It’s rare that Cillian Murphy has a day off. However, finding one wedged in between promoting his new film, Sunshine, and shooting his next feature, he spends some time with his wife and son at their home in London. A self-confessed “culture vulture,” Cillian (don’t forget that hard K pronunciation) Murphy would love to take advantage of the opportunities London presents when it comes to art—not surprising, considering the fact that his wife is video artist Yvonne McGuinness. It’s his loss (and our gain) that the busy actor is often too occupied playing The One to Watch to find time to take in other people’s creative work.
Probably best known for the one-two punch of baddie roles in 2005’s Red Eye and Batman Begins, Murphy began his acting career almost by accident. Music was his first love, and he’d been playing in bands from the age of 12. “I think you have a performance gene, and it needs to come out one way or the other,” he says. “For me, for many years, it was through music and performing and writing and singing songs.” Everything changed when, at the age of 19, he saw a piece of experimental theater in his hometown of Cork, Ireland. “[It was] a version of A Clockwork Orange done in a nightclub, all promenade style…just very cool, and it really blew me away. I chased down the theater company and asked them for an audition, and they gave me one.” His perseverance led to a touring gig with the award-winning stage version (and eventual film adaptation) of Disco Pigs.
In Murphy’s own startling blue eyes, however, it’s Danny Boyle and the apocalyptic epic 28 Days Later that are responsible for launching his career. “It was my big break, really. I was very young and very inexperienced. I’d done a couple of films in Ireland, but I’d never done a film with an experienced director like that. I was a very different actor then.” Now equipped with the clout that exposure and honest talent brings, Murphy has had the opportunity and the luxury to work in smaller, less commercial fare with directors such as Neil Jordan. In Breakfast on Pluto, Murphy portrays Patrick “Kitten” Braden, a transvestite who longs for the mother who abandoned him on the steps of a church as an infant. Set in the 60s and 70s, the film’s uncontrived and optimistic story of Kitten’s search for mom is set against the historical backdrop of violent IRA bombings. “I read the book [by Patrick McCabe] when it came out and fell in love with the story and with the character, and never thought that I’d ever get to play Kitten,” Murphy admits. Eventually, Jordan found a producer who wrangled up the money for the film’s production in just six weeks’ time. “We just did it,” Murphy says. “We just jumped in, and I went and hung out with a lot of transvestites and spent a lot of time trying to find the character. Dressing as a lady was not the primary attraction of the part—it was because it was such a brilliant character, and such a brilliant script, and such a wonderful director.” Murphy’s work was celebrated with his first Golden Globe nomination in 2006.
A succession of solid roles came quickly after that: Girl With a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain, as well as stage work in Chekhov’s The Seagull and Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Then there was the 2006 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, directed by the well-respected Ken Loach. The historical drama tells the Cain and Abel story, beginning in 1919, of two Irish brothers, their participation in the Irish Civil War and the subsequent founding of the Irish Republican Army. “It’s purely about instinct,” he says in reference to the critically acclaimed English director’s unconventional techniques. “[Normally] you get a script a few months in advance, let’s say, and you sit down and pore over it, and you make choices, and you spend hours highlighting and fucking reading, and by the time you come into it, it’s very heavy, it’s very intellectual, you know. With Ken, all you’re armed with is your instincts.” Murphy’s dedicated to researching his roles in preproduction simply because he feels the characters he represents are owed that much. “It’s the only way I know, because I’m so terrified when I take on a role. The only way I can counteract the terror is to just dive in, y’know?”
Though he generally prefers to take time between projects, he didn’t have the luxury in this case. The Wind That Shakes the Barley wrapped in Cork, and just a week later, Murphy began production on Sunshine. “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t shoot movies back-to-back, but when you get a chance to work with Ken Loach and then recollaborate with Danny Boyle, you’re not going to turn it down,” he says.
Sunshine reunites Murphy with Boyle, the director behind both Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, the zombie flick that had much more going for it than the shock and awe of contemporary gore pictures, largely due to Murphy’s portrayal of Jim. Sunshine is a thinking man’s sci-fi movie, one as equally informed by An Inconvenient Truth as it is by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. The story begins with the premise that the sun is dying out, causing temperatures on earth to plummet and leaving mankind without the energy and resources that we’ve long taken for granted. A team of astronauts is sent to reignite the sun (it’s a complicated process, naturally), but that mission goes awry. A second team, which includes Capa, a physicist played by Murphy, is sent to detonate a bomb that will hopefully reignite the failing sun.
Boyle’s sci-fi effort is a damned impressive visual feat, combining fluid CGI work with excellent performances from a very cosmopolitan cast: Memoirs of a Geisha’s Michelle Yeoh and Whale Rider’s Cliff Curtis, along with Americans Troy Garity of Barbershop fame and Chris Evans of Fantastic Four. After the improvisational adventure of working with Loach, Sunshine presented Murphy the opportunity to get a bit more technical. Digital blue screen and wirework were things the actor knew little of at first, though he soon learned they involve lots of “sitting around waiting” while shots are being set up and prepped.
As was the case in 28 Days Later, it is Murphy’s role as the quiet, scientific brains of the operation that really takes hold in the second half of Sunshine. It is in this shift from heady ensemble piece to tense, frightening thriller that he’s able to make his mark on the film. “It’s a genre that has very small corridors of creativity because there are certain rules you have to obey,” he reflects, somewhat apologetically. “There’s always, like, a spaceship, a signal, y’know, a monster, and you kind of have to obey those things.”
Completing his role as a scientific savior of the universe allowed Murphy the opportunity to return to theater acting, a sort of ongoing class where he develops his talent. Late last year, he made his West End debut in Love Song, starring opposite Neve Campbell. “Theater makes me feel safe. You’re acting every night, eight shows a week. You become a better actor—then you can go off and do movies again.” So what’s next for Cillian Murphy onscreen? There’s a World War II period piece, The Edge of Love, with Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, about the life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He’ll then follow this with another period flick, again with Sienna Miller, about the life of 60s counterculture icon Richard Neville.
And will he return as Dr. Jonathan “Scarecrow” Crane in 2008’s The Dark Knight, the follow up to Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Batman Begins? “The next movie is about the Joker, really. Heath Ledger is going to be incredible in that film. I think [he’s] a fantastic actor, and it was brilliant casting.”
Given his musical background and personal tastes—he’s an avid indie rock junkie and a very vocal fan of Broken Social Scene—one might expect him to sign on to a movie musical. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Murphy glamming it up a la Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine or landing a part in the inevitable adaptation of Spring Awakening—but don’t hold your breath waiting for Cillian Murphy to step up to the mic. “I have a very strange relationship with playing musicians,” he says. “I’ve turned down quite a few [musicals]. Music is so important to me, I don’t want to go and burn my bridges in one movie.”