Actors, director talk about their insights to 'Hyde Park on Hudson' characters
Laura Linney stars as Daisy, the unassuming distant cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson."
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TORONTO -- When Bill Murray read the script for "Hyde Park on Hudson," he thought to himself, "I can do this. I'm capable of doing this. ... I just knew I had to do it."
The challenge was playing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the actor disappears into the 32nd president, thanks to pince-nez glasses, cigarette holder, period suits, leg braces and tiny prosthetics that mimicked a mole on the right cheek and pigmented lesion above the left eyebrow.
"I knew he was someone that my parents sort of honored and that middle-class people and lower- middle-class people and, certainly, poor people just adored him, and that's where I come from. I knew there was something that he spoke to that I could respond to," he told a small press conference during the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
"When I see the movie now, I go, 'My God, look at how good that writing is.' I sat next to Richard [Nelson, the writer] the other night watching it, I was like, 'Golly, that's just amazing what you did.' "
A diary entry by an FDR distant cousin and possible intimate, about a picnic the Roosevelts hosted for the king and queen of England in June 1939, was the spark for the movie, which re-creates upstate New York in ... England.
Laura Linney is the cousin, Daisy Suckley (rhymes with Booklee), just one of many women in FDR's orbit. Daisy called herself "the little mud wren" and saw herself as part of the furniture, but Ms. Linney never did.
"I think people are confusing just a sense of modesty in someone who's just very happily self contained, as opposed to someone who needs acknowledgment and attention and needs to advertise their relationship or status to someone," said the blond-haired actress, whose deep pink blouse was the very opposite of her forgettable film wardrobe.
"I think she was very much a woman of her time. I think she was very comfortable in her own skin. I think her needs were few, and I think she felt that she was given an enormous amount, and while she had the relationship that she had with FDR -- however platonic or nonplatonic it was -- she was completely happy and satisfied with that and needed no attention for it."
Other revelations from the press conference with scattershot questions:
Public lives and lies: "In this day and age, he probably wouldn't have become president, I imagine, because of his physical disability and also because of his peccadilloes, which would have been exposed," including the years-long affair with Lucy Mercer, his wife's social secretary, director Roger Michell said.
"Is it better that we know everything about our leaders, or is it worse? Will it prevent people like him standing for office? Or is the transparency that we now force upon the candidates who wish to govern us, is that a good thing or a bad thing?"
On discretion: Daisy may have been the most discreet person FDR ever knew, Mr. Murray concluded after reading their correspondence. "He tells her state secrets, he tells her national security secrets in his letters. ... This woman was a vault; he told her something and it went nowhere."
On FDR's voice: "Most of the Roosevelt recordings I heard were speeches, so they're much more formal -- they're stentorian, that's the word, I guess," said Mr. Murray, looking more like a weekend golfer than leader of the free world in shorts and an orange checkered shirt.
"Not any of our scenes are like that; ours are all intimate household conversations pretty much. So, it's a different voice, it's a more relaxed voice. I myself feel uncomfortable when I watch someone that's got a death grip on a voice."
On FDR's charisma: "Whether it was one of the women who was surrounding him or people he worked with or other dignitaries -- he made everyone feel as if they were seen and understood. And that's a really powerful thing," Ms. Linney said.
On Eleanor's voice: "Our esteemed director freed us from the curse of doing impersonations . ... I found some stuff online. I sort of tried to avoid Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the U.N. and found her telling a couple of jokes," revealed London-born Olivia Williams, who plays the first lady and worked alongside Mr. Murray in 1998's "Rushmore."
"She was actually quite a good raconteur, and she traveled around and visited the troops, and the Eleanor that would talk to the troops seemed to have the voice that was useful for this informal context."
On the savvy set-up: "The way that Richard sets it up ... this is the king we didn't want, even the Americans didn't want this guy as king. We wanted the romantic duke who gave up the throne for the woman he loved," Mr. Murray said of Edward and his younger brother, Albert, who reluctantly became King George VI.
"Now we got this second-string guy, and that's how he was being treated around the world, the second-string guy. And a guy like Roosevelt would have been smart enough to go, like, 'Hmm, this guy's going to be first string, I'm going to treat him like he's first string all the way' and he did. That's the way a compassionate person would be, as well as a clever politician."
On formality vs. informality: "Eleanor was informal even by White House standards. She used to open the front door of the White House herself," Ms. Williams said.
"What she really wanted to do was insist that there be no difference in the way anybody was treated who was entertained at one of her parties. And I've always loved that informality and enthusiasm in the American nature."
The Roosevelts may have taught the royals the art of the "walkabout" in which they mingled with their subjects and shook hands. "It was a kind of cultural exchange that has gone into the way our royal family still behave today."
On love-hate of America, England: "Much of Richard's work is about our two countries, and it's about our kind of love-hate, the way in which we live in each other's thrall, and this film is no exception," the director said of "Hyde Park," filmed in England for what he called logistic reasons.
On a civilized schedule: "It was the most civilized working that I've ever done," Mr. Murray said. The director came to work when the sun was already up and, at about 5:30 p.m., said, all right, time to go home.
"Because the sun's up very late there, you'd drive home -- sometimes kind of a long ways but you'd have this beautiful sunset every night. And it made you feel like you were alive and on the planet. Whereas here in North America, we wake up and go to work when it's dark and we come home when it's dark. And you don't see the light in the day, you don't ever see it, and you can really feel sad, lonely, almost Scandinavian."
On the story's origins: Playwright Nelson, who has lived in Daisy's hometown of Rhinebeck, N.Y., for 30 years, had this idea about Daisy and the hot dog picnic in his notebook since the mid-1990s.
In 2004 or 2005, a friend who directed some of Mr. Nelson's plays on the radio for the BBC was retiring and asked if he could do one more. "I knew it wasn't a play. So the idea of doing it on radio, where you could go to all different locations and different places, seemed totally possible."
A producer-friend, who saw a film in it, suggested they take it to Mr. Michell, which they did in 2006. "It was finally broadcast in 2009 as a radio play long after we had sort of finished the main architectural works of it as a screenplay."
And before the release of "The King's Speech," itself inspired by a speech therapist's notebooks and delayed by decades out of deference to the Queen Mother.
First Published January 25, 2013 12:00 am