Bill Murray Talks The 'Kasbah' — And The Merits Of A Life Lived Phoneless

Oct 24, 2015
Originally published on October 30, 2015 2:22 pm

Richie Lanz, a small-potatoes talent agent from Van Nuys, Calif., has been mired in hard luck for a while now. But things don't get much better when he takes a client to entertain American troops in Afghanistan — and she promptly leaves him stranded in no more than his underwear.

Good thing, then, that Lanz is just a character — the lead in the film Rock the Kasbah — and that he's played by the venerable Bill Murray. Things could be worse. And in fact they do start looking up, as soon as Lanz stumbles upon a young Afghan girl with a moving voice and a penchant for Cat Stevens covers.

As Murray tells NPR's Scott Simon, the film isn't so far-fetched: Screenwriter Mitch Glazer was inspired by a real event.

"In Afghanistan, a woman there, a Pashtun, chose to sing publicly, which was against the code, for a woman to sing publicly and to move on stage. She did all those things," Murray says. "And, she was on their version of American Idol, a thing called Afghan Star. So he sort of took that as a jumping off point and wrote a film based around that idea."


Interview Highlights

On what he sees as a "Bill Murray character," and whether he agrees with critics who use that phrase

I don't know what they mean exactly, Scott. I don't know what you're referring to, except I do remember — I don't really read the reviews — but I remember one I read a long time ago that said I had a face like a potato. I walk into work with that knowledge every single day. I'm just a potato that won't quit. I'm a potato with some legs. Some have eyes, I've got legs.

On shooting the movie in Morocco

Morocco is the greatest. I should be getting money from the Moroccans because I'm just telling everyone that it's a wonderful place to go. It's beautiful, the people are very gentle and kind, it's got a great history. It's Africa and it's a Muslim world that's a kinder, gentler one, kind of one that we all imagine or hope for.

And visually it's just incredibly dynamic. Around every corner is something that just stops you.

On whether he sees news from Afghanistan in a different light after making the film

I mean, [Afghans] have been through it for a couple of decades now. They had the Russians come, they had the Taliban come, we came, and that's a combination of all these people coming in and trying to stir things up. And Afghanistan is just one of those countries that no group can conquer. It's so challenging to live, and the people are so close among their own tribes, their own groups, that you can't rule them all, you can't get an accord from all of them. And you can't really dominate them either, because they've been there long before you got here, and they'll be there long after you leave.

It's very unfortunate, because it's a whole country that would just wish the rest of us would all just go away and leave us the way they were for a thousand years.

On how his character, Richie Lanz, reacts when he hears the Pashtun girl

I think at the moment he's there in Afghanistan, he thinks Afghanistan is just the most horrible place in the world. He's been ripped off, abandoned, can't get any traction in any way. And he's alone in a country where there's nothing comfortable about it, and I'm living in the same clothes that I've been living in, you know.

He's a little stuck, and he goes out just in the night and hears a voice — and it's almost like, "Yes, there is a God. I am of music, and this is music. And I know it when I hear it." It's just, all of a sudden he's alive, back alive in his own body. And he's got a chance to do something. He can be active.

On his decision to go without an agent, assistant — or a phone

I count on the kindness of strangers. I don't have any of that, no. ... If people really want to find you, they find you. You know, it's kind of good, it eliminates a lot of people that have impulses at odd hours of the day or night to say, "Hey, you know, maybe that fellow." It just sort of winnows out a lot of people.

I lost my phone. I have a phone now, and I lost it and I just really didn't look for it. It was the nicest feeling, like six weeks. ... A couple of times I needed to use a telephone, and I was always able to touch someone that had a telephone and say, "Hey, can I use your phone? May I please?" And they'd say, "Sure." And that was it! So it was OK, it was a real vacation. I took a real vacation from myself. ...

Everyone needs to take a vacation from the sort of automatic things you do, you know. The automatic things you do are basically those things that keep you from doing the better things you need to do. So, getting away from all that sort of left me in front of the question, "Well, what would I do today if I had no one telling me or asking me to do something?"

So, I really relaxed. I hadn't relaxed like that in many years, I don't think. I don't think I ever got as relaxed as I got this summer. You know, I walked around, I looked at nature, I jumped in the ocean — things that you think you'd do if you had real freedom of a day.

On how he's handling the Chicago Cubs' elimination from the playoffs

I did go and watch the Cubs lose to the Mets, and gosh, it just doesn't seem possible that they could've had such a wonderful season and then just be humbled in four games straight. But it happens in baseball. Teams get hot, teams get cold.

But if you'd said to any Cubs fan, "We're going to have a season this year where we're going to win 97 games, we're going to win a wild card game and then we're going to beat the Cardinals," I mean people would have said, "I will take off my shirt in February if that's going to happen."

On what he finds important, at this stage of his life

I feel like I'm a better person when I'm quieter, and it's good to remember — someone told me once you're supposed to have one hand up and one hand down. As you're trying to going up, you're trying to pull someone up at the same time. And when I feel a little frustrated and like, "I'm just not very much of a person right now," I try to think of one of those things, in those ways. And then the actual Bill comes back, sort of returns. I like that.

You know, I've got kids and that's important. It's funny, you think that there's an expiration date on them and there just isn't. They have an eternal shelf life. It's not like, "OK, that one's on his own now," you know. It's not like a balloon that you let go of and it — well, "That'll land in someone else's yard." It doesn't happen that way; the balloon always comes back to you. It's kind of nice, really.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bill Murray joins us now. He stars in a new film, "Rock The Kasbah - Kasbah with a K - in which he plays Richie Lanz, a small-potatoes talent agent in Van Nuys, Calif., who's mostly a smalltime con artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROCK THE KASBAH")

BILL MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) A grain of sand slips into an oyster and irritates the bivalve, what happens?

SARAH BAKER: (As Maureen) A pearl.

MURRAY: (As Richie Lanz) Celine Dion, Ms. Nicki Minaj, Christina Aguilera occasionally, all of them deeply, profoundly irritating. Each one of them. Huge star - you, Mighty Mo, are that irritant.

SIMON: Richie winds up taking a client to entertain U.S. troops in Afghanistan. She leaves him stranded with just his underwear. He gets tangled in a criminal plot until his heart and best showbiz instincts are touched by the voice of a young Afghan girl who sings old Cat Stevens' songs. "Rock The Kasbah" is directed by Barry Levinson. It also stars Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson and Leem Lubany. Bill Murray joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

MURRAY: Sure, Scott. My pleasure.

SIMON: Why did you want to play this guy, Richie Lanz?

MURRAY: Well, my friend Mitch Glazer wrote the screenplay. I've worked with him on a few things. And it's based on a real event in Afghanistan. A woman there, a Pashtun, chose to sing publicly, which was against the code and - for a woman to sing publicly and to move on the stage, and she did all those things. And she was on their version of "American Idol," I think called "Afghan Star." So he took that as a jumping-off point and wrote a film based around that idea.

SIMON: Do you see a Bill Murray character the way so many critics or film writers do?

MURRAY: I don't know what they mean exactly, Scott. And I don't know what you're referring to, except I do remember - I don't really read the reviews, but I remember one a long time ago I read that said that I had a face like a potato. I walked into work with that knowledge every single day. I'm just a potato that won't quit. I'm going to - a potato with some legs. Some have eyes, I've got legs.

SIMON: Well, I meant kind of - there's a moment in the film when Richie Lanz says, I'm not a loser. I'm a quitter. And I think of that - only Bill Murray can deliver a line like that.

MURRAY: Well, that just came to me at that minute, and I thought that was pretty good. I had this cute girl, Kate Hudson, telling me you're a loser I don't hang out with losers, and I said I'm not loser. I'm a quitter, which was my way of saying, you know - you know, don't completely give up on me, but I will take a bit more abuse from you at this moment, yeah.

SIMON: The film is made in Morocco, I've read. Did you enjoy that?

MURRAY: Morocco is the greatest. I should be getting money from the Moroccans because I'm just telling everyone that it's a wonderful place to go. It's beautiful, the people are very gentle and kind. It's a spectacular - they've got a great history. It's Africa, and it's a Muslim world that's, you know, a kinder, gentler one, kind of one that we all imagine or hope for. And visually, it's just incredibly dynamic...

SIMON: Yeah.

MURRAY: ...And around every corner is something you just - that just stops you. It really is being in another land.

SIMON: The film shows an Afghanistan that's wild and lawless, but, you know, at the same time also wide open with opportunity for some maybe unscrupulous people. I wonder if you see the daily news from Afghanistan in a different light after making this film.

MURRAY: I mean, they've been through it for a couple of decades now. They had the Russians come. They had the Taliban come. We came, you know, and it's a combination of all these people coming in and trying to stir things up. And Afghanistan's just one of those countries that no group can conquer. It's just - it's so challenging to live and the people are so close among their own tribes, their own groups that you can't rule them all. You can't get an accord from all them, and you can't really dominate them either because they've been there long before you got here and they'll be here long after you leave. It's very unfortunate because it's a whole country that would just wish the rest of us would all go away and leave us the way they were for 1,000 years.

SIMON: What do you think reaches your character Richie Lanz when he hears a young Afghan girl singing so beautifully? What does it touch in him?

MURRAY: Well, I think at the moment he's there in Afghanistan, he thinks Afghanistan is just the most horrible place in the world. He's been ripped off, abandoned. He can't get any traction in any way, and he's alone in a country where there's nothing comfortable about it, and I'm living in the same clothes that I've been living in, you know? So he's a little stuck, and he goes out just in the night and hear's a voice. And it's almost like yes, there is a God. I am of music and this is music, and I know it when I hear it. And it's just all of a sudden he's alive, back alive in his own body. And he's got a chance to do something. He can be active.

SIMON: Can I ask you a couple things about the legend of Bill Murray?

MURRAY: (Laughter) I don't imagine I'll know the right answer, but go ahead.

SIMON: (Laughter) All right. You have no adoring retinue of aides or sheltering circle. You have no agent, no assistant?

MURRAY: No. I count on the kindness of strangers. I don't have any of that, no.

SIMON: People just want to get in touch with you, they call and leave a message on a phone somewhere.

MURRAY: Well, you know, people really want to find you, they find you. You know, it's kind of good. It eliminates a lot of people that have impulses that at odd hours of the day or night to say hey, you know, maybe that fellow - and it just sort of winnows out a lot of people. So I lost my phone - I have a phone now, and I had - I lost it. And I just didn't really look for it. It was the nicest feeling. And I was - like, six weeks, and I just thought, you know, a couple of times I needed to use a telephone and I was always able to touch someone that had a telephone and said hey, can I use your phone? And they would - may I please, and I'd say sure. That was it, so it was OK. It was a real vacation I took a real vacation from myself. It was nice.

SIMON: You need to take a vacation from yourself? So many people would love to be Bill Murray.

MURRAY: Everyone needs to take a vacation from the sort of automatic things you do. You know, it's - the automatic things you do are basically those things that keep you from doing the better things you need to do. So getting away from all of that sort of left me in front of the question well, what would I do today if I had no one telling me or asking me to do something? So I really relaxed - I hadn't relaxed like that in many years, I don't think. I don't think I ever got as relaxed as I got this summer. You know, I walked around, I looked at nature, I jumped in the ocean, things that you think you'd do if you had real freedom of a day, you know?

SIMON: We've both been in Chicago this week. Is that hard to watch, what happened at Wrigley Field?

MURRAY: Well, I did go and watch the Cubs lose to the Mets. And gosh, it just doesn't seem possible that they could've had such a wonderful season and then just be humbled in 4 games straight. But it happens in baseball - teams get hot, teams get cold.

SIMON: Yeah.

MURRAY: But if you had said to any Cub fan, we're going to have a season this year where we're going to win 97 games, we're going to win a wild-card game and then we're going to beat the Cardinals, I mean, people would have just...

SIMON: (Laughter).

MURRAY: People would've said I will take off my shirt in February if that's going to happen.

SIMON: May I ask, at this stage of your life and life experience, what's important in life to you?

MURRAY: Well, I feel like I'm more - I'm a better person when I'm quieter. And it's good to remember - I don't know, I - someone told me once I used to have one hand up and one hand down, you know? And that - as you're trying to go up, you're trying to pull someone up at the same time. And when I - you know, when I feel a little frustrated and, like, I don't - you know, I'm just not very much of a person right now, I try to think of one of those things in those ways, and that - and then the actual Bill comes back, sort of returns. I like that. You know, I've got kids, and that's important. It's funny, they just - you think that there's an expiration date on them and there just isn't. It never - they have an eternal shelf-life. It's never, like, OK, that was on its own now. You know, it's not like a balloon that you let go of and it well - that will land in someone else's yard. It doesn't happen that way. The balloon always comes back to you. It's kind of nice, really.

SIMON: Bill Murray, he stars with Kate Hudson and Bruce Willis and Leem Lubany in Barry Levinson's film "Rock The Kasbah." Thanks so much.

MURRAY: It's nice to hear you, Scott. It really is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK THE CASBAH")

THE CLASH: (Singing) Rock the casbah, rock the casbah. Sharif don't like it, rock the casbah, rock the casbah. By order of the prophet, we ban that boogie sound. Degenerate the faithful, with that crazy... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.