Cillian Murphy on working with Christopher Nolan: ‘There is space to try things, make an eejit of yourself’

Murphy, who stars in Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer, will be carrying a major film for the first time

The piercing eyes stare out intently from the cover of American Prometheus, a biography of J Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb. The book, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, was the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated Oppenheimer, opening July 21st. And as Nolan was working on the script, only one actor came to mind: Cillian Murphy.

“I try not to think of actors as I write, but Cillian’s eyes were the only eyes I know that can project that intensity,” Nolan says in a telephone interview. And there was another thing: “I knew he was one of the great actors of his generation.”

In Oppenheimer, as in most Nolan films (the Batman trilogy, Dunkirk, Inception, Interstellar), the scale is substantial. The director, who has managed to combine ambitious conceptual ideas with mainstream appeal and billion-dollar revenues, is one of Hollywood’s most admired and scrutinised creative figures. And although Murphy has worked regularly with Nolan for more than 20 years, he has until now played only supporting roles in his films.

Did he feel the pressure of carrying a film that arrives with Nolan-size expectations?


“Yes,” Murphy says seriously during a conversation in a north London photo studio, where he just completed a shoot. The Irish-born actor, who recently turned 47, says that while playing a lead for Nolan was a dream, he took the time to prepare, “knowing you are working with one of the greatest living directors” – he pauses. “I have been doing this for 27 years,” he says, adding an expletive for emphasis. “So I just threw myself in. I was terribly excited.”

Over the past decade, Murphy’s sapphire stare and coiled intensity have become familiar to millions of television viewers who have watched him play Tommy Shelby, the mesmerising centre of the British hit television series Peaky Blinders, even as he has maintained a thriving career onstage and in film.

Murphy, who is married to Irish artist Yvonne McGuinness, and has two teenage sons, speaks in a mellifluous accent and is extremely handsome. “He has the blessed curse of beauty,” says Sally Potter, who directed him in The Party. “The camera loves to watch light fall on the structure of his face. But it doesn’t interest him in the slightest.”

He is also intelligent, thoughtful and clearly sincere about the artistic motivations that have driven his choices.

“For me it’s always the script first and the medium second,” Murphy says. “I’ve always believed that good work begets good work. If you’re doing a play above a pub, someone may see it; it’s not the scale, it’s the quality.”

He has long had “a huge amount of energy and focus,” says playwright Enda Walsh, who met him at 18 in Cork, where Murphy grew up, the eldest of four siblings. Murphy’s parents were schoolteachers, and he loved reading and music, forming a band with his brother in his teens. He discovered theatre at 16, through a drama module at school. (“I had never been to the theatre,” he says. “It blew my mind.”)

After starting a law degree (“a disaster”), he tracked down the teacher, Pat Kiernan, who was running the Corcadorca Theater Company in Cork. “I pestered him continually for an audition,” Murphy recounts. “Finally he gave in.”

He was cast in Disco Pigs, Walsh’s breakneck, two-character play from 1996 about a teenage couple running amok while speaking in coded language. “He had an innate understanding of that character and play, the world of it,” Walsh says in an email, adding that Murphy was also “a natural collaborator in the rehearsal room – a creative force.”

Disco Pigs was a surprise hit, touring worldwide and briefly running in the West End, and after a stretch of unemployment (“I was happy, just reading plays,” he says serenely), small theatre and film parts began to come Murphy’s way. After Danny Boyle saw a film version of Disco Pigs, in which Murphy also starred, he asked the actor to audition for the lead in 28 Days Later, a small horror film that became a big hit in 2003. Then Nolan noticed a photograph of Murphy in a newspaper article about 28 Days. Struck by the actor’s presence, he asked Murphy to audition for the title role in Batman Begins.

“When he walked in, I think we both knew he wasn’t going to play Batman,” Nolan says. “But as he started to act, the whole crew, everyone in the room, paid attention. The villain in Batman movies had always been played by major movie stars, but the studio agreed right away after seeing the tests, a real testament to him.”

Murphy went on to play that villain, Scarecrow, in all three of Nolan’s Batman films, and took supporting roles in Inception (2010) and Dunkirk (2017). “Meeting Chris and working with him was huge for me,” Murphy says. “The rigour and excellence he demands from his cast and crew, his command of the vernacular of cinema, how he talks to actors, how concise his notes are – it’s phenomenal and has been so important for me in terms of craft.”

Equally important, he says, was what he learned onstage. “I didn’t train as an actor, and watching great actors, figuring out stagecraft, how to use your voice, what to do when someone dries up, that has been so instructive and essential.”

Even after movie success started to come his way, with roles in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Boyle’s Sunshine and Wes Craven’s Red Eye, among others, he continued to work in theatre, collaborating with Walsh on Misterman, Ballyturk and Grief Is the Thing With Feathers.

And then there was Peaky Blinders, the drama about a Birmingham crime family, set in the interwar years. It started modestly in 2013 before ramping up into a cult hit that lasted six seasons and inspired themed weddings, a cookbook, a virtual reality game and a ballet.

“I had seen him in quite a few things, and when we heard he was interested, I said, yup, when he is on-screen everybody is looking at him,” says Steven Knight, who created and wrote the series. Murphy, he says, is “brilliant at controlling what’s going on in the audience’s mind.” The best actors, he says, “are their own editors, predicting their edit, how they fit into the mosaic of the work, which is very difficult, and he can do that.”

Murphy shrugs off the notion that his Peaky Blinders fame has changed much for him. “There is always a finite number of excellent scripts,” the actor says “You are constantly in a battle for roles that challenge you, where you are really interrogating a script and doing the research.”

With Oppenheimer, that process began when he was given the script in September 2021. He saw immediately that the story was entirely focused on, and told through, the title character: “It was written in the first person, the only script I had ever read like that. I knew what he would demand from me.”

First-person, Nolan says, was a way of making the requirements of the role “very upfront: we are going into this guy’s head, you have to be immersed in the essence so strongly that you carry the audience with you.”

With any Nolan film, Murphy explains, there is “an awful lot of prep and interrogating,” which he greatly enjoys. He took the five months until the shoot to ready himself.

“I love acting with my body, and Oppenheimer had a very distinct physicality and silhouette, which I wanted to get right,” Murphy says. “I had to lose quite a bit of weight, and we worked with the costume and tailoring; he was very slim, almost emaciated, existed on martinis and cigarettes.” Murphy adds: “He had these really bright eyes and I wanted to give him this wide-eyed look, so we worked on his silhouette and expressions a lot before starting.”

Murphy says that on set, he and Nolan talked less. “But there is space to try things, make an eejit of yourself,” he says. Nolan, Murphy adds, “always pushes you, and I like being pushed.”

Asked whether he had felt certain Murphy could carry the film, Nolan says: “I had the confidence emotionally, or perhaps rather intellectually, in Cillian. But there is still the reality of putting in the work with a level of fear.”

That work was “a marathon” for the actor, says Matt Damon, who plays Leslie Groves, a lieutenant general in the US army who worked alongside Oppenheimer at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory where the bomb was developed. “When you are at the centre of a movie at that scale, shooting seven scenes in a day, it takes a different focus and concern and commitment. It’s beautiful to watch someone give themselves to it fully.”

Murphy “leads with truth, he isn’t an actor who chews the scenery,” says Emily Blunt, who plays the scientist’s wife, Kitty Oppenheimer.

“There aren’t many people who can seemingly do nothing and be magnetic like him. And it’s not just about those laser beams on his face! He has thought about every detail.

“This movie explores not only the trauma of living with a brain like Oppenheimer’s, but what you do with it, and what lengths you are willing to go to. Cillian is brilliant at playing that ambiguity of intention.” (Off set, she says, “He is such a hoot!”)

Asked how he understood the character of Oppenheimer, Murphy says he wanted to let the movie speak to that. “The best films ask questions and don’t give answers,” he says.

Clearly the best actors, too. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times