Defying Murphy's law
Cillian Murphy doesn't do TV chat shows because, he says, he'd be no good at them. That's probably true. The Cork-born actor isn't one to embroider an anecdote just to entertain his interviewer.
It's not that he is rude or unfriendly, but he's just not that comfortable talking about himself. And that's not even the personal details; his wife, his two toddler sons, his 'real' life. We're discussing his more outlandish roles -- the transsexual Patrick 'Kitten' Braden in Breakfast on Pluto, the psychotic Jackson Rippner in Red Eye -- when he blushes and breaks off.
"I hate talking about my own stuff," he says. But as we're not ensconced in this nice suite in the Merrion Hotel to talk about me, he gathers himself.
"I enjoy playing characters who are as far away from me as possible," he says. "I guess that role in that plane film, Red Eye, playing this guy who was seemingly nice and then flips -- I really enjoyed that."
The cliché that acting is a mask behind which one can hide is true in some ways for Murphy, but the interesting thing is that he doesn't actually seem that shy. The last time I saw him, about six months ago, he was on a makeshift stage in a barn in the middle of field in Monaghan. Pat McCabe, author of Breakfast on Pluto, had roped him into performing at his Flat Lake Arts Festival outside Clones. Murphy was either supposed to be playing guitar with his old rock band (more of that anon) or doing a reading with playwright Enda Walsh.
"It didn't work out, so in the end I said, 'Oh feck it, I'll just DJ' and I just played tunes off my computer," he says. Completely unabashed, Murphy took to the stage armed with just a can of beer and his Mac.
Wasn't he a bit embarrassed? "It was great fun," he laughs. "That night, even playing tunes and having people dance, there's that need to perform, you know?" Although he does admit that in the end he got down off the stage and started dancing with the crowd because he felt like "a gawl", a particularly Munster term for 'eejit', up there.
"I wasn't a hugely extroverted kid growing up," he says, "but that performance thing was always there."
At first it expressed itself through music: he and his younger brother formed a rock band, which was at one point on the cusp of signing a five-record deal with a London music label. Their parents had reservations -- his brother, Paidi, was still in school, and Cillian in his first year of law at UCC at the time -- and they turned down the offer.
Shortly afterwards, he turned a fledgling interest in acting into his first professional performance as the charismatic lead of Enda Walsh's Disco Pigs. I saw him in that first stage run in Cork in late 1996 and, although it's easy to say this in hindsight, the raw, visceral power of his performance seemed prophetic.
Murphy didn't see it like that -- at first anyway. "I didn't know any better, I didn't see any future in it [acting]. I just thought, it's a great laugh, you only have to work an hour at night and you can sleep all day and you get to go touring."
Only a run in Dublin and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival finally convinced him that there might be a future in this acting lark. "I was so lucky to get a play that was so brilliant and so successful," he says. "I began to realise that this was a bit more serious and it was making a proper impact."
So out went college -- "Law was the wrong match, definitely. There is a very narrow potential for creativity" -- and in came a profession where the performer in him took full flight. He might be reserved and unassuming in person, but there has been nothing tentative about his choice of roles.
His Batman baddie Scarecrow used the cool intensity of his striking blue eyes to chilling effect; in Breakfast on Pluto, those same wide eyes are key to the portrayal of the sensitive and innocent Kitten.
His reluctance to tread the chat-show circuit hasn't done him any harm in Hollywood -- his CV of independent 'European' films is interspersed with big-bucks works such as Danny Boyle's Sunshine, the aforementioned Red Eye, Girl With A Pearl Earring, 28 Days Later and, somewhere between the two worlds, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley.
Next week sees his latest film, Perrier's Bounty, opening in cinemas nationwide. It's Murphy's first Irish film in a few years.
"I don't have a system where I do 'one for them, one for us', but I think it's important to make films about your own country. And to have loyalty towards the industry at home. Take Vincent Cassel; he'll make films in America and then he'll go back home and make a huge amount of films in France."
As a younger actor -- he's now 33 -- he says he was keen to seek out roles where he wasn't defined as an Irish person. "As you get older, you worry less about that, it's more about the quality of the stories."
In Perrier's Bounty, he is Michael McCrea, a "bottom-feeder in the criminal world", playing opposite Brendan Gleeson, Liam Cunningham and Jim Broadbent. Broadbent plays Michael's father and it is the relationship between the two of them, as much as the "fun" shoot-'em-up scenes, that attracted Murphy to the job.
"No matter how old you are, you revert to being a surly teenager," he says, "you never, ever meet your parents totally as adults. You'll always be the child, they'll always be the parent, there's this friction and I thought that was really well played by Jim.
"What Mark [O'Rowe, the writer] does really well -- and he did this in Intermission [in which Murphy starred with Colin Farrell] -- he writes Irish males brilliantly. The inability to express one's feelings and the inability to say to the girl what he's feeling about her. The inability to sort this shit out with his parents. I recognise that in myself and in my friends."
If that sounds like a bit of a personal insight, well, it's only a glimpse. He admits that sometimes he can go home to wife Yvonne in London with the "residue" of a character hanging about at the end of an intense filmshoot, but that ultimately, "I'll say I'm just cooling off and getting back to 'Cill'; to myself."
He's been at home since filming on the new Christopher Nolan film, Inception -- also starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- wrapped in December. "I'm sure there's a way of working all the time, but that doesn't really interest me," he says.
Going out on the town doesn't interest him either -- he's anxious to keep his family out of the papers. And probably because of this low profile he keeps, the paparazzi don't bother with him. "I think it's fair game with me but it's not very nice when they do it with the kids. It hasn't happened much and there's not very much you can do about it, but as a dad your animalistic, protective instinct is to get angry."
He also has a professional reason for retaining an air of mystery. "It's very hard to retain any sort of distance from people nowadays, but if you can retain any of that, you should, so that when you do a play or film, people will be able to believe the character a bit more. There are some actors I don't know anything about and I'm glad because I can enjoy their performances more."
Again, he's probably right. And if that's what it takes for him to keep surprising audiences with his chameleon characters then, Cill, it's nice not knowing you.
Perrier's Bounty is released on March 26th