“When I was younger, I really wanted to be an actor first, and Irish second. I wanted to do American films, and do an American accent, and a British accent, and show that I can do that. But as I get older I think it doesn’t matter,” says Cillian Murphy. “I’m very proud of being an Irish actor. It’s a smaller industry, but I’m really proud to support it.”
Over a year since Murphy returned to Ireland from London, it appears he’s returning to his roots mentally too. It helps, of course, that he has little to prove now, having succeeded in Hollywood while maintaining his integrity — a balance managed by only a handful of stars.
Whether blockbuster or indie, most of his films, like 28 Days Later, The Dark Knight Trilogy and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, have been critically acclaimed, and his forthcoming film, The Delinquent Season by Mark O’Rowe (Intermission, Howie the Rookie), suggests that will continue closer to home.
But talk to him about his body of work over 20 years, and he’s simply not interested in analysing it.
“It’s silly to look back if you want to keep working. I don’t even go back and look at performances. You have to learn up here,” he says, tapping his temple. “Your next job should always be your best performance — that’s what I want it to be, anyway.
“It’s fine to look back if you want to retire, but I still feel young and I still have a lot of energy.” Indeed: not six months since the prolific actor fought against Nazis in the Sam Ellis-directed Anthropoid, he’s on the right side of history again as we meet to discuss Dunkirk. It was here in 1940 that 400,000 British soldiers retreated as France fell to Nazi Germany, with just 26 miles of sea between themselves and home.
Set to be one of this summer’s biggest releases, it’s the latest project from the revered Christopher Nolan. That explains why Tom Hardy agreed to represent the RAF defence, despite being given limited acting range (most of his scenes are close-ups of him in a pilot’s mask), why Harry Styles picked it as his first foray into the acting world, being stranded on the beach surrounded by the enemy, and why Murphy accepted the role of a character who’s rescued from the sea, named only as ‘Shivering soldier’.
“Christopher Nolan is one of the greatest living directors, and you want to work with the best,” Murphy says, explaining why he took the unnamed role. “You can see the evolution in his films: the way he tells the non-linear nature of his storytelling has become more sophisticated and honed. The way three different storylines [of air, land and sea] intersect is genius, and the way he asks the audience to keep up is so clever.”
Speaking to him later, the sentiment is mutual. Nolan explains that Murphy is “one of the great actors of his generation” and delighted their professional relationship continued in Dunkirk.
“Though he was just very happy we didn’t put a sack over his head, because we’ve done three films where we’ve made him put a sack over his head,” he jokes.
“I’ve known him since before he had kids and now he’s got a 12-year-old. He’s an extraordinary presence.
“In the case of this film, he was very generous with me, because I sent him a script where his character was very unfinished, and he very politely asked me about that. I said I knew how to complete the character according to the usual Hollywood rhythm, but I wanted to do something that’s more truthful. So I needed an actor who will take it on trust, and get on that boat and figure something out.”
The movie was filmed straight after Murphy’s other release this year, the black-and-white drama The Party, which sees Murphy as a guest alongside Emily Mortimer and Kristin Scott Thomas as secrets and drama unfurl over the course of a night. “They were very different films — The Party is a small, independent, ensemble film. I’m very proud of it, it’s a very smart piece of work.
“But that wasn’t good scheduling. I remember I wrapped on The Party at 8pm, and I rushed to the airport, flew to Holland, got a haircut, woke up at 5am, got on a boat and jumped in the sea: it was that first scene in Dunkirk. So it was kind of crazy.
“In a perfect world, you do one job, and you have two or three months off, and then you do another job, so you’re back to yourself in between. But The Party kept getting pushed… it’s boring stuff. It’s not ideal, but you just have to switch your brain if you can. One of the nice things about the job is you take completely different roles and differing types of jobs.”
The variation extends to format too; Murphy is a regular in theatre, and his lead role as Tommy Shelby in BBC series Peaky Blinders (alongside Hardy, another frequent colleague) has become his best-known character as much as any from his movies.
So: Film vs theatre? “If you trust the filmmaker, your job is to give them the building blocks to make the film. In theatre you make it yourself, so it’s a very different medium.”
Film vs television? “It’s different only in that there’s so much more to make,” he says. “We make six hours of television with Peaky in four months, so it’s very full-on schedule, it’s like three feature films. You have to be incredibly prepared and focused and rested. Whereas Dunkirk I was on it for three weeks.”
Often working from project to project, his little down time is reserved for his family, wife Yvonne McGuinness and kids Malachy and Aran. At these points, the Cork-born star says that watching films takes a back seat (“you usually just want to go to bed”). But he does make an effort to educate his kids on good movies, including some of his own.
“They’ve watched Inception, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and the Batman movies. But they don’t see me as any different — I’m just dad.” While Dunkirk is set to keep him in the public eye over summer, the hotly-anticipated fourth series of Peaky Blinders will air later this year, The Delinquent Season is also soon, and Jim Sheridan’s H-Block has been confirmed “but I don’t know when that will start”.
Looking further ahead, does he have any aspirations to expand his role on film sets to writer or director?
“I’m not a writer, I know that,” he says. “Maybe directing, but when you work with people like Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle or Sally Potter or Ken Loach, how am I going to match that? If you want to do something, you want to do the best you can, so no. I think I’ll concentrate on just doing this.”
And who’d argue with that?
- Dunkirk, cert 12A, is released Friday. See Weekend magazine on Saturday for our interview with Harry Styles