An Interview With – Cillian Murphy
Cillian Murphy is an Irish film and theatre actor. His early acting career comprised of a number of short films, including the Filmbase funded short, A Man of Few Words, before reprising his role in Kirsten Sheridan’s film version of Enda Walsh’s play, Disco Pigs. He has since stared in films such as 28 Days later, Sunshine, Inception, Perrier’s Bounty, Red Eye, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. He talked to Film Ireland about his approach to acting.
About your approach to acting: you say that you’ve sat on a train and just stared at people because you’re interested in their mannerisms. Do you see acting as something that is instinctual or something more constructed?
It’s very difficult to talk about this stuff. When you begin to take it apart or investigate it, it all becomes foreign very quickly. Because what we are paid to do is to convey how people feel in situations, as a result you inevitably end up observing people. A lot of the things you see from day to day on the tube in London, you could never put that in a film because you’d be told you were hamming it up. However, elements of that can find their way into how you make characters, tiny little idiosyncrasies that are away from yourself, you know. But I definitely believe that most of it is instinctual. It’s that sort of electricity between two people in a situation. Any time people see something that appears forced or contrived, they very quickly lose interest. Even if there is just one scene in the film where that happens, people can switch off and you lose them. So it’s very important to rely on your gut feeling.
You have both theatre and film acting experience. Do you think that someone can be more suited to one or the other?
The two definitely require different skills. I mean, you can’t really play the nuance to 1,100 people. But on screen you can play the nuance. And therein lies the difference, I think. Learning how to do that can only be achieved through experience. I never trained as an actor, I very much learned theatre acting just by acting. I had about five years where I did only theatre and I was lucky to work with great people – the Corcadorca Theatre Company and Druid Theatre Company and Gary Hynes. When you work with good people you learn at an accelerated pace. With the film side of things, I began again by getting small parts, learning the technical side of things and how it impacts on performance. So hopefully by the time you have your first significant role in a film, you feel reasonably confident, rather than just being thrown in at the deep end – that would be terrifying.
It would. So how transferable are theatre-acting skills to screen-acting?
Well, the beautiful thing about theatre is you have four to five weeks rehearsal, which is a luxury you never get in film. To have the first week just to sit around talking about the character and the play and the arc of the characters is a huge luxury. It’s my favourite part of putting up a play – the actual rehearsal period. So in that respect it’s hugely valuable in learning how to develop a character. If you do enough of that you must acquire some sort of a shorthand version when you go to make a film. For a film I would always give myself, on my own time, a three- or four-week period alone in the attic just finding out things about the character – little details, you know.
So Hollywood big-budget versus the smaller kind of filmmaking – which experience is better at your end?
Cillian Murphy in ‘Perrier’s Bounty’
It’s always down to the script. That’s where it has to start. Then the performance is the raw materials that you give it over to the director and he creates the masterpiece or not. And whether that’s in the world of the studio or in the world of the independents, the actual construction of the film works in the same way. I guess the beauty of the big-budget film is that it can allow you time to do those extended rehearsals that I was talking about and to take care of the detail. But lot of the time that money can just get wasted if the director isn’t in control and that applies similarly in the independent world. For example, Perrier’s Bounty was a brilliant example of how money was really well spent. I think the production values are fantastic, considering the limited budget and they had the best crew. Ian Fitzgibbon was always in control of time and we didn’t go over or drop shots and at the same time we never compromised in terms of the performance or the narrative. If the director is in control of their vision and knows where they are, then they should be able to control a $100m movie as well as they control a $10m movie, you know. For example, I’m working on this big Chris Nolan film at the moment. And it’s all completely in his head. He is aware of every single tiny detail. You feel so safe in that environment and it feels very reassuring, because you know that the vision is clear. That allows you to experiment and to make bold choices. He is a brilliant director to work with. He trusts actors and he allows you the space to create. It’s very satisfying.
So you guys just kind of clicked when you went and auditioned for Batman then?
It’s many years ago now but yes, we did get on very quickly. For me one of the most satisfying things in this business is when you get to really collaborate with people and you get to work with people a couple of times – I’ve had the pleasure of doing that. When you’re working with people you really trust there is a shorthand. You have an atmosphere where you feel comfortable and you can go straight to the work. You don’t have to deal with all the ancillary kind of preparation stuff, you can just go straight to the work and I love when that happens.
So when you choose to a project, is it purely that you read the script, get a gut instinct and go with it? You’ve mentioned before that one of the things that attracted you to the character in Perrier’s Bounty is that he is put under pressure…
Well, making the decision is down to what you’re into and the sort of books and films you’re interested in yourself. I have mentioned that thing about seeing characters under pressure and maybe you could identify that there is a sort of a pattern in the types of roles that I play. I enjoy seeing relatively normal people in highly pressurised situations – seeing what that does to their personality. To me, that’s drama. Then there is the aspect of trying not to repeat oneself or trying to challenge oneself all the time. It’s very exciting when you pick up a script and you go, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I can.’ Then you instantly want to try and do it.
So is there anyone in particular you would like to work with but haven’t had a chance to yet?
I have to say, I don’t do these lists anymore because they’re as long as your arm, really. They can also be quite embarrassing for me and for the people involved if I ever came across them. So yes, there are people that I would absolutely adore to work with. Hopefully, you know, if you keep doing reasonably good work it will come around at some time. That’s the thing that I would say to young actors or to people starting out: try and have patience. It’s not a trait associated with youth but it is important in this game. I’ve only learned it recently, I think. At the beginning of your career it’s all about forward momentum and the next project but if you think about it, you’re hopefully going to be doing this as a pensioner and that requires patience. You can’t always get the amazing job. It’s not going to happen once a year. So if you are a bit patient then maybe you will get to work with that wishlist of people over the course of a lifetime or a career.
That is good advice. One thing would spring to mind, however: can actresses really afford that same level of patience?
That’s a very fair point actually. It’s a much tougher world for women. Particularly this side of the pond, in America.
Yes. On the list of very famous Irish actors, it’s just men. There are no actresses. It’s strange.
Irish actresses are on the way up at the moment, I think. But in general, not just for Irish actresses, it’s a much tougher and far more judgemental world for actresses. Perhaps me countenancing patience – it doesn’t apply for women. I certainly think in terms of script and material, patience is valuable, you know. But yes, I accept that it’s much tougher for women. Men can play soldiers and cops and stuff for the rest of their lives. For women after a certain age the roles start to become thinner and thinner, you know. And that is just the way this awful show-business world is set up.
The full interview originally appeared in Issue 132 of Film Ireland Magazine.