Photography by Christian Oita.
There are two mainstays of any interview with Cillian Murphy. The first has been present since he first came to the public’s attention: those two often eulogised distinctive facial features of his. Everything than can be said about them has been, so onto the second. This must’ve been posed by every interviewer over the course of his promotion for last year’s dystopian In Time: the question of whether he’ll reprise his role as the dual persona of Dr. Jonathan Crane / The Scarecrow in The Dark Knight Rises. “July! That’s my answer.” In print it looks harsh, but in person his broad smile tells another story. We’re playing a pointless though expected game. I know I won’t get an answer. He, presumably, can’t confirm either way even if he wanted to.
Which leaves us to investigate the finer details of Cillian Murphy; the man and his work. The sheer range of his films is staggering. With Christopher Nolan (Inception, Batman Begins) and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Sunshine), he makes what he describes as “mainstream movies that tick all the blockbuster boxes, but are smart, make you think and that don’t condescend the audience.” He has played a charming psychopath in Wes Craven’s Red Eye, a doctor who joins the Irish Republican Army in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley and has portrayed two men with animalistic nicknames: troubled teen Pig in his debut movie Disco Pigs and the transgender Kitten in the unconventional comedy-drama Breakfast on Pluto. “I’ve always loved transforming actors, where you suddenly say, ‘Fuck, is that the same guy?’ I’ve tried to emulate that a little bit.”
This month sees Murphy return to the stage with the debut London production of his one-man show Misterman which received critical acclaim following its earlier runs in Galway and New York. Murphy plays Thomas Magill, a man from the small Irish town of Inishfree who believes that he has a connection with God. He replays a day in his life to try to make sense of an event that happened on that day, simultaneously morphing into other sinful characters from the town. “It’s a play about trying to carry this immutable fact around with you, trying to make sense of something that is impossible to make sense of,” explains Murphy. “It’s like in anything where religion comes in and warps people’s thinking: nothing in life is between good and bad, there’s always the grey area between them. But Thomas cannot make sense of that.”
At the time of speaking, it’s over a month before Misterman opens and already Murphy can be seen slowly evolving into the hirsute Thomas as a delicate layer of stubble peppers his face. He won’t shave until June. “You have to shampoo and condition it otherwise it gets into a bad state,” he shrugs.
Murphy describes the one-man show as “the Everest of acting. It’s the ultimate challenge.” Growing a beard, it seems, is the easy part of the challenge. The role demands his command of a vast stage – for the Galway production, he observes, you could ride around the set on a scooter. “I’m probably fitter than I’ve ever been in my life as a result. It has that incredible concentration and immersion that I love in any form of acting,” he says, his almost boyish enthusiasm shining through. “With Misterman I’m generally so physically ruined at the end of it. I’m not complaining about that, I adore it but you do feel physically wrecked.” After a run of the play comes to an end, Murphy needs to adapt to life away from the character. “My wife is always like: ‘You’re in the decompressing stage.’ It’s a deeply subconscious thing, you’re not away of it. I rely on other people to tell me.”
Misterman also takes Murphy back to the starting point of his career due to his connection with the show’s writer, the acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh who also co-wrote Steve McQueen’s immense debut film Hunger. Murphy’s first professional acting job came with a production of Walsh’s Disco Pigs, which also provided his first lead role in a movie. Long-term friends and near neighbours, Misterman is the first project that Murphy and Walsh have worked on since.
“He’s fearless in terms of theatre,” states Murphy, with admiration for his friend shimmering from deep within his soul. “He always wants to make theatre dangerous, and honest and frightening – all the things that I’m into. And he’s got this incredibly brilliant warped sense of humour that I tend to share, a little bit. There’s a lot of broad physical comedy in it – not something that I’ve ever done before. I watched a lot of Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle and those guys to go for it. Enda makes you laugh but all the while you feel uneasy. He’s a genius at that kind of unsettling humour. But for me to be able to do that broad physical comedy was a great release. Film acting is so minute, so precise and so contained… to be given a vast stage to do this clownery was a liberation.”
“Film acting is so minute, so precise and so contained… to be given a vast stage to do this clownery was a liberation.”
Clownery isn’t a word that applies to Murphy’s next project Red Lights, a new drama from Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés who broke through with another one-man project, 2010’s claustrophobic Buried. “I watched that movie in a screening room in Soho on my own last summer” recalls Murphy. “Afterwards, I had to go for an ice cream; I was so destroyed after it. You could tell that a brilliant, fully formed director had arrived.”
Murphy plays Tom Buckley, a physicist assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s Margaret Matheson who specializes in using science to disprove the work of mediums. Their next target is the world-famous psychic Simon Silver, played by Robert De Nero. The film’s central theme – the battle between science and what Murphy refers to as pseudo-science – recalls Sunshine’s clash of science and religion.
“I’m definitely in the sceptic camp,” he affirms. “I also played a physicist in Sunshine and I spent a lot of time hanging out with physicists that time. When you actually spend time with these rationalists, these brilliant minds, you realise there is absolutely no reason for believing in anything, unless there’s empirical evidence. Similarly in this movie I’m definitely on the sceptical side but I’m fascinated in the need of people to believe, and why despite science proving more and more, the industry of pseudo-science continues to increase. I found that fascinating. I guess people cannot accept death or that we’re basically just highly evolved animals. It’s not enough. I think it’s fine if these things work in a positive way and it gives people hope and something to live for, but when it works in a manipulative and predatory way as it can do, then it’s dangerous.”
Murphy confirms that De Niro and Weaver were two of his heroes even before he became an actor. There was a lot that he could absorb from both, he says, using De Niro as an example. “That’s what you can’t learn, really, is presence. You just put a camera on him and the presence that he exudes is extraordinary. But in terms of his work, it’s very small and very precise but it’s so compelling. Just watching him do that is extraordinary. And then you see flashes of all these characters that you’ve watched over and over on VHS as a teenager.”
Can you build much of a personal connection with someone as iconic as him?
“It’s very hard to make small talk!” he laughs. “You can talk about the scene and talk about the work. When the camera turns on, it’s two actors in a room and you have to try to forget about who you’re working with. He’s not the greatest…” he pauses as he searches for the correct phrasing, and perhaps doesn’t quite find it, “…conversationalist anyway, but he was unbelievably sweet and encouraging to me. Really really warm. And when we finished the shoot he gave me a big hug. You’ll never forget those things as an actor.”
But you can’t say, “Hey Bob, do that ‘You talkin’ to me?’ thing that you do?”
“No, I don’t think that would wash too well.”
Despite a succession of huge movies and being the face of a thousand Inception memes, Murphy isn’t burdened by fame.
“I get it in Ireland a bit, I get it in America a bit more, but not in London. I’ve always said that if you behave like a celebrity you get treated like one. I came here today on the overland train and no-one noticed me.”
What do people usually ask you about when you are recognised? Is it “so… what was Inception really about?”
“I get that a bit. But listen man, if I knew, I would tell you,” he chuckles. “It’s funny, it can vary. I was in New York doing Misterman and I was on the subway and I got lost. I went up to this guy in the booth and I was like, ‘I’m looking to get on the F train, can you help me please?’ And he was like [improvising a boisterous New York Irish accent], ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley! I’m from Limerick!’ It’s particularly nice when they mention the ones that you’re proud of. But people are nice and it’s never been a problem.”
Fame and celebrity don’t seem to impinge on Murphy’s thought process. “If you’re only judged on your work – not how funny you are on TV shows or how your fucking perfume range is selling…” he trails off, lost in the thought. “I know that sounds cynical or old-fashioned or a bit clichéd, but to me, if you do good work, hopefully the right people will see it and hire you again.” Equally, he’s good humoured about the vagaries of fame. He recently won Best Actor for Misterman at the Irish Theatre Awards, a prize of which he’s highly proud of. You don’t act to win awards, he affirms, but when you’re nominated, you want to win.
What do you do with such awards? Are they on display?
“I haven’t won that many, man, so there’s not a problem in terms of storage,” he laughs. “Man” is his second most common spoken quirk after “y’know” which is inaudible in person but a regular occurrence when playing the interview back. “But no, they’re not on display.”
Murphy’s plans in the near future include Broken, a North London-based reimagining of To Kill A Mockingbird with a Damon Albarn score and for which he’s bursting with praise for the film’s young lead Eloise Lawrence, and, he hopes, Wayfaring Strangers, a project that previously collapsed just before filming commenced. Also on the cards is At Swim-Two-Birds, a project due to be directed by Brendan Gleeson that reportedly features a who’s who of Irish film talent.
“I’ve thought about directing but I do feel like I have a lot more to prove to myself as an actor,” he states, not with self-doubt as such, but certainly with serious consideration. “Brendan said that what will happen is that you’ll come across a script or a story and you won’t want anyone else to tell that story and it’ll become so important to you. That’s when you know it’s time to direct. Until, or even if, that arrives, I’m quite happy.” Nolan, Boyle and Loach are quite a combination to learn from, but also to live up to. “Having worked with directors and seen what it involves, I realise that I couldn’t hold a candle to those guys.”
“I’ve always been about being good at one thing,” he continues. Sometimes when Murphy wants to focus on a particular idea, or if he’s struggling to recall a film or album title, he’ll crunch his eyes in fierce concentration. For those brief moments, he looks like he’s been transported to another headspace entirely. That’s exactly what happens here. “When I started acting, I always wanted to be the best I possibly could be. I don’t want anything to get in the way of that. I want to concentrate on that. I’ve tried to do that. They say that it takes thirty years to make a good actor, so I’ve got another fifteen to go. Maybe then I can think about doing something else.”