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Cillian Murphy: ‘People in Ireland are kinder and more understanding and a bit more copped-on’

The actor on how famous people are treated in different countries, his BBC Radio 6 Music show and how performing music prepared him for acting

Cillian Murphy presents a musical radio series on Sunday evenings on BBC Radio 6 Music called Cillian Murphy’s Limited Edition. He also does some other stuff that you may have heard of, but we’re not talking about that today, as being a member of the striking US actors’ union Sag-Aftra prevents him from discussing TV or film projects right now.

The radio show is really good. A typical episode will take in obscure hip hop, contemporary folk, rare performances from soul legends, eerie electronica, snippets from archive interviews and readings from musical writers such as PJ Harvey, Ben Lerner, Jarvis Cocker and Dublin’s own Sinéad Gleeson (“I love her work”) as well as warm, funny, thoughtful observations from Murphy himself. “I hate to talk about myself, but talking about music, I’m happy,” he says. “Music was my first love. I had ambitions to be a musician way, way before I ever thought about becoming an actor.”

Growing up in Cork, was there a lot of music around? “I was brought to loads of sessions by my parents when I was a youngster: trad sessions ... falling asleep under the table, with Tayto and Tanora and all that stuff that a lot of kids of our generation experienced,” he says. “My dad was a Beatles fan, and they were huge for me, listening to the greatest hits and then discovering the more interesting albums and having my mind blown ... It was a constant source of exploration for me creatively ... I remember going to the Cork City Library to rent out cassettes, and then taping them and returning them ... Someone would have a cassette [and] you might get a copy of it. My first connection with anything artistic or creative was music.”

What was his first instrument? “I wanted to play the drums, and my parents wouldn’t buy me a drum kit, but my brother [Páidí] fashioned me a bass [drum] pedal ... and then I’d play the cymbals on the lamp and I’d bash away on the desk. But it wasn’t satisfactory. So then I started playing guitar, and my brother is an excellent piano player.”

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The brothers had a band, The Sons of Mr Green Genes, the title coming from a Frank Zappa tune. There’s a video of them on YouTube being interviewed and playing their own brand of acid jazz. Murphy’s Cork accent was stronger then, but Cork is still in his accent. What was the city like in the 1990s for art and music? “It was really, really exciting,” he says.

I mention a Granta essay by Kevin Barry – The Raingod’s Green, Dark as Passion – about living in Cork at around that time. He has read it. “Funnily enough, I remember Kevin Barry interviewed us for the Evening Echo,” he says. “I have not met him since. But I always remember him interviewing us ... It was quite a fertile time. There was a lot of cross-pollination. There was great stuff happening in nightclubs: [the famous club] Sir Henry’s obviously, Cabaret Deluxe at the back of the Opera House – we were the resident band inside there – the Phoenix and the Lobby and [we were] down in Connolly’s of Leap all the time. We used to bus kids down there when we were 18, 19. Some of the best nights of my life were in that place. It felt very like everybody was helping everybody out.

“The Sultans [of Ping] and the Franks [The Frank and Walters], they were a bit ahead of us, and I was obsessed with those guys, particularly The Frank and Walters. And we used to drink in the Liberty to try and see them around. I used to go to all their gigs. And Graham Finn and Bass Odyssey ... And Kieran McFeeley with The V-Necks, and then The Young Offenders. He was in school with me, actually. We’d lend each other amps, and there would be a sort of rivalry.”

He talks about the industry of it all. “We used to make our own flyers and our own posters. The whole city was covered in stickers and flyers from our band. It was a small enough city, but everybody at the time knew the name, at least, because we’d have them in every jacks in every pub.”

Compared to all those other lads and women that do this as a day job, I’m just a hobbyist. I’m very aware of that

I tell him that I think that being in a band (I was also in a band) is great training for life. It shows you how to work with other people, create with no budget and resolve conflicts. “I completely agree with that,” he says. In the better music documentaries you can see a lot of what I’m talking about, he adds, “the humility and compassion and politics and creativity and kindness”.

One of the things he learned from music was how to perform. “I always felt comfortable on stage, even when I was a youngster, playing the guitar at family gatherings,” he says. “I wasn’t a particularly outgoing kid, but I loved that part of it. I loved the live energy, that thing that you get in a band, you get in theatre, the unspoken, nonverbal connection you get with an audience. And you know when it’s right, when the energy in the room is right. And you get better at surfing that energy and being able to read. Playing live music was how I learned about performance. People always talk about the energy in the room or ‘the vibrations, man’ or whatever. I didn’t go to drama school or anything, but I went straight from making music and playing live into making theatre and playing in front of an audience.”

The Sons of Mr Green Genes were offered a record deal, but “for a variety of reasons” they declined. Around that time, Murphy dropped out of law at University College Cork (doing that course was “an unqualified disaster”, he says) and got a part in Enda Walsh’s play Disco Pigs. “And so the college and the music fell away, and the theatre kind of took off.”

And then, a couple of eventful decades after leaving music behind, he visited BBC Radio 6 Music to appear on a show and struck up a conversation with a producer, Gary Bales. “He took a bit of a punt on me [and] I did one show sitting in for somebody ... And when [the Elbow singer and BBC presenter] Guy Garvey went to tour, I did a whole maybe 10 or 12 shows for him.”

Now he records his own programme at his home in Dublin. “I do it in a little office space,” he says. “I’ve built this whole little cocoon. It looks like some weird cockpit and I just cover myself in blankets. With the mic like this.” He mimes going in close to a microphone. “And it feels like I’m whispering in someone’s ear ... I always liken it to making mixtapes, which we all did in the old days – physically making mixtapes, hitting stop and record, for me it was always for the music to tell a story. You give it to friends who need certain energies and I made them for certain journeys going certain places. I like it when one piece of music talks to another or flows into another ... The people that I loved listening to over the years, like Dave Fanning and Donal Dineen and John Kelly and Cathal Murray and Cerys Matthews and Guy Garvey, they just do it brilliantly. They can sort of take you somewhere. And I try not to talk too much.”

It’s all put together, he says, with his producer, Angela Davies. “She’s really, really talented, and we have a great understanding musically ... I tell her which track goes into which and she crossfades them beautifully. We talked about it being a kind of collage [where] you don’t know what’s coming next. All of a sudden there’s a poem and then there’s another track.”

Does he still have any of the old mixtapes? “I wish I could tell you that I did. I know they’re up there in some attic cavity somewhere, or maybe in a landfill. I spent so much time on them.”

On one episode of the radio show, after a particularly evocative sequence of tunes (from Ana Roxanne, Acid Pauli and Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer if you’re interested), he talks about how tone and atmosphere are the most important things in any art form. Could he talk some more about that?

“I think it’s the hardest thing to talk about, because you can only feel it,” he says. “If you only feel something and you can’t articulate it, how do you teach it or learn it? But we all know it when we feel it ... Reading a novel, you can feel the world of the novel, it stays with you for days, or a piece of music just instantly can transport you somewhere. But what are the ingredients for that? And what makes it like that? I find it fascinating trying to chase that down in all of the different art forms.”

Obviously I have acting heroes, but the majority of the people who I look to for guidance on how to navigate the whole circus are musicians

Why does he think people still want curated things such as radio shows, given that, in theory, everyone can find anything they want online now? “I think you can feel the time and the creativity and the thought that’s been put into the selection,” he says. “You can feel how much the person putting it together loves music. And no algorithm can do that.” He pauses. “Even though sometimes I do look at the choice the algorithm has made and say, ‘Wow, I’d love to go for a pint with this algorithm.’ But I know that it’s just random, and that the next bit will be awful.”

How does he keep up with so much new music when this similarly aged journalist can’t? “You’re probably busy,” he says and laughs. “I have a lot of time on my hands. So I spend way too much time doing this, and I know compared to all those other lads and women that do this as a day job, I’m just a hobbyist. I’m very aware of that. I’m only doing 10 of these shows.”

Why does he think art in general is important? What’s it for? “I find it kind of makes sense of my little world, and it makes sense of the big world,” he says. “I find it makes more sense of it than the news does. And this is the other thing, because the world is such a distressing place at the moment, and because I find it very difficult to consume what’s happening right now, I want the radio show to be gentle and a bit silly and just easy. If that’s a purpose or not, I’m not sure. All I know, for me personally, it’s so vital to my health.”

He talks a little about the importance of “story” for him. Has he ever considered writing? “I’ve worked with some of the greatest writers,” he says. “And I could never ever hold a candle to them. I wouldn’t even try.” He laughs. “I don’t like being bad at things.”

In recent years he has been involved with a programme developed by Pat Dolan, the University of Galway’s Unesco professor of children, youth and civic engagement, bringing empathy training into schools. They produced a book, Ionbhá, which features writing from people such as Louise O’Neill, Michael D Higgins and Blindboy.Pat approached me and talked to me about it,” he says. “When I began to think about it, I realised that the most important tool you have as an actor is to try and be empathetic. It’s walking in somebody else’s shoes, which is the definition of empathy. You have to be present in the work and you have to not judge someone and you have to understand what that other person needs and wants ... It felt like a natural fit ... We’ve done studies, randomised control tests, and you can actually teach [empathy]. And once the kids have been in the programme, not only are they measurably more empathetic, but they’re also stronger academically. But I just want to be in the background, gently waving a flag for it. I don’t want to be bashing people on the head with it. That wouldn’t be very empathetic.”

He and his family moved back to Ireland in 2015. Is it different to be a public person here than in the UK or America? “I think people are kinder and more understanding and a bit more copped-on here, definitely,” he says. “We noticed that. It was the best decision we made to come back here. But we needed to go away to come back.”

How is music different from other art forms for him? “Jarvis Cocker read a piece on the second show, and he talked about ‘the tingle’,” he says. “I could identify with it completely. I get that feeling. It’s a tingle or it’s goosebumps – a physiological thing. And I don’t get it from anything else other than music. I don’t get it from watching movies. I don’t get it from reading books or being in theatre or even performing. But I get it from listening to music. It’s an ancient, ancient art form. I think I spoke on the radio about close-harmony singing and how that just gets me. It’s cultures deep, cultures old. There’s something about two voices singing that close harmony that just knocks me out. I feel it profoundly. I don’t know why.”

Has music influenced how he approaches his other slightly better-known career? “Most of my heroes and the way they approached work and tried to navigate the business end of it, or navigate the ‘tyranny of the mainstream’, as Bowie called it, they all come from music,” he says. “Obviously I have acting heroes, but the majority of the people who I look to for guidance on how to navigate the whole circus are musicians. How you comport yourself as a private individual, as a public person, in terms of being true to your instincts ... You just want to be decent and be true to what got you started in the first place and have some humility. And I find musicians are much better at that, generally.”

Which musicians? He laughs. “I knew you were going to ask me that. I would never even put myself in the same sentence as them. I genuinely find it awkward because someone will make a headline of it. And I’m not worthy.”

Cillian Murphy’s Limited Edition is on BBC Radio 6 Music on Sundays at 10pm; you can also listen to episodes online