On a recent afternoon, Eddie Murphy sat and reflected on how much the world around him has changed in the past few years.
"It's not just comedy – it's a brand new world," Murphy mused in the restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel, dressed all in black, his manner far more serious and composed than his often outsized, extroverted comic persona might suggest.
"Remember back in the days when they said the Mayan calendar said it was going to be the end of the world?" he went on, warming to the subject. "Everybody waited and it passed. But the world ended. If you think about the world the way it was just 10 years ago, everything is the opposite of what it was. All these people who were a really strong, important part of the world – like [Muhammad] Ali and Prince – passed away. Now people are figuring out what the new normal is."
More than three decades after he rocketed to fame, Murphy himself, at 55, is figuring out what his own new normal is.
Early in his career, when he exploded out of "Saturday Night Live" and starred in a string of smash hits such as "48 Hrs.," "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Trading Places," Murphy's electrifying charisma – which, in person, he masks behind a cool reserve, like a superhero wearing a blazer and tie over his spandex suit – was like nothing audiences had ever seen. The idea of anyone ever getting bored with him seemed inconceivable.
But somewhere along the way in Murphy's roller coaster of a career, his on-screen persona started to drift away from that dangerous young comedian who had once prowled the stage clad in tight red leather. Too often, by his own admission, he chose films more on the basis of how much they paid than how inspired he felt by them. He racked up plenty of huge hits including "The Nutty Professor" and "Shrek" but, to many longtime fans, he seemed too willing to coast in films that weren't worthy of his tremendous talent.
About five years ago, Murphy decided he needed a break. He had made a huge splash with his critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated turn in the 2006 musical "Dreamgirls" only to follow that triumph with a string of largely forgettable duds like "Meet Dave," "Imagine That" and "A Thousand Words." Now he wanted to take some time to reassess his priorities and recharge his creative batteries.
He told people, half-jokingly, that he was retired. The truth was, in his mind, the audience needed a breather just as much as he did.
"I got on 'Saturday Night Live' when I was 18 or 19, so it's been 35 years of my face," Murphy said. "You get sick of looking at people's faces – I know I do. There are people whose faces pop up and I just turn the channel. And I was like, 'I'm sure I'm that to some people.' "
As the first African American global box office star, one whose films have collectively earned nearly $7 billion at the box office, Murphy had helped pave the way for many to follow, from Will Smith to Chris Rock to Kevin Hart. But in an increasingly fragmented, perpetually distracted cultural landscape, he had started to wonder, what was the place for a comedy performer like him?
Murphy was enjoying his respite from the movie business and mulling over a return to stand-up comedy – an idea he has flirted with for years without ever quite pulling the trigger – when, out of the blue, he received a script for a family drama called "Mr. Church" about a kind but enigmatic cook who takes care of a cancer-stricken single mother and her daughter.
The project, to which Samuel L. Jackson had initially been attached, was even further outside of Murphy's usual wheelhouse than "Dreamgirls," which had brought him a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his turn as a talented but embittered soul singer. But that was exactly what drew him to it.
" 'Dreamgirls' has some dramatic things but it was a really showy role and it's got funny stuff in it," Murphy said. "What was exciting for me about 'Mr. Church' was you have to have this whole performance where everything is the opposite of what I usually do. I don't get offered stuff where it's just about relationships and family and love." He chuckled. "It's like, 'It's about a family.' 'OK, and are there any animals talking in it?' "
"Mr. Church," which opens Sept. 16, is more than just another detour into dramatic territory for Murphy. It's a chance, after a long absence from the screen, to reintroduce himself to audiences on new terms.
"I think me not doing a movie for five or six years and now doing something like this will be a good thing ultimately," Murphy said. "Because I'm doing something that people have never seen me do.
"Five years ago, I was like, It's time to do stuff that I feel good about and that I get – I don't have to do these movies just for this big check," he continued. "That's hard because I'm from the Tilden projects in Brooklyn." He harked back to one of his most notorious flops, 2002's sci-fi comedy "The Adventures of Pluto Nash." "You wave a big check in front of me and it's like, 'You say you want to do "Pluto Nash 2"? OK, let's go! So he's on the moon again?' "
"Mr. Church" screenwriter Susan McMartin, who based the script on her own real-life friendship with a man who'd helped care for her and her mother, says she had seen glimpses of Murphy's potential as a dramatic actor in even some of his broadest comedies.
"There's a scene in 'The Nutty Professor' where his character is being heckled that always broke my heart," McMartin said. "There's so much vulnerability in his face: the embarrassment, the trying to smile through that pain. In that moment, I was like, 'That man is such an incredible actor.' "
While early reviews for "Mr. Church" have been mixed, Murphy's understated turn, which is the kind of surprising pivot that often stirs awards chatter, has drawn widespread praise.
"From the moment he first appears on the screen, people just accept that he's the character," said the film's director, Bruce Beresford, who also directed 1989's "Driving Miss Daisy," to which "Mr. Church" has been compared. "He's so commanding and so believable, you don't think, 'There's Eddie, the famous comedian.' "
An an earlier point in his career, when he was the cocky young star nicknamed "Money" by his friends, Murphy says he wouldn't have been emotionally open and vulnerable enough to take on a film like "Mr. Church." "I'm a much mushier person than I was when I was 20," he said. "If I read this when I was 20, I would have just been like, 'This ain't funny!' Now I weep when I read it."
Like his introverted character in "Mr. Church," Murphy – who lives in a sprawling mansion in the Hollywood Hills — fiercely guards his privacy. When his box office winning streak hit a wall in the early 1990s with flops like "Beverly Hills Cop III" and "A Vampire in Brooklyn," he began to collect some baggage: a high-profile tabloid scandal in 1997 involving a prostitute, a reputation for being moody and sometimes difficult.
As the years passed, he began to be seen as something of a recluse. But while Murphy spurns social media and says he doesn't use a computer or email, he insists that that image is overblown.
"Just because I'm not at the awards shows and stuff, they think I'm reclusive," Murphy said. "I'm out every day." He pointed out that he recently had a baby – his ninth child – with girlfriend Paige Butcher. (His other children are from previous relationships.) "Recluses don't be having babies at 55," he cracked, deadpan.
Even if Murphy has not been entirely disengaged from Hollywood, though, in recent years the tectonic plates of the film industry have shifted beneath him. The era in which comedies were largely built around A-list stars like Murphy or Robin Williams or Jim Carrey has gradually given way to one based more on concept-driven ensemble films.
"Now it's more of a situation," Murphy said. "It's a group of people going on a trip together."
The fact is, in today's tentpole-driven studio system, comedies – which, like adult-oriented dramas, typically have less international appeal – have largely taken a backseat to effects-driven spectacles.
"Right now visual effects have the mike," Murphy said. "It used to be story was king, and for the first time ever story is not king. I remember my 16-year-old daughter was talking to her friend and he was telling her this long story. She goes, 'I don't want to know the story – just tell me what happened.' That's audiences. They sit and watch these Vines and these little snippets where people are falling down the steps. That's 80% of entertainment now.
"There are more options if you want to go to work, but the trick now is, how do you make that audience laugh?" Murphy continued. "Everything is so extreme now. Did you ever see kids doing the fire challenge? They pour nail polish remover on themselves and they set themselves on fire on the computer. I'm like, 'How do you entertain this person?' The audience is part of the show now."
Fairly or not, Murphy has been criticized over the years for not being willing enough to go out of his own comfort zone. After his potentially career-redefining turn in "Dreamgirls," some saw his return to broad comedies as a kind of retreat.
But now, even as he showcases his more dramatic side in "Mr. Church," there's a part of him that clearly wants to get back to the kind of boundary-pushing comedy that first ignited his meteoric rise.
A couple of years ago, Murphy wrote a script for a comedy called "Buck Wonder the Super Slave," a satire of superhero movies and dramas like "12 Years a Slave" reminiscent of the sort of daring, racially charged sketches that made him famous on "Saturday Night Live."
"It was about this slave who gets these superpowers," Murphy explained. "One of the roles I wanted to play was this slave master, and it's written as like the most racist person in the history of movies but it would be me in makeup. I think I might have let two studio people read it and they were like, 'This is great but are you sure people won't picket?' It's so edgy, they got scared of it."
In the meantime, Murphy says he is finally getting ready to do something he hasn't done for nearly 30 years: stand in front of a live audience at a comedy club and tell jokes. Despite all the success he's had over the intervening decades – or perhaps because of it – going back to the world of stand-up, where he began his career, is a daunting prospect.
"At first I was horrified at the idea of it," Murphy said. "It was like, 'Oh, I'm getting back up there again – how am I going to write material?' But right now I'm like, 'In January, I'm going to go back to the club and start working on my [act].' That's the last thing I said."
He paused and let out a self-deprecating laugh. "But I said that last January."