Sunday 15 December 2019

The eyes have it: The rise and rise of Cillian Murphy

The Cork actor has become a proper star at last with 'Peaky Blinders'. But, after a career following his muse, is this what he really wants?

Cllian Murphy in Peaky Blinders.
Cllian Murphy in Peaky Blinders.
Stephen Rea and Cilian Murphy (right) in Ballyturk.
Cillian Murphy in The Wind That Shakes The Barley.

Ed Power

How ironic that, after half a lifetime on the big screen, it has taken a grimy BBC period drama to make a star of Cillian Murphy.

That the inter-war gangland romp Peaky Blinders has brought new prominence to the 38-year-old Cork native is beyond dispute - when we think of him today the image that inevitably springs to mind is the BBC publicity still of Murphy flashing his scary blue-grey eyes from beneath an old school cloth cap.

If his turn as Peaky Blinders' glamorous villain Tommy does propel Murphy on to the A-list, you wonder what his feelings are.

Through his career, Murphy has always ducked and weaved from the spotlight. After breaking into the movies with Danny Boyle's stylish zombie parable 28 Days Later in 2002 and excelling as the villain in horror flick Red Eye, he could have easily followed Colin Farrell's arc, from obscurity to the front of the gossip pages - with the payoff that he would have been 'hot' in Hollywood and enjoyed his pick of roles.

Rather than leap in, Murphy wavered. He has acted in blockbusters - indeed his next big role is the Heart of the Sea, a maritime action flick directed by that ringmaster of hokum Ron Howard. And yet he has never given the impression of relishing the view from the summit of the entertainment industry.

Instead, whenever the opportunity has presented, Murphy has burrowed back towards obscurity, appearing in independent pictures - such as Ken Loach's War of Independence-set The Wind that Shakes the Barley - and deeply idiosyncratic plays (while his recent collaboration with Enda Walsh, Ballyturk, was predictably swooned over in Ireland, British theatre critics were more honest in appraising it as baffling, verging on nonsensical).

How much of this is groundedness rather than caution is difficult to say. As Murphy is doubtless aware, Hollywood has a habit of turning yesterday's buzzy young thing into today's forgotten wash-out. By never putting himself forward as a movie star, he has avoided the inevitable backlash - people can't grow sick of Murphy's face if they aren't quite sure who it belongs to in the first instance.

Acting, it is interesting to note, wasn't his original passion. In school and at UCC, Murphy was obsessed with music, particularly the zany post-Hendrix rock of Frank Zappa. If he was known around Cork in the mid-90s, it was as frontman of The Sons of Mr Green Genes, a somewhat wacky outfit that veered from thrashy indie rock to noodling jazz fusion. Indeed, for a while it seemed he might have a real career as a rock star: Mr Green Genes were signed to influential London label Acid Jazz and looked set for a dramatic ascent.

That all changed when, with some friends, he attended a retelling of science fiction classic A Clockwork Orange at Cork's Sir Henry's nightclub. Staged by the city's esoteric Corcadorca company, the production was like nothing Murphy had ever experienced: visceral, haunting, deeply moving (the dystopian backdrop of Sir Henry's sharpening its impact).

Shortly afterwards, struck down with nerves, he auditioned for a production of Frank McGuinness' Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, put on by the UCC 'Dramat' society (one of his co-stars was a young Des Bishop). The bug had bitten deeply and by 1996, acting had taken over.

That year he came to the attention of Corcadorca and was cast in Disco Pigs, a surreal kitchen sink drama that advertised his blend of tenderness and visceral intensity (the story was incomprehensible yet Murphy's performance contained its own kind of truth). Encouraged by good reviews and huge buzz around Cork he took the plunge and became a professional actor.

This proved a testing chapter in his life. He refused to stoop to commercials and, for a spell, got by on bit parts and near misses: an early blink-and-it's-gone role saw him pouring a drink for Brendan Gleeson's character in Sweety Barrett. By the time he came to the attention of directors Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan (Murphy appeared in the latter's Batman Begins and Inception), he'd tasted enough rejection to understand success was not to be approached frivolously. Stardom was a serious business.

With Peaky Blinders, just green lit for a third season, things are again moving up a level. Showcasing Murphy's facility for juxtaposing softness and menace, the series has proved essential viewing. As dapper, vicious hoodlum Tommy - a thug with the dashing manner of a matinee idol - Murphy at once seduces and terrifies, which is, of course, the most horrid sort of seduction of all.

Indeed, it may be argued that it is the contrast between Murphy's molten pout and the inner ugliness of the character that has proved Peaky Blinder's most distinctive quality. Certainly it has prompted a great deal of thumb-sucking in the UK, where the Daily Telegraph went so far as to run a piece wondering if Murphy was too handsome to play the bad guy.

For Murphy, Peaky Blinders raises more serious questions. Since relocating to London from Cork in the early 1990s, having dropped out of his law course at UCC, he has lived in more or less complete anonymity. Murphy does get recognised - though mostly in Ireland, where, rather than falling into a star-struck faint, his public tend to walk up to him and say things like 'are you him - that guy? From the cinema?'

Post-Peaky Blinders, however, he is likely to be catapulted to an altogether higher plane of celebrity. It is difficult not to see parallels with the impact the BBC's Sherlock had on Benedict Cumberbatch. One moment, he was modestly jobbing thesp - the next, the most famous British actor of his generation. Quietly married with two young sons, judging from interviews, surely such prominence is the last thing Murphy would wish for.

"It's just I'm not very good at it," he has said of his assiduous avoidance of fame. "I realised that early on, that I aspire to be good at my craft. The less people know about you, it seems to me to be more likely you'll be able to convince them you're someone else on screen. It seems obvious, doesn't it?"

It won't be lost on Murphy that he has brought this new prominence down on himself. He recently explained that he had watched with fascination the emergence of a new kind of television in America: of smart, nuanced shows such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire (the gangster epic to which Peaky Blinders is plainly indebted). Sensing there were interesting options beyond blockbusters and low-budget movies - between which he has saw-sawed for years - he called his agent requesting he source an interesting small-screen role.

'I was watching all of these shows I loved on TV - House of Cards, The Fall, The Wire - and going, 'Wow, I want to be in these!'," he said "But I wasn't getting sent the scripts. So I emphatically said to my agent: I need to do some good television."

The son of two suburban teachers and educated at exclusive Presentation College, it might be argued that Murphy has brought a very Irish sensibility to his career - or even a very Corkonian one. He is careful not to get ahead of himself  - to let Cillian Murphy the brand obscure Cillian Murphy the actor. For Murphy, the work is all important - not the halo of glory it throws around him. Maybe that is why he has moved so easily between big screen, small screen and stage - when you make a point of not taking yourself seriously, it's amazing how much freedom you can enjoy.

"I would never limit myself. I'm a TV actor, I'm a theatre actor, " he said, as Peaky Blinders 'mania' was building in the UK. "I'm just a f ***ing actor who tries to find the good work." You hope that, with so much hype and hyperbole surely coming his way, he is able to hold on to the truth of that statement.

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