A Private Man
There's a scene in the latest Ron Howard blockbuster, In The Heart of The Sea where Cillian Murphy's character receives a bad knock to the head. Bleeding profusely and looking feverish, his brother-in-arms, played by Australian star Chris Hemsworth checks on him to make sure if he's ok.
Cillian Murphy scowls at him with a fierce determination, “I’m fine.” This is one of those moments where you realise the calibre of Murphy’s on-screen skills.
From his portrayal as the enigmatic physicist/astronaut in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine to the terrifying depiction of the Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman reprisal, Murphy has given us a breath-taking catalogue of incredible performances on screen.
But we’re not talking to any of these characters today. We’re talking to a humble gentleman, a quiet family man who is more concerned with the intrusion of privacy on him and his family rather than the next step in his career. From his earnest beginnings with the cult indie hit Disco Pigs in 2001, he has steadily risen through the ranks, working with almost every important director out there.
Now, at almost forty years old, Murphy looks back on a body of work that would ordinarily be associated with the very heights of mega-stardom. But he is an actor who has never compromised integrity or shown more than a passing interest in the trappings of fame. A cherished rarity in today’s celebrity culture.
We enjoyed your latest film, In the Heart of The Sea. We couldn’t help but feel there was a strong theme of environmentalism in the movie?
No, there certainly wasn’t for me, although people have mentioned it. However, there is that thing of man versus nature. You see that face-off between Chris Hemsworth’s character Chase and the whale, and I think most people come down on the side of the whale, which is fair enough.
But I think it’s nice that there’s an ambiguity there. Clearly what these men did was an obscene thing, slaughtering whales; apparently, if you fuck with the ecosystem of the planet, there will be consequences. Although at the height of the whaling industry in Nantucket the number of whales that were killed was only a fraction of what happened in the twentieth century when it became mechanised.
There were so many environmental consequences of the whaling industry at this time, and clearly I see that as a human being, but I don’t think the film in any way was meant to have an explicit environmental message.
It’s interesting you say that because not so long ago we interviewed the head horticulturalist at the famed Kew Gardens, Carlos Magdalena, he walked us through the culling of whales at the turn of the century and the environmental collapse of the entire ecosystem that followed that not many people know about.
Yes, well having said that, people read different stuff into things, and I think that’s great. I’ve made plenty of films that were purporting to be mainstream entertainment but had other messages in them. I made this film Sunshine with Danny Boyle that was a big sci-fi blockbuster, but it had a lot of subtext in there about religion versus science, and even in some of the Batman movies with Chris Nolan, there are bigger ideas present. But what I don’t like to do as a performer is to say to the audience, if you haven’t got this message from the film then you haven’t understood it. You’re free to extrapolate what you wan
Speaking of environmentalism, I read that you once argued on an aeroplane with one of the CEO’s of Shell?
Yeah. Sometimes when you do a studio movie they’ll put you in first class on a plane, which of course is a lovely way to travel but then inevitably you’re with CEO’s or whatever and on this occasion, I was having a drink, and this thing happened. But at the end of it, I think we kind of resolved our differences. We were like, look, man, let’s agree to disagree, its okay. I mean what else could he do but defend his position? But it was just after that massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and he was clearly in the shit, and I was very. . . I’d had a few G&T’s. It was an interesting discussion.
How does a typical conversation with your agent play out? You’ve been in such a diverse range of films, so I’m interested to know how that discussion goes at the beginning of the process when you’ve just picked up a script. Is there a back and forth? Or do you say, “I want to do this, this looks good to me”?
When I was a younger actor, there was much more of a discussion because I was figuring things out and wasn’t quite sure of the business. Then as I got older and had more experience, I took control. But people forget how invaluable agents are. Everyone needs an agent.
As you get older, your body of work increases, so people start coming to you. That happens more and more, and it’s a nice feeling. You’ve got the body of work, and you’ve set up the flags that say, okay this is the sort of work I like to do. And from that hopefully, people will recognise if you might be interested in something or not. But for this film, it was about Ron Howard.
I love his movies, and he’s a tremendously nice man. I know it’s not the most significant part, but I liked the idea of going through this whole physical process, shooting it for real in the ocean. It appealed to me even though it doesn’t feel as if I’ve done something like this before. I said all this and my agent said, “Okay do it.” So it comes around like that. I have absolutely no strategy or plan whatsoever. It’s completely random, based on what interests me. I’ve never had that thought of – Oh if I do this film then it will get me to this place in my career.
"I hate to talk about myself on camera. I hate it. I don’t feel like my job is to entertain you as Cillian."
But then you must have a perfect detector for bullshit because a lot of actors out there are probably just choosing whatever gets them as much visibility as possible, or lets them work with certain people, but you’re choosing films you feel connected to.
Yeah, there’s a lot of great actors that do what you just described. And there are a lot of movies now that are less about the actor and more about the product. That happens a lot. But I’ve always viewed acting in a very simple way, and that’s to do the best you can in whatever role, and that’s it! And I’m very uncomfortable with all the other stuff that surrounds it. But at the same time, I don’t want it to be an obstructive thing. I want to promote the film, and I want the film to do well, but I just find it all terribly uninteresting to talk about the frivolities. Again I’m lucky that as I get older, I don’t have to do as much of that. I tell them that I’m not doing it. It’s quite nice.
It’s interesting watching and listening to interviews you’ve given. You seem to be very closely guarded as if you’re holding something back. Is there a part of yourself you save for on camera?
Yeah something that’s always seemed obvious to me is that the less the audience knows about the actor, the further the actor can disappear into the role.
I hate to talk as myself on camera. I hate it. I don’t feel like my job is to entertain you as Cillian. My job is to entertain you as whatever character I’m embodying. I don’t feel the need to be entertaining or humorous or give the funniest jape of the junket. That’s not my role. And maybe I’m just not very good at it. I have a lot of very close friends, and when I’m with them, that’s when I feel I can relax and be myself. For me, this is something to be endured — not this. I’m enjoying this. Just generally, the nature of the promotion. The nature of being a celebrity.
I think it should all be saved for the camera and the performance. Robert De Niro is the worst interviewee you could have. I’ve watched him in interviews and, you don’t make small talk with Mr De Niro, but then look what he’s given us. And nowadays it’s like. . . I don’t know . . . Ask me the next question. It frustrates me talking about this shit.
Why does it frustrate you?
Just because – why can’t I do the work and that be it?
Okay, let me ask you this, outside of acting what do you think there’s too much of in the world?
I feel there’s too much intrusion everywhere and on everyone. A lot of people welcome it, and I know we’re all guilty of it. I mean intrusion through devices and social media, through connectivity. Everybody is encroaching so much on everyone else’s space and privacy. Advertising is doing it too. And it’s tough to use the internet without being spied upon. It’s tough to disappear. And I understand that it can seem like a total fucking contradiction because if you’re in the public eye, you shouldn’t want to disappear.
It seems like you care a lot about this stuff. Is personal privacy and intrusion something that you spend a lot of time thinking about?
I do think about them yeah. I’ve got two kids so I think about them and what sort of a world they’re growing up in. I know everyone says that and its kind of a cliché, but it’s the truth.
How do you think you’ve changed as an actor and a person throughout your career? What’s the difference between Disco Pigs Cillian Murphy and In the Heart of the Sea Cillian?
Wow, you didn’t watch Disco Pigs, did you? That was nearly twenty years ago now. Do you want the good stuff or the bad stuff? I don’t know. . . I’m a lot surer of myself now than I was twenty years ago.
Wasn’t there a part of you that felt invincible back then?
No. Are you kidding? I severely lacked in confidence. I think as you get older you have to get to some place where it doesn’t matter what people think. I always thought I’d be wiser. If you had asked my twenty-year-old self – I mean I’m going to be forty next year. I wish I were a little more careful. I wish I had more of the answers.
But you’ve created a great body of work, doesn’t that make you feel wiser?
Well, thank you. But no, no, just no. And anyway I think you have to keep going and not look back, even on success. Nostalgia is dangerous for any artist. I try not to indulge in it too much.
What does music do for you, because I know you’re a big fan. Can you explain your relationship with music?
It’s like a companion. It keeps me going. I’m doing this show at the moment Peaky Blinders, and I’m staying in a tiny little flat halfway up this building in Liverpool. There’s nothing in it, but I come back there every night and cook myself some food and listen to music.
I listen to all kinds of things, but I just discovered this great guy, Bill Ryder-Jones. He’s from Liverpool, and he was in The Coral. His new record is just stunning. I don’t have one band that I always play. It changes constantly. They’ll be records I’ll have for certain jobs, for helping me to get into different roles. And to relax I like to listen to a lot of jazz, like Nils Frahm or older stuff. It calms me down, particularly when I’m working. It lets me get away from everything on set.
Do you see yourself continuing to act for many years?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything else I could do — the idea of directing sort of appeals to me. It’s not a huge desire, but I’d like to do it at some point. I think it’s too far gone on the making music thing. I’ve done bits and pieces of music here and there, but I still feel I’ve got a lot more to learn and a lot more to prove to myself as an actor.
In The Heart of The Sea is out in the UK in December.
All images courtesy of Mike Massaro