Just heard the very sad news that actress and singer Brittany Murphy died earlier today aged just 32. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in London back in December 2006 to publicise her movie Happy Feet, and that interview is re-posted below. She was a very polite, sweet, eccentric lady and a real talent that never became the star she deserved to be.
'Not so Clueless after all'
18 December 2006
In 1989, a seductive, slinky screen siren materialised on our screens, oozing sex appeal with every huskily delivered word and lyric that came out of her perfect, proto-Jolie lips. Male filmgoers the world over were entranced.
Yes, Jessica Rabbit was a true cinematic phenomenon. The appearance of this femme fatale in Robert Zemeckis’ then groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit was probably the first time ever that so many men found themselves irresistibly attracted to an animated character.
The character of Gloria in George Miller’s Happy Feet might very well challenge Jessica to the ‘wrong to fancy but do anyway’ crown. Gloria is a busty Emperor Penguin who positively waddles with charisma and sensuality.
Just as Jessica had Kathleen Turner’s throaty tones, a similarly raspy star voices Gloria.That star is Brittany Murphy, an actress and singer who is perhaps best known to a generation of people as the gauche newcomer Tai opposite Alicia Silverstone in seminal 90s teen comedy Clueless.
Since then, Murphy has plied her trade specialising in goofiness (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Uptown Girls and Just Married opposite ex-fiancé Ashton Kutcher) or vulnerability and instability in the likes of Girl, Interrupted and Don’t Say A Word. She’s also spent 10 years providing vocal duties as Luanne Platter on the redneck animated show King of the Hill.
In recent years, Murphy’s image has changed completely, reinventing herself as a sex symbol in movies such as 8 Mile and last year’s graphic novel adaptation Sin City.
Indeed, ever since Murphy showed off her new look as a svelte blonde on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 2003, she has constantly had to deny rumours that she either had an eating disorder or undergone cosmetic surgery or both.
Murphy certainly looks fantastic when we meet. She’s slim, but not worryingly so. Wearing a dark pink dress and short black jacket, and with huge, dramatic eyes and long blond hair, Murphy looks every inch the movie star.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Murphy was asked about her similarities to Gloria, and had responded: “I guess we’re both very strong willed and self-confident. I just adore that she’s so feisty and sassy, and I’d be quite like that too.”
Once she sits down to talk one on one, however, it’s evident that Murphy is actually quite shy, unassuming and extremely polite, going as far as apologising for the delay getting to the interview, even though said delay was beyond her control.
“Hi, thanks for waiting. Sorry about the scheduling,” she says, shaking my hand. I tell her she’s not to blame, to which she replies, “I’m just one of those people who apologises for things that aren’t my fault.”
Happy Feet is an all-star computer animated musical comedy set amongst the (by now) almost over-exposed Emperor Penguins of Antarctica. In this community, it is imperative that penguins can sing, as it is through this ‘heartsong’ that the homogenous creatures mark their own identities, and distinguish one from the other within the flock.
Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is born without a singing voice, however. He tap dances instead, much to the bemusement of his musical parents Norma Jean (a breathy Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman). His difference marks him out for bullying at school, where his only friend is Gloria (Murphy), who happens to be the best singer around.
Eventually, Mumble’s unique talent is deemed dangerous by the stern Elders of Emperor Land and he is cast out of society. Banished, Mumble befriends the party-mad Adelie Amigos, a posse of Latino penguins led by the ultra-cool Ramon (Robin Williams, in a return to his Aladdin voiceover glory days). As he and his new pals set off on some epic adventures, Mumble proves that staying true to yourself can affect huge change in the world.
It’s a hugely enjoyable movie that’s like a cross between March of the Penguins, Billy Elliot and Footloose. Although carrying an overt environmental message, Happy Feet, like most animated movies targeted at kids, has a deeper subtext about tolerance and individuality – themes that resonated with Murphy straight away.
“When I was growing up, my whole extended family were all raised to embrace our own individuality,” she explains. “For instance, my cousins were all good at football, so I tried that and was terrible at it, so I took dancing classes and I loved it.
“I love to entertain people and that’s a sport to me. My relatives are all incredible athletes but I ended up entertaining people instead and I always knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Unlike Mumble, however, Murphy has always been encouraged to develop her talents, and was lucky to have the support of those closest to her at every turn.
“It wouldn’t have mattered to my family what I choose to do for a living,” she states. “I’m very fortunate and I know that’s a unique situation. My mother was especially supportive. One of my favourite things about this film’s message is that it really emphasises that it’s great to be yourself. That’s a wonderful affirmation for those who were taught to embrace their own individuality and their quirks, and for those who weren’t raised that way, I think it introduces an entire new way of looking at life and yourself. There’s a lesson there for children of every age.”
Murphy’s family is patently important to her, particularly her mother Sharon. The 29-year-old was born Brittany Bertolotti in New Jersey to an Italian-American father and a half-Irish mother, whose surname she adopted as a child when her parents divorced. She and her mother moved to California where they still reside today (despite her strong Gaelic roots, Brittany’s never been to Ireland, although “it’s a dream” of hers to visit).
Murphy took almost three years off from work in the early 2000s when Sharon developed breast cancer. “That’s been the longest period I’ve had at home since I started working,” she reveals. “I spent every day in the hospital with my mom and she’s doing great now. But I can never get enough time at home.
“I love it when we’re all together and it’s a big dream to one day hopefully have the financial resources to build a big compound where we all can live,” she chuckles (Murphy doesn’t laugh; she chuckles, sounding something like a car quietly trying to chug start).
Her mother has been the single biggest influence on her life. If Murphy marches to her own beat, it’s because conforming was never an option.
“School was never that easy for me,” she recalls. “I was different, I looked different, I dressed differently. I didn’t grow up with material things. But, luckily, money and taste don’t correlate. My mom taught me how to put clothes together beautifully, even the ones that wouldn’t obviously match.”
At this point I interject with the question, “She’s Irish isn’t she?” Murphy bursts out chuckle-laughing. “Oh she’s Irish, yeah,” she replies. “We did a lot of thrift shopping in these great, random stores, where you’d get beautiful European shoes for kids for really inexpensive prices.
“She always found stuff that would have made me fit in with European kids but I just looked different from other kids in school. But I liked it. I remember my mom used to always pack us healthy lunches – things like chicken legs and vegetables with dip – when all the other kids had huge sandwiches dripping in mayo and other junk. I went through a brief period where I demanded that type of stuff, but my mom just kind of looked at me in her way, and that was the end of my short phase where I felt I should try to fit in.”
Many people don’t realise that Murphy is an accomplished singer – and that included Happy Feet director George Miller when he hired her. She had landed a singing role in Les Miserables by the time she was just nine years old, and was the lead singer in a short-lived pop band called Blessed With Soul in her teens. Just this year, dance virtuoso Paul Oakenfeld asked Brittany to do the vocals on the single Faster Kill Pussycat, which turned into a worldwide club hit. Happy Feet has been her first chance to combine her two passions, and indeed her character Gloria gets to belt out a show-stopping rendition of Queen’s Somebody to Love, in addition to other duets and interludes.
“I had an incredible experience on this,” she says. “I’ve been singing my whole life. But I had only been offered the speaking role. George began looking for a singing whose voice would go along with my speaking one, so I gave him a CD, and sang some of the pieces at the initial read-through, and it just grew from there.”
Given the dominance of music in her youth, Murphy eventually had to make a choice about what path she wanted to pursue. Bravely, she opted to turn her back on a pop career until the time was right.
“The record people wanted to put me squarely in the teen pop phase of the 90s. My voice was very mature and developed for my age and the music didn’t feel right. So I made a very specific decision that I didn’t want to do that until I was able to be in control of the music and the material I was singing as much as possible. That’s very difficult at that age. So I definitely am taking the long tedious way of pursuing music. I will have an album come out…eventually!
“I’d like if there was a lot of jazz involved in any album I did. I’ve been writing since my teens and there are some great collaborators I’d love to work with. But it all has a lot to do with time which I don’t have at the moment.”
In the meantime, Murphy’s voice is set to become iconic for another reason. She’s just recorded the vocals for the character of Tinkerbell in a forthcoming Disney flick, marking the first time the Peter Pan pixie has ever spoken on screen. Can she exclusively reveal what those words are?
“I’m not sure which version they’re going with actually,” she says. “I’m sorry I don’t know.” She pauses, before exploding in chuckles and saying: “Besides, it’s Disney so I’m probably not allowed to say anyway, or else I’ll wake up with a big mouse’s head in my bed!”
Murphy has packed a lot into her young life, having started in the entertainment business when she was just a child. She will be thirty next year and it’s a birthday that she’s looking forward to.
“I’m excited about that. The way it’s been going thus far is that I’m learning more and more about life with every year that passes. I think the thirties will be a good time. I hear it is. From what I understand it solidifies a lot of what you go through in your twenties and a lot of what you learned.” She pauses again, before chuckling, “But I’ll let you know if that truly is the case.”