Cillian Murphy’s brooding presence suggests an actor who would clearly prefer to be anywhere else but a press junket. Sitting back from his chair, he answers questions directly, crisply and with little time for small talk, as he explains why he wanted to play the charmingly bad antagonist in Wes Craven’s Red Eye. He spoke to Garth Franklin.
Question: How do you play such an unlikeable character?
Murphy: I don’t know. You just have to do as best you can, give it your best shot, really. I’m a nice person, you know? You just have to investigate that…You have to commit to the part, you have to commit fundamentally 100 percent to it and you can’t apply your moral framework onto this character and you have to understand the mechanisms and engine of this man to play it.
Question: Is he a justifiable bad guy?
Murphy: I’m not going to justify his behaviour, but for himself, he needs to, you know what I mean? You just get inside, you understand how you work, you know what I mean? And you form a profile for yourself, you do all the background for yourself, none of which appears on the screen, obviously, but you have it up in your head. And for me, one of the key things was that he’s just a professional and it’s not seen in terms of morals, it’s just about achieving an objective, getting a job done. That’s probably the thing, because Rachel’s character’s professionalism are just at odds and things are going to happen for there.
Question: What backstory did you create for yourself?
Murphy: I’m not gonna tell you that. The point is your character’s there for a function within the piece, you know what I mean? You have, for yourself, understand it. That’s the importance of it. I like the fact that he just appears and he’s there and you don’t know why and he’s go this weird name.
There’s this kind of duality to he personality and stuff and I just thought that was interesting. All the stuff that I do, that’s for myself.
Question: How does the antagonistic onscreen relationship affect things off-screen?
Murphy: We got on great through the whole thing. It was a very lovely atmosphere on set, you know, very light atmosphere, lot of joking. Because we’re spending so much time sitting next to each other you need to get on and she’s so cool, you know. She’s really normal and really lovely, you know. I always hoped to maintain that. We’re here to do a job and everyone’s got their job to do. To answer your question, whether the characters are antagonistic is immaterial. It’s just always great to get on with people and to admire them, you know. And to go, ‘This is a really, really good actor I’m working with here’ and you know when you come in it’s going to be interesting and you’re gonna have a lot to work against.
Question: What was the initial attraction of Red Eye?
Murphy: The premise of the script, you know, and I read it really, really quickly, like it was a very compelling read and I thought ‘How the hell are they gonna write themselves out of this,’ you know, and then they did. It was an actor’s piece, you know. It was just two actors for the majority of the film. For the majority of the film, two actors sat next to each other in this tiny little space and I loved the fact it would have to be so controlled. The issues you’re dealing with are so big.
Question: Have you ever scared somebody in real life?
Murphy: I don’t know. Maybe when I was a child.
Question: Do you still fly coach?
Question: Can you sleep on planes?
Question: How did shooting in sequence help you develop the character?
Murphy: That’s always a huge bonus for actors, if they can try to achieve that chronological thing, you know. Yeah, the some of the end of the movie, some of the airport stuff was out of sequence. The majority of the stuff on the plane was chronological, which was great, you know. It just means you have the experience as the character would, because it’s always difficult going from the end of the movie at the start and in the middle you’ve lost all your family or something, you know what I mean, and you haven’t done that yet.
Question: Where is home?
Murphy: I live in London now, yeah I’d call London home, but I’m Irish.
Question: Have you been tempted to come to Los Angeles?
Murphy: Yeah, I spend time here. I come out here when I need to have meetings, come out here if I need to shoot a film, come out here to do this, but I need the proximity to my family and to my friends and London provides that.
Question: Does your family keep you grounded?
Murphy: Everyone’s family keeps them grounded to a degree, but yeah, it’s lovely just to know that you can get on a plane and in an hour you’re back at the home amongst family and friends.
Question: How big a summer has it been for your career?
Murphy: I don’t know. I don’t think about it like that. I just think about the roles and if people like the films, that’s great. I don’t think about it strategically, really.
Question: Were you surprised 28 Days became your breakout role?
Murphy: I was pleasantly surprised, yeah. Nobody expected it to do so well, but I think that’s a tribute to it as a film, how it caught people’s imagination.
Question: How has your public reception changed since Batman?
Murphy: Not really, you know? People tend to be very sweet. In Ireland, obviously the level of recognition is quite high, and people tend to be very sweet. I have quite a quiet life. I don’t tend to go to openings or parties or any of that stuff, so as a result you don’t tend to end up in the paper, then as a result people don’t have such a huge recognition of you.
Question: Have you done the conventions?
Murphy: I did Comic-Con last year. That was mad. That was quite overwhelming. Myself and David Goyer did a press conference and like, 6,000 people at the conference. It was f***ing crazy. With those, for the comic book movies, obviously because people have so much invested in these characters, for so long. They really, really want you to treat them well, you know, so you really feel that… Yeah, of course you want to give back to the fans and everything because they’re the people you’re making it for.
Question: Would you do another comic book movie?
Murphy: It’s not on my agenda. I don’t have an agenda about what roles I do. If they decide to make another ‘Batman,’ I’d love to be in it. The main attraction for me on that film was Chris Nolan directing. I don’t know what I’m gonna do next after ‘Sunshine.’ I don’t have an agenda — I’ve got to get the comic book movie, I’ve got to do the rom-com. It’s whatever comes up that’s interesting. The only thing I do insist on is some kind of diversity, so that one role isn’t like the others.
Question: Are you signed for other ‘Batman’ roles?
Murphy: I think they have options on us, yeah.
Question: Talk about ‘Sunshine,’ the new Danny Boyle movie:
Murphy: We’re rehearsing. We start shooting at the end of August. I play a physicist. It’s about a spaceship going towards the sun in the future. They have to reignite the sun, it’s dying.
Question: How do you find working with Danny?
Murphy: Danny’s just amazing. He’s a real visionary. He has a very wonderful style, I think. I love his visual style. He’s just a great storyteller, Danny is. He’s a brilliant storyteller. I was delighted to work for those guys again because the first experience was so good. It’s just a great cast. We’ve got Michelle Yeoh and Chris Evans is in it; this great cast of actors. It’s great to be shooting in London as well.
Question: You don’t enjoy this publicity process as much?
Murphy: You have to promote the film, you know. That’s fine, but I find to talk about myself a bit boring.
Question: How is it working with Wes?
Murphy: That’s the thing, his films just speak for themselves. He is just unbelievably fluent in that language of tension and suspense and how to create that and how to manipulate an audience and people want to be manipulated by him, they want to come out altered from a screening and he can do that like no one else.
Question: Did Wes Craven’s presence attract you to the project?
Murphy: Absolutely and the fact that it was a thriller, you know what I mean? If you superimpose all those talents onto the structure of a thriller, you’re gonna get something interesting, I thought.
Question: Do you have a favourite genre?
Murphy: Not really. I suppose I tend to like slightly darker things — people have levelled that on me before and I accept that because in my opinion, if I mention the best movies or the best books, there’s always something that’s involving slightly darker element of out psyche. I like seeing people under pressure. I like seeing what happens to people when they’re under pressure.
Question: How much of the character is you?
Murphy: Very little of that’s me. Very, very little. I thought the dialogue’s great in it. I liked the way he spoke. He had a sense of irony, which you don’t get in all American movies. I liked the levels within him, you know.
Question: Could you identify with this character at all?
Murphy: You don’t have to identify with a character to play them, you just have to understand. There’s a difference, I think, between identifying with and understanding?
Question: Is it important to be a chameleon?
Murphy: I like the transformative nature of acting, that you can do something… The highest compliment somebody can pay to me is when they go, ‘I forgot it was you, I couldn’t recognize you.’ That’s what I like from acting.
Question: How do you vary the American accents?
Murphy: It depends on whether you want to place them. You could have done Scarecrow like New York, because it’s Gotham, but I didn’t want to, because I thought that he would be more WASP-ish or whatever, you know what I mean, in his education and stuff. Similarly with Rippner, I didn’t want to place him, because the whole thing is we don’t know anything about him, he just arrives, and so I didn’t want to place him.
Question: Do you know why you became an actor?
Murphy: I didn’t start acting until I was 20. I wanted to be a musician. I’ve been playing in bands for years and years and years. It was obviously the performance in me. I loved movies as a teenager, always loved, loved films, but I never thought I’d be involved, which was obviously an insane idea. It was theatre that was the main attraction to me, so I did a lot of theatre.
Question: Do you want to go back to music?
Murphy: I play it, but I never want to do it professionally. Yeah, ‘cuz it’s always when actors do music. It’s always a bad idea.
Question: Would you want to do TV?
Murphy: I wouldn’t have a problem with it if it’s good TV. There’s a lot great American TV. There’s a lot of great British TV. I don’t consider myself as a film actor. I do loads of theatre and I have done TV in the past. It just depends on the quality of the role and the quality of the challenge it represents.
Question: Is there any theatre you’d like to do?
Murphy: I’d love to have a go off the Dane at some point. There’s loads of roles. That’s the thing about theatre, they’re always there, it doesn’t go away. With film you have to take the opportunity, if people are going to put you in films and the directors are making movie right now, you have to take the opportunity. Hamlet’s not going to go away anywhere. Chekhov’s not going to go away.
Question: Does your agent get concerned if you want to do plays and he wants to put you in blockbuster movies?
Murphy: Well, he wouldn’t be putting me in blockbuster movies anyway. I decide which sorts of movies I want to do and if I decide to do theatre then that’s cool. You have to get people around you that understand with you and work with you. We have no trajectory. We’re not ticking boxes, know what I mean?
Question: What’s the problem with the scripts you see?
Murphy: I think a lot of it isn’t about making art, it’s about making money, you know. Sometimes there are great scripts… I think a lot of the scripts are effected by too many cooks — from producers to writers to everybody else who’s getting involved — and people underestimate the intelligence of the audience time and time and time again. Shorthand. Audiences don’t need shorthand if you’re smart.
Question: Might you explore the character of Scarecrow more in the sequel?
Murphy: Yeah. That would be cool, wouldn’t it? I’d love to do that. I just read — DC sent me all the comics. He was one of the oldest villains from the comic books, so I read all of those. That’s where you get all the back story, you know.
Question: How did you get into acting?
Murphy: I got a part in a play in Cork and I just learnt. I learnt from theatre, really. I saw this play in Cork and I knocked on the door of the theatre company and I said, ‘Can I audition for a play?’ and they gave me an audition and the play [‘Disco Pigs’] was huge success and then they made it into a movie.