Archive: Cillian Murphy in So It Goes Issue.3

This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.3, Spring 2014.

Currently catching the public eye with his turn as interwar Brummie gangster Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, Cillian Murphy is displaying the dramatic complexity that has taken him from his debut on the Irish stage in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs to both critical acclaim in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley and blockbusting stardom as Scarecrow in Batman Begins. So It Goes sat down with the Cork native, broke bread over some Ballymaloe relish and discussed the differing demands of stage and screen acting, reflecting on the course of his career and musing over what lies in store for the future.


So It Goes: Do you see theatre as the foremost training ground for honing your skills?

Cillian Murphy: Because I didn’t actually officially train anywhere, for me it is. The thing that peaked my interest in acting was originally theatre, it wasn’t film – I was interested in film but it never seemed like a possibility – whereas theatre did. I was very lucky in that I got to work with great theatre companies and directors in Ireland, and work on great material very quickly. It was the only training ground I knew. It was the classic way of playing small parts, then playing slightly bigger parts. Aside from my first show, which was just a two-hander [Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs].

SIG: Do you feel any sense of displacement having lived in the UK for a while? Can you use that in some of your roles?

CM: I think when I was younger I was very keen that I wouldn’t be just an Irish actor. I thought I would be an actor foremost and the extraction would be secondary. I wanted to go off and play English and American characters. As I got slightly older I began to realise that it was something to be embraced once you had established yourself as more than just an Irish actor. I’m very, very proud of being from Cork and from Ireland. I don’t know in terms of ‘displacement’ – I’ve never really felt displaced because we’re so close. I live in London and we go back all the time.

T-shirt: John Varvatos; Jumper: YMC; Jacket: Paul Smith; Trousers: Paul Smith


SIG: As someone who nearly had a career as a musician, you have been quoted comparing the thrill of performing live music to that of acting on stage. That kind of live performance and authenticity is something So It Goes cherishes. What do you think makes an authentic experience in TV and film?

CM: I think authenticity is something very important overall and particularly in this acting game where so much is superficial and so much is about anything but authenticity. I’ve tried to plough that furrow and stick to my instincts, stick to what interests me and to the reason I got into this in the first place. Theatre fits into that because you’re very exposed on stage. It really is just the actor. What I love about theatre is the sort of implausibility of it, the absurdity of it: at any point it could all go terribly wrong. Someone forgets their lines or the lights break, the curtain doesn’t go up, somebody in the audience misbehaves. I like that, I love the fragility of live performance. I always have done, from when I was playing music and now similarly with theatre. Film, however, has so many different layers, and the actors are very much down the ladder in terms of creating the end result, because we basically just give the performance and pass it over to the director and the editor. Then the marketing people and all of that take over. In theatre, you’re exposed but you’re also empowered. I like that combination.

SIG: There is a huge variety in the characters you’ve played – can you put your finger on what you find attractive in a part?

CM: In terms of live performance, I am always interested by people in jeopardy, situations where the stakes are raised. I’ve always liked the idea of the everyday man in extraordinary situations. I’ve also liked the idea of exploring the slightly darker side of the psyche. It generally appears to be the case that most people who carry out acts that we would find disturbing are trying to do the right thing. Particularly with this character I’m playing right now, Tommy Shelby, who was a gangster. He was acting according to his idea of the greater good, an idea that requires him to carry out these acts. I’m not interested in shows that would portray those acts and then have no consequence. I’m interested in the consequences.

SIG: The clearest example of a character working for the greater good is Damien in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Watching that film elicits a whole range of emotions. Did you find it a difficult part to play?

CM: Well, the thing you have to realise is that I never saw the script, so I never knew which way the character was headed. Ken Loach shoots chronologically and gives you the material on the day or the day before. I knew there was a civil war, I knew there was going to be a split and I was aware that I was a doctor but… What it does is avoid the intellectualisation – it’s all based on instinct. One of the greatest lessons I learnt working with Ken was to throw away all of that. You can get your script and spend months and months and months finding all these layers and colours and complexities. The camera doesn’t care if you have a million different reasons for why you’re behaving like that; it just wants the truth.First thought, best thought. Particularly shooting the kid, I didn’t know that was going to happen. Very cleverly he’d had us spend a lot of time together. We’d got very close, me and that kid.

Jacket: De Rien


SIG: There has been a slew of high-concept, high-production-value TV series from America like Breaking Bad or The Wire. Peaky Blinders is slightly different again, being so heavily stylised: the slow-motions and Jack White soundtrack. Was that something that attracted you?

CM: I was aware all this great television was being made. I discussed it with friends of mine and they would just talk about the depth that you could go to with the character over the course of six hours. So I asked my agent if there was anything around on this side of the pond, because I didn’t necessarily want to up sticks  and go over to America. I’d be much more about supporting British and Irish television because it seems like the Americans have got it nailed already. The script then happened to come up and I was aware of [series creator] Steve Knight’s work, having met him before. He’s probably one of the most exciting writers around at the moment. I read the first two episodes and I was hooked. What I loved about it was that, although the British do the aristocracy and the big houses very well, the working class had never been mythologised, as it has in America so effortlessly. It was the first time I’d read something like that and the character was amazing! That mysterious stranger riding in on horseback. The writing for the second season is even better. It’s got bolder, and stronger and madder. It’s a gift to go back and reprise a character – I’ve never done that before.

SIG: It must be refreshing to have made your mark but still not be long in the tooth. Do you think you’re at the right time of your life to get these great parts like Tommy Shelby?

CM: Yes, I think I’m a bit more relaxed about it. I still have a hunger to do great work and push myself, but I know you can’t always do that. You can aim and strive for it. There are two important things: one is to be busy and to keep your mind active, and the second is that great art needs risk. I never want to get to a point where I go, ‘That was easy, that was a nice job!’ There needs to be some kind of struggle. But at the same time I’m not going to beat myself up as much as I used to in the past.

T-shirt: John Varvatos; Jumper: YMC; Jacket: Paul Smith; Trousers: Paul Smith

Suit: Casely-Hayford; Neckerchief: Marwood; Boots: John Varvatos

All clothing: Berluti

Jacket: De Rien; Jumper: Pringle of Scotland

Jacket: De Rien

Images by Vassilis Karidis
Words by Lewis Carpenter