Cillian Murphy, Interview: Hollywood's Mr Nice Guy

Bethan Rees

31 October 2016

Cillian Murphy’s roles often include an element of malevolence, the opposite of his actual persona, Bethan Rees discovers.

With Irish charm and genuine modesty, he’s one of Hollywood’s nice guys

31 October 2016 | Bethan Rees

Whenever you read about Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy, it’s typically his physical attributes that get talked up the most. Sure, he might have cheekbones that deserve their own postcode and eyes that could convince you to do the most heinous of crimes, but what’s more impressive is his range as an actor; he is the antithesis of typecast.  

From a young trans woman in Breakfast on Pluto (for which he won Best Actor at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards) to the leader of a Birmingham gang in Peaky Blinders, from Batman’s nemesis and crazy psychiatrist in Batman Begins to a post-apocalyptic survivor in 28 Days Later, Murphy’s character profile is chameleon, but all  of his roles have a similar theme. They ’re executed with a intensity that’s helping define a career.  

One of his is latest projects, Anthropoid, may sound like a sci-fi film, but it’s actually a taut biopic thriller inspired by the gallant efforts of two freedom fighters and their mission to eliminate notorious top-ranking Nazi, and Hitler’s third in command, Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution during World War II. He undertakes the role of a Czechoslovakian resistance fighter Jozef Gabčík, head of a team of soldiers tasked with the assassination. Starring alongside fellow Irishman Jamie Dornan, known for the racy film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey and the BBC series The Fall, both men admit they didn’t know about the story before being approached for the film.

“It’s not widely known outside of the Czech Republic, which is kind of criminal given how it altered the course of World War II and consequently altered the course of history,” says Murphy. “It’s part of their identity in the Czech Republic. It was fascinating to learn about it and these different aspects of the war that affected the outcome.” Murphy describes how it’s a “story of remarkable heroism and human endeavour”. 

On working alongside the man of the moment Dornan, Murphy says, “the man is an ogre.” Of course, Murphy is saying this in jest – when describing the pair, the word ‘bromance’ is regularly thrown around.

“Jamie is an incredible actor and person. He is very professional and generous and cool. He is very dedicated to his performance.”

Peaky BlindersAnthropoid and Christopher Nolan’s soon-to-be-released Dunkirk all have something in common – they’re based on real-life tales. But what draws Murphy towards these types of projects? “I have a fondness for historical stories, for real life things that happened in the past,” he says. In reference to Anthropoid, he describes the “duty to respect and honour the lives of those who lived before us.

“The families of the men, of [the two central] characters in the film, still live in Prague. They came to the premiere we had there, so you want to respect them and their legacy. That’s very important to me.”

Critically acclaimed as an actor, on both the big and the small screen, what’s initially impressive is Murphy’s immediately recognisable humility. While the by product of his day job is public attention, Murphy isn’t one for the limelight.  

Murphy played in several bands, including one with his brother called The Sons of Mr Greengenes. In 1996, the band was offered a five-album record deal with Acid Jazz Records 

“The work, I adore,” he says. “And I’ll always have that passion for what I do, but it’s the other stuff that comes with it that I could do without. Of course, you realise the series or the film or the play you’re in is a product and that it needs promotion. I’m cognitive of that, but that stuff can wreck your head a little bit.”

Murphy, who lives in Dublin with artist wife, Yvonne McGuinness and their two sons, Malachy and Aran, was born into a family of educators. His father works for the Irish Department of Education, his mother is a French teacher, his aunt and uncle are teachers, as was his grandfather. It would have been an obvious path to take, but Murphy had other ambitions, though initially these had little to do with acting, and more to do with music. 

Murphy played in several bands, including one with his brother Páidi called The Sons of Mr Greengenes, a name inspired by one of his musical idols, Frank Zappa. In 1996, the band was offered a five-album record deal with Acid Jazz Records but didn’t accept it as Murphy’s brother was still in secondary school, and they would have been forced to yield the rights to their own compositions. 

Later that year, Murphy went to University College Cork (UCC) and embarked on a law degree. However, his law career didn’t last long. His interest in acting was sparked by a production he saw at Corcadorca, a drama school in Cork, of A Clockwork Orange. 

His first major role on stage was in the UCC Drama Society’s amateur production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Following this, he scored an audition at Corcadorca and made his professional stage acting debut in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, in which he played self-mythologising and volatile teenager Darren, also known as Pig. It was also in this performance that Murphy’s talent was spotted by an agent, and his acting career began to take off.

Murphy has since appeared in a variety of theatre productions, including The Playboy of the Western World, Lovesong, Ballyturk and Misterman, for which he was awarded Best Actor at the Irish Times Theatre Awards and New York’s Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show.

His breakthrough role in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in 2002 saw him win Best Newcomer at the Empire Awards and Breakthrough Male Performance at the MTV Movie Awards. Hollywood soon came knocking and in 2005 Murphy began his role in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, playing Dr Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow, a supervillain who experiments on asylum inmates using a fear gas. 

There’s a desire for these damaged, morally misshapen characters, who, while far from admirable, are relatable, identifiable, for all their misdeeds and wrongdoings

The Batman films weren’t the end of the Murphy-Nolan collaboration. Inception – a sci-fi heist thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio – followed in 2010, and next year will see the much anticipated release of Dunkirk. The World War Two epic dramatises the notorious Dunkirk evacuation and Murphy will be starring alongside Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and perhaps, surprisingly, Harry Styles of One Direction.

More recently, Murphy has become better known for wearing a flat cap and speaking with a Brummie accent. Taking on the role as Thomas Shelby, the lead in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders, as the head of a criminal gang in Birmingham in the 1920s – for which he’s been nominated for a National TV Award – his character is infectiously likeable yet utterly terrifying. How does he make this work?

“It’s the antihero effect,” he explains. “You’ve got Frank Underwood (House of Cards), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Dexter and most of the folks in Game of Thrones. There’s a desire for these damaged, morally misshapen characters, who, while far from admirable in their intent, are relatable, identifiable, for all their misdeeds and wrong doings. And likeable. He’s the kind of character I like to watch and digest.”

Peaky Blinders has gone from strength to strength, securing an array of BAFTA nominations. But did Murphy ever think it would be so successful? “I don’t think any one of us predicted that,” he says. “A small BBC show, especially in the beginning, having a resonance in places like Australia and America... it’s gratifying.”

Yet in characteristic fashion, the man behind the franchise’s hood-eyed hoodlum remains typically modest, preferring to heap praise on show creator Steven Knight.

“He’s an exquisite writer – bold, ambitious, and at the height of his powers. We’ve done three series together, and we’re going to do two more,” says Murphy. “What he creates is always so unpredictable and fresh – it flows out of him, like beams of limitless energy. I think he’s enjoying a purple patch in his career. All artists do at certain stages, and he is experiencing his now.”

For those waiting with bated breath for Murphy to drop some hints about season four of Peaky Blinders, I’m sorry to disappoint. “I’m in the dark as much as you are,” he says. Although, Murphy does say filming for the new series will start next year, and season five in 2018.

The next year is set to be a busy one for Murphy, with the release of DunkirkThe Party (described as a “comedy wrapped around a tragedy” linked with party politics) and Free Fire (a black comedy thriller co-produced by Martin Scorsese) – but I’m sure, in true Murphy style, that he will deliver a spine-tingling and sincere performance. It’s safe to say, Mr Murphy is not just a pretty face.