Cillian Murphy: ‘The less that people know about me the better’

‘I didn’t see myself as a personality. I see myself as an actor. I think those are two distinct jobs’

The sequel to John Krasinski’s excellent horror was set to open a few days after the shutters came down. The ads were already on buses and they stayed on buses until deep into the summer – a constant reminder of what we were missing.

“People kept sending me degraded pictures of myself on the side of empty buses,” Murphy tells me. “It was a bit disheartening. But I realised it was not the most important thing in the world. The release of a film was not top of the list. But buses driving around with your face on was a reminder of something that didn’t happen.”

It would have been awkward if, after holding our breath for a year, the film turned out to be a flaming dud. Happily, that is not the case. Returning to a world overtaken by aliens with supernaturally sensitive hearing, A Quiet Place Part II is everything a horror sequel should be: fast, tense, gruesome. The scenario now comes with added timeliness. The fictional world is united in fighting the same unstoppable menace. Murphy, playing a new character, makes his first post-invasion appearance in a face mask. Eerie.

“The face mask? Yeah, that was just a coincidence,” he says. “I think back to when we made 28 Days Later. That was nearly 20 years ago. I was 24 then. I am 44 now. Anyhow, I remember Sars came out just after that film was released. People were drawing parallels. I just think that good writing has some innate prescience that reflects things back at us. It wasn’t deliberate. But if people find some sort of resonance in it, that’s good.”


Murphy has been well placed to watch his buses pass. The sapphire-eyed Cork man, a star for two decades, moved from London to a leafy corner of south Dublin in 2015. He has recently restarted work on the sixth series of Peaky Blinders, the BBC's hit Brummie gangster epic, but much of last year was spent in qualified isolation with his wife, the artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their two children. Maybe the rest was welcome. Since his breakthrough at the start of the century, he has appeared in five films for Christopher Nolan; 28 Days Later, that zombie hit for Danny Boyle; Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley; Neil Jordan's rambunctious Breakfast on Pluto and a dozen other high-profile releases. The family must have been happy to see him back at the hearth for a spell.

“It was a treat. We tried to make it as positive as possible,” he says. “I am probably more at home than I am at work generally anyway. But this was an extended time. I had a feeling that Peaky would come back and this film would get released eventually. So I was trying to make the most of it and not panic. We pulled through it. There needs to be a bit more hope around.”

The less that people know about me the better I can portray other people

Murphy has always been a cautious interviewee. He is smart and helpful, but you get a sense he wants to allow only a certain amount of the personal experience into the public sphere. Every second interview drags up some synonym for "private person". He will never be confused with Richard Harris or Peter O'Toole in that regard. Do not expect to hear tales about robbing policemen's helmets or flinging televisions through windows. That is fair enough. There should be no requirement for an actor to open up their lives like a member of the Kardashian clan. The inner Robert De Niro and the inner Paul Schofield remain mysterious.

“I don’t know, man. I just like to do the work,” he says. “And that always seemed to me like the most sensible approach. I didn’t see myself as a personality. I see myself as an actor. I think those are two distinct jobs. And my job is to portray other people. The less that people know about me the better I can portray other people. That seems glaringly obvious and logical to me.”

One of the reasons actors move to posher parts of Los Angeles is to shut themselves off from prying fans. Cillian is more available to the everyday mortal. I wonder if it is difficult to retain a degree of privacy when living in Dublin.

“The short answer is no. I think Irish people are generally really decent. If they know what sort of person you are, they respect that. We moved back about five or six years ago and it’s been the best thing we did.”

What brought them back from London?

“Well, I suppose to be closer to family,” he says. “The kids are of a certain age. I think if you live in a world capital – like New York or London or wherever – it’s excellent and exciting and stimulating in your 20s and 30s. Then there’s a point where the things that were excellent and stimulating are now a bit sort of tedious and draining. You want something quieter and that’s what we did.”

I was 20. I was foolishly pursuing a law degree and then this thing came along, and, just out of curiosity, I auditioned for it

He will never entirely escape the press. Returning to a theme we’ve discussed before, I imagine he still has to explain he’s not British. There is famous footage of him failing to make an interviewer understand the distinction during the tour for Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

“Do you know what, Donald? I had to explain it to a Spanish journalist just a few interviews ago. I had to illuminate him on the distinction between British and Irish heritage. He was not interested. But anyway…”

Cillian Murphy was born into a family of educators. Raised in Ballintemple, he was writing and preforming music before he hit his teenage years. The Murphy myth has it that there is an alternative universe somewhere in which Cillian succeeded as a rock star. His band were eventually offered a deal, but, for a number of reasons, they declined the contract. Murphy went off to study law at UCC and eventually got swept into the legendary Corcadorca theatre company. Does he ever wonder about that other potential timeline?

“I think I’m over that now,” he says. “There was a period in my 20s when I wondered what things would have been like, but I quickly realised that there was a ceiling on my ability as a singer, songwriter and musician. I looked at other bands and other musicians and I realised that I wasn’t in that league. So that made me feel less sad about it. I don’t think the world is lacking my music. Ha ha!”

Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs seems to have changed his life. In 1996, Murphy made his professional debut as a wayward Cork kid in that influential play. Originally scheduled for a short run, the production toured the world and was ultimately turned into a film, also starring Murphy, by Kirsten Sheridan. The attention that followed finished off both his musical and legal careers. There were some struggles ahead, but, by 2002, when 28 Days Later broke, he was part of the entertainment firmament.

“Yes, that was was the turning point,” he says of Disco Pigs. “I was 20. I was foolishly pursuing a law degree and then this thing came along, and, just out of curiosity, I auditioned for it. It had a success in the theatre world and we toured. I realised there was there was another option. It fulfilled that need to perform live – which I had abandoned with music. Theatre was a new hope for me.”

Were his parents relaxed about the move from a good, safe career to life in the circus?

“’Relaxed’ isn’t the word,” he says with a laugh. “They came to terms with it. It’s so long ago now. It wasn’t such an outrageous thing to do. It was just figuring out your path in life. We all do that. Everyone should have time to make mistakes and experiment.”

Murphy was swept up in a cultural wave that had begun in the 1990s. Irish celebrities and Irish culture were bossing the world. You had a bit of Colin Farrell over here. You had a bit of Graham Norton over there. Saoirse Ronan was soon established as an Oscar regular. There are worse times to emerge as an Irish actor. Not that you can plan this sort of thing. Cultural momentum is determined by unreadable forces. Right?

“I really don’t know the answer to that,” he says. “There was a generational shift, where it became more of a possibility to get a career in the arts. If you came of age in the 1980s, those possibilities were not apparent. If you had artistic leanings you’d go off and become a school teacher and pursue them as a hobby – as many in my family did. There were a fine group of actors there. Maybe it was do with national confidence, with cultural confidence. It’s an interesting question.”

In the olden days of a decade or so ago, movie stars stayed away from television, but the smaller screen now attracts almost as much prestige. Murphy’s role as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham after the first World War, has raised his profile still further. As we speak, he and his colleagues are reeling from the death of co-star Helen McCrory. She was a vital spirit in the show.

“It feels very raw at the moment, obviously, because I’ve lost a dear friend and colleague in Helen McCrory,” he says. “And it’s been a tough, tough time for us all here. So it very much brings home what a big a part of my life this job has been – when you lose someone that close.”

And on we go. A Quiet Place Part II, again co-starring Emily Blunt, is certain to be a smash (or as big a smash as current restrictions will allow) and will probably generate a third episode in the rattling horror saga. Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, has confirmed that the upcoming season will be the last, but that "the story will continue in another form". Murphy will be dragged from his home and again sent forth in the world. The winds will buffet. The seas will swell. Who can plan such a career?

"Yeah, I've never ever had any strategy or plan," he says. "People don't like to believe that. But I don't. I just see what comes along."

A Quiet Place Part II is in cinemas from Monday, June 7th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist