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In the process, Murray has redefined himself as an Oscar-nominated actor unrivaled at portraying middle-aged regret. At the same time, he has become something like the new Harvey Keitel but with a bigger paycheck--the favorite star of a generation of distinctive and mostly younger filmmakers, including Anderson, Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, who will direct Murray's next film, a still untitled project set for release later this year. For directors like those, Murray's inwardness, his air of wounded integrity, his sheer, irreducible strangeness operate as correlatives for their originality as filmmakers. And Murray in turn can sometimes lead his fan base to take a chance on their idiosyncratic films.
Murray knows that all this means he has reached an enviable career sweet spot. "I don't know. I'm ready to die, I guess," he says in a parody of earnestness. "But, yeah, I get it. Things have come around, and my way of operating has turned out to be great for me, and people seem to trust my stuff. It's cool to have proved that you can have what you want without selling yourself completely to hell. Jeez, I'm really crowing, huh?"
He is far too obstreperous to sit still and be deconstructed, but after a long day of promoting The Life Aquatic in interviews for local newspapers from around the country, Murray, with a glass of Scotch in his hand and an empty New York City hotel suite at his disposal, seems relaxed. Not just for the moment but in life. Even his failure to win a 2004 Oscar for Lost in Translation was, he insists, no big deal. (As a spoof of his supposed disappointment over losing the Best Actor award to Sean Penn, Murray appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman a few weeks later, wearing his tuxedo while rolling in a gutter.) By then, Murray had begun work on The Life Aquatic, which opened to mixed reviews but mostly warm ones for his performance. While he has described the hours on location off the coast of Italy as a scuba version of the Stations of the Cross, Murray believes he has found a true artistic comrade in Anderson, who also directed him in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. "I don't think most people know what's happening to them while they watch his movies," says Murray. "With this last one, he doesn't hit you with big punches, it doesn't end with an explosion, but it works on your emotions in a really fascinating and complicated way."
As Steve Zissou, a mix of underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau and infomercial king Ron Popeil, Murray again plays a middle-aged man disappointed by what he has become. The actor has tremendous admiration for Anderson's ability to write flawed characters that have reservoirs of humor and dignity. For example, it takes a while for Zissou to get on the road to redemption because his ego is so achingly monumental. When he tells his wife (Anjelica Huston) about a grown man who may or may not be his illegitimate son (Owen Wilson), Zissou says, "I believe in the boy." "Why?" she asks. "Because he looks up to me," he responds.