Comedy superstar Eddie Murphy has played an animated donkey, a Chinese octogenarian, outlandishly large people of both sexes, and all but one member of the hilariously inappropriate Klump family. But in his latest movie, Imagine That, Murphy’s role is, comparatively speaking, a pretty normal guy.
The Paramount-Nickelodeon comedy tells the story of high-powered financial executive Evan Danielson (Murphy), a man whose career is spiraling toward disaster—until he discovers solutions to his business problems in the rich imaginary world of his seven-year-old daughter.
“I think it’s one of the best performances Eddie has given in a long time,” says the film’s director, Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge). “Not only is he funny—the kind of funny you expect from Eddie—but he’s also really emotionally grounded and connected. He isn’t wearing a fat suit, he isn’t dressed up as a woman, he’s just Eddie XE “Eddie” as a business guy trying to connect with his daughter.”
Murphy, 48, describes the film as a “sweet and emotional” story packed with humor. “It’s a movie about a man who starts off feeling like he’s been cursed with this oddly imaginative child,” the actor says. “But, in the end, he realizes that he’s truly blessed to have such a wonderfully unique daughter in his life.”
Rising child star Yara Shahidi (“In the Motherhood”) plays Evan’s young daughter, Olivia. The film also stars Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3), pictured above with Murphy, the multi-talented Nicole Ari Parker (Remember the Titans, Boogie Nights), veteran performer Ronny Cox (Beverly Hills Cop, Total Recall) and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, “The West Wing”).
Evan is a recently divorced workaholic who neglects to spend quality time with his daughter, even though he only sees her every other weekend. “I’m so driven, I have virtually no relationship with her,” Murphy says of his character. “I barely know the little things that you’re supposed to know about your kid. But then her imaginary friends start telling me what stocks to buy, and the stocks start going through the roof. That really gets my attention.”
The idea for the story came from Ed Solomon (Men in Black), who is one of the film’s producers and screenwriters. Solomon recalls his young son one day offering him business advice after overhearing a contentious phone call between Solomon and a colleague. The toddler innocently suggested that Solomon fire the other party, which later proved to be the wisest course of action.
“It turned out my son was exactly right,” Solomon says. “That’s when I had the idea: What if a guy had a child who had better business sense than he did?”
Solomon and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura say Murphy was a natural choice for the part of the father.
“Eddie knows how to be truthful and play the tiniest of moments with genuine poignancy,” Solomon says. “Yet he never gets maudlin or sappy. Then, when the story calls for broadness and comic desperation, Eddie is never afraid to go all out without ever going over the top. At every stage, he is perfectly modulated.”
“Eddie was exactly the character we imagined,” says di Bonaventura, who also produced this summer’s Paramount features G.I. Joe and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. “His ability to convey a range of emotions was crucial and, of course, his comedic versatility is without peer.”
To find a child actor who could hold her own opposite an icon like Murphy, the filmmakers scoured the United States. Casting sessions in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Texas, Chicago and Washington, D.C. drew more than 3,000 young hopefuls—a field that was narrowed to five girls, then to three. In the end, it was Shahidi who won the hearts of the star and the filmmakers.
“Something just clicked between us,” Murphy recalls. “She’s a very special little actress who is just a natural and will be around for years. I told her that when she gets her Oscar XE “Oscar” , I’ll be doing all the Morgan Freeman roles and I’ll be the one who presents the Oscar to her.”
For Shahidi, who was born in Minneapolis but lives in Los Angeles, making her feature film debut opposite Murphy was “a great experience.”
“It’s really cool to work with a great actor who was in movies like Dr. Dolittle and Daddy Day Care,” she says. “I love his voice as Donkey in Shrek XE “Donkey” , and as Mushu, the little dragon, in Mulan.”
Murphy made quite an impression on other members of the cast, too. Thomas Haden Church, who plays Evan’s business rival, the pseudo-mystical Native American Johnny Whitefeather, was amazed by Murphy’s highly professional approach.
“Off-camera, he’s very low key, very serious and very focused,” Church says of Murphy. “And then, with the precision of a surgeon, he just brings it up and puts it away.”
At one point during production, one of the scenes originally shot in Denver was lost due to a technical problem. Church recalls being blown away by Murphy’s performance when the scene was reshot in Los Angeles, a full 10 weeks later.
“I watched him and he just nailed it,” Church says. “It was incredible to witness. I’m fairly worshipful of him.”
Murphy, who was nominated for an Oscar for his part in Dreamgirls, has several new films in the works. Later this year, he is set to star in the comedy A Thousand Words as well as a remake of The Incredible Shrinking Man. Other upcoming projects: Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said? and the long-awaited fourth installment of the Beverly Hills Cop series, in which Murphy will reprise the role of Detective Axel Foley, the performance that launched him into the cinematic stratosphere 25 years ago.
As for Imagine That, the film’s themes of appreciating one’s children and keeping alive the gift of a child-like imagination seem to be close to Murphy’s heart.
“Where would we be if we didn’t have a chance to flex our imagination?” the actor says. “As a father, I’m always reminded by my children that you can still pretend and imagine. And it’s even better when you spend time with them and create something together.’