HE WAS a transvestite in Breakfast On Pluto, a terrifying Scarecrow in Batman Begins and a freedom fighter in The Wind That Shakes The Barley. But today the chameleon-like Cillian Murphy is having trouble blending in with his surroundings.
We're sitting in a chi-chi private member's club in London, one I'm certain he doesn't belong to, as he dutifully promotes his latest film, Perrier's Bounty. While staff sporting swanky designer suits buzz about, the bright blue-eyed Murphy is dressed down in black trousers and a ragged brown jumper. One of the least ostentatious actors you could ever meet, Murphy doesn't have a stylist, a personal publicist or an entourage. Unlike his Irish peers, Colin Farrell (with whom he starred in 2003 thriller Intermission) and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, he's never in the tabloids. Rather, he lives quietly in North London with his wife of five years, Yvonne, and their two young sons.
"I don't get any hassle at all," he says, "which is lovely and the way I'd like to keep it." And who can blame him? Since coming to international attention in Danny Boyle's zombie thriller 28 Days Later in 2002, he's managed to maintain this low profile while working with some of the world's finest directors, an enviable position by any standards.
While keeping your head down is a no-brainer for any actor who wants to be taken seriously, Murphy's ability to cherry-pick projects is impressive. Even his supposed sell-outs, such as the trashy Wes Craven thriller Red Eye, have been enormous fun. "You have to hold fast to your principles and what interests you and what your tastes are, and be authentic to that. If you're authentic, people will see that and recognise it," he says.
The secret to his success, he says, is patience. "You've just got to go, 'Yes, I am going to wait for the good script. I'm not going to do the rubbish script'. If it means sitting at home, and cutting the grass again, then that's fine." Good to know, then, that Murphy isn't above doing his own chores. "I excel at them!" he grins.
For all he tells me about loving the "transformative" nature of acting, his latest role may be the closest we ever get to seeing the real Murphy. Reuniting him with Intermission's writer Mark O'Rowe, Perrier's Bounty is a comedy-drama set in the Dublin underworld. Murphy plays Michael, an amiable chancer in debt to a local gangster (Brendan Gleeson) who puts a price on his head. If the situation isn't familiar to the actor, the character certainly is. "I recognise in Michael a lot of traits in myself," he admits. "A lot of procrastination, and leaving things to the last minute, and not dealing with emotions."
According to Murphy, this is a very familiar trait in the Irish male. "People talk around things. They'd rather go to the pub, and get drunk and talk about football, rather than talk about what they want you to be there for."
When we first meet Michael, he seems oblivious to his life-threatening situation. "He's gone out on the piss the night before – and that's very typically Irish! I've fallen foul of it myself – 'Ah, it'll be grand. Sure it'll be fine. Don't worry about it'."
So does this mean Murphy himself is as laid back as he seems? "Things work out, don't they?" he winks. "But you have your moments. Everybody does. At 3 o'clock in the morning, lying there in bed."
Despite this laissez-faire attitude, Murphy – who has lived in London since 2001 – has been cautious about returning to Ireland to work. Neil Jordan's Breakfast On Pluto, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his memorable turn as the cross-dressing Kitten, took him there. As did Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning The Wind That Shakes The Barley, in which he played a would-be medic who joins up to fight against the occupying British forces in 1920s Ireland. Shooting on home turf "shouldn't be a comfort zone thing," he says. "It shouldn't be to just get together for the craic and go for pints. It's about trying to make a different type of film, a new type of film, and that was part of the attraction here."
Whether Perrier's Bounty can be described this way is debatable. Rather, it feels a part of the sub-genre of Irish crime movies we've seen over the past few years – not only Intermission, but also Martin McDonagh's In Bruges and Paddy Breathnach's I Went Down, all of which share a "gallows humour that's very Irish", according to Murphy.
"If you think about them all, they're all in the lower echelons of the crime world. It doesn't have the style of a Mafia movie. It's always guys eking out a living, the bottom-feeders of the criminal world. And Mark loves that male testosterone, that male posturing that goes on, amongst those types of individuals. It's all about fronting."
Born in Cork, the eldest of four children, Murphy has never really been one for posturing. While his father worked for the Irish Department of Education and his mother was a French teacher, his rebellious streak was short-lived, sensible even. There was a bit of misbehaviour at Catholic school and, later on, he failed his first year exams at the University of Cork while reading law, having realised he was not cut out for the bar.
At the time, he was concentrating on a burgeoning rock career, having formed a band – The Sons of Mr Greengenes – with his younger brother, Pádraig. "It's something I did very seriously in my late teens and early twenties," he admits.
Cillian Murphy with Jim Broadbent in Perrier's Bounty
Named after a Frank Zappa song, with Murphy singing and playing guitar, the band was even offered a five-album deal by the London-based Acid Jazz label. Yet in the end, Murphy chose movies over music. Why? "My parents," he says. "They were terrified they were going to lose the both of us into the jaws of the rock'n'roll monster. So, we bailed. And I'm glad we bailed because I know a few guys who were in bands that didn't make it and it seems to do something to your soul."
If that was a life-changing decision, there's something about Murphy, with his burning desire to create, that makes you think he'd have made it either way.
Fresh out of law school, he landed a stage role in Enda Walsh's violent study of teenage love, Disco Pigs, which ended up touring throughout Europe, Canada and Australia for two years. Understandably, he has "a huge affection" for the play that set him on his way as an actor. He reprised the role for the less successful 2001 film version – it was this that Danny Boyle saw, before casting him in the lead in 28 Days Later. In the wake of this, and his villain in Chris Nolan's Batman Begins, US magazine Entertainment Weekly ranked him number three on its list of "the most valuable players of summer 2005", even comparing him to Robert Mitchum.
Having reprised his character for a cameo in Nolan's successful Batman sequel The Dark Knight, Murphy was reunited with the director for his latest film, Inception, one of the most anticipated of the summer. Almost nothing is known about it, beyond the fact it's a sci-fi action effort set "within the architecture of the mind", and Murphy is not about to spill the beans here. "I'd be killed!" he grins. "But I think it will be something people won't have expected. In this day and age, where it's very hard to be truly original, I think it will be.
"We've seen Chris's imagination before, in Memento and obviously the Batman movies. But with this one he's really gone for it."
He has two other films in the can – the long-delayed Hippie Hippie Shake, based on the trial surrounding counterculture magazine Oz, and Peacock, in which he plays a Nebraska bank clerk who has a multiple personality disorder (and dresses as his own invented wife).
"Maybe I'm drawn to things that are a bit wacky," he says. Whatever the reason, it's all adds up to a remarkable body of work for one barely into his thirties. Does he look back on the last decade with pride? "I'll look back when I'm older," he replies. "It's a dangerous thing to get stuck into, isn't it? Looking back. You've really got to look forward. I'll do that when I have a glass of port, surrounded by the freshly cut grass."
Perrier's Bounty is released on 26 March. Inception follows in July
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 14, 2010