Joel Murray has been in show business for more than two decades, but he’s blessed/cursed with an Everyman countenance that often makes people mistake him for their dad’s dentist or accountant, or that across-the-street neighbor from your first house. In Bobcat Goldthwait’s social satire “God Bless America,” his first lead role, Murray plays Frank, an overwhelmed and irritated middle-aged office drone who, having been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, finally cuts loose, starts speaking his mind, and much more. After he meets up with Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teenage girl more demented than him, the pair goes on a killing spree, taking out myriad targets representative of America’s cultural rot. ShockYa’s Brent Simon recently had a chance to speak to Murray one-on-one, about his breakthrough role, working with Goldthwait, his disdain for reality TV television, and the acting advice he didn’t receive from his older brother Bill. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: You’ve worked with Bobcat before. Was the story or idea for “God Bless America” something he’d shared with you previously, long before casting and shooting?
Joel Murray: No. Long story… well, long: I was in “Shakes the Clown,” but I’ve known Bobcat since “One Crazy Summer.” He offered me a part in “Sleeping Dogs Lie” that my agent wouldn’t even show me the script for because he said it was so revolting. And when I went and saw “World’s Greatest Dad” I just loved it, and said, “Wow, he’s really becoming a great filmmaker, and I’m jealous I’m not in that.” But he was laid up, he was going to have back surgery, and he had never seen “Mad Men.” I run into a lot of people who say [they’ve had] strep throat or whatever and they catch up on TV. So I gave him the first three seasons of the series, and he and his wife were in bed one night and she said, “Joel should play Frank.” And Bob was like, “Yeah.” So he sent me the script, and it was great. And I asked him if he wanted me to be the milkman again, or just the guy in the office or what, and he said, “No, I want you to be Frank, the guy.” And I jumped at it. Not a lot of people offer me leads in movies, so I delved into the part.
ShockYa: I have a few more specific questions, but character acting always seemed to me — for lack of a more sophisticated word — a cooler career, because you get to play so many different characters, and maybe aren’t quite as typecast and pigeonholed. So, in regards to tackling a lead role, and its greater responsibilities — forget about the content, how long had it been since you’d had a part this big?
JM: I’ve never had a role this big. And the way we worked we shot like 21 days straight, and I think I’m in every scene in the movie, except for the vignettes in the movie that show other [TV shows]. But before we started, I thought to myself I wonder if there’s a stamina thing that I should worry about, so I called my brother Billy to say, “Is there anything I should know about this?” I left a message, and he called me back about four weeks later, after we’d finished filming, and said, “Oh yeah, sorry. I could’ve given you some help there, I guess.” It’s definitely a weird undertaking, as compared to being done in a day or two days — being there every day, 16 hours, and maybe finishing a day with this big spiel, a three-page monologue, and then going, “Oh, I have that other thing tomorrow, I have to do all that, jeez.” So I didn’t have too much time to over-think the role, I just had to be the guy. There was no other option, because we would shoot four, five, six or seven scenes in a day.
ShockYa: Bobcat might deny it or argue the point, but Frank’s monologues have a strong authorial voice that to me seem shaped by comedian’s perspective, or a writer’s point-of-view at least. Frank obviously isn’t an entertainer. Did you ever have any discussion about what shapes those verbal skills of his?
JM: No, not really. I don’t think we did three or four takes of anything. It was mostly two takes, a couple head nods and we were moving on again. So we didn’t have a lot of discussions about my inner angst or my vocal delivery, or where I was going to pause in long monologues. Bobcat was just a supportive observer in that respect, and seemed happy with what I was doing. He didn’t rail on me or give me a lot of grief.
ShockYa: Starting off, “God Bless America” maybe seems to have the potential to be one-note, but it becomes readily apparent through the filmmaking choices and story itself that you’re not really supposed to be merely cathartically identifying with Frank. Was that readily apparent in the script, this fact that it’s really an indictment of our collective complicity in this cultural degeneration?
JM: That’s a lot there. In levels, I felt that Frank was a great character to play because it starts out where you think it’s going to be a Walter Mitty-type thing, where he’s imagining killing people. And then he actually does pull the trigger on the girl in the car. And then you realize you’re on this thrill ride. And there’s this weird thing with the pains in his head. And in my head, I said, “Well, when [Frank] kills the pain in his head subsides a little bit.” So that’s part of the reason he continues on this path. Roxy will kill anything that moves, she’d kill everybody, like the 40 percent of America that watches NASCAR. But he’s a bit more [restrained], like, “No, it’s only people that deserve to die.”
ShockYa: I think part of the revelation of the film is that it’s two largely unknown faces, too. Tara was a real revelation.
JM: She was fantastic. Bob had said, “Yeah, when we get closer I’ll have you come in and read with some of the girls.” Then later he just said, “Yeah, I’ve got the girl,” and I was like, “Wait, what? (What about) chemistry, though?” But she’s so not a 17-year-old actress, she’s stage-trained and a student of the art of it all. She was great, and brought all the energy when I was down and mopey. She’s not a yappy 17-year-old, she’s a sponge for information and wanted to know everything about what was going on on the set, and just a perfect counterbalance for what I was playing. Despite the fact that we didn’t know each other at all, I have kids that are older than her, so I took to a kind of paternal relationship with her.
ShockYa: There are plenty of targets rich for both satire and ire in American pop culture and entertainment, and the film cycles through a lot of them. Were there any that struck a particular chord with you, in either Frank’s rants or Roxy’s considerable list of irritations?
JM: Oh, the pet peeves? I think I got all of those out. I would have liked to maybe run a limousine full of “Housewives” (stars) off a bridge or something like that. I would have liked to have seen that happen in a scene. I’m very anti-reality TV, I’d rather see actors working than faux-actors. And then as far as favorite jokes, there are so many of them. Some of my favorite things in the movie are actually Tom Kenny’s voiceovers. He’s such an amazing talent. There’s this one thing where, after his suicide attempt, [this character] is going to be on the finale of “American Superstars,” and he says, “Good news!” You know Tom Kenny just added that on. Bob gets a lot of his friends together, and other than the real long speeches that I had, people are allowed free reign to improvise some and try something else on other takes. Bob would be a complete hypocrite if he wanted you to memorize all of the lines to everything. He gets good people that are nice people and fun to work with, and it’s just a great atmosphere. Everybody there was just happy to be making art. It wasn’t about money or hierarchy. I was changing in my van, Tara was changing in her car, we’re both moving sandbags if need be; you look over and some older guy is teaching a younger guy how to wind a cable around a stand so it doesn’t knock it over. A production assistant on the movie ended up orchestrating half the movie because he was noodling while we were re-dressing a woman that we stabbed and bloodied up, and Bob’s like, “Play that again, do that,” and the next thing you know he’s doing all the interstitial music in the film.
ShockYa: Promote from within, it sounds like.
JM: Yeah, it was like a movie camp, and it was a lot of fun.
ShockYa: You mentioned your brother, Bill, and you have seven other siblings. Was performances and kind of acting out a result of having that many kids around at once?
JM: I would say it stemmed from our dining room table every night, where there were 11 of us every night trying to make my dad laugh, with food in his mouth. We didn’t set out trying to be entertainers, and my dad would have frowned on that, actually. He would have wanted us to get real jobs and not be some bums. He didn’t like anybody famous, really, except Bob Newhart and Johnny Carson. But we wouldn’t have gotten into it really, if he hadn’t died as young as he did. My brother Brian went into Second City, and then Billy followed him into the Second City and I came along 12 years later. But nobody thought it would be a viable job and way of life. We all lacked direction, and acting is a good way to find direction, apparently.
ShockYa: Well, sure, you have someone telling you what to do.
JM: Yeah. I guess the big downside to being an actor is all the rejection and when you’re in a huge family there’s constant rejection — in every conversation. And in a small house with a lot of people you’re used to being kind of kicked in the head every once in a while. I guess you can take the personal rejection of being an actor.
ShockYa: You also mentioned “Mad Men” earlier, which has taken off and left its stamp on the culture. What’s it been like being a part of that? Do you get recognized a lot?
JM: I saw three or four episodes before I auditioned, and was a huge fan of the show before I was ever on it. The first scene I ever did with Elisabeth Moss, I was just staring at her going, “Oh my God, she’s so fucking good. Oh crap, I have a line coming up here.” The stamp it’s made culturally is all really due to Matt Weiner — he puts his hand in every aspect of the making of that show. He had a vision and he makes sure that happens. And just like this movie wants people to go back to being nice, that show wants men to go back to being men. All right, maybe you’re a womanizer, and a philanderer, but why don’t you look nice, and not look like a moron. Like, “What’s with the Crocs, pal? Put on a pair of shoes, wear a belt, there’s nothing wrong with a tie.” So I think it’s great if maybe that show can put its mark on America and make it look better, and then maybe “God Bless America” can put its mark on America and makes everyone nicer. That would be great. And if it’s the death of reality television — if we look back and say it all waned about the time of that Bob Goldthwait movie — I’d be happy as a clam.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.