For the very first time online, please enjoy the first instalment of our classic Cillian Murphy interview.

The original story was first published in BLAG Vol. 2 Nø 5 print edition in 2006

Interview by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Styling by Tanja Martin
Hair and Make-Up by Michael Gray


Actors love diversity. A lot could learn a thing or two from Cillian Murphy. No wonder this straight talking ex-law student from Cork wound up working with much lauded directors including Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Neil Jordan and Ken Loach, and was nominated for a Golden Globe by the cusp of his 30th.

It’s all about getting stuck in and working hard. So let’s start at the beginning, "I went and did a law degree when I was about 18, but I only did a year and a half. I failed the first year, I got the repeats and flunked out in second year," starts a very down-to-earth and modest Cillian. "I was playing in bands and then I got a part in ‘Disco Pigs’, the play and then that took off," and it did, receiving commendations for Best Fringe Show at the 1996 Dublin Theatre Festival and the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival 1997. The play went on to exclusively tour Ireland, the UK, Toronto and Australia.

This and more stage performances formed Cillian’s training, "I did theatre exclusively for about five years. Just small parts, then I got lucky to do some really good parts with some really good directors like Garry Hynes, and I did the Druid Theatre Company in Galway. Then I got a little part in a short film, then in a feature film. Then I eventually got a lead part. So it was very much your classic by increments experience."

So, like an apprenticeship?
"Absolutely. I mean to learn on the stage is the only way to learn. To learn on the job you know," agrees Cillian who has retained his accent having moved to London in 2001, just before he took the lead role of courier and reluctant survivor, Jim in Danny Boyle’s ‘28 Days Later’. This introduced him to America where it was a big hit, which changed things, "I got offered a lot of shit then. A lot of trashy movies for a lot of money that you turn down obviously and you wait. So I waited, and then stuff comes and you choose correctly. See I’m in it for longevity, you know?"

Exactly, which leads me to my next question. I wanted to speak to you about a selection of the directors you’ve worked with. I’ve pulled out a handful to get a sense of what it was like to actually work with them because we only really ever hear, ‘Oh, Neil Jordan’s great. Danny Boyle’s great.’ and you never get a real picture. Can you explain your experiences with them? Let’s go with Danny Boyle for ‘28 Days Later’ first who you have just worked with again for the forthcoming ‘Sunshine’. "Well, that was a big deal for me to get that part. It was a very important movie. I really, really wanted that part. When the script came along I’d done a couple of Irish films that nobody had seen – they were worth while, but nobody had seen them, particularly ‘Disco Pigs’, the film version I did of the play. So this was kind of a step up and I was a fan of Danny’s films. You know those films like ‘Shallow Grave’ and Trainspotting’ were the ones I’d grown up with.

"So I worked my arse off for the audition and he called me back about five times, then he eventually gave me the part. I learnt a huge amount working with Danny. The thing about him is his energy. It’s unbelievable, he’s like a dynamo of energy and he just never stops. I think with the way he uses the camera, he’s an incredible director and I learnt a lot about film acting from him. You know, acting in the moment and the preparation and like when the camera turns over, you can’t sort of rollover. You have to be ready to go, like bang and action, and whatever that takes to get you to that place. A lot of his films are really fucking high octane. So you have to go away, you can’t just be standing around and having a cigarette before it’s action you know? He’s brilliant at that, brilliant at creating a tension amongst [everyone on set]; brilliant about highlighting the dynamics of a scene and attention of a group. So it was a big step up for me and when the film actually came out it was a big step up aswell because it made a lot of money and people began to... I always say this: the yardstick I measure it by was people began to pronounce my name properly and in America they took meetings. So it was a very important film for me. It was the watershed film without a doubt."

"I met Chris in LA, and for some ludicrous reason he wanted to test screen me for Batman."

The next one is Christopher Nolan for ‘Batman Begins’ – where Cillian plays Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow.
"The whole thing about Chris was I met him in LA – and again I as a massive fan. All of these guys I’d been a fan of their films before I’d met them. That’s what sets them apart. Last year was such an amazing year for me because of all the directors I worked with."

"I met Chris in LA, and for some ludicrous reason he wanted to test screen me for Batman. So we sat in his hotel in LA and had a couple of beers and talked about his idea for Batman and everything. Then I did a screen test for him," he laughs. 

"I was always only thinking I’d just do the screen test just for the experience of working with him – albeit briefly, because I never considered myself Batman material. I felt that Christian Bale was the ideal choice. I just wanted to have that experience and maybe read for him for another film in the future, but he liked the screen test and we met again. The thing about him is he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of film and is unbelievably savvy of the business. He’s an extraordinarily intelligent man aswell and absurdly young – I don’t know what age he is. So he offered me this other part which is The Scarecrow and I worked with him. It was like working on a little indie movie even though it was a budget of $150million. He works with the same cameraman and the same crew. His wife is the producer so everyone is on second-hand terms. Similarly with Danny, a lot of the people he’s worked with, they’ve all worked together so there’s this familiarity and shorthand which is brilliant when you get involved with it. Chris Nolan doesn’t look at a monitor, which is incredible for a film of that size, he just looks at the actors. He has just very concise little notes for the big scenes, he’d be like, ‘Turn it up a little bit.’ ‘Turn it down a little bit.’ You know he just has confidence in you. So it was a real pleasure."

Neil Jordan for ‘Breakfast On Pluto’ in which Cillian plays, Patrick "Kitten" Brady a charming, yet tough foster child who grows-up and leaves his small town life in Ireland to become a transvestite cabaret singer in 1960s – 1970s London. A film he is particularly proud of which also earned him that Golden Globe nomination.

"That was a very special one that film, because I’d read the book when I was a kid. Again it goes back to being a fan of all these guys. He’s like such an icon of Ireland you know, and Jim Sheridan. Growing up in Ireland if you have any interest in the arts, there’s not a huge outlet for it. So you just end up watching all the Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan movies, and Neil also writes novels. It was probably one of the most fulfiling, creative experiences I’ve ever had working with him because it was such a massive role. I was playing a transvestite and I was in every scene, and it required such a transformation and such a leap of faith. We were together right from the very start of the creation of the character right to the end. So I trusted him implicitly I hope he did the same with me. I put my heart and soul into that character. Neil’s a true visionary. He’s one of the best directors in the world, one of those world directors. Again I learnt a lot from him about just trusting your instincts."

Lastly, Ken Loach for your new film, ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ which we’ll discuss more about shortly.
"I can’t believe I worked with all those guys, that’s fucking mad."

I wanted to speak to you about how he films in sequence, there must be a different way to immerse yourself into the character? "Yeah, it’s the way it should be done. Like every actor who works with him goes, ‘Why don’t they do it like that normally?’ It’s complete bliss. The only word I can use to describe Ken is pure. It’s the most pure, undiluted experience. It’s not diluted by money or commerce, or demographics, or marketing or anything like that, it’s just pure by telling a story with his slant on it, and his agenda – because he does have an agenda which every smart filmmaker does and it’s just all based around the actors. It was bliss from start to finish. I was working in Cork, staying with my family at home, it was summer, my wife was pregnant with our son. I was off the booze. It doesn’t get any better."

I know there was quite a lot of improvisation in ‘Bread and Roses’, was there anything like that with this?
"Yeah, I mean basically he’ll give you the skeleton of the scene, the bones of the scene. You’ll get it on the day, then you can just express that. You learn bits of the script; he’ll give you that and say, ‘Right, this is the information we’re trying to convey in this scene.’ Or, ‘This is part of the journey that your character’s going on. Now within that framework express yourself.’ You kind of rehearse on film you know, you can do up to like 13 or 14 takes and it’ll all just kind of evolve organically."

We noticed there was some very natural talking, even some stammering.
"Yeah, which you could never have in a normal film, because it would seem like, ‘What a shit actor,’ but in this it’s people genuinely searching for words to articulate and express what they’re feeling."

The court scenes were like that.
"Yeah, and that's because it feels so safe you'll try anything and it's a beautiful set up he has. I mean everything you read about Ken Loach and all the hyperbole and effusiveness is true. Believe it. He's amazing."

I wanted you to talk more about ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’. Can you give us a plot outline in a nutshell?
"It’s about the war of independence and the Civil war in Ireland and Cork specifically between 1918, 1919 and 1921. It’s about a group of lads, the Flying Column – which is a group of guerrilla fighters. It’s kind of the genesis, the original IRA and how they effectively get the British out of Cork and achieved surrender from the British.

It follows the story of two brothers and how the war and the struggle affects their relationship. It’s basically the whole Irish struggle in a microcosm."

You were talking to me after the shoot about how you think it might be received. "Yeah, it's delicate. It's a very touchy subject still at home. Even though 80 years have elapsed since the civil war, it's touchy. Neil Jordan made his "Michael Collins" film, but no one has actually ever fictionalised the civil war. Down in Cork and down in the parts we filmed in, people know what side your family is from and people know your politics and it runs deep, it runs very, very deep. Basically the civil war now has lead to all the modern day parties in Ireland. They all trace their roots to the split of the IRA, which is in the film. It'll be touchy in Ireland because it's the 90th anniversary of the 1916 rising. There are a lot of people trying to take ownership of that, but it's gonna be mythologised and taken over by extremists in a way. People talk about Palestine, people talk about Iraq now, there are a lot of parallels. So I do think people will use it as a platform to address as many different views and that's fair enough. You know people can interpret it as they wish."

Don’t you think it’s good to show that, because it has been forgotten and certain generations aren’t acutely aware. So it’s an education.

"Yeah, I mean the thing about the war of the independence like what I was saying, we drove the British out. The worst atrocities happened when we were fighting each other. The more brutal and bloody war was brother against brother, which people again forget. So it is stuff that needs to be highlighted."

You must have had a lot of great experiences, so I wanted you to tell us some stand out moments in the following situations: What’s been the best wrap party? "Wrap parties are generally awful, because it’s all this pent-up [emotion of] eight weeks of working together. You know, ‘Where’s our overtime?’ They’re generally not that good. I’ve only been to one good one and that was in New York and I was very young then so that was pretty cool."

And the best friendship formed?
"On a film? That’s a good question. On the first film I did in America called ‘Sunburn’ I met a good friend on that and we’re still very close friends. I was so green then I didn’t realise that when you work with people so intensely for eight weeks that they all go off, where as I thought it was just like, ‘We’re gonna never forget each other man.’ But it’s not like that, but for the first time you think it is."

When you meet someone you really click with it’s really good.
"I’ve met a couple of really good friends from this business, but I count them on one hand, you know?"

You wait until you get older!
"It happens less and less right?"

I know you’ve probably been asked loads about your ultimate role. I read somewhere it was ‘Breakfast On Pluto’, but I wasn’t sure how factual that was.

"No, I would never say I had done my ultimate role, because you’d stop when you done your ultimate role wouldn’t you?"

Well, with enough determination, you always get what you want – even if it takes longer than anticipated. So I didn’t know whether you’d done that.

"It was one of the most challenging and fulfiling roles... Well, for example I’m going to go and do a comedy next. I’ve never done a comedy. I’m going to do one in New York in summer, so that’s something I haven’t done. So that maybe my ultimate role yet. Maybe..."

Is there anything you would really like to learn to apply to a role?
"I’d love to do a Western. I’d love to learn how to reload on a saddle."

Ioan Gruffudd talked about a Western with us too.
"Really? I think it’s a real boy’s thing."

It would be great if a really good one was made again. There hasn’t been one for ages. "They don’t want to make Westerns in America."

Are there any other areas of film you would like to work in? Say writing or directing?
"I wrote a short film with a friend of mine, she directed it." (Just to cut in, because he’s being modest. The film was called ‘’The Watchmen’ co-written with Paloma Baeza and shortlisted for the Turner Classic Movie Short Award.)"But no, I’d like to concentrate on one thing. I’d like to get better as an actor and improve. You know I don’t feel like I’ve at all reached my potential as an actor. So once I feel like that’s exhausted which I don’t ever feel like it will be, maybe I could turn my hand to something else."

Is there anything creative outside of a film? I’ve heard you play in a band.
"Music is my other passion."

What was it you were saying about actors being musicians?
"Well, there are a lot of them if you read their biogs, or interviews. They’re all frustrated musicians, you know."

You were a musician first though.
"Yeah, but that means I can never go back to it. I think unless you’re a genius... it’s the genii that can do a few different things. You know, I want to be a good actor."

Sarah can vouch you’re a good singer from the photoshoot earlier.
‘I’ve sung in many films, a lot. I love it, because it’s like being the rock star."

So would you do any West End?
"I would absolutely. You mean musical?"

"No, I wouldn’t do a musical. I’d love to do a show. I did a lot of theatre. I did right up until about three years ago and I really want to go back, but it’s about finding the right one."

I wanted to speak to you about your travels. Is there anywhere work has taken you that’s been really brilliant and memorable?

"I never get to go to any glamourous places, it’s always fucking raining or a distressed looking environment. So no, I’ve been to places on my own that I love, but not work. Not yet has it taken me to any glamourous places. I want to do a film in somewhere like Madagascar or something like that. That would be quite nice."

What are you top five things to do on a day off?
"I run a lot, so I like to go for long runs. Right now it’s all about playing with my little boy, so that would fill up the next four. Haha!"

And making ring tones up from his toys. "Yeah, haha! That’s a good ring tone."

What are you listening to at the moment? "I like this band called The Field Music, and this New York band called The Books."

How do you find out about them? "Magazines and the internet, and I have a lot of friends in the music business so, I got a couple of buddies who are music journalists who give me CDs and I spend my money on going to gigs and CDs."

What’s next?
I’d like to do something for a change that’s a bit more relaxed because the work that I’ve done is really, really intense and really kind of takes a lot from you. I think having a child does change your perspective slightly and you want when you go to work not come home drained of all emotion and having to have gone to places in your head. I’ve done a lot of films like that where they’re very intense, they’re very rewarding as an actor. It would be very nice to do a funny film or a film where you get to just have some fun. So that’s what I’m looking for maybe. Ben Stiller if he’s around."

Cillian wears Cream cotton t-shirt by and i, Black suit jacket by Neil Barrett on the cover.

Grey short sleeve cardigan and cream t-shirt both by and i Blue jeans by Levi.

Opposite: White vest by Calvin Klein underwear Grey cardigan by Dean & Tyler