2018 Film Essays

In Conversation: Cillian Murphy from ‘Kitten’ Braden to Tommy Shelby

Irish actor Cillian Murphy is a man of all performance mediums. He will be starring in a new stage adaptation of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, written and directed by frequent collaborator Enda Walsh, set to premiere next month, and he’s also appeared in comic book superhero movies (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), thrillers (Red Eye), science fiction (Sunshine) and television dramas (Peaky Blinders, which just finished its fourth season). In honor of the recent Blu-ray release of Sally Potter’s The Party — in which Murphy plays a stressed-out, coke-snorting financial analyst named Tom — Leslie Hatton and Ciara Wardlow took a look at some of the highlights of his versatile career, and what kinds of roles they’d like him to take on in the future.

Leslie: Murphy has been my favorite actor for a long time now. I loved 28 Days Later… (2002), but it wasn’t until I saw Batman Begins (2005) that I took more notice of him as an actor. There was something so extraordinarily menacing about him as Dr. Crane that I immediately went home and looked him up on IMDB. That’s when I found out about Breakfast on Pluto (2005), which intrigued me as it seemed like something even more daring. I missed the film at TIFF that year, but trekked out to Toronto three times in terrible weather to see it at the one theatre where it was screening. It’s now in my top three films of all time. What was the first film where you noticed him?

Ciara: My dad always used to take me to see superhero movies as a kid, but he went to see Batman Begins without me for some reason, so it wasn’t until I saw Inception (2010) in theaters that I first noticed Murphy. I was visiting family in Ireland at the time, so my aunt actually pointed him out to me because he’s from Cork, the same county as my family — county pride is big in Ireland thanks to Gaelic sports — and so that’s really why I started seeking out more of his stuff. That, and I really identified with having an Irish name with a hard “C” followed by an “i” that Americans always want to pronounce as an “S.” Once I started watching more of his stuff, I ended up discovering a number of films that became all-time favorites — 28 Days Later… and Sunshine, which I think is criminally underrated, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and of course I went back and finally saw Batman Begins. Then in 2012, Murphy starred in the film adaptation of one of my favorite novels, Broken, which really cemented his place as being one of my favorite actors working today.

Leslie: You mentioned The Wind That Shakes The Barley, which I think is an important film, not only for Murphy’s outstanding performance, but also as an integral part of his history of playing soldiers. Although he seems most well-known for portraying Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby, a character who suffers from PTSD, it isn’t the first time he’s played a soldier. How do you think his other soldier roles compare?

Ciara: When I interviewed Murphy, he insisted that he had no strategy regarding the roles he chooses, or preferences regarding medium, which I think is pretty unusual for an actor. He said it was really all about story, but with the way so many themes and elements have appeared repeatedly throughout his filmography, it seems, from a viewer’s perspective, like there are particular stories and characters he seems to be drawn towards, and haunted soldiers definitely seem to be figures of interest for him. I would say Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders is his greatest soldier role — he’s never really seen fighting in the war, although there are some brief flashbacks of his time in the tunnels — but the effects of that trauma are deeply and consistently ingrained in his character. It feels very real in that sense — you never feel like he’s stuck in the past, or like it’s being overplayed for melodrama, but that the experience left a permanent scar on his psyche and that it’s part of him. And to pull that off so consistently and compellingly for four seasons takes great writing and stellar acting. Oddly enough, I find the Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk perhaps the least compelling of all the soldier characters he’s played. I don’t think it’s a fault in performance, really, so much as the result of limited screen time and the fact that the Shivering Soldier is, I think, less of an individual and more of a composite representing the trauma of thousands upon thousands of soldiers.

Leslie: That’s a great observation about Peaky Blinders and Dunkirk, and I wonder if his role as William Killick in The Edge of Love (2008) served as a kind of emotional template for Tommy Shelby. Both characters return from wars irrevocably damaged. But unlike Peaky Blinders, The Edge of Love shows what William was like before the war, and he’s an incredibly romantic figure. It’s an intriguing role because although Murphy has portrayed characters falling in and out of love, there’s always something deeper in those performances than the standard “romantic leading man.” Besides the love triangles of Broken and The Way We Live Now (2001), there are the roles he’s played in Intermission (2003) and Watching the Detectives (2007). The latter two show his comedic range, which is one of his most underappreciated skills. For all of the pathos depicted in Breakfast on Pluto, his performance provides a lot of the film’s most humorous moments. Are there other aspects of Murphy’s acting prowess that you think deserve more attention? Which roles do you think showcase this best?

Ciara: I think one of the reasons Murphy isn’t perhaps as widely recognized for his acting prowess is perhaps because he’s never really done the whole “transformative role” thing — he’s never lost or gained 50 pounds for a performance, or become unrecognizable through the use of prosthetics. Even as Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto or Emma Skillpa in Peacock (2010), he is still very recognizable as himself. And though we’ve seen him sport a variety of hairstyles — I think Peaky Blinders and Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) might be the most extreme — I’m not sure we’ve ever even seen him with his hair so much as dyed a different color. I don’t think the transformative thing necessarily correlates to acting talent or ability, but — because it’s so easy to quantify and visualize — I think it tends to get perhaps more attention/focus than it really deserves. I think we’ve seen Murphy’s genius as an actor in more subtle ways. I can’t really speak for Anthropoid (2016) because I don’t know the Czech accent well at all, but as far as Murphy’s other roles are concerned, I think he’s brilliant at accents. While the customary choices for films that best showcase Murphy’s talents would be some of his independent film work — Breakfast on Pluto, The Wind That Shakes the Barley — I really think audiences need look no further than Inception for proof of his incredible talent. It’s really only thinking back on that film years afterwards that I’ve realized just how much it relies on Murphy, and how tricky of a role Robert Fischer is. The team’s whole mission is really to manipulate a cathartic emotional arc out of Fischer in the dream, and the audience is well aware that this manipulation is going on, but on another level, the film requires that they still emphasize with Murphy.

In a sense, the audience knows he’s being scammed, but for the film to work emotionally, the audience still needs to be “scammed,” so to speak, right along with him. It’s an incredibly huge task, especially considering the character has relatively little screen time, but I think Murphy pulls it off, and that really is quite a feat. I remember the reviewer for Entertainment Weekly at that time didn’t really like Inception, and one of her main complaints was that she felt like the film didn’t work on an emotional level, that she wasn’t convinced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard’s Dom-Mal subplot. I would actually agree with her to an extent on that, but in the end, Inception still works for me on an emotional level, largely because of Murphy’s handling of Robert Fischer and especially the “hospital room” confrontation scene.

Say you knew someone who had absolutely no idea who Murphy was and had never seen any of his films, what would you tell them to start with?

Leslie: First of all, let me wholeheartedly support your take on his role in Inception. I have been tooting the “Robert Fischer is the emotional center of Inception” horn since the movie came out, and I’m glad that you feel the same way. As far as recommended movies, that’s a long list! I feel like even when he’s in movies that are less than perfect, his performances often elevate the films. That leads me to recommend Aloft (2014), which I just watched before we started having this discussion. It’s far from a perfect movie, but Murphy’s performance as Ivan is both sympathetic and infuriating, and he switches between those two modes with shocking ease. I found myself thinking about his character for hours after I watched the movie. I would also suggest Disco Pigs (2001) because his commitment to the role of PIg is exceptional — probably because he played the character on stage first — and because it’s such a unique story. I also think Murphy’s role in Perrier’s Bounty (2009) is underrated because it shows off his comic chops. Finally, I would suggest Breakfast on Pluto because he makes Kitten feel like a real person, not someone portrayed by an actor. What films would you suggest?

Ciara: I would second Breakfast on Pluto. And if you pair it with Peaky Blinders, I think you really get a sense of the range Murphy is capable of portraying. I mean, could you really have two characters more different than Kitten and Thomas Shelby?

But, to wrap this up, is there anything you’d be curious to see Murphy take on in future — any particular kind of role you’d be interested to see him in, maybe something he hasn’t done yet?

Leslie: I would definitely like to see Murphy do another horror film, something that goes beyond the cliches, something genre-bending. I also want to see him in a more purely comedic role because I think he would really surprise audiences. What about you?

Ciara: Well, Murphy’s said in multiple interviews that music was his first love, and when I spoke to him, he said he would be open to doing a movie musical. And considering that Murphy’s projects often seem to be somewhat darker, which musicals very rarely are, I’d be especially interested to see him in that genre, if only because I’d be curious to see which type of musical would appeal to him as a performer.

Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.

Ciara Wardlow (@ciara_wardlow) is a human being who writes about movies and occasionally other things, most frequently over at Film School Rejects and sometimes Heat Vision. 

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