Murphy takes a dramatic detour

Eddie Murphy as Henry Joseph Church in the movie “Mr. Church,” his first in nearly six years.
Eddie Murphy as Henry Joseph Church in the movie “Mr. Church,” his first in nearly six years. TNS

On a recent afternoon, Eddie Murphy reflected on how much the world around him has changed in the past few years.

“It’s not just comedy – it’s a brand-new world,” Murphy mused, his manner far more serious and composed than his often outsized, extroverted comic persona might suggest.

“Remember back in the days when they said the Mayan calendar said it was going to be the end of the world?” he went on, warming to the subject. “Everybody waited and it passed … . But the world ended. If you think about the world the way it was just 10 years ago, everything is the opposite of what it was. All these people who were a really strong, important part of the world – like Muhammad Ali and Prince – passed away. Now people are figuring out what the new normal is.”

More than three decades after he rocketed to fame, Murphy himself, at 55, is figuring out what his own new normal is.

Early in his career, when he exploded out of “Saturday Night Live” and starred in a string of smash hits such as “48 Hrs.,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Trading Places,” Murphy’s electrifying charisma – which in person he masks behind a cool reserve, like a superhero wearing a blazer and tie over his spandex suit – was like nothing audiences had ever seen. The idea of anyone ever getting bored with him seemed inconceivable.

But somewhere along the way in Murphy’s roller coaster of a career, his on-screen persona started to drift away from that dangerous young comedian who had once prowled the stage clad in tight red leather. Too often, by his own admission, he chose films more on the basis of how much they paid than how inspired he felt by them. He racked up plenty of huge hits, including “The Nutty Professor” and “Shrek,” but to many longtime fans he seemed too willing to coast in films that weren’t worthy of his tremendous talent.

About five years ago, Murphy decided he needed a break. He had made a huge splash with his Oscar-nomi-nated turn in the 2006 musical “Dreamgirls” only to follow that triumph with a string of largely forgettable duds. Now he wanted to reassess his priorities and recharge his creative batteries.

“I got on ‘Saturday Night Live’ when I was 18 or 19, so it’s been 35 years of my face,” Murphy said. “You get sick of looking at people’s faces – I know I do. There are people whose faces pop up and I just turn the channel. And I was like, ‘I’m sure I’m that to some people.’”

As the first African-American global box office star, one whose films have collectively earned nearly $7 billion at the box office, Murphy had helped pave the way for many to follow, from Will Smith to Chris Rock to Kevin Hart. But in an increasingly fragmented, perpetually distracted cultural landscape, he had started to wonder, what was the place for a comedy performer like him?

Stand-up or drama?

Murphy was enjoying his respite from the movie business and mulling a return to stand-up comedy – an idea he has flirted with for years without ever quite pulling the trigger – when out of the blue he received a script for a family drama called “Mr. Church” about a kind but enigmatic cook who takes care of a cancer-stricken single mother and her daughter.

The project, to which Samuel L. Jackson had initially been attached, was even further outside of Murphy’s usual wheelhouse than “Dreamgirls,” which had brought him a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his turn as a talented but embittered soul singer. But that was exactly what drew him to it.

“’Dreamgirls’ has some dra-matic things, but it was a really showy role and it’s got funny stuff in it,” Murphy said. “What was exciting for me about ‘Mr. Church’ was you have to have this whole performance where everything is the opposite of what I usually do. I don’t get offered stuff where it’s just about relationships and family and love.” He chuckled. “It’s like, ‘It’s about a family.’ ‘OK, and are there any animals talking in it?’”

“Mr. Church,” which opens Sept. 16, is more than just another detour into dramatic territory for Murphy. It’s a chance, after a long absence from the screen, to reintroduce himself to audiences on new terms.

“I think me not doing a movie for five or six years and now doing something like this will be a good thing ultimately,” Murphy said. “Because I’m doing something that people have never seen me do.

“Mr. Church” screenwriter Susan McMartin, who based the script on her own real-life friendship with a man who’d helped care for her and her mother, says she had seen glimpses of Murphy’s potential as a dramatic actor in even some of his broadest comedies.

“There’s a scene in ‘The Nutty Professor’ where his character is being heckled that always broke my heart,” McMartin said. “There’s so much vulnerability in his face: the embarrassment, the trying to smile through that pain. In that moment, I was like, ‘That man is such an incredible actor.’”

While early reviews for “Mr. Church” have been mixed, Murphy’s understated turn, which is the kind of surprising pivot that often stirs awards chatter, has drawn widespread praise.

“From the moment he first appears on the screen, people just accept that he’s the character,” said the film’s director, Bruce Beresford, who also directed 1989’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” to which “Mr. Church” has been compared. “He’s so commanding and so believable, you don’t think, ‘There’s Eddie, the famous comedian.’”

A private man

Like his introverted character in “Mr. Church,” Murphy – who lives in a sprawling mansion in the Hollywood Hills – fiercely guards his privacy.

“Just because I’m not at the awards shows and stuff, they think I’m reclusive,” Murphy said. “I’m out every day.” He pointed out that he recently had a baby – his ninth child – with girlfriend Paige Butcher. (His other children are from previous relationships.) “Recluses don’t be having babies at 55,” he cracked, deadpan.

Even if Murphy has not been entirely disengaged from Hollywood, though, in recent years the tectonic plates of the film industry have shifted beneath him. The era in which comedies were largely built around A-list stars like Murphy or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey has given way to one based more on concept-driven ensemble films.

“Right now visual effects have the mic,” Murphy said. “It used to be story was king, and for the first time ever story is not king. I remember my 16-year-old daughter was talking to her friend and he was telling her this long story. She goes, ‘I don’t want to know the story – just tell me what happened.’

“There are more options if you want to go to work, but the trick now is, how do you make that audience laugh? Everything is so extreme now. Did you ever see kids doing the fire challenge? They pour nail polish remover on themselves and they set themselves on fire on the computer. I’m like, ‘How do you entertain this person?’ The audience is part of the show now.”

Fairly or not, Murphy has been criticized over the years for not being willing enough to go out of his own comfort zone. After his potentially career-redefining turn in “Dreamgirls,” some saw his return to broad comedies as a kind of retreat.

In the meantime, Murphy says he is finally getting ready to do something he hasn’t done for nearly 30 years: stand in front of a live audience at a comedy club and tell jokes. Despite all the success he’s had over the intervening decades – or perhaps because of it – going back to the world of standup, where he began his career, is a terrifying prospect.

“At first I was horrified at the idea of it,” Murphy said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m getting back up there again – how am I going to write material?’ But right now I’m like, ‘In January, I’m going to go back to the club and start working on my ‘act.’ That’s the last thing I said.”

He paused and let out a self-deprecating laugh. “But I said that last January.”