INTERVIEW:CILLIAN MURPHY has secured a niche for himself in film but still has pangs of insecurity, writes DONALD CLARKE
IF PEOPLE DON’T know anything about you and they go and see you in a film, that’s more interesting,” Cillian Murphy says. “There’s no baggage. They haven’t seen you being funny on a talk show. They just get the character. I could never be funny on a talk show.”
Yes he could. He’s a genial sort of bloke. Isn’t he? “No, no. I am not that sort of person. I know what I am good at, and being funny on a talk show is not what I am at.”
We’ll leave that aside. But Murphy’s point about remaining something of an enigma is worth unpacking. Of course, we know quite a bit about him. Raised in Cork, the cobalt-eyed actor initially dallied with a career in music, before being drawn towards the influential Corcadorca theatre company. After touring the world in Disco Pigs, Enda Walsh’s spiky, profane stage drama, he rapidly stomped his way towards movie stardom. He was a convincing cross-dresser in Breakfast on Pluto and a charismatic revolutionary in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. He has appeared in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and in the same director’s Inception. This week he turns up opposite Robert De Niro in the supernatural thriller Red Lights.
He has managed to stay away from the grubbier corners of the media. He has never been pictured falling drunkenly out of nightclubs. We rarely see snaps of his wife, the artist Yvonne McGuinness, or of his two young children. How does he manage it? “There’s no trick to it,” he says cautiously. “It’s not a problem if you live a reasonably normal life and don’t go to events that are not obligatory.”
He can’t have had much time with his children recently. Murphy, who lives in north London, has just finished playing in Walsh’s taxing one-man show Misterman. The production premiered in Galway before triumphant runs in New York and London. Last week that turn won him the prestigious Drama Desk Award – handed out to the year’s Broadway and Off-Broadway productions – for outstanding solo performance.
“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “Misterman was in London and then I did a film called Broken here. Then I brought the family to New York. So, I haven’t been away too long. Though when I have been around, I’ve sort of been in work mode. I am going to have a break now.”
So how did he get so busy? Cillian Murphy was born 36 years ago in Douglas. He was a bright lad and, after attending the Presentation Brothers College, began studying law at UCC. He admits his heart wasn’t really in it and he really just ended up on the course because he had the Leaving Cert points. Murphy’s first passion was music. He and his pals formed a band called The Sons of Mr Green Genes – a reference to a Frank Zappa song – and soon secured a significant offer from a British record company. Given his current success, Murphy can’t worry too much about the road not taken. But, every now and then, he must wonder what might have happened if they hadn’t turned down the offer.
“There was a time when I felt that,” he says. “But now I am more confident. I always knew there was a ceiling that I had as a musician, and I feel that was reached pretty quickly. But with acting I feel like I have more to prove. Also, the music industry has changed. It’s so hard to make money.” What did the Green Genes sound like? “Oh, long guitar solos and whacky lyrics. There was some great playing, but we were not commercial. I think if we had signed that deal I wouldn’t be friends with those guys now. That’s often the way with bands. But we are all still good mates. So I don’t regret it.”
Unusually for an actor, Murphy really can remember an early Road to Damascus moment. When he saw Corcadorca’s funky production of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, he suddenly realised that theatre need not be all “grey heads and expensive tickets”. He took a few roles in UCC Dramsoc and began pestering Pat Kiernan, Corcadorca’s now-legendary supremo, for an audition. Eventually he secured that role in Disco Pigs and, abandoning his law degree, found himself propelled into full-time acting.
“I suddenly found I had an agent,” he says, still sounding slightly stunned by it all.
One wonders what his parents made of it all. Sane, professional educators, they must have hoped their son would do something “sensible”. The theatre does not shoulder the colourful reputation that dogs the music industry – not quite so many illicit chemicals – but it is still a precarious, unforgiving business.
“I think they were worried,” he says. “I am the eldest, and they would have been worried. But once I could look after myself and pay for my own accommodation they were grand. My parents are both very appreciative of the arts. They got safe, pensionable jobs. There was not much chance making a living doing theatre then, so a lot of people went into teaching.”
In the past, Murphy has – as many dreamboats do – argued that he is more of a character actor than a leading man. You can see what he’s getting at. He is, of course, annoyingly good-looking: grade-A hair, famous eyes, boyish, well-defined features. But there is something slightly otherworldly about his appearance. He can pull off the lead in films such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Red Lights. But he is even better playing oddballs such as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins or the homicidal maniac in Wes Craven’s effective Red Eye. He has now secured a neat little corner for himself in the industry.
Nobody quite looks like him. Nobody else exhibits the same class of skewed charisma. Yet he does admit that he still has outbreaks of insecurity. Oh well. They say Olivier worried about not getting work until the day he died.
“What’s that famous quote? ‘Nobody knows anything’,” he says referring to a dictum coined by the great screenwriter William Goldman. “You never have any sense how a film is going to work out. The ones you think are brilliant often turn out to be shit. And the other way around. The fact that you have a great shoot does not mean you’re going to have a good film. So I have stopped even trying to guess. You just finish the job and move on to something else.”
He must have enjoyed discussing these various anomalies with Robert De Niro. Red Lights finds Murphy playing a sceptical scientist investigating De Niro’s supposed celebrity psychic. Murphy admits he has spent the day answering questions about what it’s “like to work with Robert De Niro”. I’ll try and ask the question in an original fashion. “And I’ll try and give you an answer that isn’t just recycled,” he says. “He has amazing presence and the camera magnifies it tenfold. The way he works is through detail. In the first scene I had to do with him I had to be nervous and intimidated. That wasn’t hard to fake.” After all this time, he is still “nervous and intimidated” when meeting the big stars? I would have imagined that he’d be a bit blase about that sort of thing by now. Show no fear.
“You never get past that level,” he says. “You see those actors as points in your growing up. Their movies are part of your life. They form the soundtrack to your life. I remember clearly when I first saw Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. But when the camera turns over you’re an actor. You can’t drop the ball.”
I think Cillian Murphy would work quite well on the talk show circuit. Too thoughtful and introspective to be a professional funnyman, he, nonetheless, knows how to spin a yarn and expand an answer into a fleshy paragraph. But, yes, he does seem genuinely uneasy with the celebrity business.
Fair enough. After a few years working like a maniac, he is now finally getting a chance to flee the media glare for a few months. Much of the summer will be spent hiding from the Olympics in the old country. “Yeah, I do need to take a rest. Mind you, I do have two children. So, I don’t know how restful it will be. Ha ha!” Save that one up for Graham Norton, old man.
Red Lights is on general release