A Chat with Jonathan Murphy, Jonathan Murphy interview, "Life on Mars", "October Road"
Cybill Shepherd

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After doing his time in small roles on shows like “Without a Trace,” “Crossing Jordan” and “Cold Case,” actor Jonathan Murphy finally earned himself a full-time gig as Ronnie on the ABC drama, “October Road.” Fans of the series may have been disappointed when it was cancelled after only two seasons, but Murphy’s work on the show sufficiently impressed its creators – Scott Rosenberg, Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec – to invite him to join the ensemble of their next series, an American adaption of the BBC drama, “Life on Mars.” Bullz-Eye spoke with Murphy about how his new series is going, what we can expect from upcoming episodes, and whether fans of his former show will ever get the closure they’ve been longing for.

Bullz-Eye: Hey, Jonathan, how are you doing?

Jonathan Murphy: Good. How are you? Sorry I didn’t get a hold of you earlier today.

BE: Oh, no problem. I understand you had an active morning on the set.

JM: No worries, no worries, man. How are you?

BE: Pretty good. So you’ve already been pretty busy today, then?

JM: I have, yes. Monday is a busy day.

BE: Well, I guess the first question to ask of anybody who’s part of an American series that’s been adapted from a British series is, how much familiarity did you have with the original?

“I came into (‘Life on Mars’) not wanting to be the weak link and to screw it up. I mean, these guys are heavyweights that they cast, and they believed in me enough to say, ‘We think that you can hold your own with these guys.”

JM: You know what? When I came into the project, all of the producers and everyone were talking about the British version. And I went, and Gary Fleder, our director, had a complete -- it’s still up actually in the office that he used -- a complete story board and picture board of the whole first episode. But, you know, I think it was a personal choice for me. I didn’t watch the British series just because I didn’t want to have any preconceived notion going in or, you know, have some sort of idea already in my head where, if I got stuck for something, that’s what I would fall back on. I wanted to have it come from a completely natural, organic place. So I chose not to watch it, but, I mean, of course, if that version wasn’t as successful and great as it is, we wouldn’t be doing this. But since then, I have watched clips here and there of different episodes and stuff, so it’s not like it’s completely foreign to me. But I never really sat down and watched the entire…you know, the whole thing.

BE: Had you even been aware of the show prior to being cast?

JM: You know, no, I hadn’t. I hadn’t been aware of it until I first heard that they were doing a show, “Life on Mars” and somebody said, “Oh, yes, there was the BBC version of it first.” So that’s when it kind of came into my consciousness.

BE: How quickly did you become aware of the intense cult following of the original?

JM: It’s pretty intense. You know, I’ll get messages or I see the message boards or things like that, and…I mean, they are really, really protective of their show. Which they should be. You know, some people think it’s a good idea that we’re remaking it and some people think it’s not such good idea. But for those people that are big fans of the original, we’re hoping that we do some justice in their mind of what they kind of…what they think and hold in such high regard. And then, for the people that hadn’t seen it before, you know, we’re trying to make the best TV show we know how but not shy away from the fact that, yes, this is a series that’s been done before. But we’re putting our own kind of twist and spin on it.

BE: How much back story did they provide you with for your character of Chris?

Cybill ShepherdJM: I kind of took it off of what was in the text, you know, and…because I think when I came on to the project, they were still kind of figuring out the pieces and how they all fit together with each other and where he kind of fit in. But the thing that I was given to kind of be the basis of my character was this thought that he’s a kind of rookie, just out of the academy, and he’s learning the ways from Gene and Ray as he goes. But then there will be a point where this guy Sam Tyler comes in. We -- the people on the show -- don’t realize, and the story hasn’t been set up, where he says, “Oh, I’m from 2008.” We think he’s a transfer. So they were saying, “There is kind of going to be this dichotomy of guys you kind of have to fit against.” He’s kind of the pawn caught in the middle of Ray and Gene’s old-school kind of way of doing things, the way he was brought up, and then this new guy whose new ideas and kind of new way of thinking is working so far. He’s solving crimes…and, ultimately, I think that’s the goal for all of them. So he’s taking a look at this and he’s weighing his options.

BE: You personally don’t even have the advantage of having existed during the ‘70s. Was that a challenge going in?

JM: (Laughs) You know, it was a little, because you don’t have that familiarity of the time and able to sit there and go, “Oh, yeah, I remember so and so,” and yadda, yadda, yadda. But it was fun for me because I love music of the time and I love the style. And I didn’t know personally how much was actually going on politically and socially and culturally and everything at that time, so it’s been a time for me to actually learn some stuff. But they do a good job with the costumes and the hair and everything like that, so it doesn’t make it too hard.

BE: You mentioned the music, which is absolutely fantastic. I mean, that’s definitely a driving force of the show, I think.

JM: Yeah, and, you know, people who never watched “October Road” never really got to hear the soundtrack that they picked for that show, and those guys really, really relied upon the music to tell a different part of the story, you know. I think that they translated that into their “Life on Mars” world because that’s such a…I think that’s such a key element to the three creators that they wanted that to play a big part in this show. Like I said, the music from that time is so fantastic that it just adds more to what we already have, which is always a good thing.

BE: Now, you mentioned “October Road.” Clearly, you came into consideration for “Life on Mars” because of your connections with those guys.

JM: Right. You know, I knew those guys from then and, of course, when we didn’t get picked up, I thought, “I probably won’t see those guys for awhile.” But they saw what I did on the show and they saw similar things that they could use in this show in my abilities, luckily, and they brought me in, and the rest wound up kind of working out for me, I guess. (Laughs)

BE: Where were you within the casting process? In other words, who was cast on the show at the point when you came aboard?

JM: Well Jason (O’Mara) was the only one from the original, so he was in, and I believe when I came in they had just signed on Michael Imperioli. He had just signed on, and I had heard rumors from…you know, because I went in curious to the casting office, and said, “Well, who are you guys thinking of for this and this and this?” They were talking to Harvey (Keitel) at that point; they were interested, but they were still kind of working out the deals and all that stuff. So Michael and Jason were the only two that were in it. So I had no idea that Harvey was going to be in it or Gretchen (Mol), who was the last one to sign on.

“I didn’t watch the British (‘Life on Mars’) series just because I didn’t want to have any preconceived notion going in or, you know, have some sort of idea already in my head where, if I got stuck for something, that’s what I would fall back on. I wanted to have it come from a completely natural, organic place.”

BE: What was your reaction when you heard that Harvey Keitel was going to be on the series?

JM: Oh you know, it was…you go into it and you go, “Wow! A person that has done so much.” All of them have, actually, it didn’t matter who it was. All of them have done so much. I came into it not wanting to be the weak link and to screw it up. I mean, these guys are heavyweights that they cast, and they believed in me enough to say, “We think that you can hold your own with these guys.” But to know that Harvey was cast and Michael was cast and that they went after those types of people, it told me that they really were trying to make this show the best they could, and they cared about it and they wanted it to succeed themselves. But it was kind of a little nerve-wracking to know and go in because…these people have done so much, and I’ve done relatively little in my career, so I just didn’t want to screw it up for everybody! (Laughs)

BE: The critics were all doing the traditional grumbling when they started talking about how the show was being retooled. How tense was it behind the scenes after the grand retooling? I mean, was everyone confident that it was going to be a creative success because of the cast involved, or were you still nervous?

JM: Well, you know, I think everybody from the start projects their show to be good, and they wanted it to be redone, but, I mean, I think there was some added pressure because we were a remake of a successful show, you know? It was something that I think may have bothered people a little more than they let on. During the filming of the first episode, there was a lot of reference back to the BBC version, so I think it was kind of in everyone’s mind of this blueprint has already been laid out for us, and we don’t want to screw that up by making a terrible version. But on the other hand, we wanted to put our own stamp on it. After it had all been said and done, I think everyone was really, really happy of it and proud to be part of it.

BE: Certainly in our case, we were very impressed by it, and I’ve seen quite a few critics who have been very pleasantly surprised. But, obviously, they went in with the hesitation because (a) it’s a remake, (b) it had to be retooled and (c) it was pretty late in the game with its premiere.

JM: Right, you know, and I think there is always going to be speculation of things that are done well once, why are you even going to do them again? Luckily, it’s a big part to get those good reviews and to be making something that people are going to enjoy. So when we started reading those reviews and hearing about them and seeing them and seeing how people were responding to it, I think that that kind of eventually started to add to the excitement of knowing that we had made a good show and that the critics were behind it. I’ve been on a show before that wasn’t the most popular with the critics (Laughs) and it definitely helps to have them on your side.

Cybill Shepherd

BE: So what can we expect from the upcoming episodes? Does it follow relatively close to the British show, or does it begin to branch out farther?

JM: You know, we’ve branched out a little bit, I think. Obviously, I can’t speak for certain of how close it stayed to the British episodes, but I think in these next few episodes you can expect to start to see some reasons why Sam has been put back in 1973, and a couple more puzzle pieces of helping him try to figure out why he’s there and also how to get back. And part of the reason that he’s been put there, which…I mean, in essence, it’s a procedural cop show, but that’s kind of the heart of the story, you know. Why is he thrust back into 1973, specifically, and solving cases? So in the next few episodes, you begin to unravel those pieces a little bit and understand, maybe…or get an idea, I should say, of why he maybe is there and who he is there to see and meet. Because there are a lot of great and interesting characters coming up in the next few episodes, and they are just trying to tie all the puzzle pieces together.

BE: I wanted to just ask you a couple quick questions about other projects. With “October Road,” did you find that you had a an abrupt surge in the amount of fan mail you got from teenage girls?

JM: You know, I was surprised, and it’s funny that you say “teenage girls,” because whenever I would go to something, I would get a lot of boyfriends of teenage girls saying, “I had to watch ‘October Road’ because my girlfriend liked it, but I really liked it; I’m used to it now.” So that show had an immense fan following, and people either loved it or hated it, but the people who loved it really loved it and still are fighting and writing petitions and e-mails and doing whatever they can to try and get it back on the air. Those fans for the show were great, and so any of them that ever write me or e-mail me or anything like that, I make sure and respond to them, because they are really devoted.

BE: You mentioned the reaction the critics had to the show. How do you deal with that? I mean do you just go, “Ah, they’re going to say what they’re gonna say?”

Cybill ShepherdJM: Yeah, you know, if you really start to think about it and say, “Well, what do they not like?” and “What could we be doing better?”, you’ll kill yourself trying to make a show that nobody can possibly make. If everybody knew how to make the perfect show that all the critics would love, you know, there would be perfect television on TV. So I try not to read the reviews or, you know, to care what people are thinking because, yeah, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it’s not always the one you want to hear. I think we just went in, and it’s the same for this show, and you just try and do the best work that you can, and try and make the best show that you can, and hopefully people will enjoy watching it. That’s the ultimate goal.

BE: Do you think they ever would have done the five year jump-ahead on “October Road” like they did on “One Tree Hill?”

JM: No. Uh, well, we’re going to see. I mean, there’s rumors of this special log that’s going to go on the Season Two DVD that takes place years in the past, and I think they are trying to work out semantics on it right now. But there are those fans, you know, every time I get an e-mail or something, there’s questions that are still burning in their minds that they want to know the answers to. So hopefully we’ll be able to give that to those guys for one last kind of “thank you” for being such a big part of the show.

BE: Did you enjoy working on “Wildfire?” Because I’m a big fan of a lot of those ABC Family series. I think they’re better than most people give them credit for.

JM: Yeah I did. You’re absolutely right; they don’t give those shows enough credit. I did…I think I did five episodes on their last season, I guess you would say, but I had a great time. It was a great cast, a great crew, and, I mean, those guys, they were the true spirit of what making a TV show is all about. They all had fun and they enjoyed themselves and they were a big family, and I enjoyed my time in Albuquerque, where they shot. I’ve had a couple of e-mails from “Wildfire” fans, which is nice, because those are shows that often get overlooked. But I got to play a really interesting character on that, and I had a really good time.

BE: Anything else you want to promote that you’ve got coming up? I know you’re in “Ready or Not.”

JM: “Ready or Not,” oh, man I wish I knew when that was going to come out. Hopefully, if it gets some sort of distribution or release, that will be out soon. And then, also, another independent movie that I did that I’ll just mention really quickly. “Broken Windows” actually was playing at film festivals, I don’t know if it’s still in them now, but it is actually coming out on DVD in, I believe, February. Early 2009 is what I’ve been told. So people can go check that out when it comes to Blockbuster or Netflix or whatever.

BE: Actually, I know about that one, because Jason Winston George is in the film, and I just interviewed him for the “Virginian-Pilot,” in Hampton Roads, Va.

JM: Right, right, right. Yes, we had a great time doing that. That movie was the quintessential independent movie. When you see it, it has a very free spirited, independent feel to it, which is great. But, yeah, that will be out in early 2009 hopefully.

BE: Cool, excellent. Alright man, well it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

JM: Well, thank you so much. And, again, I’m sorry I didn’t get a hold of you earlier.

BE: Not a problem.

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