Don’t call it a comeback! Eddie Murphy has been around for years, and he never left, despite headlines that suggest the contrary. His latest is “Dolemite Is My Name,” a new original feature from Netflix, based on the life and work of blaxploitation hero Rudy Ray Moore. Starring Murphy and directed by Craig Brewer, the film tells the story of how Moore, a larger than life comedian, singer, actor, and film producer, launched a movie career in the 1970s, with one of the most well-known Blaxploitation films of all time, “Dolemite.”
Murphy’s performance in the film has drawn much acclaim, earning him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, and putting him among contenders for the 2020 Best Actor Oscar, and the film for Best Picture.
Remarkably, despite a career that spans 40 years, and is chock-full of memorable performances (he arguably deserved an Oscar nomination for “The Nutty Professor” in which he played seven different characters), he’s been nominated for an Oscar just once before: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for “Dreamgirls” in 2006, which he didn’t win, despite picking up both the SAG and Golden Globe awards for the role. He lost the Oscar to Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”
But Murphy is somewhat indifferent about winning an Oscar, although he certainly appreciates being in the conversation. Presently, he’s handling all the attention he’s receiving for “Dolemite,” as well as excitement over upcoming projects (like “Coming 2 America”), with his trademark confidence and cool.
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In a recent conversation with IndieWire that covered an array of subjects, a funny and frank Murphy talked about his supposed “comeback,” the Oscars, working with Netflix on “Dolemite Is My Name!”, meeting and being inspired by Rudy Ray Moore, “Beverly Hills Cop 4,” superhero movies, being a legend, and more.
IndieWire: Do you read your own press or do you avoid it?
Murphy: I don’t read any press. I haven’t read a newspaper in 20 years. Newspaper or corporate magazine, pop culture magazine.
Yeah. Easily over 20 years.
Where do you get all your news from?
You hear it from the grapevine, man. It’s the same stuff on the news all the time. You should know what’s going on in the world, but you should take some time every now and then to unplug. And I’ve never had any social media. I’ve never even owned a computer. Total computer illiterate. I never had a Twitter account. I don’t do any of them. I’m as close as you can get to the 1970s life. People come up to me and think that they were following me, too. They’d be like, “Yeah, I was talking to you the other day.” “Man, I don’t have no Twitter.” They say “Oh shit, I’ve been talking to you for five years. Who the fuck I’ve been talking to?”
Every headline I’m reading is that this is Eddie’s comeback. But is it really? Does it feel like a comeback?
Man, I’ve been making movies for almost 40 years, and every few years when I do a movie, they say I’m coming back. I’m like, “Okay, that’s how you want to spin it.” I’ve been making movies for almost 40 years. And my movies have made so much money. The whole comeback and stuff, you can’t really say that.
You’re doing a “Beverly Hills Cop 4,” “Coming to America 2.” Is revisiting these old movies something that you really wanted to do, or is it just the climate?
Absolutely things that I want to do. “Dolemite” was in development for 15 years. “Beverly Hills Cops,” over 10 years; “Coming to America,” five or six years. Everything kind of came together all at the same time.
Okay, “Dolemite.” Why Netflix?
They were perfect because they are forward thinkers and risk takers, not like the traditional studios. And they are obviously interested in diverse content. Back then, we were going around trying to get “Dolomite” made, in a world where studio people didn’t know who Rudy Ray Moore was at all. Literally, they had no idea who he was. I was at a couple of meetings with studios and a lot of people didn’t even know James Brown, and I was like, “How the fuck you don’t know James Brown?” We got all these people that love Rudy Ray Moore. I heard some guy was talking with some studio dude that was like, “Oh, we would have made this movie in a second.” When you look at it now you go, “Okay, yeah.” But on paper they wouldn’t make it, so shut the fuck up. Now they’re like, “Oh yeah, sure we would have did that.” Get outta here.
Was there any kind of hesitation given Netflix’s model, which would mean that most people would not see it in the theater?
No, we went into it knowing that we were going to be on Netflix, and we also went into it knowing that if a movie turns out really well, Netflix puts it out in the theaters for a minute, and they’d go try to do a whole trophy run. And the platform that they have — “Dolemite” came out two weeks ago, almost 40 million people have seen it on Netflix. If we were in the movie theaters, it wouldn’t be 40 million people. When I go out, everybody is like, “Hey Dolemite!” Everybody has seen it. So yeah, I have no problem with being on Netflix. I think Netflix is a godsend for artists. We’re still doing movies with other studios as well, but having Netflix being part of the picture is not a bad thing at all.
Beyond studio heads not really knowing who Rudy Ray Moore was, were there any other major challenges in trying to get the story told over the last 15 years?
It wasn’t like we were trying to develop it for 15 years. [It] kind of just went back on the shelf. Like I said, “Beverly Hills Cop” was in development as well.
That was supposed to be a TV series at one point, right?
We did it, we shot a pilot for a TV show for “Beverly Hills Cop 3.” The reason that didn’t get picked up was because [the studio] thought that I was going to be in this show, because [the lead] was my son: “And you’re going to pop in every now and then.” I was like, “I ain’t popping in shit.” “Well, we ain’t making this TV show.” I was in the pilot, but they wanted me to be there every week. The pilot was really good. It tested where they have these knobs [that you] turn if you like it. And whenever I came on the screen, Axel Foley would come on the screen, they turned it so they literally broke the knobs on the thing. It was like, “Damn, they breaking knobs?”
One thing I loved about “Dolemite” is how Rudy Ray Moore put a spotlight on white speculators who take advantage of black artists. He just refused to be exploited in that way. So what can today’s generation of black filmmakers learn from Rudy Ray Moore?
Today, Rudy Ray Moore would be Tyler Perry. On the surface, [Perry] looks like he just popped up, but he was making these plays and doing Madea all around, so he had a grassroots following. That’s what Rudy did when he went, “Hey, I got this thing, I know what’s good, I believe in it and I’m going to go and work and sell it out of my trunk and get it going.” Your belief and your volition gets you whatever you want. He doesn’t have any of this stuff that’s supposed to make you. He’s got a pot belly, and he’s not a good-looking guy. He’s got nothing and his stuff is super crude. And he went and got his act from homeless people in the alley.
You can draw a direct line from Oscar Micheaux to Rudy Ray Moore, and then again I guess to Tyler Perry from there on.
Fuck, yeah. That’s what I’m talking about, man. History and connections to history that we don’t make enough of.
When did you first see “Dolemite,” and what did you think of it?
I thought it was crazy. I was a fan of the movies. There are these movies that come out that are, I guess you’d call them avant-garde films, that are so bad they’re good. And people smoke weed and watch them, and look at all the shit that’s wrong in the movie, and it’s fucking hysterical. Like Fellini’s movies or Alejandro Jodorowsky movies; “El Topo.” Then when I got older, it was like, this guy is a guerilla filmmaker. His spirit is just — you have to be inspired.
I think it was a New York Times article I read in which you said, Moore was essentially satirizing blaxploitation heroes like “Shaft” and “Superfly.”
Absolutely. I’ve had this debate with comedians. They’ll be like, “Oh no, this is funny because he’s trying to be serious and it’s bad”; and I say, “No! this motherfucker’s a comedian. There’s no way he’s thinking that this is serious.” There’s no way you could see him in a fight scene and go, “He’s serious.” He’s a comedian parodying “Shaft” and Slaughter in “Big Rip-Off,” and all of that stuff.
You met him, right? Once, twice?
A few times. The first time I met him was when he came on the set of “48 Hours.” We were shooting downtown LA and I heard somebody say, “Get your goddamn hands off of me.” I looked and said, “That sounds like Rudy Ray Moore,” and it was him. He was super skinny. He was smoked out or something, and that’s the first time I met him. It was like, “Wow, Rudy Ray Moore is fucked up.” Then maybe a few years later, I started seeing him in nightclubs. I guess he had gotten off the streets and got his shit together. Then I saw him at the Club Lingerie doing stand-up, and I saw him at Stevie’s on the strip. In LA, all the comics would be in the back, the black comics. We’d be in the back watching Rudy Ray Moore. There’s a picture.
Of both of you?
We took a picture of the night I met Rudy Ray Moore and I told him, “Hey, we should do this movie together.”
No, you don’t have to bother to find it.
Nah, it’s principle, man.
I only have a certain amount of time with you, man. I want to get my questions in.
Man, shut up and let me find it. I want to show you something cool. Here’s the old Jewish guy from “Coming to America” reciting Dolomite. [Murphy plays a short video on his phone from the “Coming to America 2” set.] I think I might do that, when I host SNL. I think I might do that Dolemite speech instead of a corny intro like everybody else does —
You mean the opening speech?
Yeah, the opening monologue, do Dolemite. [Brings out a photo; it’s Murphy and Moore, together.] See, that’s the night I met him. That’s like 15 years ago. That’s right in front, it’s on Ventura Boulevard. We took this picture. He had all this shit on. I was like, man, it’s three in the morning. And I was thinking, “Nobody is seeing this stuff?” The man had on this glitter jacket and shit, with no pants on.
How comfortable or uncomfortable were these costumes, the shoes and all that for Dolemite?
Very uncomfortable. I wore that shit when I was a teenager. You got to have the young foot to wear that. You have a middle-aged foot, and you can’t be putting on some platforms.
Looking ahead to the “Coming to America” sequel, how will Zamunda be depicted? Especially after we’ve seen the futuristic Wakanda.
Most of the movie takes place in Africa and it’s Zamunda… I think the reason why [“Coming to America”] resonated and really worked with black folks is that it was our black fairy tale. This new movie is a fairy tale as well. It’s this fairy tale world where they have a very modern problem.
But the question is, since Americans have been exposed to so much more about Africa than when you made the first film 30 years ago, there might be expectations of a modern kind of Zamunda, not elephants running around in the background. You know what I mean?
Zamunda is 30 years before Wakanda. Wakanda is a superhero movie. And we’re not trying to compete with a superhero movie, its aesthetics, the thrill and all that. We’re doing a sequel to this fairy tale that was really, really popular all around the world. Black Panther is nowhere near as funny as “Coming to America.” And we’re not as visually thrilling as their picture. But look, I know what you’re saying. And the answer is yes, it’s 30 years later so it’s not going to be the same Zamunda man, what the fuck is wrong with you?
OK, I just had to ask. I’ll move on. What made you finally want to come back to SNL as a host?
Because all of this other stuff was coming together, and I thought, “This is a great time to go back to SNL.” When I went back to SNL to do the 40th anniversary, I hadn’t been back there in years. I went in there and saw the studio, went to my old dressing room and most of the actors and actresses that were in the cast, over the 40 years, were there, and all the department people… I just was overcome with this huge feeling of nostalgia. I felt a kinship to everybody. It was like, “I want to come back and host again.” But I wanted to host again when I had a hot movie. “Dolemite” is funny, and that seemed like the perfect time to go back there and then go do stand-up again as well.
Do you care about Oscar? I mean, obviously you’re campaigning for it, but has that ever been something that you’ve been chasing?
Yeah, I never chase a trophy. But when your stuff gets well received to the point that there’s even discussion about giving you a trophy, that’s a good thing. It’s a great feeling, because most movies don’t work. Most TV shows don’t work. Most records don’t work. Success is the exception, not the rule. And when they want to give you an Oscar, or when they even have that conversation, that’s a good feeling because that’s just shows you how much people liked it.
I’m just going to throw out some random questions that people asked me to ask, since he says I only have five minutes left. There was a rumor that Will Smith was trying to do an “Uptown Saturday Night” remake a while back with you? True or false?
Will has the rights to “Uptown Saturday Night” and “Let’s Do It Again.” He’s been trying to develop “Uptown Saturday Night,” but I’m like, “I want to do ‘Let’s Do it Again.’ That’s the one.” [As of August 2019, Kevin Hart is set to star in the “Uptown” remake, with Kenya Barris scripting and Rick Famuyiwa directing. Will Smith is producing via his Overbrook banner.]
Another question: “I feel there’s a whole generation of people who have no idea who you are or what impact you had on the entertainment industry…”
That’s not just not accurate. My movies have made $7 billion. I am on television 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you go and look on the movie channels right now, whatever, HBO and Cinemax, Starz, and Fox, my movies are all on constantly. There’s no one that doesn’t know “Shrek” and never seen “Beverly Hills Cop.” So that’s just not accurate.
Let me just finish the question first before —
It’s just not reality. If you were born 15 years ago, then you’ve seen “Shrek,” you’ve seen “Dreamgirls.” There’s no such thing as “there are these people who don’t know who Eddie Murphy is,” because, like I said, it’s not ego, it’s just a reality. I’ve been one of the highest-grossing actors in history over the last 30 years. I’m the highest-grossing comedian in the history of the movie business. So it’s just not a reality that somebody can go, “Oh, we don’t know who you are.” It’s like, “You do.” You may not be excited about it, or you may not have seen something new in a couple of years. But you never really leave the airwaves. Even if I said, “I don’t want to ever be seen again.” Well, I can’t, with the way the world is wired now. It’s out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The rest of the question was, “It’s hard to overestimate how big an impact he had” and she said, “Do you think of yourself as that person?” Obviously, you do.
Do I think of myself as what?
“It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact he had in the industry being the most influential comedian of his generation.” And she said, “Do you think of yourself as that guy?”
I keep score. And I’m aware that the chances of being born are 1 in 400 trillion. That’s the odds of a human being born. That’s the bum on the street in the gutter – 1 in 400 trillion. So to be born, is a hell of a thing. I’m an actor; to become an actor, what are the odds of that? And then become an actor that’s successful. What are the odds of that? Then to go on for 40 years, and be a nigga, too? Come on, man. It used to be just one at a time could be in the movies. It was Sydney [Poitier] and then it was Richard [Pryor], and then I showed up. And then you get then Denzel [Washington] and Morgan [Freeman]… I’m not talking about their talent. The psychological soil that was required for all of them to sprout was the success of my movies. It was like they’d never seen $100 million movies with a black lead, and that opened up the door for all of them. And that’s not just with movies. That’s stand-up comedy as well. When I came on the scene, a million black comics came after. So it changed, because of the success that I had. I don’t strut around preaching it, but I’m aware of that.
Your man over there is rushing me, so two “yes” or “no” questions and we’re done. So many actors, great actors, are now chasing comic-book projects. Are you feeling the pull, or are you just kind of like, “That’s not for me.”
No! I’m going to be 60 in a year. Who would I play? The old brotherman? I guess that’d be the character.
Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker were in “Black Panther” though, and you all are around the same age.
But that was Black Panther.
I know, that’s what I just said.
Man, fuck that. I can’t be standing around in a movie with a stick and shit, pointing and telling people, “Oh, you should do this or that.” I’m just not down with the whole superhero movie thing. But, if I had to, I guess I could play a villain or some shit like that.
That’s true. They tend to be older, don’t they?
Man, fuck you. But Sam Jackson is in all the damn superhero movies, and he’s like 70, right?
OK, last one. Anyone you’d love to work with that you haven’t yet? Actor, actress, director, writer, anyone?
I used to have a list like that. I don’t have a list like that now. Now I’m like, if something comes along with whoever and it’s amazing, I’m open. But I think the most brilliant directors ever are Steven Spielberg and Scorsese. I love watching their movies.
But you’ve never worked with either of them, though?
Yeah. Well I kind of worked with Steven because of the “Shrek” movies. But he’s never actually physically said “action.”
Does Scorsese know you really want to work with him? Does Spielberg know you really want to work with him?
I don’t know if I said the words “really want to work.” I’m an admirer of their films. I think they’re the most gifted of the filmmakers of my generation. I find myself watching their movies over and over and over and over again.
Okay. I really appreciate the time. I’m a big fan. I grew up with your shit. So, this was a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Thank you, bro. This was fun.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.