Biography, Part 5:
Bad Wigs, Baddies, and Brassieres (2003–2005)
This next period saw not only Cillian's first appearance in a Hollywood blockbuster, but also what is generally considered his finest work to date, his heavyweight performance in Breakfast on Pluto. With a mix of starring roles, supporting parts with important directors, and challenging stage performances, he revealed his talent for making intelligent choices and stretching his acting muscles.
As John in Intermission
Cillian spent the latter half of 2002 working with his friend Colin Farrell in John Crowley's Intermission. This dark Irish comedy, released in 2003, followed 54 Dubliners through 11 interwoven storylines, touching on everything from the search for sex and romance to the allure of crime and the mundane life of grocery clerks. Cillian enjoyed working with the ensemble cast that also included Colm Meaney, Kelly Macdonald, and Sally Henderson, and said that "sometimes it didn't feel like a film set." He plays one of the central characters, John, whose proposed "intermission" from his relationship is accepted—to his dismay—by his girlfriend (Macdonald). Cillian confessed, "I thought it was a very sharp insight into Irish men who can't just say the thing and do it—they have to go and do all the most ridiculous things to get to the actual point ... As a young Irish male, I recognised a lot of myself in him." Audiences must have agreed, for Intermission quickly became Ireland's highest grossing film—a title it held until 2006.
In keeping with his oft-stated objective to embrace new challenges, Cillian returned to the stage as Konstantin in Peter Stein's production of Chekhov's The Seagull. A self-confessed "Chekhov virgin," Cillian and the cast, including fellow Corkonian Fiona Shaw who played his mother, traveled to Chekhov's estate in Melikhovo, met their counterparts in the Russian production of the same play, and saw the "outhouse" where Chekhov wrote the play. The Seagull had a two-week run at the 2003 Edinburgh International Festival alongside the screening of Intermission.
As Pieter in Girl With a Pearl Earring
On the silver screen, Cillian followed Intermission in the film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl With a Pearl Earring. Despite sporting a bad wig, he raised his star profile playing Scarlett Johansson's love interest. To realistically portray a Dutch butcher, Cillian—a long-time vegetarian—spent time in a Luxembourg abattoir carrying pigs and cutting meat. He explained this extra exposure not as method acting but so that "when I come on screen, people don't go, 'Hang on a minute, that guy's never carried a pig before!' Otherwise some butcher in the audience will stand up and rip on the whole movie."
Close on the heels of Girl With a Pearl Earring was the Civil War epic Cold Mountain. Although Cillian's role as a Union soldier was very small, he jumped at the chance to work with director Anthony Minghella. After his location shoot in Romania, Cillian was full of praise for leading actors Jude Law and Natalie Portman, but admitted being most star-struck by Jack White of the White Stripes, with whom he spoke at length about music. Being counted among the highly respected cast of supporting players who pop up throughout the film (including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, Jena Malone, and Donald Sutherland) positioned Cillian for the forward thrust that would come in his next film roles.
2004 was a big year for Cillian, as he landed four roles that held special significance for him. First he achieved his ambition to play the lead role of Christy Mahon in Garry Hynes's production of J.M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, the play that has been called "the Hamlet of modern Irish drama." Playboy enjoyed an eight-week run throughout Ireland and both the production and Cillian received positive reviews, with one critic noting that he was "perfectly cast as the persecuted Christy Mahon." Following Playboy, Cillian flew into a whirlwind of activity: he shot Batman Begins, got married, primped and permed to film Breakfast on Pluto, and then, eyebrows still thinned, he flew to the U.S.A. to do Red Eye. All three films came out in 2005, and this powerful triumvirate raised Cillian's profile significantly.
As Dr. Crane in Batman Begins
The first film of this trio, the monster blockbuster Batman Begins, came out in June 2005. Cillian admitted that he was "obsessed with Batman as a boy," enjoying the previous films and television series and even dressing up for the part as a child. He was actually one of six actors considered for the role of Batman. The part eventually went to Christian Bale, but Cillian's audition so impressed director Christopher Nolan that he won the role of villain Dr. Jonathan Crane and his alter-ego Scarecrow. Cillian agreed with the choice of Bale, saying "I didn't think I had the physical presence for Batman," but he added, "I wish my 10-year-old self could have seen me in the suit." The role of Dr. Crane was relatively small (if pivotal), but he impressed both critics and fans with his menacing portrayal and was nominated for best supporting actor by both the Irish Film and Television Academy and the London Film Critics' Circle.
As Jack in Red Eye
In August 2005, hot on the heels of Batman Begins, came Wes Craven's thriller Red Eye, a box office hit and Cillian's most high profile leading role to date. He starred as Jackson Rippner, a mysterious operative involved in an assassination plot. Cillian was attracted by the strength of the script and the fact that the role demanded just two actors carry the majority of the film. The film featured some intense moments between Cillian and co-star Rachel McAdams, "especially that scene in the bathroom. I found that quite hard to do, quite unpleasant to do, and unpleasant to watch." He must have managed, because the one-two punch of Scarecrow and Jackson Rippner suckered many journalists and filmgoers into labeling Cillian as an actor who was meant to play only bad guys. As he has always stressed that he insists on diversity in roles, Cillian seemed understandably frustrated: "I think I've done my quota of bad guys. No more fuckin' baddies ‘cause I'm the least likely villain." Like earlier reports that he was the next Colin Farrell, he put the "baddie" label down to lazy journalism that would be disproved with his next performance.
As Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto
And disprove it he did, with Neil Jordan's adaptation of Breakfast on Pluto, which premiered at the end of 2005. Cillian had poured his heart into the role of Patrick "Kitten" Braden, a transgendered orphan in search of love and a home. Having read Pat McCabe's Booker-shortlisted novel when it was first published in 1998, Cillian confessed, "I was a little in love with Kitten long before I ever thought I'd get to play her." He'd thrown himself into the audition for Jordan—back in 2001—decked out in lingerie and stilettos. Jordan had been suitably impressed: "The first time we met him, Cillian gave this performance that really came from the inside. It wasn't about the fact that he was wearing a purple feather boa or had a bit of blusher on his face, it was about a boy. He made it very emotional and very real and that's when I thought that if I was to make the movie, Cillian should do it." For various reasons, the project kept being put on hold. Cillian was anxious that Pluto be made before he got too old to play the part and, as with his earlier persistence with Pat Kiernan at the Corcadorca Theatre Company, continually pestered Jordan to make the film. Convinced that Cillian was the only person who could bring Kitten to life, Jordan finally got the project rolling in September 2004.
Cillian's stated goal for bringing Kitten to life was to make her believably feminine—not the campy, over-the-top drag queen so often seen in films about cross-dressers. To prepare, he spent time observing women, going to clubs with transvestites, and undertaking "significant grooming." Although Pluto itself received mixed critical reviews, Cillian's widely praised performance was recognised first with a prestigious Golden Globe best actor nomination, then the IFTA for best actor. Afterward, Cillian called it "one of those roles of a lifetime," adding that this is the character he has "the most affection for" and that he "still thinks about her and hopes she's doing OK."
With performances that took him from Russia to Gotham City, and from suspense to stilettos, Cillian demonstrated his enviable range and showed himself a true talent to be reckoned with. This variety of roles was quite intentional: "My only rule is diversity. I try to mix it up as much as possible. I think that's a good thing to do because it stops you from being too judgmental about characters," he says. With the box office clout of Red Eye and Batman Begins and the bravura of Kitten under his belt, Cillian closed 2005 firmly positioned as a leading man with increased power to choose more diverse, more challenging roles in the years to come.