NEW YORK – The deadpan and depressed characters Bill Murray has specialized in portraying as an actor in recent years have always stood in contrast to the life-of-the-party guy he is in real life — whether on a golf course or shuttling people around downtown Stockholm in a golf cart, as he did last year.
But Murray said he identified anew with those characters — like the dour Herman Blume in "Rushmore" — when his wife of nearly 11 years filed for divorce in May. In the papers filed by Jennifer Butler Murray, she alleged that Murray abused her and was addicted to alcohol and marijuana.
"That was devastating," Murray said. "That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my entire life."
Though the freshness of such a wound would keep many Hollywood stars far away from the press, Murray, 58, came to New York from his home upstate to help publicize "City of Ember," a film opening Friday in which he co-stars along with Saoirse Ronan, the young star of "Atonement," and Tim Robbins.
About a city forged underground because of environmental destruction on the earth's surface, it's a kind of somber, underworld "Jetsons" — and a clear metaphor to contemporary concerns. Murray plays the city's mayor, a lackadaisically corrupt but popular figure.
Though not as substantial as some of Murray's best roles — Bob Harris in "Lost in Translation," Don Johnston in "Broken Flowers," Phil Connors in "Groundhog Day" — it's still a typically lively, self-aware performance; you expect him to wink to the camera at any moment.
The film was shot in Belfast, Ireland, before the divorce, which was made final in June. The months after have been ones of depression for the comedian. The court decided that the couple's four children will live with their mother, while Murray has visitation rights and will pay child support.
In a forthright and emotional conversation, Murray rarely struck a tone of bitterness about the break-up, but rather spoke with watery eyes of a tremendously painful summer trying to reconcile himself to the divorce.
"I was just dead, just broken," he said.
"When you're really in love with someone and this happens — I never had anything like this happen," he said. "It's like your faith in people is destroyed because the person you trusted the most you can no longer trust at all. ... The person you know isn't there anymore."
Murray said his lowest point came a few weeks ago. When friends asked if he wanted to participate in an air show to support the Illinois United Service Organizations (Murray grew up outside Chicago), he accepted the skydiving invitation.
"They asked me on a day I didn't care," said Murray. "I didn't even care if there was a parachute. Of course, by the time I got there I had had a few good days and I thought, `What am I doing?"'
But Murray said he's begun building himself back up, and one of the first steps was coming out to discuss "City of Ember" — and even attend the premiere, "which is a nuisance," he said with characteristic deadpan.
"I've had a great deal of success in life — not just money or fame or anything like that — I just feel like I've done well in many areas of life," said Murray. "I've learned how to live and I think I've learned things about living. It's almost like: `OK, you learned that much, now let's try this. Let's see how you can do if this happens to you."'
Murray is famously difficult to get in touch with for a film. He doesn't have an agent or a publicist and in the past, filmmakers have had to leave a message on a voice mail, which Murray checked infrequently. He has joked that entire careers have been launched on the parts he's turned down.
"City of Ember" director Gil Kenan ("Monster House") said getting the script to Murray "was not an easy prospect."
"There are so many stories out there, most of them horror stories, about getting (Murray) to work on films or of his on-set demeanor, but I have to say ... he had a real gung-ho attitude," said Kenan.
What drew Murray to the script when he received it was its writer, Caroline Thompson, who adapted Jeane Duprau's book. Murray met Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands") years ago and says "she works on a higher level than the rest."
"From my perspective, he's in a place where he's more open to things than he may have been in the past," said Kenan. "There's a lot in him. We've seen aspects of that on the screen now that he's had a career, but I actually feel like there's a lot more there that hasn't been seen."
Two years ago, Murray said he had taken to Jay-Z's idea of "retirement," meaning people might generally consider him out of the game but he could nevertheless continue to work here and there.
After the divorce, though, he's rallying to dedicate himself more fully.
"I've just come out of a sort of doldrums and I feel like I want to go," he said. "I want to work. I want to get going. I want to do a few things at once. I really want to connect with other people that are going that way and `Let's go'... I want to bounce off like a pinball. Like a pinball, I want to bounce off bumpers that are positive. I want to bounce off people that are positive and hope that'll make me more positive and give me momentum."
Earlier this year, Murray shot his third film with Jim Jarmusch, a thriller filmed in Spain titled "The Limits of Control." He also worked again with Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums") doing a voice for the animated "The Fantastic Mr. Fox."
His "City of Ember" co-star Robbins, who directed Murray in his 1999 film "Cradle Will Rock," recently asked him to be in his latest directorial effort. Said Murray: "I'll throw in."
The writers of "The Office" have been hired to pen a "Ghostbusters III," which Murray thinks could offer a fresh take on the films, the second of which he (and many others) found disappointing.
"If I could get through this in a powerful way, I feel that I have even more potential to do something," said Murray. "I think I'd be working on a higher level. It'd be great to achieve, to do the art that I thought I was always capable of — something that really, really affects people and grabs them and makes them feel and become alive."
"I've tried to lighten it for people. I know how hard it is," said Murray. "There's a lot of goodwill out there for what I've done. And I didn't really appreciate it so much before. I really appreciate it now."