Charlie Murphy moves up
The comedian on improv, his love of Canada and gyros working on Halifax-set Moving Day
Charlie Murphy in Moving Day (Alliance Pictures)
Actor-comedian Charlie Murphy is settled down outside New York City, ready to go on another five months of standup touring. But as he confesses over the phone to being pretty much stripped down to his underwear to do interviews in the killer eastern-seaboard heat, his mind is on Nova Scotia and the new feature film comedy he's part of from out there, Moving Day.
"It was like getting to know that town, and then to be going in to do a movie: Halifax is my favourite part of Canada now because of that experience," Murphy enthuses affectionately over the line. "I've been to Nanaimo, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary -- I've been all over Canada, and I had fun everywhere I went. But I did a movie in Halifax.
"I have memories of getting up in the morning and going to work there, like everybody else gets up in Halifax and goes to work, and I was going to a movie set. That made the place special forever, man."
True to the form of Moving Day director and co-writer Mike Clattenburg -- one of the minds behind the hugely successful Showcase television and two-movie run of his home province's hard-luck Trailer Park Boys -- Murphy found himself happily immersed in some of the dark times of average Joes hauling pay under the table for Redmond Furniture, a spit-and-bailing-wire local business in the heart of Halifax's immediate flipside, Dartmouth. And for Murphy -- older brother of and occasional co-star to ubiquitous Eddie, and veteran of the late and lauded Chappelle's Show -- getting a chance to dig in to a fully-rounded role with co-workers Will Sasso, Jonny Harris and Gabriel Hogan was the opportunity he had been longing for.
"I come up there, eat donairs and have fun, man," Murphy says, laughing and fond. "I ate a donair. Yep. Let me tell you something: A donair -- we eat those here, and we call them a gyro. Different name, but the same thing."
Well, not exactly: "It's sweet. That's what's different. They're sweet; that's the difference. It's like a sweet gyro - a gyro with sugar on it."
Murphy is Cedric, probably the most easy-going and anxiety-free blue collar of Moving Day, a film in which his pal Clyde (Sasso, the Canadian veteran of MADtv) is paralyzed with fear over losing the very relative safety of a dead-end job. They work with an alcoholic and arrogant ladies' man (Hogan, veteran of TV's Heartland and Rent-a-Goalie), a slacker with nowhere ambitions of being a rock star (Harris, most prominently known for his work as the wheelchair-bound family friend who gets in over his head in the acclaimed Newfoundland drama Grown Up Movie Star), and under the thumb of the business patriarch (veteran Canadian actor Victor Garber, who is about to be seen in the crucial role as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor in Ben Affleck's upcoming Iran-hostage drama Argo). While everyone is hanging by their fingernails and almost knuckling each other under with a sort of soft blackmail intended to keep Redmond Furniture in shady business, Cedric is the voice of reason.
"He's a mature guy, a serious guy," Murphy says. "But what I like about him is that he's not angry. He's just real. You know what I'm saying? He's matter of fact. Like: 'Look, man. We're in the same situation. But I'm not looking at it like you're looking at it. You know? With a fatalistic view of it. I'm looking at it and trying to see a way out of it - even if there is a way out of it.'"
Right out of the box, with posters featuring the big man Sasso, Moving Day looks like a straight-on comedy in the mold of Office Space. But that isn't quite the truth. With oppressively anal-retentive clients (Gerry Dee, star of CBC's Mr. D) breathing down their necks and Clyde's own sister (Gabrielle Miller of the CTV hit Corner Gas) often a little too naively by-the-book for everyone's own good, the pranking and the comedy barely mask the pain each character feels in not seeing a clear path through to the future.
"I like to mine some realism and not always be chasing the joke," says director Clattenburg, on the phone from Halifax. "Because sometimes you get a really funny joke, and it kind of blows the realism. I'm not necessarily after jokes all the time. I'm drawn to drama. I like drama a lot, and I like to work dramatic stuff into what I'm doing. I like every scene to appear as if it's real, that it could have actually happened rather than some big, crazy contrivance for a joke."
All actors were in right away. Garber has yet to see the film, but the way Moving Day was made has him eagerly anticipating the final result.
"What interests me in anything I do and why I choose things is because of what is really going on underneath it," says Garber, whose boss-character Wilf Redmond keeps his yappy dog as his closest companion, and tries to hide any sleaze under a veneer of old-time distinction. "I was sort of amazed as I read the script - and, by the way, this is a long time ago I read it - I remember thinking 'This is not a normal film, and it's got much more dimension than most things I read.' And, also, the farcical element of it, the comedic element, was balanced by a reality. And that, to me, is the only thing that ever works in comedy, ever."
Garber is a six-time Emmy nominee for work in such series as Frasier and Alias, but the task put to him for Moving Day put him in a world he clearly loved.
"Every actor involved was so accomplished that we created this instant family immediately," Garber says. "And then the way that Mike works, he wants to improvise and go 50 steps further. That was kind of the surprise for me. I didn't really know what it was going to be like. But I was really impressed with the way he did it. I'll be very curious to see the movie, because, honestly, the improvisation -- the scene would go on three more minutes after we did it. And then I'd say to Jonny Harris afterwards: 'How the hell is he going to put this in the movie?' What he does is, he takes these little clips and vignettes and little moments and adds them and subtracts them. That's what editing is, but I'm so curious to see it for that reason."
For Clattenburg, Moving Day -- coming less than a year after the wry Afghanistan-Canada war drama Afghan Luke, which he worked up with frequent collaborator Barrie Dunn -- is part of a full calendar of jobs that have him pushing into some new territory and taking a fresh look at some old.
"I'm working on a film that's set in Halifax," he says. "It's called Berzerkers. And it's a story of some garbage scavengers who live off the coast of Nova Scotia. They wear garbage there. They're unknown to the modern world, and they're starting to starve, and they come up with a plan to attack the grocery stores in Metro Halifax. And then they land and get into all kinds of trouble. Berzerkers is one I'm working on, and..."
...here it comes...
"...there's another story I'm hoping to bring to theatres real soon. It's about a drunk trailer supervisor and these three guys in a trailer park. It might not work -- I don't know -- but we'll give it a shot."
The well, evidently, hasn't run dry on Mr. Lahey, Ricky, Julian, Bubbles and the low-rent population of Sunnyvale.
"We've all had a chance to take a break from Trailer Park Boys," Clattenburg says. "When we were doing it, it was crazy. We were doing the series; we were doing movies at the same time. It was quite a bit of work, and there was quite a bit of demand for Trailer Park. And the fans -- I was hoping we would leave them wanting more. I think that's an understatement now. People are demanding more."
The unique fundamentals Clattenburg established held as valuable guidelines when getting Moving Day off the ground. Always up to something, Clattenburg collaborated with his musical bandmate Mike O'Neill -- they're in the band The Self Conscious together; O'Neill is one of the co-founders of celebrated Canadian band The Inbreds -- to work an idea about guys like the Redmond Furniture movers (not to mention use the confines of a virtual time-capsule of a store in Dartmouth) into a feature-length script.
"We went in with a pretty tight script, but I'm always open to changing it and playing around with it to get it off the page," Clattenburg says. "Sometimes, a scene will work exactly as scripted and sometimes it's not - so, you just try something to give it some life and keep the floor to be open to improvisation. Gabrielle Miller really shone. She sparked with all kinds of interesting improv, and a lot of it made it into the film. So, yeah -- I'm always open to it. But if you're losing the turn of the scene or whatever, then you get back to the script. I like to keep it loose."
The plan worked perfectly for Charlie Murphy.
"There's no hack stuff," the actor-comedian says. "I like the way it's done, man. Put it like this: If you go watch [a successful comedy] and if you see the type of jokes they do, the jokes work because of the wit.
"That's what's making it work. The wit, not the physical performance, not over-the-top characters. It's the wit and the writing. And that's what this film has. And that's why I'm really proud to be in this film."