Exactly 20 years on from being offered a record deal with an emerging Cork band, Cillian Murphy is glad he chose acting instead, writes Esther McCarthy
HE’S one of the country’s most acclaimed talents, showing his versatility and screen presence in movies like 28 Days Later, Batman Begins and Inception, and as the chilling Thomas Shelby in TV’s Peaky Blinders.
However, Cillian Murphy has told how he felt like “an interloper” early in his career, and didn’t even conceive the notion that a successful movie career was a possibility.
“Film? Not at all. I thought if I could get another job in a play, then I’d be happy. If I could be a working theatre actor, then that would be a dream. And for a while, that was the dream. I was working for Druid, Corcadorca. I was happy out,” he said.
However, when asked if there was a sense of confidence among Irish actors at that time, he said: “I always felt like I was a complete interloper, I always felt like I was some massive mistake, I was going to be found out any minute. And all the real actors were out there, honing their craft, where I was just this fella that tripped up and fell in the door. Like genuinely, without trying to be all self-deprecating. I genuinely felt that and it took a long time to shake that off,” he says.
It’s a telling observation, an indicator both of Murphy’s modesty and the sense that he never takes his success for granted.
We meet in a Dublin hotel to discuss his new film, Anthropoid. It’s an intense historical thriller about Operation Anthropoid, a top-secret mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a top-ranking Nazi official, in 1942. Murphy and fellow Irishman Jamie Dornan play Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the two Czech soldiers selected for the audacious mission in Prague, where Heydrich was wreaking havoc.
The film deals not only with the mission, but its bloody aftermath.
Like many, he said he was “completely ignorant” of this dramatic period in WW2 history, which was researched and made by British director Sean Ellis.
“I really liked the character, his complexity, the way he’s trying to portray one thing but underneath you see that he’s actually paralysed with fear. I really liked the simplicity of the writing, I felt that it was quite old-fashioned, in that you got to spend time with the characters. You got to know them, to invest in them, before the major drama happens.”
The assassination attempt happens midway through the film, which also examines the consequences, and this appealed to the actor.
“I saw it for the first time last night, and what it feels to me is that it’s very intimate, almost like a chamber piece, then all of a sudden the story just goes boom boom, and you see the huge might of the Third Reich, and the ramifications of that globally.
“There was a huge moral dilemma that faced them as men first of all knowing that they have to take a man’s life, albeit a man who was heinous.
"They’d never done that before. And secondly, knowing the brutality that would be visited on their country if they succeeded.
"There’s nothing glorified or gratuitous in this film, everything that you see actually happened. That’s what makes it so chilling, and so affecting.”
Murphy, who turned 40 earlier this summer, recalls how 20 years ago this month, he faced a lot of choice and change in his life. “We got offered a record deal [for his band, Sons of Mr Green Genes] and then I got offered the part in Disco Pigs, then I failed my exams, and I met my wife. Everything happened in that month. It was a busy month! A formative month. But when you’re living through something like that you don’t know.”
Did he feel conflicted by choice between college, music and acting?
“College was in the bin at that point. It was music and theatre,” he says. There were two influential people in his life — Corcadorca artistic director Pat Kiernan and playwright Enda Walsh.
“We were the first transition year — the transition year guinea pigs. They had a drama module, and Pat came in and had this workshop with my class, and I developed this big man crush on Pat, I thought he was the coolest guy I’d ever met.
“Then I left school and I’d sort of meet him around Cork, in pubs and stuff. Then I saw a production of A Clockwork Orange, and that was it really. I had to do something with this theatre company. I was very curious about theatre. And I just badgered him, and eventually he gave me an audition for Disco Pigs, but it was Enda who auditioned me. And that was it.”
Change is in the air again. In the last year, Cillian moved back to Ireland with his artist wife Yvonne McGuinness and their boys, Malachy and Aran. He is bemused that when doing press for Anthropoid in the UK, media were curious to know was it because of Brexit.
“It was not political, although I do feel that we escaped, there, just at the right time. It was more emotional. We were getting to a certain age, we had children who were getting to a certain age.
“It’s a very Irish narrative, isn’t it? Of going away and coming back at some point in your life. I was 14 years in London, and the time felt right to come home. It happened organically, we just said: ‘Let’s just do it.’ And it’s the best decision we’ve made.
“It just makes sense to live in Dublin. I lived here a lot in the past. It feels really nice to be back. And we can pop down to Cork whenever, so it feels really good.”
Was there anything in particular he missed about home, I wonder? He doesn’t skip a beat. “I just missed Irish people. They’re just sound, you know?”
He is excited at the current vibrant state of Irish cinema and talent. He recently filmed Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk with young Dublin actor Barry Keoghan (“He’s flying. He’s working with Colin (Farrell) now. And he deserves it all.”) and forthcoming Cork comedy The Young Offenders is on his to-watch list.
“I’m dying to see that. I can’t wait. All my friends tell me it’s amazing.”
As an avid music lover, he was as devastated as fans worldwide when David Bowie passed away this year. He and the music icon had come to know each other after Bowie became a fan of Peaky Blinders. He even contributed music to the series.
“That’s very kind of bittersweet and very… humbling, really. For him to say nice things and want to give his music to the show, it was very humbling for us all. And then, obviously, devastating when he passed.
“He affected everybody, he affected me, he made it all right to want to be different, to want to play music and want to be not what everybody else wanted to be.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved