Cillian Murphy may be in the midst of the busiest period of his career, but he was still willing to approach one of his favourite directors to ask for a part in Free Fire, writes Esther McCarthy.
He may be one of the most in-demand actors of his generation, but that doesn’t stop Cillian Murphy from pursuing the occasional collaborator whose movies he admires.
He did it as a young star with Neil Jordan, convincing the director he was the one to play a colourful trans woman named Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto.
Then, five years ago, he came across Ben Wheatley’s edgy hitman thriller, Kill List, and decided it was again time to hustle. “I saw Kill List in the cinema whenever that was out. I haven’t done it that often, but I sought him out, sort of pestered him, and met him,” he tells me.
“We just chatted and I said: ‘Look man, anything you have I’d just love to be involved.’ He had this thing in his head… but he went off and did a few other things in the meantime. He came back to it, and he wrote the character with me in mind.
“He came back with a script and we managed to find the time, got this incredible cast. It was really a lovely evolution of a project.”
The thing in Ben Wheatley’s head was Free Fire, a shoot ’em up thriller that unfolds in real time in a Boston warehouse in 1978. Murphy plays one of a group of Irishmen (assumed to be, but never described as, an IRA man) who gets involved in a nasty gunfight when a big-money arms deal goes wrong.
As is characteristic of Wheatley’s films, the action is peppered with witty lines of dialogue. It’s all a tad reminiscent of a Sam Peckinpah or Quentin Tarantino movie.
The star says he was flattered that Wheatley wrote the part with him in mind. “You feel like the director has your voice in their head. It’s a massive privilege, obviously. I think you settle into it pretty easily, and there’s none of this ‘I don’t know, would he, should he’. It feels like a well-made suit. They have your size.”
Murphy is clearly enthused at the prospect of showing the movie in Dublin later on the evening we talk, and by all accounts he had a riot making the film with co-stars Brie Larson, Michael Smiley and the rest of the cast.
“It was great, and it was a brilliant experience making it,” he agrees. “There’s ten blokes and Brie Larson, and there’s ten variations of beard and moustache. I remember going: ‘Ben are you sure EVERYONE should have a ‘tache?’ and he said: ‘Yeah, I think so’.
“I think the filmmakers and writers are very attracted to that period [the 1970s] because it lends itself so well, visually, to a story. You don’t have mobile phones which is a brilliant thing when you’re writing a story. You set it in the ’70s and you immediately don’t have the ‘out of coverage my battery’s died’ thing.
“I talk to writers a lot, and a lot of them, now, are having to set movies, stories, in a different time, because the mobile phone question keeps arising.”
Such was the connection with his co-stars and crew that the actor spent much of his downtime in their company. “It was great, it felt like there was a real Irish club in this film with me and Jack (Reynor) and Michael and Patrick (Bergin). We shot in this old printing press, this old newspaper warehouse, it was huge and there were another two or three huge spaces behind it.
“So we had all our caravans there, and a pool table, a darts board, ping pong. Patrick Bergin is an incredible darts player. We just hung around, listened to ’70s music, chatting.”
I can guess who was commandeering the tunes, I tease Murphy, who is a huge music fan and even considered it as a career before acting took hold.
He laughs. “No! It was very democratic. It’s set in 1978 so everyone contributed to this massive 1978 playlist, which we should publish, actually. Everyone in the crew and the cast was contributing so there was like 200 songs. It was a bit of fun, but it was also great to re-remember how many great songs came from that year.”
Murphy’s criminal character brings a sense of menace and unpredictability to the story which is very effective. Interestingly, it’s one of just a handful of times he gets to use his natural accent on screen.
“As a youngster I just hated it because I didn’t like the sound of my own voice,” he observes. “A lot of actors don’t, so you get really obsessed about doing accents.
“I think it’s important as a youngster to show that you can, because everyone’s keen to know if you can do American, or keen to know if you can do English. You kind of have to prove to yourself that you can do other voices, other accents. As you get older you lose that sort of hangup.”
Speaking of native voices, he says he was a huge fan of The Young Offenders, the crime comedy shot in his home city last year that has become an international hit.
“I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Those two lads are brilliant. I had a smile on my face for the week after it. It was properly funny. It did so well, didn’t it?
“That just shows, you make something original and brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed... I was very proud, I have to say.”
At seeing Cork in all its glory on screen? “Yeah, but also to see that Cork humour, which is very, very original, and distinct, but to see people universally getting it. There was a great response to it. I wish those boys really well.”
You get the sense that Murphy, who moved home to Ireland last year with his wife and two sons after 14 years in London, is in a very good place professionally and personally. He’s been getting some of the best reviews of his career for his portrayal of the terrifying Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders, and 2017 is set to be a big year for him.
This summer he will star in one of the year’s most anticipated films, Dunkirk, an epic war thriller about the WW2 evacuation efforts. Buzz is also building for The Delinquent Season, a drama he shot in Dublin with Andrew Scott just before Christmas. It marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Mark O’Rowe. “We’ve known each other for years, they were touring Howie the Rookie the same time we were touring Disco Pigs, so we’ve known each other for a long time.
“Then I worked in four of his films, but obviously he didn’t direct any of them. He just stepped up to it so naturally. It was an intense, really productive period, three weeks we shot it in, before Christmas. I think it’s a really beautiful, devastating script. It’s a departure for him, kind of new territory for him, he just knew how to step into the director’s shoes.”
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