Perhaps it took an English director like Roger Michell ("Notting Hill," "Persuasion") to get inside the complicated domestic life of the popular American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Shot in England but set in the 32nd president's upstate New York estate, the movie is told through the eyes of Margaret "Daisy" Suckley (Laura Linney). Daisy was an unmarried fifth cousin turned intimate companion to FDR (an astonishingly contained Bill Murray).
Michell creates an entertaining period piece that unpacks a small but juicy chunk of presidential history. It's partially the story of the unconventional sleeping arrangements at the president's mansion, upstaged by the state visit of that couple from "The King's Speech," George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman). In 1939 the royals arrive crown in hand, to request American involvement in WWII, and end up surprised and charmed by their American cousins, forging an alliance over hot dogs that solidifies when the Americans follow England into the war.
The engaging director chatted with Yahoo! Movies about the production, and what he saw in Bill Murray that led him to cast the actor as the beloved American president.
Thelma Adams: You directed my favorite Jane Austen adaptation, "Persuasion," and there seem to be echoes of the very British Austen in your story of a very American president and his close relationship to a poor relation.
Roger Michell: There are similarities: Laura Linney's Daisy is a very Austen character. When I cast Laura, then I understood the film. Laura is someone who can play so much off her face. She doesn't have a lot of dialogue in the film. I nearly made a mistake casting an actress a lot younger. It would have been a distasteful version of "Lost in Translation." Laura embodied this thing in Austen that a woman is 26 and she's over the hill and she's a spinster forever. In 1939, Linney's character is 42. She feels like life has shut down. She's given this miraculous spring in her step in this odd intimacy that developed between her and the president.
TA: Daisy came from a well-to-do family that in 1939 were land rich -- they owned Wilderstein, which is now a historic site in Rhinebeck, New York -- but cash poor. She really was dependent on the kindness of others because she lacked a dowry.
RM: She had the Persian carpet pulled out from under her.
TA: Some critics have seen the character of Daisy as too passive, but she's not a contemporary heroine.
RM: The film is set in a certain world before women's rights were fully developed. It's a world which my children don't recognize. And yet it's a world that existed. No point in pretending that it didn't. Reading the letters in "Closest Companion" between Daisy and FDR, I discovered they shared a very sweet intimacy. They shared simple things, an intimacy based largely on the fact that she was so easy and undemanding on him. That was a byproduct of his need to destress, to be around people who weren't going to threaten him and talk about the Soviet Union...
TA: That may have been what FDR needed, but their intimacy took place in the shadow of his wife, Eleanor, brilliantly played by Olivia Williams. Eleanor and FDR had six children together before she discovered he was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Rutherford. Since he wouldn't grant her a divorce, Eleanor made a deal that they would never share a bedroom again, and he would never again see Rutherford.
RM: There are multiple layers to that relationship with Eleanor. They had a brilliant, even extraordinary, marriage. But what's so beguiling about his relationship with Eleanor is that it survived the betrayal of his affair with her secretary. They were separate and no longer physically intimate. However, they developed an incredibly rich and rewarding relationship with each other -- and a politically important relationship with her radical politics. Sometimes he found it incredibly annoying, her ruling the roost. That picnic in the movie is a political act for Eleanor, having the royals to a democratic pluralistic picnic to show that America was not all posh dinners. Serving the king and queen hot dogs is a stroke of political genius -- and it may have been FDR's idea and not Eleanor's.
TA: Bill Murray is not my first thought when casting FDR, but he's brilliant in the role.
RM: Some people said it was stunt casting, but I couldn't imagine making the film without Bill. I couldn't think of another actor who would be sufficiently forgivable in the role. It's not a story about Bill Clinton. FDR and Bill Murray have a supercharged charm and mischievousness. He needed to be winning and to be sweet and sort of innocent.
TA: Was he easy to cast? I heard he doesn't have an agent or a manager.
RM: Bill has an 800 number that I left a long message on. I found a way through to him through the standby props girl on my last film. She knew him, and they were friendly. So I made a CARE package with the script, DVDs of my films, and a love letter. Three months later my mobile rang, and it was someone who pretended to be Bill, and we began a yearlong telephone courtship. I don't think I would have done the film without him.
TA: And, then, in the meantime, "The King's Speech" came out, which prominently features two of your characters: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter). Did you panic?
RM: The "King's Speech" thing made me feel duressed and awful. It felt like we were treading similar paths. We'd been working on our movie for two or three years before Tom Hooper's film. We made our movie in spite of "The King's Speech," not because of it. It's unbelievable anybody would want to chase ambulances. In a way "The King Speech" is a prequel to our film. A lot of information from that movie doesn't need to be revisited. In our original script there was more about the speech defect and stuttering and stammering, and we cut it down.
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TA: What I found so unexpected and interesting about the movie is the unique domestic arrangement. Women surrounded FDR. In addition to Daisy, there was his wife, Eleanor; his private secretary, Missy; and his ever-present, overbearing mother, Sara. I've referred to this setup as FDR's harem, and Laura Linney described it as a constellation.
RM: What happens in a harem is that everyone knows everybody else. They learn to accept that this is the arrangement surrounding that potentate. When FDR died, at his deathbed were two women, Lucy Rutherford and Daisy. Missy was dead by then. It's also interesting that he didn't surround himself with ravishing beauties, either. These were women who interested him.
TA: Here in my hometown of Hyde Park, New York, there's still a reticence to discuss the 32nd president in terms of his uncommon domestic arrangements. The facts are documented. The bookshop sells "Closest Companion." And, yet, it's as if the town wants to embrace the movie and still wishes that the presidential legend had remained untarnished. Denial is a hard habit to break, but the truth humanizes our historical figures and makes them more compelling because of it. That's one of the beauties of "Hyde Park on Hudson."
See the trailer for 'Hyde Park on Hudson':