Candice Bergen on Aging, Sex, and the Return of Murphy Brown
Five decades strong, Candice Bergen's acting career—which anointed classics from Murphy Brown to Boston Legal—is nothing short of legendary. And at 72 years old, she has no intention of slowing down. Her latest project, Book Club, stars Bergen opposite fellow icons Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen, who play four women re-evaluating their love lives after reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Think "Sex and the City for the elderly," as Bergen joked that Book Club has been called. The film offers a hilarious take on sex and relationships for the 60-plus set, with Bergen depicting a cynical federal judge, Sharon, navigating dating apps for the first time. The practical voice of reason in her group, Bergen is basically the Miranda Hobbs of the set. And of course, she’s a total boss.
But playing powerful women—the mayor of New York City (Sweet Home Alabama), a top fashion editor (Sex and the City), a pageant director (Miss Congeniality), and a shrewd attorney (Boston Legal)—seems to be Bergen's M.O. Mainly, she admits, because that's just what comes her way. “I get offered these roles, and I’m very grateful that I do,” she told InStyle following last week’s screening of Book Club with The Cinema Society and Lindt Chocolate in New York City. “They're always interesting women to play, but I don't say, ‘Get me the role of a female authority figure.’ Really, I just don’t get offered anything other than that.”
Of all the female powerhouses she’s brought to life, Bergen is fondest of the one she'll soon revive: sharp-tongued TV news reporter Murphy Brown. “For me, Murphy is the perfect character,” said Bergen, who will reprise her role when the beloved series (which originally aired from 1988 to 1998) is rebooted this fall. “Somehow, she just channels something in me. The second I read that [original] script, I thought the quality of the writing, the humor, and the character of Murphy was unlike anything we had seen on television at that point. She was so unique, so flawed, and so special. She was appealing and annoying!”
While Bergen has yet to start filming the character’s latest adventures (more on that below), she knows that in the age of Trump and the 24-hour news cycle, Murphy's career is bound to be entertaining. “I am really grateful to get to play the elder Murph,” the actress said. “I've been telling [series creator] Diane English, ‘Make sure that she grunts when she gets up from the chairs.’ Being older, there are just things that you incorporate. I think there's a lot of humor in getting older.”
Keep reading for our full chat with Bergen about why Book Club is a must-see in the #MeToo era, a Sex and the City reunion to look out for in the film, and what to expect when Murphy Brown returns.
Did you read Fifty Shades of Grey to prep for the movie? I didn't read the whole book at the time—I just scanned for the dirty parts. Somebody lent me their copy, and then someone borrowed that copy from me. I never got it back, so I'm not really that literate on the book club, I have to say.
Your scenes in Book Club are hilarious. What was it like to film? I loved it myself. I've seen it three times now, and it's always a pleasure for me. We didn't work long on the movie—it was an independent, very low-budget movie. We wore lots of our own clothes. It was really very, very financially restricted. I think that [the film’s writer and director] Bill Holderman did a great job of directing it, and it was his first film. We loved working together. Each of us only worked two weeks on the movie, so it was very efficiently scheduled.
Why do you think this is a movie fit for our time? It certainly dovetails very nicely with #MeToo. And I think it's important for younger women to know that it's not over until it's over. Your life can be infinitely rich and engaging and sexy and anchored in female friendships, which most of the lives I know, are. I think the friendship of women is a very unique brand of friendship. It gets you over many a crisis. And I also just think it's a great foundation for women to have long-term friendships where you can just talk about anything and behave any way you like.
What did you think about your character’s sexual awakening? Her use of dating apps was pretty spot-on. Oh, I thought it was great. It's great comedy. I mean, it's very, very broad comedy—but it was really fun to do. I'd seen Richard Dreyfuss at an event honoring Diane Keaton a few weeks before we started shooting, and I said to Bill Holderman, "Let's see if we can get Richard Dreyfuss, because he's so appealing and he's such a great actor." I thought he was just wonderful in the part [as one of my character’s Bumble dates] and so witty as he staggered out of the car [after their date]. Any time you look foolish is always great comedy fodder. And that's always really fun, too.
Book Club follows the lives of four very different women. Do you feel the Sex and the City connection? Well, somebody described it as Sex and the City for the elderly or something [laughs]. The hub of the movie is friendship and connecting. And if it's connecting in a sexual way, that's great. But I think more importantly, to make an emotional connection with someone is what matters most to all of us—and certainly to [millennial] women, because you're just starting out. And it's very comforting to have a partner in life. It's not so easy to find, as I guess your forays to Bumble, or—I have no idea how this works frankly, because I'm so old. But I think it's great to show that making a connection is possible and important.
Which character in the movie do you relate to most? Oh, I love my character. I completely relate to her, because I could spend 18 years with an animal, and time would pass so sweetly until I realized, "Oops!" She thought she had a good marriage, but of course, it was sad. But she's reached the top of a historically male-dominated profession—she's a federal judge. She's an incredibly accomplished woman just doesn't have time for the frills and the fripperies. The movie softens her.
You have a mini-Sex and the City reunion in the movie: You and Wallace Shawn appeared together in SATC, and he's one of the men you date in Book Club. How did that come about? Well, I've known Wally Shawn for decades. He's a friend, and he's a brilliant playwright and a brilliant writer. I think it's enough of Wally doing parts that sort of diminish him. But like all of us, he likes to pay the rent. It's always a pleasure to see Wally, and we’ve worked together before—I think he did something on Murphy and Boston Legal, too. He's a wonderful actor, and he's a great sport.
Speaking of Sex and the City, do you identify most with Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, or Charlotte? I thought Miranda was a wonderful character, and I think Cynthia Nixon is a terrific actor. I suppose I related more to Miranda, but I also thought that Carrie was lovely. It was written by a friend of mine, Michael Patrick King, and before him, Darren Star. I mean, in television the writing is a lot.
Was there ever a relationship or a sex term that you learned from watching the show? Oh, God. I mean, there were things that I would just think, "What are they talking about?!” I was also shocked a lot when I was watching the show, because I thought, "Oh, this is so open and this is so revealing." But of course, I'm so much older than the people in that show. My age was showing.
There’s so much excitement surrounding the return of Murphy Brown. How does that feel? It's just weird. Obviously, Diane English and I are thrilled. There's just a great buzz about it, and we're just going to make the best Murphy that we can. We've been given so much by this administration, so we don't want to squander it.
In its first incarnation, the show didn’t shy away from controversial topics, like abortion. Can we expect that no-holds-barred approach this time around? We plan on shrinking from nothing.
What was the best part about stepping back into Murphy's shoes? Well, I haven't started! So I haven't put her shoes back on yet. We start [filming] at the end of July, and it'll come on in September with the regular fall season. But the cast and I were together for the network up-fronts [last week], and it's just like being home. It's just an incredible sense of comfort because we spent so much time together. We know each other so well and have known each other over a long period of time and changes. So it's moving to me, in a way. It'll just be like a hiccup, the last 20 years that have gone by. I can't wait.