Interview: Joel Murray (God Bless America)

Interview: Joel Murray (God Bless America). By Simon Miraudo.

Bobcat Goldthwait has long since abandoned his signature howl and established himself as a writer and director of films with a particularly twisted sense of humour (but they have heart too; we swear!). He follows up Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie, and World’s Greatest Dad with God Bless America, featuring self-proclaimed “lifetime character actor” Joel Murray as Frank, a sensible man driven kill-crazy by American culture. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, he grabs a gun and starts seeking out all the televisual personalities – and generally distasteful human beings – who have polluted his brain. Victims include reality TV stars, ultra-right-wing political commentators, and anyone who talks through movies. Joined on his bloody spree by demented teenager Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), Frank cuts a swath across the United States. If only his mission could score some airtime alongside the hit series American Superstarz and Tuff Gurlz…

The brother of Bill and Brian, Joel made his film debut in One Crazy Summer alongside Goldthwait, where they spent their time “teasing Cusack.” Since then, he’s appeared in numerous projects, including a long stint on Dharma and Greg, and, most recently, as Freddy Rumsen on Mad Men. With God Bless America marking his first starring role, a spot in Best Picture winner The Artist, and an upcoming voice part in Monsters University, things are going well for the industry lifer. I spoke to Murray about the shows that get his goat, handling the backlash that comes with such a controversial project, the growing divide in America today, and whether or not Frank and Roxy kill “the right amount” of people.

SM: You and Bobcat go back quite a while, and you even appeared in his first directorial effort, Shakes the Clown. Can you tell me a little bit about how you started working together?

JM: Well, when we first met we were on a film called One Crazy Summer with John Cusack and Demi Moore and a bunch of people.

SM: A classic!

JM: We kind of became fast friends. We had a lot of fun teasing Cusack together. We were just a little bit older than he was. We thought we had to because he was wealthy and had credit cards and we didn’t. We bonded on that. We had a lot of fun on that movie; it was crazy, crazy fun. The director [Savage Steve Holland] was only two years older than us. “I’m going to fly you over [Nantucket] so you guys can become friends. You’re going to hang out, and have a lobster boil.” “OK, another tough day. When do we start shooting?”

SM: Twenty-five odd years later, and we’re now at God Bless America. How did Bobcat first pitch the film to you?

JM: Well, he was having back surgery, and he was gonna be laid up for a while, and people say they’ve never seen Mad Men – he hadn’t seen it at that point – and people tell me all the time, “I haven’t caught onto the show at all, but last month I had spinal meningitis, or strep throat, or something horrible, and I laid in bed for three days and watched all of it.” So, I brought him over dinner one night and the first three seasons of Mad Men, and apparently somewhere between the first season and somewhere in the second season his wife said, “You know, Joel should play Frank.” And Bob said, “Wow.” That was like his epiphany moment. He sent me the script, but he didn’t say anything about Frank. So, I read it and I said, “I love it Bob; I think it’s great. This will be a lot of fun. Do you want me to be the guy in the office, or what?” “No, Frank!” “The guy?” “Yeah, the guy!” So, that kind of blew me away completely. That’s how it was presented to me: “Yeah, the guy.”

SM: [Laughs]

JM: I was very excited by the opportunity. A lifetime character actor; I don’t get offered a lot of leads, let alone with somebody this fun to work with.

SM: When you have Mad Men as your audition tape, it really doesn’t get much better than that. Not a bad move at all.

JM: I don’t know if that’s Bob’s necessary taste. I could have been in a lot weirder things that he might have appreciated more.

SM: Frank, is pretty much done with civilisation, and certainly American civilisation. He does go on a killing spree. His first target is the subject of a Super Sweet 16 style TV show who cries when her parents buy her the “wrong car” for her birthday. Is there any particular TV show that gets your goat in real life?

JM: That does get to me? A lot of them. I really avoid ’em like the plague. My wife’s an actress too, and every so often I’ll catch her watching The Real Housewives of New York, and that one for some reason is like nails on a chalkboard. Like, why do you really want to spend any time listening to these women argue and backstab each other? So, she’ll watch it when I’m not in the house, but that one in particular. I don’t understand why people spend a lot of time watching other people do their jobs or live their lives or hang out with their family, as opposed to being with their own or doing their own job better with more élan or more verve.

SM: Right. I’m definitely on board with you, and I tend to agree with Frank on a lot of things; he and his concerns are pretty reasonable. Where most would differ is on the whole killing thing. Were you ever tempted to make it seem like Frank had a total mental breakdown, or did you always want to depict him as sort of subtle and sensible while on the spree?

JM: Well, I was Bob’s hired gun, so I was following his script. I had a little input here and there on some improvisation once in a while, but most of the time I tried to stay pretty true to what he had written. It’s easy to say different things after the fact; “Well, I would have liked to have done that.” But at that point I was trying, because I personally thought that I was Bob. That I was playing Bob, in a way, and I felt like I had to do him right and be very true to what he had written. So, I wasn’t going to think about changing anything drastically when I was basically just doing a job in that way. I mean, I’m very anti-gun in real life, and I don’t think killing anybody is the answer to anything. I’m more of a prankster than a killer. I personally don’t think it’s right to go out and shoot people, but boy it was fun to do.

SM: Of course, there’s no denying the film is a satire. A very dark, a very extreme one. But did you have any apprehension at first – just before shooting, perhaps – about appearing in a movie that was so dark and so violent (and in which you’d have to shoot a baby in the first scene)?

JM: Yeah, my concern was there’d be some backlash from some of the people I shot in it, and maybe even weirder than that. The other trepidation was that there’d be some other copycat killing, and there hasn’t been really. Nobody’s visited the house yet, so that’s good. Those were my initial fears, and then, that I was going to be able to pull it off, and play the guy to Bob’s liking. And I did that, according to Bob.

SM: Was there anything in the picture that was shot but deleted? That even Bob felt had gone too far?

JM: No. I’ve seen it so many times now, I’m beginning to forget what was deleted. No, most of the stuff that was deleted was just additional dialogues, or lengthening some of the rants and lengthening some of the monologues. He cut them down a bit. There was nothing missing. That’s the thing with a low budget film; you pretty much use what you get. We didn’t do a lot of takes. It was a lot of fun, but it was fast and furious. We were shooting ten pages a day, easy. More than that some days. No, there wasn’t anything deleted I can think of that was fouler than what was in.

SM: The full vision is intact then.

JM: Yeah. Well, his original script was supposedly something insane; like 187 pages, for his wife as a Christmas present, which says a little something about how sick their relationship is and how cheap he is.But originally he had weird fantasies of Frank on a crucifix with Roxy on a crucifix next to him, and William… not William, I’ve forgotten our own character’s name… our singer [much maligned American Superstarz contestant Steven Clark] on a cross, and Frank pulls stakes out of his hands, and pulls out an AK47 from behind his back and starts shooting people, and stuff like that. He got rid of some of the really expensive sounding fantasises.

SM: I think the Jesus allusions would’ve increased any potential backlash. You mentioned that earlier. Have you personally witnessed any minor backlash? Any major backlash? Obviously there have been no copycats, thank God, but anyone that hasn’t “gotten the joke” of the movie?

JM: There’s a lot, and you check on reviews and the response on the IMDB page and on the comments and things like that. It seems like some people have a hard time with the fact we kill a lot of… we only kill white people, is one common complaint. They call it “leftist snuff porn,” and that it’s from “the sick, left-sided brain of Bobcat Goldthwait.” Most of the bad reviews are either we didn’t kill the people that they wanted dead, or we didn’t take it far enough; we didn’t kill enough people.  So, I don’t know. I think we killed just the right amount.

SM: You can never please those people unfortunately. America has just gone through a very divisive election. I think God Bless America is going to be remembered as a film from a time where America was divided. Do you think the country can recover and reunite? Or is God Bless America just going to mark the beginning of perhaps even further division and cynicism?

JM: I hope it marks a moment in time when all that reality television started to die. People will look back and say, “Yeah, about the same time as that Bob Goldthwait movie came out, it started to dry up.” But yeah, there is a lot of dissension; there’s a lot of people name-calling and blaming people in this country. I think for our own sake we’ve got to pull it together. God forbid we have to get some stupid war to get everybody on the same side, which people have done in this country in the past, I think. It’s kind of funny. People are talking about seceding from the Union now. All these people are getting signatures to try and get enough people to put it on the ballot, to secede from the Union. It’s like, “Good luck with that one.” I don’t know if back in the days of the civil war if people had this kind of thing going on, but I can’t get over… the melting pot, that’s what I was going for. Sorry. When the Irish came over, and the Italians came over, and the Germans came over, were people that disenfranchised with people that weren’t like them? Were they that upset about that as they are today? People today really have no time for our latest couple batches of immigrants, and they think they’re much better. You’ve got to ask them, “100 years ago, weren’t your great-grandparents in steerage on a boat? Didn’t they come over the same way?” I think people have a short memory when it comes to that kind of thing.

SM: Absolutely. I hope, like you say, the division will end soon. Going back to pop culture, I’d like to think that there are some things about American pop culture that are redeeming. Do you have any defence for your country and your TV shows, et cetera, when people might criticise it?

JM: I think we’re doing some of the best television in the world, but it’s unfortunately all on cable. It’s not really the network stuff. But stuff like Mad Men, like Game of Thrones, like Boardwalk Empire, and Breaking Bad. There’s some great shows being made, with great acting, and we can’t all be held up against Honey Boo-Boo and the Jersey Shore people. I think there’s some things that should be kept in the back room; not let out up in the front room.

SM: I don’t think we’ll be seeing any Mad Men/Honey Boo-Boo crossovers just yet. You appear in that show as Freddy Rumsen. It is, of course, one of the all time great shows. Matt Weiner, the show runner, is famously very secretive when it comes to his baby. Will we see Freddy again in the coming season?

JM: I can’t even say anything, but you can tell by the length of my hair right now probably not anytime real soon. The ladies at the playground at my kids school, they always know when I’ve been on the show or not. “Oh, look at your hair! Oh, it’s really short!” I’m like, “Yep, mm-hm, that’s all I can say.” He’s very secretive.

SM: And to the show’s benefit, I’ll assume, in the long-run. Something you don’t need to worry about your hair for: I understand you’ve got a part in Monsters University. Can you tell us a little bit about your character there?

JM: Yeah, It’s a prequel, so they go back to college, where they first met. I’m a guy who’s in this lame fraternity; he’s a forty-something guy who’s been in the business world. I kind of play Freddy Rumsen, with the Minnesotan accent, but he’s gone back to college. He’s hanging out with the kids, and “He’s gonna learn the computers. I’m gonna go back!” It’s fun. The stuff I’ve seen has been really funny so far, but I haven’t seen the whole thing yet.

SM: It sounds like it’s the animated Freddy Rumsen spin-off we’ve all been waiting for. Joel, congratulations on God Bless America, and thanks for your time.

JM: Alright, well I hope people get out to see it because we had a short run in the States. They put it on DVD almost straight away. It’s too bad.

SM: It’s getting a nice roll-out here in Australia, so I hope people do see it.

JM: Good. It’s more fun to make fun of Americans when you’re there.

God Bless America is now showing in Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Hobart. It opens in Sydney on December 6, and Western Australia on December 13. 

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