Mr. Murray, in Lost in Translation, you had a go at karaoke. Now you sing on the New Worlds project accompanied by world-class musicians, such as cellist Jan Vogler. Are you embarking on a second career?
I do sing, but what I’m really doing is a mix of literature and music – with passages from Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Walt Whitman, and compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert and Maurice Ravel as well as songs from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The music and the powerful words reinforce each other. What we are aiming for with this project is to build a bridge between Europe and America. But the man in charge is Jan Vogler, whom I met on a plane some years ago. I’m only there to move the furniture from left to right on the stage.
I don’t believe that. At any rate, your friendship with Jan Vogler has taken you entirely new places. This is also true of other members of the ensemble…
Yes, especially when you think of the life journeys they have behind them! Jan Vogler is originally from East Germany, a walled-in state. Pianist Vanessa Perez came rumbling out of Venezuela on a rolling goods train, which is probably the reason for her rolling gait and her wonderful sense of rhythm. And our violinist, Mira Wang, who’s from China, found her freedom in music. We all have totally different backgrounds and very different experiences, but the chemistry between us is just right.
One of the numbers you’ve recorded is a version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God.” How did you come to pick that particular blues number?
The idea came to me when I was drifting from San Diego into the Californian hinterland. The mountains had just been having abundant rainfall for the first time in a long while and it had transformed one spot in the desert into an ocean of flowers. As I drew nearer, I saw a crowd of people who had got out of their cars to watch the sun set. Right at that moment, my CD player started playing that Van Morrison song and it turned the whole thing into a moving scene and gave me the idea of recording the song for the album. The rest of the ensemble took me up on the idea straight away.
Have you ever met Van Morrison?
Yes, and he’s a guy you can have a lot of fun with. No wonder, really, because he is a kindred spirit of the wandering blues singers and the Irish poets who enjoy a drop of the hard stuff. In contrast, his songs have grown more and more serious, but also more and more beautiful. That doesn’t happen all too often. In fact, it’s mostly the other way around: When music becomes more profound, the quality suffers.
So you don’t believe it’s necessary to suffer for your art?
I learned a few of life’s secrets early on. One of them was: If you want to do your best, it helps to be relaxed, very relaxed, in fact. That realization has also helped me with my acting. The more fun I had, the better I was.
Do you see yourself as a comedian in every walk of life?
Let’s put it this way: I like to surprise myself – and that’s how I try to stay awake. But I don’t waste time wondering what effect my behavior has on others or whether I could even change one single person. You cannot think like that because you inevitably risk disappointing yourself and others.
How would you describe your philosophy of life?
I try to be open to everything that life has to offer. We only have this one life and if we do not make the most of it, but simply function, then we are not really living. If you live each moment to the full instead, the possibilities are endless. This wisdom came to me from my sister, who once made it very clear that all of this was not a dress rehearsal, but my life.
If we only function, then we’re not really living.
Did you ever have a life-changing experience while traveling?
Yes, and it was my very first trip abroad. I was off to Malaysia to go climbing. On a stopover in Australia, I met a man who gave me this piece of advice: “Remember that you bring something to the mountain, that you leave your footprint.” The notion that not only my own self, but also the mountain could be changed by my climbing it was a real epiphany for me, and even though that was 35 years ago, it still influences me today. I keep a close watch on my actions, thoughts and feelings as I journey through life. And that applies to all of the projects, all of the encounters, to every evening I get up there on a stage.
You are a very rare bird: You have no agent, no manager, and you are famously hard to reach. Even Sofia Coppola had to wait for you for months prior to shooting Lost in Translation. What has to happen for you to return a call?
Sofia and I are close friends these days, so she clearly doesn’t hold it against me. But it’s quite simple: If someone has good manners, isn’t persistent, doesn’t hound me – then there’s a good chance we might come together.
You’ve had an impressive career, from stand-up comic to acclaimed character actor. How has success changed you?
It’s great to be a success, obviously, but I’m not desperate to achieve it. Once you’re famous, you can act like an egocentric idiot for one or two years with impunity. Then you have a couple of years to adjust to fame – or stay an idiot. In my experience, work helps. I love work; it’s what I do best. And I’m probably a better person then than when I’m not working.