When you hear the name Eddie Murphy, you think of iconic roles like Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop, Donkey in the Shrek animated films, playing seven characters in The Nutty Professor. All films that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and give you a belly laugh or two. That’s Eddie Murphy the comedian. He was nominated for his first Academy Award in 2004 for his role in Dreamgirls. Twelve years later, Murphy returns to drama with Mr. Church.
Susan McMartin penned the uplifting and touching tale based on a real-life friendship. Charlotte wakes up one morning to find a stranger in her kitchen. The 10-year-old girl has met Mr. Church, a man that her mom’s dead lover hired to help her and her mother for six months. Six months turns into three decades of an unexpected friendship between Charlotte and Mr. Church.
After a four-year hiatus from movies, Eddie Murphy has delivered his best performance in years as the jazz-playing, literature-loving chef, Mr. Church. You won’t be hearing that trademark laugh in this film, but long after the credits role, you will remember how capable and how captivating Murphy is in a dramatic performance. His portrayal sticks with you, the film sticks with you. It’s a film that makes you appreciate your friendships.
I recently caught up with both McMartin and Murphy at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to talk about the film. There’s great banter between the two, as McMartin starts talking to Murphy about his tattoos, and throughout the interview we see the camaraderie the two have developed.
Susan McMartin: I always knew I wanted to write a story about this friendship because it was just so special, and he really is the reason I’m still here alive and kicking. So, I always knew that I just never knew how I was going to tell the story. When my daughter was born, he had passed on and he never got to meet her, and I was really sad about it, I would have wanted him to know her, and I would have wanted her to grow up with him. I thought, what better way for them to meet than in a story. I decided to write my story and our friendship and allow for creative freedom to create a story within the real story. That’s where it started. I wrote it quickly, and it poured out of me. It was one of those situations where I was a single mom with a newborn. When she went for a nap, I would write. She didn’t nap a lot. [laughs]. My first draft was not too far from what you’re seeing. Usually, a first draft is a vomit draft.
Eddie Murphy: (To Susan) What did you call it? The vomit draft.
SM: Yeah. The heart of it was all there because his voice was in my head growing up, it was easier to write him. The harder part was having to write away from the truth when I had to go away from the truth. We would not be here if he *points to Eddie* hadn’t said yes.
EM: Sure you would. Someone else would have said yes.
SM: No. I said it took ten years to get made because it was waiting for Eddie to be ready to do something like this.
AD: How did it get to you?
EM: Mark [Canton] brought it to me. So, I guess he’s the one who knew I could do it, when you asked, “Who knew?” He’s the one. I don’t usually get material like this, so I was surprised and then I had a really strong, emotional reaction to it, which is something I don’t normally have. When you read Daddy Day Care, you don’t start crying. [laughs.]
SM: He resembles the real Mr. Church. He has a quality about him that is not that dissimilar. When you put on the clothing, and you see him with the cigarette, right down to the watch he chooses to wear, it was an amazing transformation.
EM: But you see, I didn’t know any of that stuff. Afterward, that’s when she’d say, “That like what he did.”
AD: What did you do to prepare for the role?
EM: I didn’t really do any prep. I kind of just go there. However, I’m supposed to look, they’ll get me looking like that. If I read the script and understand it, then it happens on the set. I don’t really do all that preparing. I wish I could say, yes I walked around a certain way for a few days, [laughs] but I’m not a method actor, I don’t think I am. I don’t have that kind of method.
AD: I have to ask you though because Mr. Church does a lot of this in the film, can you cook?
EM: No. [laughs].
AD. So, you didn’t cook any of that food?
EM: It all looked really great, but it’s none of the food that I made. [laughs]. That’s Bruce and his camera, moving it around and making it look like I can cook. Actually, the woman that made all that food, she can really cook, stuff would look great.
SM: Everybody was eating the food.
EM: They weren’t eating what I was eating. It looked like I could cook but you don’t want to mess with that. [laughs]
SM: [To Eddie] I was going to say, that when you’re not method, that’s what makes him even more amazing. Just from the script,he was able to bring the person to life in such an authentic way. We talked about this yesterday, we never had a sit-down talk, he never grilled me about the real Mr. Church. I showed him a couple of pictures, but that was it. He got it just from the page and brought it to life. That’s a very special talent.
EM: It’s a game I play sometimes when I’m in the car and I see somebody on the street. I start talking like the person on the street. Randy [Webster, Eddie’s assistant] will tell you, we have many mornings when I see somebody, I’ll start doing their voice, and what they’re saying, and where they’re going. I do it all the time, so it’s kind of easy to connect with stuff, and think, “This person talks like this.” If I see it and I connect, I got it.
AD: What was the challenge in bringing him to life for you?
EM: I don’t know if challenge is the right word, but I have a comic person, and because I do comedy, I have certain stuff that I can do. I have my moves. On this, they said, “We’re not going to be using your bells and whistles on this one.” I said, “Are you sure?” [laughs]
I had time to sit with Bruce, and say, “You know what would be funny if we did this, this and this.” Bruce would laugh and say, “Yes, that’s very funny, but I don’t think that’s right.”
I don’t know if it was challenging, but it was a new thing. I usually do this, but now I had to do this using a whole different set of muscles, and that was fun.
SM: I’ve been a fan of his forever, and to have this experience is beyond. I said to him, “It’s so beautiful to watch you because there’s a stillness.” Because there’s not the bells and whistles that are amazing, but because the character requires stillness and requires quiet power, to watch him is breathtaking. I think the audience will be so moved to just see him, and have the time to see him without the fat suit or any of the things we’re known to seeing.
AD: I second that, you associate that comedy with Eddie. That’s what you think and to see Eddie in a drama is just an incredible showcase of your talent. You’ve done it all; comedy, animation and now this. Will we be seeing you in more drama now?
EM: If people offer me stuff like this, really good stuff that I can connect with, then absolutely. Like I said, this wasn’t something I was expecting to do, this is something that happened. I don’t know how you pursue stuff like this. This is special. How do you know when special is going to pop up? Special has to find you.
AD: Do you read what people say about you?
EM: I haven’t read anything for twenty years. [laughs].
AD: What about stand up? Would you ever go back?
EM: I was saying a little while ago that I was curious about stand up. One of the reasons I haven’t been in movies for the last five years, was because I was giving the audience a break, and giving myself a break. To do stand-up comedy, you have to be in the same world that the audience is in. If I’m on a movie set, I’ve been on a set since I was 18. I don’t want to be doing jokes about the set. [laughs] I mean, “The craft service on set was a motherfucker.” The audience would be like, “What the fuck.” You have to be in their world, and the only way to be in the world is to do nothing and just be there, and have real-life experiences. Be around the family, travel, and then the comedy writes itself. That’s where I’ve been.
SM: I said I wanted to write him a comedy next.
AD: Well, that’s your background, you’ve done a lot of comedy.
SM: I’m not done working with Eddie. I’m not done working with Eddie. It would be a dream to continue working with him
AD: There’s no pressure then.
SM : The thing with Eddie, is he surrounds himself with such positive people. The people in his life,his family, his children, his partner, the people who have worked with him his entire career. And there ‘s such an amazing energy in this group that comes with Eddie, and you feel it, and it was on the set. The family feeling and the unconditional love you feel from the movie, was on the set as well because of this family coming together in a unique way.
AD: What about you Susan, what were your challenges?
SM: Once we started, I was so spoiled, because as a writer, once production starts, you’re usually one of the last people they want around, they want you to be not seen. Bruce and producers allowed me to be on set the entire time, and if dialogue was going to be changed, they talked to me first, and that never happens. It should happen, they turn their babies in, and they’re told to happen.
EM: To most people, it’s not their baby, it’s their foster child. [laughs]. 95% of movie I’ve been on, every day it’s a new side of all the stuff you learned yesterday, it’s new shit every day. We were spoiled because there wasn’t a lot of stuff not getting changed. You’d learn it, and that’s what you were working with. It was solid.
AD: What’s next for you?
EM: Back to the backyard. Strumming away in the backyard. Eventually, I’m going to get back on stage, and do stand up, and a tour, and all of that. Right now, I’m in the do-nothing mode.
AD: Have you seen the movie with an audience yet?
EM: No, I haven’t seen the finished movie. I saw it when they first assembled it, but I haven’t seen it with the color corrections, and sounds. I haven’t seen with an audience. I saw it at the house. I’m really looking forward to it. I had the same reaction when I saw the trailer that I had when I read the script,where it got me emotional, so I really can’t wait to see the movie and all the things Bruce does. Like when he’s in the 70’s, he’s shooting it with the lenses that they used on the cameras on the 70’s so he’s into the detailing and intricate stuff that I can’t wait to see.
AD: I’ve never seen men cry, but I did for this.
EM: That’s cool.
SM: It was amazing watching it with an audience, but they were all coming because they wanted to see an Eddie Murphy movie. Most of them didn’t know what they were coming to see and to listen to that audience cry, and hold their breath and laugh, They were with every beat. They were blown away by Eddie and the story. One of the first questions was , “How can I buy this movie?” I thought that’s a good sign. [laughs.]