An Altman actor reflects on his Fall into priesthood

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

April 9-12
RPL Film Theatre

The name Michael Murphy may not ring a bell, but it’s very likely you’re familiar with his work. He was Woody Allen’s best friend in Manhattan, the mayor of Gotham City in Batman Returns and Angel’s father in X-Men: The Last Stand.

Murphy’s finest work took place under Robert Altman. The American filmmaker turned the actor into a politician in order to learn the inner mechanics of campaigning in Tanner ’88 and the sequel Tanner on Tanner, and made sure Murphy was at hand for his ensemble pieces.

Now the thespian headlines the moody Canadian drama Fall. Murphy is Father Sam, a priest haunted by a dwindling flock, his sense of loneliness and a murky event in his past that suggests he may or may not have molested a teen. The character-driven film, directed by Terrance Odette, transcends the (increasingly formulaic) topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to focus on this man of God coming to terms with his life choices.

Unlike the beleaguered Father Sam, Michael Murphy is a springy fellow, quick to laugh and reminisce about his high-profile acquaintances. I met him in Toronto last November to talk movies and Catholic upbringing.

Do you have to connect with a character on an emotional level to play it? If so, how did you relate to Father Sam?

You have to. I had a very strong Catholic youth. I was a pre-Vatican II child, an altar boy and a member of the choir. I came to this project with a lot to say and a lot of baggage, good and bad: I knew what guilt and penance were about. Regarding the character, I didn’t want to do a movie just about pedophilia. I found Father Sam’s solitude very poignant. I know about living alone, I have done plenty of it. He must listen to other people’s problems but has nowhere to park his own. His life is closing down; so is his parish.

You made the character your own.

Father Sam started as Polish, had a weird name. I’m an Irish guy, so we may as well make him Irish and all the bullshit that comes along with that.

You have worked with some of the greatest American filmmakers. How do you like to be directed?

Leave me the fuck alone! [laughs] I like when they tell me what they want quickly. I don’t want a guy explain the action to me until I’m bored. When I was doing McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I asked Bob [Altman] how he wanted me to play the character. He answered “he is someone’s nephew”. That’s all I needed to know. I’m tired of working with guys who can’t get it down; you have to shoot the same scene several times because they want choices in the editing room. If you are prepared, you can take advantage of what happens on set.

The film gave me the impression Father Sam wasn’t all that sold on matters of faith.

I think he has reached a point in which compassion takes over. He acknowledges there are no guarantees. I knew a priest in New York who was waiting to die and get the payoff. How many times can you say mass?

Was it hard to get Wendy Crewson to play your sister in the movie?

I was married to her!

I know!

I told her she should have been my sister — it would’ve worked out better [laughs]. She was a good sport.

As a veteran of independent cinema, your experiences then and now must be wildly different.

These days, no matter how good the movie is, you have to sell it. There was a time you could put a picture in a theatre and let it build slowly, rely on word of mouth. Now, if you don’t have a first weekend at the multiplex, you are screwed. A movie like Fall is very delicate. You need to get out there and make clear this isn’t a movie about pedophilia, but a lot of different things. It’s enjoyable in a weird way.

I was surprised of how little you appeared in the Robert Altman documentary.

The director [Ron Mann] didn’t want talking heads or commentary. He wanted Bob and his wife Katherine as narrators. He wasn’t going to use any actors at all. Then he changed his mind, but we were limited to three words. Originally I said “fearless”, he asked me to do a reshoot and say “heroic independent filmmaker”. I did it, but I warned him he was fucking himself. Eventually went back to the first one.