Monday 16 September 2019

'You have to cancel reality for a while' - how Cillian Murphy brings Thomas Shelby to life

He's the toast of Hollywood and the star of Peaky Blinders, but the Cork actor has never succumbed to the trappings of fame

Cillian Murphy says he’s not quite himself when playing Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders
Cillian Murphy says he’s not quite himself when playing Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

Ed Power

It doesn't take Tommy Shelby long to get down to business as Peaky Blinders returns for a bloody fifth season this weekend. He bullies and blackmails his way through the opening episode. And he finds time to strike an iconic pose on the back of a horse (to the lulling strains of Nick Cave, naturally).

It is, in other words, life as usual for the thuggish leader of the Peaky Blinders crime syndicate. And as ever, it's Cillian Murphy's ferocious performance as the ruthless Shelby that breathes fire into the show. Peaky Blinders is lush and lavish and has the best soundtrack on TV. But Murphy is the terrifying glue that binds it all together. Without him, it would be all hat and no personality.

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Cillian Murphy in the movie version of Disco Pigs
Cillian Murphy in the movie version of Disco Pigs

Actors should never be mistaken for their characters of course. But in the case of Murphy, the gulf between the chilling Tommy and the unassuming figure the 43-year-old cuts in the real world is particularly striking. In an industry brimming with narcissists, needy obsessives and straight-up weirdos, Murphy is a beacon of ordinariness. He's the global star you could bump into at the local supermarket or your corner coffee shop.

That's extraordinary considering the trajectory of his career. Irish actors, in particular, seem to go in and out of fashion. Look at Colin Farrell, a golden boy until suddenly, he wasn't. Or Liam Neeson, whose latter-day lift-off was facilitated by a shift from serious drama to cartoonish action films.

Murphy, by contrast, has always been in demand and has moved comfortably between the big screen, stage and TV. His professional life has been a story of steady success. And he has, at every moment, kept his feet planted on terra firma.

He lives anonymously, yet not reclusively, with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and sons Malachy (12) and Aran (9) in south Dublin. They relocated from London to Dublin in 2015. There, they set up in an impressive, though not extravagant, €1.7m house in Monkstown on Belgrave Square North.

Murphy doesn't keep the shutters down on his life. He can be seen regularly walking the dog in the neighbourhood. And he is a fan of Salt café at the local Avoca Store, where the menu features such unpretentious treats as bacon sandwiches and scrambled eggs. It's tempting to conclude that Murphy puts so much of himself into his performances that he doesn't have the time or energy to take on airs off-screen. Tommy Shelby, especially, has been an intimidating undertaking, he has admitted.

Though not without a certain twisted moral code, this 1920s crime mogul has seen and done terrible things. And Murphy plunges all the way into Tommy's heart of darkness, his searing eyes glimmering with the horror.

The sheer intensity of getting under Tommy's skin comes at a price, he has confessed. He isn't quite himself when filming Peaky Blinders.

"You have to cancel reality for a while," he told the Radio Times, explaining that the part had led him to occasionally keep his family at arm's length. "I don't socialise, I just go home, learn the lines, go to bed."

Still, if he is determined to do justice to Tommy, he has also made it a priority not to be warped by fame. Those who know him will tell you he is still the same person who made his searing stage debut in Enda Walsh's 1996 play Disco Pigs.

Acting was something he has said he stumbled into. The son of teacher parents, he was a star student at Presentation Brothers school in Cork, achieving enough points to study law at UCC. He also fronted a cult local band, The Sons of Mr Greengenes, who were on the brink of being signed by Acid Jazz records in London.

Everything changed, however, when he attended a performance of Clockwork Orange by the Corcadorca Theatre Company at Sir Henry's nightclub in Cork. As dry-ice flooded the venue, performers on stilts waded into the crowd. He was floored.

The next week he joined UCC's Dramatic Society. He began to pick up roles and discovered he had a talent for it. And then came Disco Pigs, which became a sensation and toured the world.

"That time making Disco Pigs was kind of the most important period of my life," he would reflect. "The people I met there remain my closest friends. Enda Walsh, Pat Kiernan [its director], Eileen Walsh [his co-star]. They shaped me in terms of my tastes, in terms of what I wanted to do with my life. And it was around the same time I met my wife. She came on tour with us. It was so exciting, 20 years ago or whatever it was - we were all just kids, trying to find our way - but such a special, special time."

He has admitted to being initially reluctant to move back to Ireland from London, but quickly realised settling with his family back in the old country was the right decision. Certainly, he doesn't miss the glitz of the UK capital. His 40th birthday in 2016 was a thoroughly spit and sawdust affair:

Murphy went back to Cork, where he hired the music venue Connolly's of Leap for a private party. Actors Jack Reynor and Today FM presenter Dermot Whelan were among the guests, while Leeside music icons, The Frank and Walters, provided the music. The following day, the group took a bus excursion around West Cork before returning to Connolly's where a house DJ was on the decks. The Met Ball, it wasn't.

'Keeping it real' is often a pretence put on by stars who know their audiences value authenticity. With Murphy, however, it seems unlikely this is all just a front. His acting choices, no less than his personal life, speak to the high stock he invests in remaining grounded. Early in his career, after the success of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and roles opposite Scarlett Johansson in Girl With A Pearl Earring and Rachel McAdams in Red Eye, Hollywood was an open door.

Yet the glitz never sat easily. Christopher Nolan, one of his biggest fans, talked him into auditioning for Batman in the early 2000s.

Murphy went so far as to try on the iconic rubber suit. He felt a bit of a twerp in it. "You're not quite right," said the sympathetic Nolan. Murphy agreed. He couldn't get the cape off quickly enough.

Peaky Blinders' Tommy Shelby may come to be the role that defines him. Other actors might bridle at finding true fame on the small screen rather than in Hollywood. Murphy, however, would seem to understand there is more to life than gongs and red carpets. He wears celebrity lightly because he knows that, ultimately, it is meaningless.

"Logically, the less people know about you, the more convincing you are playing someone else. It's glaringly obvious to me," he once told The Guardian. "I get the bus, I get the tube, I go to the shop and get the milk and do normal things. I would hate it if that became impossible. As an actor, you're supposed to be playing real people, so it seems essential to live like a normal person."

Peaky Blinders, Season Five, starts on Sunday, 9pm, on BBC1.

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