Killian Scott: ‘The less people know about me the better’

Since bursting on to our screens in Love/Hate, Killian Scott’s film and TV career has blossomed but, as he takes to the stage, the actor remains extremely guarded

A cricket clubhouse is an odd setting to interview any actor, never mind Killian Scott, best known as the fizzy-orange-loving Dublin gangster Tommy from Love/Hate. But here we are, overlooking the peaceful green fields of the Leinster Cricket Club off the busy Rathmines Road. At the next table young cricket fans huddle around a match that’s starting on the television.

We’re here because Scott and his fellow castmates have been rehearsing in a room at the cricket grounds. He is playing the menacing character Mooney in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, a play set in the north of England on the day the death penalty is abolished.

He hasn’t done any theatre since way back at the beginning of his acting career. “I’m terrified,” he smiles. But at the same time it’s “exciting and refreshing and invigorating” to be working with the cast and director Andrew Flynn. After years of screen work, he says he’s pushing himself out of his comfort zone. He’s enjoying rehearsals and looking forward to the immediacy of a theatre gig, after years spent waiting around on various TV or film sets and sitting in make up trailers.

Late last year, he had come to the end of a busy period of work and was preparing to take a break. When he told his agent, they were supportive of the move but also mentioned that Hangmen was on the table. He didn’t have to think too long. “It’s an incredible play, an incredible opportunity,” he says.

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Scott first became interested in acting while in third year at St Michael’s College in South Dublin, where he was a “bad” drummer in a band. He was inspired by seeing his older brother, the former Fine Gael TD and minister for housing Eoghan Murphy, take the lead in the school’s production of Hamlet. A year later Scott had a part in Under Milkwood and “basically from the moment I stepped on to the stage I just knew it was something I had to pursue”. He namechecks his English teacher Martin Kelly and his 6th year head Gary Coakley as two people who encouraged him. “It was Dead Poets Society stuff.”

After getting an arts degree in UCD, where he was involved in the drama society and often failed the end of year exams, he went to London to study drama, “a statement of intent”. The only school that accepted him was the Drama Centre or “the trauma centre” as it was affectionately known before the doors shut for good during the pandemic. What kind of trauma? “We once rehearsed The Crucible by Arthur Miller for five hours a day for three months to give one performance to the staff,” Scott says. The school – alumni of which include Colin Firth, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy – advocated the Stanislavski method.

“I sometimes jokingly describe it as intense group therapy… the idea was to resurrect, challenging, traumatic experiences to use as an actor,” Scott explains. “Some actors would still professionally practise that concept. I don’t go near it.”

I never think of the character as some kind of separate entity. It’s just me, in some weird inexplicable way

—  Killian Scott

What traumatic personal experiences did he resurrect at drama school? “None that I want to talk about,” he says. This is the first, but not the last, time we navigate a conversational sticky wicket.

Scott’s real name is Cillian Murphy, but when he started off in his career that name was very much already taken in the Irish acting world. He changed the C to a K and took Scott in tribute to his great grandmother who was born in Buenos Aires in the 1890s to Irish parents. She married a man named Thomas Scott before eventually returning to Ireland.

He describes prominent casting director Maureen Hughes as “the architect of my career”. It was Hughes who cast him in Hangmen, having plucked him “from utter obscurity” over ten years ago to play Tommy Daly in Love/Hate, his first professional role. He hadn’t even completed drama school.

In common with other stars of Love/Hate such as Peter Coonan and Tom Vaughan Lawlor, Scott’s background could not be more different from that of his character. He went to school on Ailesbury Road and grew up in a house on Sandymount Green that was once part of a Victorian castle. He approached Tommy, he explains, as he would any role, “as an enhancement of some part of myself had my circumstances been different. I never think of the character as some kind of separate entity. It’s just me, in some weird inexplicable way”.

Scott did his own research, reading gangland book Evil Empire by Paul Williams to get a sense of “an alternate reality”. Wearing some parts of his wardrobe borrowed from the set – Tommy’s jacket, an earring and a new haircut – he spent time around the Four Courts guided by a criminal barrister acquaintance. “It gave me a stronger sense of the reality of that experience,” Scott says. While there in Tommy-mode he bumped into a friend he hadn’t seen in a couple of years, a barrister in training. “She obviously thought my life had taken an unexpected turn, to say the least… I awkwardly explained I was researching a role and then got on with it.”

The massively successful Love/Hate – “one of the most exciting experiences of my life” – ran for four years. After that, his first lead role came in Irish thriller Traders. The post Love/Hate roles came thick and fast: Calvary with Brendan Gleeson, Ripper Street and Trespass Against Us. Other career highs include being cast as the lead in US TV series Damnation, “a big deal at the time”, which was cancelled after the first season, and a role in The Commuter alongside “sweet and generous” Liam Neeson.

“I mostly played a corpse but it was amazing,” Scott says. He also played English detective Rob Reilly in the adaptation of Tana French’s Dublin Murder squad book series. This was picked up in the US, and in one interview in Glamour magazine he mentions he has an Albert Camus poster on his bedroom wall. “That’s true,” he says. What’s his favourite Camus quote? He says he’ll get back to me.

His loyalty is admirable – he is no doubt sensitive to the intense criticism aimed at his brother Eoghan while he was a minister

Recently, he wrapped the upcoming Disney+ Marvel series Secret Invasion with Emilia Clarke and was finishing Netflix show Chaos in Spain with Jeff Goldblum when The Hangman was first mooted. He postponed his planned time out, the offer too tempting to resist.

Scott has interesting things to say about the notoriety that comes with his chosen profession. He found the attention from the public that followed Love/Hate “overwhelming”. The way Scott sees it, his job as an actor is to convince the public that he’s someone else “so the less they know about me the better … if you go into a movie and you’ve just read an intimate article about a famous actor, those associations are with you as you watch them”. But is talking about himself not part of the game? I mention actors he’s worked with such as Barry Keoghan – “a genius,” Scott says – who share a lot of their stories and background in interviews.

“I think there’s a way you can get the chance to do the kind of creative work that satisfies you and gives something to the world without overdoing the other side of things,” Scott says. He’s been off social media for the last seven years, which I tell him I find both shocking and refreshing. “I do legitimately think it’s very dangerous, to a degree that no one fully appreciates… I meet people and they speak about being on social media with a certain hint of shame or guilt,” he says. When some people learn that he does not engage on any platforms, they often react in a wistful way “like, ‘I wish I wasn’t on it’. The manner in which we engage with that stuff, I think it has all the hallmarks and traits of classic addiction.”

The 37-year-old is extremely guarded about his family. Even the gentlest of queries is rebuffed or causes him to clam up, while adopting a tortured facial expression. This extends to innocuous questions about his upbringing. “I’m just very, very self-conscious when I am talking about my family who I adore. My parents are the only heroes I would claim to have…”

Near the end of what has been the most enjoyable encounter with an actor I’ve ever had in a cricket club, I ask whether he is in a relationship

He is the youngest of six siblings, including Eoghan, the schoolboy Hamlet and former politician, and Colin Murphy, the playwright and newspaper columnist. To his credit, brown eyed, dark haired Scott retains his innate charm while deflecting all questions about them. His loyalty is admirable – he is no doubt sensitive to the intense criticism aimed at his brother Eoghan while he was a minister – but it makes our conversation awkward and stilted at times.

For the most part though, Scott is easy and interesting company revealing that in his spare time, he is a Joy Division/Velvet Undergound-inspired guitarist and songwriter. He doesn’t rule out an album in his future but he blushed so hard when he spoke about this part of his life, I wonder if it might take a while.

By this point, I’ve decided he probably won’t want to discuss another part of his family story, but I have a go anyway. Scott’s grandfather was Russell Murphy, an accountant to various Irish public figures. When he died in 1984, it emerged that he had been surreptitiously spending the earnings of clients such as Gay Byrne and Hugh Leonard. I mention that more than 20 years ago when I interviewed Scott’s father Henry Murphy, a barrister who wrote fiction on the side and is now retired happily in Spain, I broached the events surrounding Russell Murphy. He politely declined to discuss this aspect of his father’s legacy, only saying: “As a family, you don’t get over something like that.” Is that the same response Scott would give on the subject of his grandfather? He says nothing, just nods. We move quickly on.

Near the end of what has been the most enjoyable encounter with an actor I’ve ever had in a cricket club, I ask whether he is in a relationship. We both laugh because by now I know he is unlikely to give me an answer. He smiles, hides his head shyly under his jacket and politely dodges that question too.

A few days later, Scott emails to clarify a couple of factual points and apologise for his reluctance to delve into certain areas. It’s been a few years since he’s done a big interview, and he’s clearly grappling with the question of what parts of his life he can comfortably give away and which parts he needs to hold back.

He adds an intriguing PS to the email, his favourite Camus quote: “Become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” He’s got me rightly stumped, as they might say back at the club.

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh is on at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from March 11th to April 8th