From Cork to Gotham
Sunday Independent Life
8 February 2004
By Joe Jackson
As a schoolboy in Douglas, Cillian Murphy first felt the buzz of acting creep up his spine. It stays with him, whether in the next Batman movie or as the Playboy with Druid, he told Joe Jackson.
"Do I want you to do what to me?" said Cillian Murphy, his blue eyes widening backstage at the Druid theatre in Galway. I had suggested I could break his nose. Why? The night before our meeting I'd watched 28 Days Later...—as recommended by a young actress who gushed, "It's great and he's just gorgeous in it"—and during the many lingering close-ups of Cillian's perfect photogenic face I was reminded of Brando once saying the best thing that ever happened to him was accidentally having his nose broken by a sparring partner during the Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire. Before that he was "too damn pretty," Brando believed, explaining that "as with any good-looking broad" his "beauty" militated against him being taken seriously as an actor. Johnny Depp has said his career was similarly stymied at the start.
The same fate may yet befall Cillian Murphy. Particularly when he hits the Hollywood A-list after appearing as the main villain in the next Batman movie. Then again, Cillian himself is so aware of such pitfalls that when it comes to the option of whether to be a celebrity or an actor, open to all thespians at the start of their careers, he's already chosen the latter, claiming he has "no desire at all to be a personality." That's why he doesn't "do live TV," limits his press interviews, and refuses to lay out his private life for all to see. Indeed, until this interview, Cillian had rarely spoken in public about his love life and does so here with great reservations.
Yet, tellingly, despite this reticence in relation to discussing the more private parts of his life, Cillian Murphy is quite willing to flash his private parts on screen, as he did during the opening scene of 28 Days Later... Does he see any contradiction in all this? "Not at all." And "no thanks" is his good-humoured response when I offer to rearrange his facial features.
But more seriously, Cillian's commitment to acting can be traced back to the day he took a drama class in Presentation College, Cork, and first got that "shiver up the spine" and a "high" that he now says is "like drugs or good sex." Beyond all the bullshit that's bound to surround the guy as his star rises, it's that initial "purity of feeling" he hopes to remain true to. This is part of the reason he's chosen to work with "the best director around", Garry Hynes, in her eagerly awaited production of The Playboy of the Western World.
So where did it all begin for Cillian? Douglas, Cork, where he was born on March 13, 1974, the son of parents who were both teachers. Meaning, "no", he never got away with mitching, he "probably" did inherit part of his level-headedness from his folks, and "yes" they were deeply disturbed when Cillian, at 18, and his brother Páidi, 16, formed a band and became hellbent on making music their career. Cillian played guitar and sang in the Sons of Mr. Green Genes, a group named after one of the tracks on the Frank Zappa album Hot Rats; both brothers were "Frank Zappa freaks." Cillian's passion for Zappa has not diminished. Nor has his love of music. On the contrary.
"Music has always been hugely important in my life," he explains. "Even now, the only extravagant thing about my lifestyle is my stereo system, buying music and going to gigs! And being in a band was a huge part of my life and dreams when I was a teenager. Because I had been playing music all my life. Then, all of a sudden, in 1996, we were offered this record deal by a British label and my parents—whose hearts I must admit I broke, to a degree, during my wild years when I was 15, 16, 17—were, of course, horrified by the idea that they were going to lose both their sons to the f**king (sic) jaws of the music industry. Which, let's face it, is the dirtiest business around. But I didn't need my parents to tell me that the deal we were offered by the record company was really bad. They offered us 50 quid a week and for that they'd own all the f**king (sic) songs I used to write for us! They also would have owned our first three albums and owned us, basically. Nowadays bands are smart and hold on to their publishing rights, but we would have signed everything away. So, in retrospect, I think we were smart to say no to that deal."
1996 obviously was a year of change for Cillian Murphy. Not alone was he offered a record deal, he also moved out of the family home and started doing a law degree—"only because it was like 10 hours a week," he has admitted. Not surprisingly, Cillian failed his first year exams because he'd "no ambitions to do it." But he needn't have worried, because around the same time he was offered the lead in Enda Walsh's play Disco Pigs, which was meant to play for three weeks but ended up touring for 18 months, garnering acclaim all over Ireland, then moving to the West End. But is it true he got his big break by hassling the director so much that he finally wore the guy down?
"Yeah, basically!" says Cillian, laughing at the memory. "That was Pat Kiernan, artistic director of the Corcadorca Theatre Company in Cork. Yet the real story is the he had given a drama module in school when I was 16, and that, actually, was the first time I ever experienced anything in terms of acting or performing. Then, years later, fair play to Pat, he gave me that gig."
What, exactly, was the life-altering feeling Cillian had that day at 16?
"I just got such a huge high," he enthuses. "And, later, when I was playing music it was the same. You get this rush up your spine—like drugs or good sex. Something in you just goes 'yes!' and you are fully alive for that moment. So chasing that feeling is what it's all about for me. And I did get that feeling first during the drama module. Then later again, I went to see Corcadorca shows like A Clockwork Orange and it was so f**king (sic) cool! Not staid old theatre at all! So I thought, 'There really is something special in all this' and 'Pat Kiernan is the coolest guy in Cork!' That's really what led to my role in Disco Pigs."
Of his role as the romantic misfit in last year's film Intermission, alongside Colin Farrell, Cillian says he could identify with the "inarticulately insecure" aspects of the character, because "everyone has access to the loser part of themselves." How closely did he relate to the obsessive romantic lead he portrayed in Disco Pigs, then, played in the Kirsten Sheridan movie?
"First, I don't necessarily feel you have to be able to identify with a character you play," he responds. "But you do have to be able to pare a character down to its purest elements and understand what fuels them in any given situation. At least, that's how I rationalise my approach so I, then, can access whatever emotions I need to convey the emotions of the character. With Disco Pigs, this guy's whole life was given over to one female character. Because they were born side by side in a hospital he's had a blinkered vision, he's never matured, he's still a child. It's like he and this woman are Siamese twins, or co-joined, and when she is taken away he can't sustain life."
Has Cillian ever had this kind of symbiotic relationship with a lover—in the sense that, say, he felt if a woman left a room his breathing would be affected, his body chemistry would change?
"No, I haven't," he replies, after pondering the question. "But relationships like that can be exceedingly dangerous, because they trap both people. That's exactly what happens in Disco Pigs. She goes and he can't survive."
Asked if he is wary of falling in love at that level, Cillian pauses again, and says, "I am involved at the moment," then adds, "but I definitely don't think that for love to be interesting it has to be dangerous." So who is Cillian involved with? Some press reports claim that he's been in a relationship for a year with an artist named Yvonne and that they live together in London. The latter is true but I'd heard they've been together for at least six years.
"That's right, she's known me a long time," he responds, before pausing yet again and highlighting this sudden lacuna in our conversation by reaching for his pint. But there still is one question I must ask in terms of this subject. Namely, if this "Mystery Girl"—as Bono might call her—has been in Cillian's life since he first brushed against the "bitch goddess" of fame, has she helped keep him grounded?
"More than that, the truth is that I am a person who has always needed companionship," he says. "I'm not very good at being alone. And I should know, I've tried it. As for the fame thing, I never intended this to happen and my life, really, hasn't changed dramatically. But, yes, it does help to have a stable relationship in my life. And no matter what happens I would hope to hold on to the things in life that are most important to me.
"But actors have more control than people think. I know some actors renounce their responsibility, and say, 'Now that I am well-known my life is bound to change dramatically,' but I think I've managed to keep my life very simple this far. In the sense that I do have this girl who is hugely important to me and we have our own life. And if it seems like I don't like talking in public about our relationship, I actually don't. Because it is something that is our own. I've managed until this point to keep it private, and that's how I'd rather keep things."
Cillian laughs at any suggestion that, as he says, "like John Lennon in the old days!" he might be advised to deny the presence of his partner lest that lessen his appeal to female—or male—fans. "If you do that it means you are allowing yourself to be packaged and marketed and that's not how I work," he says. But doesn't this lead us back to the question of that full-frontal shot at the start of 28 Days Later... which many might see as evidence of Cillian being sold as a typical slice of "male movie meat" for those who feed on sexual or romantic cinematic fantasies.
"That's exaggerating the point," he responds, laughing. "But, seriously, my looks have never been a part of my acting consciousness. And I've never felt myself under any pressure, from anyone, to sell myself as a sex symbol, or whatever. And in terms of that scene, when we meet this guy he is like Adam and it is like the rebirth of man, so once I rationalised it at that level it felt all right to me. Yet I do see the sense in what you're asking, because there will be those who want to see, or sell, me as a figure of fantasy. But how the f**k (sic) do you avoid that? By letting someone break your nose! I am what I am and I certainly won't be putting any effort into selling myself along the lines you mention."
Cillian also regards as "lazy journalism" a British Sunday newspaper's claim that he is "the next Colin Farrell." However, the New York Times recently made a similar comparison, claiming Cillian is "less likely to be caught tomcatting around or brawling drunkenly at premieres." True or false, that perception gives Murphy greater freedom in terms of "indulging" in his old "wildness" which he "still does" at times. But, as a friend of Colin Farrell's from way back, Cillian rejects the suggestion, perhaps implicit in that New York Times quote, that Colin is more interested in being a celebrity than he is in acting.
"Colin has embraced all that, but it's not contrived," he argues. "He loves meeting people, drinking, doing whatever the f**k (sic) is going, but he has always been like that! Yet whatever film he's done—though some of his choices I wouldn't agree with—he's always good in them. As for myself, I, obviously, would be wary of thinking anything, like, 'OK, I'm supposed to be a bad boy so I ride so-and- so it'll add to my image.' Because, again, that's like a strategy in how to market yourself. But I do think that calling me 'the next Colin Farrell' is just a tag, a soundbite. It's like those people who still say I'm 'up-and-coming' after nearly 10 years of acting!"
Murphy's choice of films are less mainstream than Farrell's and range from shorts such as Quando to When Harry Became a Tree and, more recently Girl With a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain. Such choices, he insists, are neither "strategy driven" nor made for "economic reasons" but the result of "being hooked by" a good script. "All the talk of money comes afterwards," Cillian claims. But if, say, he wants to buy a house for himself and his partner and they were planning to marry, surely a superstar cheque for Batman: Intimidation would help?
"I'll keep my personal decisions to myself in terms of marriage," he responds, smiling conspiratorially. "But I already have a little house for us so I really mean it when I say that none of my choices are driven by economic considerations. I honestly am still chasing, above all else, the rush I got that first day in drama class." So is Cillian Murphy promising us that he will never be rerouted from this goal or "polluted" by following the Hollywood dollar?
"I already turned down 'big' movies and I do believe that any actor who is offered a shit script and bucketloads of cash should say f**k (sic) off," he responds. "In fact, looking back over my C.V. I can say to you, today, there isn't a film I made which would make me say, 'Don't mention that once (sic).' And I hope my approach to making movies won't be eroded, now matter how much money I may be offered. What I talked about earlier—that buzz up your spine—really is what it's all about for me. And if that buzz ever goes away, then acting will be a waste of time for me and it will be time to get out."
But that time obviously ain't now. In fact, Cillian claims that the "sense of anticipation" he feels about taking on the role of Christy Mahon in The Playboy of the Western World is 'just the same' as it was when he first did Disco Pigs in Cork. Better still, another reason Murphy wanted to work with Garry Hynes again is that he recognises he still has "so much stuff to learn" as an actor and that the stage is "the best place to do it." He's certainly being pushed to perfect his art by the relentless perfectionist that is the artistic director of the Druid Theatre Company.
"I'd like to continue to do at least one play a year, because it brings you back to the roots of what you are all about as an actor," he says. "Largely because it's very rare that you get extended scenes in films. But theatre is f**king (sic) magic in that sense! And Garry is magic. I worked with her in The Country Boy and in Juno and the Paycock before this. Her depth of knowledge on Synge, this play, and the environment it's set in is second to none.
"And she's really such a great director. She can see through a text to the core emotion of a thing. She'll say, 'Don't be an actor on stage thinking about your lines, be true to those lines, feel them, give them some truth,' which is great, because then you become an actor serving the role rather than the role serving you, so you can deliver a great performance. It's just so exciting to be in a room with her, and I know that excitement will be translated on to a stage."
Cillian clearly is feeling those old shivers up his spine even as he talks about Playboy, even after a long day's rehearsal.
"Maybe it's just because I'm cold!" he jokes. "But you're right, I am totally inspired by working with Druid on this. In fact, to get even closer to the truth here, what I feel is a strange mix of terror and euphoria. It's terror-phoria, I guess! But mad as this may sound to some people, that's the greatest feeling I could have in this world right now." Perhaps. Yet if someone started up a Frank Zappa tribute band and asked Cillian to ditch Batman and The Playboy and go for it, what would he say?
"I'd be there like a shot!" he says, laughing. But you and I know the guy is only joking. Cillian Murphy is where he belongs.