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Bill Murray’s portrayal of FDR in ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ draws from a personal experience

By John Horn, Los Angeles Times –

TELLURIDE, Colo. — “I got to make my segue into action movies,” Bill Murray said. “It’s not that hard. And look at ‘Iron Man.’ Those guys are funny.”

At the end of a long chat at the Telluride Film Festival, it’s understandable why the 61-year-old actor might be ready for a change of pace. The star of this year’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and the Oscar-nominated “Lost in Translation” had just witnessed one of Telluride’s world-premiere screenings of “Hyde Park on Hudson,” in which Murray plays Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the eve of World War II. He called FDR “the most formidable character” he’d ever played.

Rather than global history lesson, “Hyde Park” focuses on a few days of the 32nd president’s domestic life in his upstate New York home. The King and Queen of England are set to arrive at the presidential retreat, but FDR has plenty of other complications.

Written by British playwright Richard Nelson, the film is primarily focused on the personal and sexual relationship between Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney), which commences with an unusual dalliance in the front of the president’s convertible. At the same time, in a bit of diplomacy that rivals his handling of the visiting monarch, FDR must manage his mother (Elizabeth Wilson), his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams) and his secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel).

“This guy was famous for keeping everyone on his side, even his enemies,” Murray said after a midday thunderstorm erupted outside his Telluride hotel. “And he needed these relationships just to balance his life.”

What sounds at first like stunt casting is actually anything but. Director Roger Michell said that if Murray wouldn’t play FDR he wouldn’t make the movie.

“He has a charismatic charm as an actor that lets you forgive his character’s mischief,” the British filmmaker said.

Murray spent months researching the part — “You can only read so much before it starts coming out of your ears,” he said — and patterned his speech on recordings of Roosevelt.

But Murray found one of the keys to his performance not in any book or audio file. A younger sister contracted polio as a young girl, and Murray’s depiction of the president’s disability was in many ways shaped by what he saw his sister experience, even though polio is scarcely mentioned in the film.

When his sister became ill in the 1950s, some of the treatments were one step up from leeches (immersion in scalding water was one therapy) and his sister’s leg braces were excruciating. And yet she was stoic, so strong in her upper body “she could lift a table with one hand,” Murray said.

“That shaped the state I was in while I worked,” Murray said. “Because I realized she didn’t complain about anything.”

That thinking guided the film’s most memorable scene, between FDR and King George VI (Samuel West). Even though the monarch is played by a different actor than in “The King’s Speech,” he still has his stutter. In trying to ask for American assistance at a time when many U.S. citizens opposed another global conflict, the king is flummoxed by his speech impediment, only to be disarmed by the president’s talking about polio.

Like the stutter, it’s not an issue — other things matter far more. “The thing I fear the most in moviemaking is sentimentality,” Murray said. “And this is not sentimental.”

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