'You can't just step into it because it's neither me nor a character that's a slight adjustment on me' - Cillian Murphy on channelling Tommy Shelby
He's back for Peaky Blinders season 4
When he's not starring in Oscar-bound Christopher Nolan films, Cillian Murphy smashes out six episodes of one of the UK's best TV shows. I spoke to him about Peaky Blinders ahead of season 4's arrival.
Hey Cillian, how are you doing?
I'm grand, you?
Good thanks. You're back living in Ireland now, right?
I am, yeah. I've actually been at home for six months since we finished filming Peaky Blinders which has been nice.
Is that the fact that it's home, or just the fact that it's so much quieter than Hollywood?
It's the fact that there's less people on the island. There's only four million people there, it's less crowded and you're by the sea - it's a better place to raise children. I'm Irish so it seemed like the right time, to go back after being away for 14 years.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the vibe that you're also someone who feels a bit in-their-head in certain social situations? Like you're watching it from the corner of the room?
You mean like these? Interviews?
Well yeah, I find it all slightly absurd, people asking you to talk about yourself. It's a bit weird but you gotta do it.
You've said you don't share anything in common with Tommy [Shelby, his Peaky Blinders' character] but, just as I could kind of see the cogs turning in your head [in the press Q&A he'd just attended] you see that with Tommy as well, that he can be quite a quiet character but you can tell he's thinking a mile a minute.
You know, he's a super smart guy and I think good screen acting, if you can get it right, is that you should be able to see your character thinking. You put a camera on a character and you just know what's on their mind.
I loved that about James Gandolfini's performance in The Sopranos, he could be silent for so much of a scene but you're still getting so much from him.
Yeah, that's proper screen acting.
What's your relationship with watching things you've appeared in back?
With this season of Peaky Blinders it's a bit different because I'm an executive producer, so I'd watch it as it's getting made and I'd watch all the different cuts; you have to learn to appraise it with a very sober, objective eye, which is quite different for me because normally you just do it, then you turn up much later to watch it.
And when you're not executive producing - when you're just acting - do you tend to watch back your performances or not really, I ask because some actors have a bit of a phobia about it?
I don't have a phobia I'm just on to the next thing and more interested in what's happening next, really - it's done so there's nothing more you can really do with it.
Do you feel like you learn anything watching performances back though?
I don't think about it really, I learn from watching other actors. You can't have any real objectivity watching yourself.
And when you come back to Peaky Blinders each year, is there anything you like or need to do to return to Tommy? I don't mean like, wandering around in a flat cap, but is there anything you do to settle back into the role, or can you immediately just return to it?
No, it takes a while - I've got to get in shape and condition a little bit, so there's that, plus getting the accent going and the physicality going. I do spend a long time limbering up. You can't just step into it because it's neither me nor a character that's a slight adjustment on me, it's this f***ing - it's a long journey to get there.
Yeah, the way Tommy carries himself and dominates a room as well i guess...
All of that which is, again, not me, so you've gotta work it all out.
Does getting the accent back get a little bit easier each year, it's more embedded in the memory?
Yes, but you must never take it for granted as well. You've gotta always go back and work on it, make sure it's okay and it's still there.
Peaky Blinders has only had one director a season since season 2, is it weird when you do have different directors for different episodes, and you're having to inhabit the same character but getting slightly different direction on them?
Yeah I don't like it. Doing two [directors, in season one], it was like having a relationship with someone and then breaking it off and you get a new girlfriend. It's very odd, that's the model for most TV, that's the way it's done, but we've managed to break that model by having one director all the way through since so you get this consistency which is really helpful.
With [writer-director] Steven Knight, you guys are obviously pretty close now you've been working together for such a long time, are there conversations going on about the character while he's writing or is it more that he goes away and does his thing and then you get the scripts?
We'll meet up and go for lunch and go for a few pints or whatever and just talk about it, and he'll tell me where he thinks it's headed and we'll chat about that. The guy's a f***ing legend, his writing is just amazing, it's a privilege to say those words and play that character. I feel so lucky to be working with a writer who's at that level.
He's really good at getting a plot point across in a scene without it being too mechanical, it still feels lyrical.
Yes! he's a great writer, man.
When you're tied into working on a TV show and you're the protagonist and you're not going anywhere, I think people imagine that it takes up so much of your time that it must impact on your choices outside of the show, do you find that?
What's great is that it's very intense shooting for four months, six weeks of prep - so five months a year doing it, right - and then the rest of the year you can do a play.. or a film.. or two films.. So it's not like the American model where you're doing ten episodes and that's it for the year; it's great that we can still go off and do other shit. So I never feel limited or hamstrung by it, it's actually the opposite.
What are your viewing habits, what have you been watching lately?
I don't generally watch any television, I generally just take a book and go to bed - I like to read. I have two kids so I don't really have the time to invest in 10 hours of television, I'll sometimes go to the cinema, I don't really watch television unfortunately, I know there's so much great stuff out there but I'm too exhausted most of the time! I'll make the effort to go to the cinema but I end up seeing a lot of kids' films.
You're really into music right? What genre do you gravitate toward?
Oh everything man, I'm a bit of a magpie. I go to as many gigs as I can, it's kind of my second greatest love after acting.
Do you still write songs?
I do for fun but not for anyone else to hear.
It's slightly unfair that if someone's really well known for something, like acting, if they step into a different lane people are immediately predisposed to not want to accept it.
Yeah, it probably means I'm not going to want to put it out!
Is it for that reason that you keep your music private?
It's not for that reason as such, it's because I've always been of the mind that you should do one thing very well. I initially wanted to be a musician, that was my goal, but it didn't work out and then I fell into acting. So I feel like I want to do this as best I can, the other thing is purely a hobby, purely for my own amusement.
Peaky Blinders season 4 continues on BBC 2 November 22 at 9pm
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