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Cillian Murphy Retrospective: Thirty Years an Actor

Cillian Murphy at the Season 2 premiere of "Peaky Blinders."
Cillian Murphy at the Season 2 premiere of "Peaky Blinders." By Courtesy of Tim Cornbill / Wikimedia Commons
By Cindy Zhang, Contributing Writer

Everyone gets lost in Cillian Murphy’s eyes. At the end of his latest film, “Oppenheimer,” in which he plays the titular character, Oppenheimer stands alone, staring at the pattern of rain droplets over a still pond. As the camera lingers on his face, a ring of fire begins to consume the Earth, and an immense blaze fills the whole scene. Not a sound is uttered, but the emotion conveyed in those piercing blue eyes speaks louder than words.

Murphy’s eyes that speak surely bring the character of Oppenheimer to life, even in the black and white parts of the film. “I try not to think of actors as I write, but Cillian’s eyes were the only eyes I know that can project that intensity,” Nolan said to the New York Times. This is their sixth collaboration, but the first time Murphy has played the lead. With “Oppenheimer” surpassing $900 million at the global box office — becoming one of the most acclaimed biopics to date — audiences have become as eager to learn about it’s as they are about the father of the atomic bomb.

Even though it took Hollywood a while to recognize Murphy’s potential to play a starring role, this quietly intense actor has long been celebrated in the UK and Ireland. A survey of his portfolio since his debut in 1996 reveals a daring selection of characters: Jackson Ripper, a terrorist leader in “Red Eye;” Fischer, the heir to a multi-billion empire in “Inception;” Daniel O’Donovan, an Irish republican in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley;” an anonymous, shivering soldier in “Dunkirk.” None of these names carry the same fame as the legendary physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer on screen today, but Murphy honored them all.

In order to get ready for the part of Patrick “Kitten” Barden, Murphy spent weeks working with a real-life drag queen, who took him clubbing with friends so he could study women’s body language and learn how to dress. To be able to convincingly act out Tommy Shelby, a WWI veteran, he followed a hard-hitting workout plan to look “physically imposing” for the part. The quest to achieve Oppenheimer’s chiseled cheeks and a haunted look took him to the opposite end of the spectrum. According to costar Emily Blunt, on set he would only eat one almond a day to slim down and was so immersed in the role that he skipped cast dinners. According to Murphy, “It’s not the scale, it’s the quality.” For him, great dedication is necessary in order to fully embody his characters.

Clearly, his hard work has paid off. Murphy is now the 5/4 favorite to win Best Actor at the 2024 Oscars for his performance in “Oppenheimer,” as predicted by The Online Betting Guide, and his last role as Tommy Shelby in “Peaky Blinders” earned him his first BAFTA TV Awards nomination for Leading Actor. Prior to this, he also received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his role as a transgender woman in “Breakfast on Pluto.”

Yet Murphy did not always know he wanted to be an actor, and it took him a long time to discover his life-long passion. His father was a civil servant and his mother a French teacher, but the house was always busy — non-stop music, bookshelves filled with literature, and the radio often on. His parents sent him to an all-boys private school, where he was involved in rugby for some time before giving it up. Then, he tried for a law degree at University College Cork, but he quit that too. He devoted years to doing what his parents wished for, not necessarily what he wanted, and “he didn’t feel good enough.” After that, he had a fleeting music career before a stage production of “A Clockwork Orange” guided him to his true passion — acting.

His first breakthrough came in the 2002 movie “28 Days Later,” where he played Jim, the lone survivor of a pandemic in a desolate London. It was a modern horror classic which served as a launching pad for Murphy’s career, with Nolan later recalling the poster of Murphy with his bald head and “crazy” eyes in a conversation for Entertainment Weekly. His profile continued to grow in 2005 following his roles in several successful films, namely the Scarecrow in “The Dark Knight” and the villain in the action thriller “Red Eye.” For the last two decades, he has built strong relationships with directors such as Boyle and Nolan and continuously wowed audiences with his talent for playing dark, troubled, and tormented characters. But these complex characters are not strictly villains. As Murphy said in an interview with The Guardian, “Villains are good if they’re well written, but if it’s one note or a trope, then they are dull.” He relishes playing these complex characters and likes scripts to stretch into “all the shades” of the human spectrum.

“I can’t remember which director said it, but he said it takes 30 years to make a good actor,” he said to PORT Magazine. 27 years later, coming off the heels of a starring role in a major film, Murphy appears to have achieved his aim.

In an industry that often rewards fast success, Cillian Murphy has chosen a different path. “Peaky Blinders” made the Irish actor a household name, and Nolan’s blockbuster epic took him even further. However, Murphy continued to pursue roles which were often underrated, because it is “a film that you're very sort of proud of and excited by.” Known for his introverted personality, Murphy has chosen a quiet, normal life away from the public eye, even revealing at one point that he did not enjoy the “personality part” of being an actor. “I don’t understand why it’s expected I’ll be scintillating on a talkshow,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. He is true to his word — Murphy’s bored face during interviews has become a popular meme. Indeed, 67 million people on TikTok have watched videos on “Cillian Murphy interview zoning out,” and they can’t seem to get enough of his dissociating clips. Part of his appeal to fans seems to stem from this authenticity, in contrast with so many other celebrities who aim to please.

To Murphy, character is in fact all that matters. Murphy is satisfied with being the man in the shadows, and though he may not be as flashy as Tommy Shelby with “that charisma and swagger,” he believes that this shows that “I’m doing my job” correctly. “Cillian and Tommy are almost polar opposites,” Steven Knight, the “Peaky Blinders” creator, attested in an interview with Esquire.

As recounted in the Esquire interview, when Murphy auditioned for the role, Knight doubted whether this very thin man was the right fit for a Bringham-based gangster. Murphy said a simple yet powerful thing then: “Remember, I’m an actor.” His point was that when he enters a room, he is not Tommy Shelby. But when he is acting, he can become anyone — a gangster, a woman, or a physicist.

What is so mesmerizing about Murphy’s eyes? It is not the color, but the complex, varied emotion that is seen in each glimpse. Murphy can draw people into a story and make them think twice about it afterwards. While he has worked for close to thirty years in the acting industry, making him one of the most prolific actors, neither the standard film crew hierarchy nor his fame will keep him from choosing what truly captivates him. His success is a natural result of his unwavering pursuit and love of the craft.

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