With his deep-set eyes and slight build, Irish actor Cillian Murphy is a chameleon who would’ve been a natural second lead in Old Hollywood, perhaps playing the police informant who gets whacked at the end of Act Two or the suitor who doesn’t get the girl. But his alertness, intelligence, and endless capacity for surprise have helped him defy potential typecasting. He’s played a dazzling array of parts, including roles in 28 Days Later, Breakfast on Pluto, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (as Scarecrow), and Dunkirk (as an anonymous infantryman billed only as “Shivering Soldier”). He’s equally convincing as a subtle, introverted lead (particularly in Ken Loach’s IRA drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and a lit-fuse villain who can turbocharge modest B-pictures like Wes Craven’s Red Eye. But he became an international star on Steven Knight’s hit series Peaky Blinders, playing the volatile Tommy Shelby, the leader of a gang that terrorizes Birmingham, England, between the World Wars.
Ahead of the October 4 Netflix debut of Peaky Blinders’ fifth season, which launched on BBC One on August 25, Murphy spoke to Vulture about what goes into playing a character as brutal as Tommy, as well as a few other characters throughout his varied filmography.
What about Peaky Blinders convinced you to make an open-ended commitment that has continued for five seasons?
Mainly the fact that it was a family saga that takes place between the wars in Britain, which is a period that isn’t that glamorous in the history books. There’s obviously been a lot done about those two conflicts, but the period in between, not as much. Steve Knight was the one who recognized that it might be worth investigating. And at the center of the story were these men who were damaged by the First World War but survived it and were kind of stuck back into society, and then the question becomes, “Can they integrate?”
How does Tommy’s war experience inform his approach to being a gangster?
It’s alluded to in the first series that, prior to going to war, he was a very outgoing character. He laughed a lot. He wanted to work with horses. He was interested in the Communist Party. But that was all destroyed by the First World War. It destroyed his sense of optimism. It destroyed his faith. It destroyed his belief in authority. It destroyed everything, really, and he just became consumed by ambition, and that was fed by the fact that he’d survived the war, which meant he didn’t fear death.
Does it bother you when people root for Tommy, considering how brutal he is?
I think we’ve been very careful in the show to demonstrate that violence has consequences for the people who commit it and endure it. Violence should make you flinch and look away. The violence committed by characters on this show has psychological consequences for them, and more so for the people that suffer from it. They don’t just miraculously heal. They go to a hospital. Or they die slow and painful deaths that shouldn’t be easy to watch. Violence on a show like this should make you flinch and look away. And so that’s what we’ve tried to do. … I’d suggest that some of these computer games where you go and kill just random people willy nilly with zero consequence, and there’s blood splattered across the screen, there’s no identifiable narrative, then, perhaps, that might be a little more damaging. Somewhat more so than a piece of drama which investigates the reasons why for, and then, the consequences of, violent acts.
How do you physically play Tommy?
I’m not the most imposing of individuals in my own life, so I go to the gym and lift things and put them down again. I dropped the level of Tommy’s voice. Then there’s the cigarettes, of course. I remember seeing The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould, and he just constantly has his cigarettes, and even though he’s got this façade of cool, you clearly see that the cigarette is indicating some deeper level of stress. I tried to steal it for Tommy, I suppose. And the hair, of course, played a part in all this.
We should talk about Tommy’s haircut. You get it done for the show, and you’re stuck with it for three months. It must be hard to be incognito with a cut like that.
Yeah, but it’s fine. I don’t generally do wigs. I think they look phony. If I see that a character has to wear a wig, I generally won’t do the part. I’ve gotten more tolerant of the haircut over the years. And bizarrely, it’s become a desirable cut amongst the fashionistas, which is staggering to me. It’s one more sign of how the show has infiltrated the mainstream culture.
When Peaky Blinders fans approach you, what do they talk about?
Tommy’s love life, for starters.
Do they not distinguish between you and your character?
Remember, the first series aired in 2013, which means there are fans out there who grew up watching it. When you spend 30 hours watching somebody, they’re gonna start to feel like somebody you actually know, and you’re gonna start to think you have some insight into their life.
When you’re used to playing the lead or one of the leads in a production, is it ever jarring to go and be part of a really big ensemble, like in Dunkirk, where your character was identified only as “Shivering Soldier”?
No. I’m not bothered by the name of the character. It’s the quality of the writing that surrounds the character. And I think Chris Nolan deliberately didn’t give that character a name, because I think he was representative of all the hundreds of thousands of soldiers that suffered like he did. And I loved working for Chris Nolan. When he sends you a script, you know it’s going to be very seriously high quality. I was thrilled to be onboard and to be on that boat working with people like Mark Rylance. For me, it’s not the size of the part. It’s the quality of the part.
For fans of Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, can you share your thoughts about working for Loach, and delving into Ireland’s history onscreen?
Oh, yeah. That was a real highlight for me for a variety of reasons. The biggest one was getting to work with Ken Loach, who I think is one of the greatest living filmmakers. And also to make a film that spoke about my country’s history, and specifically about the county that I’m from, which is Cork. So that was kind of a dream job for me, really. And it was a very formative experience for me, working with Ken. And the methods that he employs have informed my approach to acting since then.
What methods are you talking about, specifically?
He shoots everything chronologically and actors never receive a script. I never got a script. You do a lot of research about your character, his background, and his occupation. And then the story sort of unfolds in front of you. And he creates situations where you’ll receive information in real time as the camera rolls. So what it does is it makes your performance completely instinctual and nonintellectual.
So there’s no actual pages?
No, there are pages, but he’ll give you the pages the night before whatever you’re going to shoot the next day. And sometimes, he will orchestrate it so that you’ll be in the middle of the scene, and then something else will happen that wasn’t in the pages and that you know nothing about, and you just have to react to that.
What is the appeal of that sort of approach?
It’s just so different. See, the tendency with actors is, you get scripts and then you pore over this document. And then have all these ideas. And you go and do research. And you think. And you think. And you think. It can become a little academic as opposed to instinctual. After working with Ken, I’ve tried to always go back to my reaction as a human being rather than as someone that’s been aware of the dynamic of this scene, whatever it is, and has been thinking for months about how to play it. It’s extraordinary. Working with Ken was the purest experience I’ve had on a film set.
How do you choose independent Irish productions like that to appear in? Is it a matter of scheduling? Do you think about the subject matter? How do you choose the small stuff?
The small stuff, the big stuff, the theater stuff, the TV stuff is all chosen on the basis of how good the writing is. Every single script. I don’t really care about the scale of it. And then within that is the question of whether it represents some sort of a challenge to me, whether I think I can do it, or if it’s a bit of a challenge or a little risky. Then, after that, it’s all about who’s directing it and who’s in it. But the initial thing is always, across the board, for every medium, the writing.
Are there particular types of scripts that are more likely to excite your interest?
Riskiness appeals to me. By which I mean simply the question of whether I can do this, because it’s different from anything I’ve done before. Tommy, for example, is a big distance for me to travel. Because I’m so unlike him in every part of my life. Whereas other characters that I’ve played, they’re just a very, very slight adjustment on yourself. Do you know what I mean? Where you’re just kind of taking your own personality and sort of adjusting it to the scene? That’s a challenge of a different kind, but it’s not as interesting to me as parts where I wonder going in if I’m up to it.
You’ve got an ongoing stage collaboration with Enda Walsh. Can you talk about how returning to the stage between films and TV projects affects them when you go back to the screen?
I started off being exclusively a theater actor, and Enda Walsh gave me my first-ever job as a professional actor when I was 19. Now he’s one of my closest friends and collaborators. And I love the danger of his work. I love the danger of theater. I love the live nature of it. It informs the film acting, because you get to act with a different muscle. In theater, you only have the wide shot. There is no close-up. So, inevitably, you have to act with your whole body. You have to use physicality much more.
And I love doing that, because film acting is, in moments, generally, trying to figure out what the character is thinking rather than demonstrating. Whereas in the theater, it reminds me a lot of the silent-movie actors who got to act with their full physicality. And also, you’ve got to do it every night. You’ve got to do it for three months. And you’ve got to be on every single night. All of that explains why I always feel that I come off a theater production a better screen actor, if by a tiny margin.
I would love to ask you about the Wes Craven thriller Red Eye, which, I’m sure you know, has a strong cult following.
It does? Really?
After I made up my own list of things to ask you, I asked around for some curveball questions, and I got five or six about Red Eye. It was far and away the most cited film of yours.
That’s amazing. Let’s hear one.
Did you study romantic comedies when devising your performance in Red Eye?
I didn’t, actually. I don’t generally watch that many romantic comedies. I get my comedy from kind of more absurdist kind of stuff than situational comedy. The simple answer is, that screenplay was a good piece of writing. Because, again, it’s that thing of duality and contradiction: you had to basically play two characters. One who was a seemingly charming average guy that she meets at a bar at the airport. And then, this guy who turns out to be like a crazy, nervous wreck, and he can’t remember what he was after.
Can you talk about how you used the environment of the airplane in your performance?
Wes did a clever thing where we shot that, pretty much, chronologically as well. I believe we did the airport stuff at the beginning, so I just had to purely concentrate on the character being this kind of charismatic individual. And then we did the stuff in the airplane, later. And the airplane, I seem to remember, was a real replica of the plane. And it was on a gimbal, so it could mimic the actions of a real plane, which meant you felt like you were actually on one. It went through turbulence and all that. It was a naturally claustrophobic space, so the performance evolved naturally out of what the actors had been given. And that was what Wes wanted to achieve. I haven’t seen that film in 15 or 16 years, so I’m not much of an authority on it. But I’m happy that people feel warmly towards it.
Where would you rank Tommy on the list of parts that you’re identified with?
I think, at the moment, for sure, Tommy is the character that I’m most associated with. And I’m very happy with the show. It represents a body of work that I’m very, very proud of. But where does he rank? I don’t know. I’m not too concerned about legacy.