Joel Murray is the youngest in his family of actors including Bill Murray and Brian-Doyle Murray. He is the star of Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest film “God Bless America” and he is voicing the character Don Carlson in Disney/Pixar’s upcoming “Monsters University”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat with Joel about growing up in the business and his work on the films above.
Mike Gencarelli: What did you think about “God Bless America” upon your first reading?
Joel Murray: You heard the story from Bobcat (Goldthwait), right? He was having back surgery, so I brought him over dinner and the first three seasons of “Mad Men”. Middle way through season two his wife said “You know, Joel could play Frank”. So he sent me the script but didn’t say a part or anything. I read it and told him it was great and I really liked it. I told him that I liked what he has to say and that it was time for a film like this. Then I asked him, “Who are you thinking about, you want me for the guy in the office?” He said “No Frank…the Guy!” I jumped at the thought of having the lead role in the movie, which doesn’t happen too often. Actually it has just happened once, really [laughs]. My first thought was hell ya! But then I had a couple of moments thinking that there could be some repercussions from this. I agree with about 95% about what he says in the movie. So I just thought “Why not?” My only fear was that seven Westboro Baptists would come visit me at my house. [laughs] But other than that I wasn’t too worried. What I love about his work is that all of his movies having something to say. So many comedies today are just like an extended shit joke.
MG: You’ve worked with Bobcat Goldthwait going back to “Shakes the Clown”; how was it with him behind the director’s chair again?
JM: When I worked with him on “Shakes”, it was his first movie and he was in clown makeup the whole time. You didn’t really think about him as an auteur, he was playing a drunken clown running around in make-up. On this film though, I was able to work hand-and-hand with him the whole time. I directed some stuff in the past and he was open to anything that I had to say and add. It was a fun relationship. It is awkward having your buddy give you a role that you didn’t audition for. He didn’t give me a lot of notes or anything. All I kept getting from him was “Yeah, you really got this guy down!”
MG: How did you prepare for a character like Frank?
JM: I thought Bob has written it for himself. So I was kind of playing Bob in a way [laughs] but with his normal voice. I had a friend shoot himself in the mouth about 6-8 months before this came up. So when we started shooting, a couple of the scenes we did first was me with a gun in my mouth. That really takes you to a real interesting spot as an actor…a real depressing spot for that matter. So starting from there, I found a dark place to begin with and had a gradual upswing from there. His is never really that happy or excited though in the film. But starting from the darker corner was a good way to go as an actor.
MG: Was it challenging to blend the satirical comedy with the violent action?
JM: How do you blend it? Well, anyone that takes the violence in this film too seriously doesn’t get it. They also may be part of the problem that we are trying to kill. When you have a car montage in the middle of the film dancing around on the map of America, you know it is not taking itself that seriously. To do some serious acting on this, the comedy of it brought something to it. I grew up doing comedy and I have been fortunate enough to get into some serious roles as well in “Mad Men” and “Shameless”. So I’ve got to do some straight acting. It has been interesting to try and I have also learned a lot from my peers and my brothers. I watched my brother Billy (Murray) in “Broken Flowers” and I thought to myself “He’s seeing if he can do absolutely nothing and if it would work” [laughs]. Also in “Lost in Translation”, he was so introspective. So I just didn’t want to overplay it and keep it kind of close. I have a very expressive face, so I don’t need to be too over the top. But Bob was consistently giving me the thumbs up. So I guess it worked.
MG: Speaking of your family, how was it growing up as the youngest in a family of actors? Do you feel that comedy comes easy?
JM: It was natural at home. Everyone was funny around the dining room table and that is where some of the comedy started in our house. You learn from them. I had some of the funniest people in America in my room growing up. There was also a high standard with them. I did plays throughout high school and college and when I got into improv, it wasn’t that easy but I had my background to draw from. I remember one of the first times my brother Billy came to see me at the Improv Olympic. I remember riding home with him and it was one heck of a quiet car ride, like I just struck out to win the World Series [laughs]. So they are a tough group to impress but we all created our own funny. There is stuff you saw on “Saturday Night Live” and from movies where you think that you grew up with that. I had more noogies on my head then anybody being the youngest [laughs].
MG: Lastly, tell us about your role Don Carlson in “Monsters University”?
JM: The first trailers didn’t really show any new characters. In the new trailers, I am the guy with the mustache in the cloak that is evoking the initiation rites. Don Carlson is a student in his 40’s that has been laid off and decided to go back to college and learn the computers. So he is in this lame frat with the other guys but he is 20 years older than them all. He was a fun character. He is a little bit Minnesota-ent and sounds a little bit like my brother Brian-Doyle Murray but not exactly, I swear [laughs]. I didn’t go there!