Accepting Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is no stretch. His filmography is thick with serious work, and the actor drips gravitas and immersive artistic commitment befitting a towering historical role. But few knew what to expect when "Hyde Park on Hudson" producer/director Roger Michell ("Notting Hill") cast Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Murray's résumé is stronger on offhanded, wise-guy roles than drama. Yet Michell insisted that no other actor could lead his film.
Michell's judgment was sound. Murray's transformative performance has so impressed film industry oddsmakers that many expect a best actor presidential runoff between Day-Lewis and Murray.
Presenting the movie in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Michell said getting the script to the reclusive Murray, who doesn't use a manager or agent, was the production's toughest challenge.
Once Murray read the screenplay by Tony Award-winning playwright Roger Nelson, however, he was on board. "The thing I fear most in moviemaking is sentimentality," Murray said, "and this is not sentimental."
The film offers a human portrayal of FDR, focusing on his longtime affair with distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, played by Laura Linney. Her diaries, discovered after her death, provided much of the story material. Roosevelt relaxed around his cousin and mistress as he did with few others. The only known photographs of the polio-stricken Franklin in his wheelchair were taken by Daisy.
Told partly from her perspective, "Hyde Park" is more than a portrait of the historic, presidential Roosevelt -- "the guy on the dime," as Murray put it. The film shows Roosevelt's personal charm, quick humor, political savvy and formidable powers of persuasion. He is also occasionally a bit of a bastard.
"Playing a very big, important person," Murray said, "was very ambitious for me. I knew I'd have to exert myself." He didn't know much about America's only four-term president beyond the fact that his own blue-collar parents held the man in high regard. His preparation was casual. He didn't devour biographies or even watch newsreels for homework. "I hate to give away my secrets, but I do almost nothing," he admitted.
To master Roosevelt's upstate New York accent, he listened to recordings of FDR's voice and spent some time with a vocal coach. He practiced hauling himself out of a wheelchair and crossing a room by balancing against desks and tables. Murray knows something about polio. His sister battled the disease in the 1950s. Shunning the wig and latex makeover that gave Day-Lewis a striking resemblance to Lincoln, Murray simply perched pince-nez glasses on his nose, tilted his cigarette holder at a devil-may-care angle and slipped on an airy grin. It was important to avoid the dissonance of one famous person imitating another, he said, a problem he avoided by simply relaxing and flowing into the role.
The film's dramatic framework is the historic 1939 visit to Hyde Park, the Roosevelt summer home, by England's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who came seeking American support in the looming war against the Axis powers. It also subtly and humorously observes the tricky dynamics of the chief executive's relations with his wife, mother and devoted female staff. "The guy was surrounded by all these women," Murray said, widening his eyes in dismay at the thought.
"Hyde Park on Hudson" reunites Murray with his "Rushmore" co-star Olivia Williams, whose Eleanor Roosevelt combines dignity, opinionated candor and wry annoyance at her husband's scarcely concealed affairs. The fact that they "knew each other of old" helped them play the long-married couple, she said. More than Murray, she was apprehensive about playing "someone who is respected and loved so universally. I was terrified," she said, adding with a smile that her nerves steadied after learning that "Bill hadn't vetoed my casting."
The toughest challenge for Murray was adapting to the customs of film production in England, where the film was shot. The cast and crew didn't warm to his habit of energizing the set with his boombox (they appreciated nothing but "fife and drum" music, he groused). And as for the food, he chuckled, "It was a difficult time for me, let's say."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186