- 05 Apr 07
The last time we met Cillian Murphy he was fighting Black and Tans in west Cork. Now he’s the star of a lavish Danny Boyle space opera. Still, no matter what the subject matter, the actor keeps his feet firmly on the ground.
t’s a commonly known fact that this island’s two brightest young stars were born six days apart in May of 1976. It was, it turns out, a pretty good week.
The careers of Cillian Murphy and Colin Farrell, our greatest exports since cheap turn-of-the-century labour, both give significant cause for jingoistic display. Steady work in unwatched plays used to represent the professional zenith for an Irish actor, but these chaps are out there working with Terence Malick and Ken Loach and Oliver Stone. How did they do it?
Well, their respective paths to glory could hardly be more different.
In the Dublin corner we have the Castleknock legend, a gifted young turk who exploded onto the Hollywood scene with a testosterone-drenched performance in Tigerland. Several epic budgets later – think Alexander and Miami Vice – and Col, if the newspapers are to be believed, sleeps like Rainier Wolfcastle, on a pile of money surrounded by many beautiful ladies.
Cillian, his friend and co-star from Irish indie hit Intermission, is very much the yin to Mr. Farrell’s yang. Steering well clear of Playboy models and ladies who put intimate videos on the internet, Cillian is happily married to Yvonne and, by his own account, a bit of a home-bird since the birth of Malachy, his two-year-old son.
“Fatherhood does make you want to be home more,” says the actor. “Since Malachy came along, I’ve taken eight months off when I didn’t do anything. Then I did a little film in New York and I was able to take the family with me followed by a play in Ireland. I loved it because I could have dinner at home every day. But that is one of the beautiful things about the job. You can work it so you have more time with your family.”
The Cork born actor’s ascendancy has been more gradual than his Leinster counterpart, but high-profile work in hit films such as The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Batman Begins and 28 Days Later suggests there’s no getting away from him now. Having worked steadily since the late ‘90s, it must seem odd that he’s currently being touted in the Daily Telegraph as a “rising Hollywood star”.
“Oh yeah,” he laughs. “But I’ve been reading that forever. I remember coming here to do interviews for 28 Days Later and I kept reading stuff like that. It’s just a media tag really. I have no problem with it. It doesn’t affect me or my work or my life in anyway. It’s not the media that give you the work. And I suppose bigger films like that do have more of an impact on print and TV than independent little films. But I still want to keep doing both.”
Born into a family of pedagogues – his dad is a schools inspector and his mum teaches French – young Mr. Murphy would study law at University College Cork before dropping out in his second year to pursue his thespian ambitions. One can still, however, detect scholarly tendencies in his work. For his Golden Globe nominated turn as a transvestite in Breakfast On Pluto, he wore women’s clothes for two months and hung out with drag queens. For Danny Boyle’s spectacular new science fiction epic Sunshine, Cillian went even further.
In the film it’s 2057 and our sun is dying. A spacecraft carrying eight men and women and a dark-matter and uranium bomb is launched as a last hope. Their mission is to detonate the bomb and reignite the ailing star. Tellingly, the ship is named Icarus II, a first attempt having failed seven years earlier. When the new ship starts receiving distress signals from their predecessors, one should, theoretically, settle back and enjoy the yarn. But Sunshine’s producers have really done their homework, albeit with a little help from physicist Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester University.
Cox, a noted and ridiculously youthful scientist is one of the top boffins working at CERN in Switzerland, the site of the Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile circumference rig for monitoring the detritus of collisions between protons. Rather excitingly this means that the LHC is recreating the conditions of the Big Bang.
For the puposes of Mr. Boyle’s extravaganza, Dr. Cox and his colleagues had to explain why the Sun might die in 50 years, around five billion years ahead of schedule. They came up with the notion that a ‘Q-ball’, a cannibalistic supersymmetric particle, might get lodged in the Sun. Still with me? Well, spare a thought for Cillian, who for his role as a physicist was hanging out with cartographers of space and time.
“I spent a lot of time with Brian Cox,” Cillian tells me. “The brilliant thing about Brian is that he’s very approachable and he can talk about these things in a way that is accessible to the layman, even when the layman is me. But when I was meeting all these people I kept thinking about what impact their intellects would have on their character. When you’re thinking about profound questions all day, it must impinge on your interactions with other people. You have to assume that if the Earth was sending a mission to the Sun, we would send up our best and brightest. So from there you have to take it that the guy I’m playing is the greatest physicist of his generation. He’s going to be a bit arrogant and there’s always going to be an expectation of brilliance from him. There’s no room for fuck-ups.”
As Sunshine’s hero-physicist, Cillian stands in sharp contrast to the Professor Frink characters normally peddled by movies. (Interestingly, when I meet Brian Cox later in the day, he looks eerily like the Cork man.)
“Yeah, well that’s the thing,” says Cillian. “When I went to CERN it’s full of all these brilliant young people – the real cream of the crop. Most of them are making breakthroughs working with the god particle before they’re 30.”
Was the actor’s move into amateur physics completely unprecedented, I wonder?
“Well, it certainly was a challenge,” he laughs. “You know the way people have a left and right side to their brain? Well, whichever one you need for science isn’t very well developed with me. I gave it up as soon as I could at school. So the challenge for me was grasping the basics. And because it’s so abstract and counterintuitive – everything about space and time is – you can only hold on to it fleetingly before it’s gone again. You feel useless. It really brought home to me that these guys are the greatest explorers of our generation. They’re right there at the borders of what we know and what we don’t know. And here I come with my petty needs and my petty world view.”
Sitting across from Cillian Murphy today, I’m really not sure how he does it. His fine feline features make him perfect to play a boy called Kitten. But then you remember how convincing he was as the fiery revolutionary in The Wind That Shakes The Barley or the menacing psychopath of Red Eye.
These roles seem completely at odds with his physical appearance. But if he keeps you onside, that’s probably down to his remarkable work ethic. It’s not every actor who would become versed in Q-balls. Way to take your craft seriously.
“I enjoy that freedom,” explains Cillian. “I think you can only embrace it and not be limited by where you’re from or what you look like or any of those things. I want to clock up as many genres as possible. My criterion is really obvious and boring. Do good work. Challenge myself. That’s it. And I’m not a big personality like Colin. But to be honest that suits me a lot better. I’m just not good at the extra-curricular activities. I’m not a red carpet guy. I get a thrill from being in movies like Batman Begins. When you’re hanging around set and all of a sudden someone drives up in the Batmobile or you’re having a chat with Morgan Freeman or someone like that – that’s when I think, ‘Oh wow’. I’m less interested in the big premieres and celebrity bashes. To be honest I find them a challenge.”
Then he smiles.
“And not one I want to overcome.”
Sunshine is released April 5.