By Cameron French
TORONTO (Reuters) - Funnyman Bill Murray long ago mastered the ability to wring laughs by saying absurd things in a matter-of-fact tone, but even he was caught off guard when first approached to play Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the new film "Hyde Park on Hudson."
"I thought 'Oh God, I'm being asked to play Roosevelt?' ... How do you take this monster on?," he said.
His decision to portray the 32nd U.S. president is looking like another shrewd move in a career that, at the age of 61, still may be on the upswing.
Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival this week, "Hyde Park," which will open in U.S. movie theaters on December 7 in the heat of the Oscar race, has earned Murray early awards buzz for his performance.
However, Murray, who admits to being disappointed at not winning the award in 2004 when he was nominated for "Lost in Translation," said he wasn't drawn to the role by the obvious Oscar-bait overtones of playing the polio-stricken president.
"There's an expression in Yiddish, schmuck bait," he deadpanned.
"To me, an Oscar-type role, when I see those kinds of roles, I consider them schmuck bait. They're often sentimental, schmaltz. This one wasn't sentimental at all, because it's a sort of behind-the-curtain look."
Named for the town in upstate New York where the Roosevelts kept their family home, the film takes place over the summer of 1939, as FDR prepares to host Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a visit that could set the stage for U.S.-British cooperation once war breaks out in Europe.
The story is told from the perspective of FDR's distant cousin Daisy, played by Laura Linney, who becomes a confidant and welcome distraction for the president.
The film covers similar ground to "The King's Speech" two years ago, which also premiered in Toronto and went on to win Oscars for best picture and for Colin Firth's turn as the stuttering George VI.
While early reviews don't peg "Hyde Park" to mirror that success, Murray's performance is being lauded as a possible contender for actor nods.
The Hollywood Reporter said Murray's take on FDR was "credible and very entertaining", while Screen Daily said Murray's support could earn "some awards season traction."
A win would be icing on the cake for an actor who has fashioned a remarkable second act of his career.
Once known for his success on "Saturday Night Live" and movies such as "Ghostbusters" and "Groundhog Day," Murray in the late 1990s starting taking on largely supporting roles in offbeat films, including several by indie favorite Wes Anderson.
He admits to taking a "lazy" approach to his career these days, spending a liberal amount of time at home with his kids, and being happily difficult to access for producers eager to show him a screenplay.
"I fired my agent years ago and I got out of the grind of having someone throw a script at you every 40 days, lining them up," he said.
"It's like people buying you drinks at the bar. You're always four behind and if you drink them all you're not even going to enjoy the prospect of doing it."
But Murray still clearly loves the spotlight when he's in it, as evidenced by a news conference where he discussed the mix of British and U.S. perspectives on the film's set.
"I tried to behave as well as I could. We were working with English people, and that's a test," he quipped.
"I still have a lot of revolutionary rage, and I just tried to put a damper on that. It was a difficult time for me, let's just leave it at that."
In terms of any potential awards-season hardware, Murray said it isn't the trophy, but the chance to give a speech, that he would covet.
"The prize? You're the greatest actor? Not really. I know there are a lot of better actors than I am, but just getting up there to talk is fun. That's fun, that really is fun. To get up there and say this is your show for bit," he said.
(Reporting By Cameron French, editing by Jill Serjeant and Leslie Gevirtz)