Cillian Murphy: A perfect level of fame?
'Inception’ star Cillian Murphy tells Anita Singh how he treads the fine line between Hollywood glitz and his roots in County Cork.
By Anita Singh
The figure ambling towards me down a sunny street in Kilburn, north London, doesn’t look like Cillian Murphy. He is sporting a new beard of Captain Birdseye proportions and wearing sunglasses that hide his most distinctive feature. For it seems the world has fallen in love with Murphy’s eyes – there is even an entire website dedicated to their extraordinary shade of blue.
Nor is this rough-and-ready neighbourhood of kebab shops and old-man pubs the sort of place you’d expect to find an actor whose last film, 2010’s Inception, took more than £500 million at the box office and who has just shot a thriller with Robert De Niro. Yet it is where this Hollywood star has chosen to call home.
Murphy moved here from his native County Cork a decade ago and never left. "When we arrived this was where we sort of landed, we got a flat here and just got used to it,” he says cheerfully. "I rarely visit the West End.”
We meet around the corner from the home he shares with his wife, the artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their two sons, aged four and six, in the theatre where he is rehearsing Misterman, a one-man play written and directed by fellow Irishman Enda Walsh. Debuting at the Galway Arts Festival this week, it is an intense and unsettling study of psychosis, shot through with black humour. Getting inside the role has been all-consuming (and not just because it required a beard).
"It is haunting my dreams and just taking over,” he says. "I adore that sort of immersion in work. It’s all you think about and all you live and breathe, and to me that’s more exciting than popping in to play a cameo in a film or something.”
His first stage role in five years features the dense monologuing that is Walsh’s hallmark and requires Murphy to be on stage alone for nearly 90 minutes. It is a daunting prospect. "All the actors I’ve talked to who’ve done one-man or one-woman shows say it’s like the Everest of acting,” he says, "but when you scale it – if you scale it – then it is so satisfying for you and for the audience.”
Misterman, which Walsh jokily describes as "Ballykissangel through the veil of absinthe”, is set in a rural Ireland far removed from the tourist brochures. "We’re pulling the lid off that so-called pastoral Irish utopia,” says Murphy. "It doesn’t exist, really. I think everybody is very aware of what state the country is in. But Irish people are great at sending themselves up and Irish writers have great fun exploding the stereotype.”
The pair go back a long way: Walsh gave Murphy his first professional acting role in a Cork production of Disco Pigs in 1996 and they have been friends ever since. "I was just 20 and it changed everything for me. At that time I was a nobody off the street.”
Murphy secured an agent, junked law school and his career took off. He made his screen breakthrough in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie movie 28 Days Later and since then the work has come thick and fast. He has mixed low-budget indies (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Breakfast on Pluto) with Hollywood. "It’s nice to do a film like Inception where everybody in the world sees it, pretty much,” he says, "but it’s also nice to do a little film.”
If there is a pattern to Murphy’s work, it is his tendency – from 28 Days Later to Sunshine (Boyle’s 2007 space thriller) and Wes Craven’s Red Eye – to play characters trapped in nightmarish scenarios. "I’m attracted to the idea of regular people in extraordinary situations,” he says. "I’m very interested in what pressure does to the mind – fight or flight, collapse or keep going? – and dramatically there’s a lot to be mined there.”
A critic once described him as "a character actor trapped in a leading man’s bone structure”. Murphy laughs then reddens with embarrassment when asked if his looks have helped or hindered his career. "Obviously, in this business, there’s a huge part of it that’s about appearance, but I’ve never found it to be limiting and I’ve never found it to be a foot in the door.”
Does he think of himself as a leading man? He pauses for thought. "I think labelling is limiting. Sometimes playing the supporting parts is great, and the size of the role shouldn’t determine how interesting it is.” A case in point: Murphy auditioned for Christian Bale’s role in Batman Begins but got the smaller role of the Scarecrow, and was quite content.
Now 35, he has no desire to move to Los Angeles. "I’ve never considered it. I very much consider myself European. I think if you go and set up shop in Hollywood, you’ve nailed your colours to the mast a little bit in terms of the work you want to do. And that’s great, you know, but I like to mix it up. I like going there to work, I enjoy the weather and the food and everybody’s so positive, but I couldn’t live there. It would wear me down.”
In London he is approached by fans "occasionally, but never in a way that’s invasive or annoying. I get the Tube every day and buy my socks in Gap and all of that stuff.” And he still gets star-struck, not least when he found himself working alongside De Niro on the forthcoming Red Lights. He plays a professional sceptic trying to debunk De Niro’s famous psychic. "Oh, I was so nervous, incredibly nervous,” he recalls of their first meeting. "That’s a dream come true, to think that I would be working with him – and on a film that good.”
I tell him it’s refreshing to meet an actor who appears to have found the perfect level of fame – starring with De Niro but able to stroll unnoticed down Kilburn High Road. "It’s never been a problem for me. I think the boat has sailed for me in terms of becoming a celebrity. And I’m quite happy with that.”
Misterman is at the Galway arts festival, Ireland (00 353 91 566577) until July 24.
Red Lights is out next year