much has changed and I'm such a different person," he reveals. "I'm curious as to what it would be like if I got onstage. But, if I do that, whoever comes to see it has to sit through a bunch of my shitty songs," he says with a laugh, referencing the music that he now spends much of his time making. "You'd have to hear my shitty songs between the jokes."
As the years passed, Murphy starred in a few more hit films, such as Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987) and Coming to America (1988), but finally was exposed as human when a few others performed poorly at the box office. Since the late '80s, he's had a very hit-or-miss track record, in terms of commercial success. Murphy, however, sees little distinction between his hits and his flops. "I kind of see it from a different perspective than the way you guys [journalists] may see it," he confesses. "In my view, I've never had a flop movie or a movie that didn't work. If I did the movie, and they paid me lots and lots of money to do it, it's a f—ing smash!" He continues, with a cackle, "Any movie that I was in that they paid me a lot of money for was a f—ing smash. And, to be perfectly honest, we celebrate Pluto Nash at my house. We don't have Christmas Day, we have Pluto Nash Day. And we don't have Halloween, we have Vampire in Brooklyn Day."
Murphy gave perhaps his greatest performance in 1996's The Nutty Professor, in which, under heavy prosthetics, he created seven different characters so convincingly that some didn't realize they were all played by the same actor. Many felt he deserved a best actor Oscar for his work; he didn't even get a nomination — not that it bothers him. "It may not have gotten the critical brouhaha stuff, but people really responded to that movie," he says. "Actor-actors that you guys really like, when I talk to them, they go into Nutty Professor."
By the turn of the century, Murphy, who once made films that no theater would have allowed kids to see, was the father of a host of kids of his own and began making films that they, too, could enjoy — films like Dr. Dolittle (1998), Mulan (1998), Shrek (2001) and Daddy Day Care (2003). "I didn't make a conscious effort to do anything like that," he insists. "But once you start having kids, you like to be able to take your kids to see some of your stuff." He also acknowledges, "As you get older, you get different, and I'm a mushier, softer person as I get older."
Some had begun to dismiss Murphy as a has-been when he shut up all the naysayers with a mesmerizing performance in the 2006 musical Dreamgirls, for which he won Golden Globe, SAG and Critics' Choice awards. He widely was regarded as a slam-dunk for the best supporting actor Oscar, but when the envelope was opened on the big night it contained the name of Alan Arkin for Little Miss Sunshine. Rumors started that Murphy stormed out of the ceremony in disgust, but he has emphatically stated that he felt Arkin was a worthy winner and that he was just uncomfortable being comforted by others as if something tragic had happened to him. "In my office I have a bunch of stuff like that," he says. "I've won a bunch of stuff like that." (He cites the Mark Twain Award as an example.) "It's not like every time I was up for something I got 'snubbed.'"
That is not to say Murphy wouldn't like an Oscar. "I have a table all ready where it would look great," he says, turning to his girlfriend, who confirms this with a nod. He then breaks into a side-splitting routine: "I'll wait because I'm pretty healthy, I'm gonna be around for a while and if I don't get it then eventually, when I'm 90 — what's the one they give you just because you've been in the business so long? [An honorary Oscar.] Eventually they're gonna have to give me that shit — I already did 35 years in movies, eventually y'all gonna have to give me something. And if y'all wait til I'm 85, 90, I'm gonna come out a 90-year-old dude, in a sky-blue tuxedo — there's a reason why it's sky blue — and I'm gonna walk out and when they give me the award and they hand it to me, I'm just gonna stand there and urinate on myself in front of the world — the whole world — and just stand there. And then they're gonna have to play that music and then they'll have to usher me off. That's gonna be my moment. Don't make me wait!"
During Murphy's presentation of the best picture Oscar in 1988, he chided the Academy for not honoring more people of color. But today he says he does not believe racism is the reason why he and others haven't yet been recognized by the organization, or why no people of color received acting nominations over the past two years. "They choose from the movies that get made," he says. "They don't have a hand in what gets made, you know? They can't control it if nothing came in that black folks was in, or just two or three things that black folks was in was Oscar-worthy. So it's not them. The studios gotta start making more stuff where black folks get quality stuff. But I can't trip about that because I've been making movies for 35 years and I've played everything from an old lady to a donkey, so I can't be on here talking about, 'They don't give us enough roles' and diversity. It's like, 'Mothaf—a, I've seen you as a donkey and an old lady, so I don't want to hear shit!' But, for the other actors, they need to make better stuff, more stuff, more diverse stuff."
Mr. Church will offer Murphy his best shot at winning the Academy's attention since The Nutty Professor — but he says there was nothing calculated about taking it on. "I was literally not even thinking about movies at all, other than writing," he volunteers. "I wrote a bunch of stuff, but I wasn't reading anything. I was in the backyard, just enjoying the yard. And this popped up out of nowhere and I had a really strong emotional response to it." He continues, "I never did anything like this. It was something I could do where there was no pressure at all because there was no expectation because this isn't a funny thing. The engine of this thing isn't my sense of humor or what I do or my performance."
Murphy says he didn't find dramatic acting very different from comedic acting — "It's all trying to connect to whatever the scene is or whatever the emotion in the scene is, it's all acting, is what I'm trying to say without being pretentious" — but something else was different altogether. "This dude [Mr. Church] was an introvert," he states. "I don't usually play introverts." As it turns out, though, he felt perfectly comfortable inside the character's skin. "I'm closer to that than I am to Buddy Love [his Nutty Professor character], as a person. I'm never like Buddy Love unless I'm joking around or playing," he says.
So what is Murphy like these days? He's a homebody, and why shouldn't he be, with a large mansion, a beautiful girlfriend and no great pressures. So that he can fully enjoy these things, he also actively avoids reading about the business or himself. As he puts it, "I used to be the hippest of them all. I used to know everything about everything. I used to read about everything that was going on and I knew everybody's name and anybody in pop culture. Anything that was written about me I would read. And for the last maybe 20 years — I haven't read a newspaper in 20 years, or read a corporate magazine, I don't read corporate magazines or stuff, I don't read stuff about me. I really don't read stuff about me. Like, if there's an article about me, someone has to read through it before they even give it to me. I don't want to see anything that has anything negative. I don't want to read any of that shit. So I don't know what y'all think. I don't have a computer, I don't have email, I don't have any of that shit." Murphy adds with growing laughter, "I don't need to be on social media interacting with the fans, tweeting that I just ate strawberries. Nothing has made me go, 'Oh, yeah, get me on, too, I want to be on there with y'all! I just had strawberries too!' 'I'm going to the store now!' 'Look at this picture of this baby!'" In short, he says, "I don't feel any pressure to live up to any whatever — expectation — anyone may have."