Red Lights features two scientists, played by Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver, who make it their business to debunk psychics, mediums, magicians, faith healers, and any other practice that could have a rational versus a paranormal explanation. It’s a combination of physics, electronics, psychology, and plain old common sense — and some of what the film has to share is fascinating. The film, however, has its fair share of skeptics because of a twist that we won’t reveal here, but suffice to say that only Murphy’s character Tom Buckley can solve the mystery of this paranormal thriller. Murphy’s got his own mystery outside Red Lights as well — is his Scarecrow/Jonathan Crane character making one last appearance in a certain Batman movie, as rumor has it? The actor chatted with Vulture about going to Vegas, learning magic tricks, and looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises.
Did you ever tease Sigourney Weaver about Ghostbusters while on set, since she gets to bust a “ghost” during a séance in one scene and reveal the flaws in paranormal research testing in another?
[Laughs.] You know what, I would always defer to her status. She’s a legend, and I would try to stay reserved and not get too fanboy around her. She really is a hero of mine and I was so lucky that we clicked right away. But while there is that crossover, thematically, these are two very different films. I mean, there’s a whole industry of this kind of research.
How much did you know about paranormal studies before this? What kind of research did you do to get into character?
Not a lot. I mean, I’m not the type of person who reads my horoscope. I’m not usually fascinated by this stuff. But I’m fascinated by how other people get fascinated by it, do you know what I mean? How people are willing to dismiss logic, reason, rational thought, how they want to believe. How they can be manipulated. And I was curious. So I did a lot of reading. I didn’t go see any psychics — they kind of freak me out. I don’t believe in them, but they freak me out. But I did go and see some magicians in Las Vegas, the ones who really get into the show business aspect of it, to experience that side of it, like David Copperfield and Criss Angel, because Robert De Niro’s character, Simon Silver, is kind of an amalgam of magicians, psychic healers, and televangelists, all in one. I got to meet David Copperfield and meet him very briefly backstage, and I found him really interesting. He definitely has a real presence — and great hair.
What about psychic and paranormal debunkers, like James Randi? The skeptics?
You know, I didn’t get to speak to him, but I did read a lot of his books and I looked at a lot of his talks.
Okay, because it seems like there are some nods in the film to Randi’s work and to other real-life cases. For instance, the scene where you expose a fake faith healer, Palladino, who is perhaps inspired by the Reverend Peter Popoff, whom Randi exposed in 1986 with the same methods. They even use the same language in the earpieces, “If you can’t hear me, you’re in trouble.”
Yes! Although that comes from [writer-director] Rodrigo [Cortes] more than me. [Laughs.]
The scene where your characters demonstrate how someone might pretend a table is levitating by supernatural means is practically a public service.
If people take it that way, that’s great. [Laughs.] It also makes for a good piece of drama, learning those tricks. And I’m kind of a skeptic, too. I saw some people do amazing things. But things that cannot be explained? No. I mean, I’m open to some of this stuff, if you can prove it to me. But I haven’t seen any definitive proof. So yes, I looked into all of that. But even more so than the paranormal, which was important for how my character looks at the outside world, it also has to be a human story. That’s the engine of it, the spine of the character. So I also focused on his obsession and search for self-acceptance.
How did you learn some of the magic tricks you perform?
Thank goodness for the Internet! [Laughs.] There’s a clip on You Tube with these 11-year-old kids who show you how to do the trick with the quarter. So I looked at that a couple of months before the shoot, while I was doing another movie, and I kept practicing, constantly. We didn’t want to use a double or CGI, so I had to do it myself. And it really is a rudimentary trick. Seriously, go on You Tube, put in “coin trick,” get a quarter, and try it. Make sure you have no jewelry on your hands, but other than that, it’s not that hard — just practice. And for some of the other things, we had a magician in Spain who hung out with me and taught me a few tricks.
Were your kids impressed when you could finally do the tricks?
My kids were hugely not impressed. [Laughs.] But what I love is that with each film, I get to learn new stuff, or at least half learn it. And then I move on to the next thing. So I know a lot of things to a very shallow extent. Actors are like sponges that way. And I like it most when I get to travel a good distance from myself, like on Breakfast on Pluto. I really enjoy those long journeys, emotionally, where you have to adjust yourself to get to that place. And this character is such a contradiction, as all great characters are. And that’s what I look for, those kinds of dualities, although I don’t have a great master plan.
You’ve been getting asked a lot lately about whether you’re making another cameo in The Dark Knight Rises.
[Intake of breath.] Yes, I’m getting that a lot.
And you usually say something to the effect of, “It’s coming out in July, we’ll know then.” But have you noticed that your neither confirming nor denying has had the opposite effect of what you might have intended, to ward off further inquiry?
[Laughs.] If only it would! If only people would stop asking me about it!
Perhaps if you want people to stop asking, a bit of misdirection is in order, like from one of your magic tricks.
[Laughs.] You’re probably right. I know people are impatient and they want to know now, but I’m not adept at coming up with other ways to say anything about it. I can say that it’s going to be amazing. It’s brilliant. And I’m looking forward to seeing it as much as you are.