Cillian Murphy: Why I gave up the movies

The Peaky Blinders and Dark Knight star on fame, films - and why he won't tolerate cameras at the theatre

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When Cillian Murphy arrives for our lunchtime meeting at Dublin’s most discreet and luxurious five-star Georgian hotel, he apologises profusely for being late – explaining that he bumped into three people he knew on the way here. “It’s the nature of Ireland. It’s so small, everybody knows everybody else. I like it, but it does mean you have to give yourself a lot of time to make a meeting.”

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There’s no need to apologise. I once waited a whole day for Quentin Tarantino in New York and he never even turned up. Murphy is all of ten minutes late. My coffee still has froth on it. But his effusive contrition is a mark of the polite, thoughtful, affable, soft-centred sort of movie star Cillian Murphy turns out to be.

A far cry from Tommy Shelby, the chilling, violent, self-medicating demobbed Birmingham gangster he plays in BBC2’s period family crime saga Peaky Blinders, his first TV role after a decade and a half as a leading man in the movies. The 38-year-old Murphy shares Shelby’s hypnotic blue eyes, razor cheekbones and rangy frame, but there the crossover ends.

He’s attired today in a spotty T-shirt and hipster jeans that reveal the Calvin Klein waistband of his pants, and the only clue that he recently completed filming on series two of Peaky Blinders is the grown-out ghost of his severe First World War haircut, shaved high at the back and sides to leave a slicked canopy that’s usually tucked inside a cap whose peak conceals a row of razor blades, trademark of the real Brummie gang whose name gives the show its off-putting title.

It must be something of a liability to bring that haircut home from work, I suggest, as we settle down in front of the hotel’s peat fire. “Yeah, it looks like you’re gonna rob a post office!” he confirms, pouring a monkish glass of sparkling water. “That show completely takes over your life. It’s very hard to walk away from. And you’re left with the f***ing haircut as well!” (He later apologises for swearing.)

Born and raised in the suburbs of Cork, where his folks still live, Cillian (with a hard “K”) Murphy is a low-key kind of star. He eschews the showbiz lifestyle, disinclined to appear on TV chat shows, sashay up red carpets or fall out of taxis for the tabloids – and his refusal to decamp to Hollywood meant that he once flew to LA for a 40-minute lunch with director Wes Craven to clinch the lead in airline thriller Red Eye – but wherever he goes, lithely and blithely, everybody knows him.

They’ll have seen him in Danny Boyle’s contagion thriller 28 Days Later, which put him on the map in 2002; Ken Loach’s stirring fable of the Irish War of Independence, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; Christopher Nolan’s $2.3 billion-gross- ing Dark Knight trilogy in which he played terrifying villain the Scarecrow; or the same director’s mind-bending heist fantasy Inception, which earned Murphy his ninth Irish Film and Television Academy award nomination.

And now he’s done what all self-respecting movie stars do: land the best role of his career on television. Twenty years ago, when Murphy was still trying to decide whether to be a rock star or a lawyer (he dropped out of a law degree at University College Cork after his first year), moving from film to TV was a sign of defeat. But the traffic has changed direction, with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Spacey, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, Kiefer Sutherland, Don Cheadle, James Spader, Kathy Bates, even Twilight’s Taylor Lautner lured to the breadth and depth of long-form TV from the polarised, risk-averse, accountant-led and treacle-slow world of movie production. 

For Murphy, there’s also a third way: theatre. We’re in Dublin because he’s currently appearing at the Olympia Theatre in Ballyturk, the “insanely physical” new play by acclaimed Dublin playwright Enda Walsh, whose Disco Pigs gave our man his first professional acting engagement back in 1996. (Indeed, its subsequent and unexpected international success landed Murphy his first agent.) Ballyturk has since transferred to the National in London.

So how did he end up playing a broad- accented Brummie hoodlum on BBC2, first seen riding into a near-Hogarthian slum on a horse to the anachronistic strains of Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand?

“I was watching all of these shows I loved on TV – House of Cards, The Fall, The Wire – and going, ‘Wow, I want to be in these!’ ” he enthuses. “But I wasn’t getting sent the scripts. So I emphatically said to my agent: I need to do some good television. And that’s when it came along. Oh man, when I read that first scene I was like, ‘I have to play that part! I don’t know what happens next, but I’ve gotta do it. Bareback? To Red Right Hand?’”

I compliment him on his fantastic job on the West Midlands accent – one all too easily associated with light relief after Barry in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, comic Jasper Carrott (whom Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight used to write for), and latterly Ozzy Osbourne. Murphy says he worked hard on getting it right, leaving voicemail messages for Knight in the accent to see how he was getting on. “We also went up to the Garrison pub in Birmingham and sat there drinking Guinness with Steve’s pals for a day.” The Garrison, where Knight’s relatives used to sup, is recreated in the drama.

Comparisons have been made with HBO’s New Jersey-set Boardwalk Empire, another ambitious, cinematic working-class bullet opera told from the other side of the law in the shell- shocked aftermath of the First World War, although Murphy – like Knight – swears he has never seen it. Without the luxury of being on a subscription-funded cable channel, Peaky Blinders was under pressure to pull a decent BBC audience. Its future looked peaky when series one’s overnight ratings shrank from 2.4 million to 1.7 million, but good sense prevailed and it was recommissioned.

Though all concerned are tight-lipped about the content, we do know that the cast, which already boasts Sam Neill, has expanded to include another hot movie property, Tom Hardy – Murphy’s co-star in The Dark Knight Returns and Inception.

“I think the Beeb are cottoning on to the fact that this is something that needs to be supported and allowed to grow,” Murphy says. “That’s what the American networks do so well. Steve’s got this worked out up to the beginning of the Second World War, and I would love to keep playing this character until then.”

He is typically diplomatic about the fact that Peaky Blinders was inexplicably left out of this year’s Bafta nominations, saying, “I’m just thrilled that people love it and have taken it to heart.” I remind him of what Sam Neill said on the night when presenting an award: “I was asked several times coming in here on the red carpet if I was upset that we’d been snubbed by Bafta. I said, ‘No, not at all, I’m fine, we’re fine.’ I was lying.” Murphy smiles ruefully: “I have nothing to add to what Sam said.”

On the subject of the film star becoming a TV star, Murphy is also dismissive. “I would never limit myself. I’m a TV actor, I’m a theatre actor, I’m just a f ***ing actor who tries to find the good work.” Although the one medium through which Murphy won’t be seen acting is filmed theatre – where plays from venues like the NT are beamed into cinemas live. “If you put a camera on the theatre, it dies,” he states, gravely. “Similarly with music, I hate all these YouTube clips, it’s meant to be ephemeral, in the moment. I don’t like live-stream theatre. For me, it’s two worlds colliding that shouldn’t.”

I mention seeing Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet at the cinema; I found it a valuable way in, although I was surprised at the occasional close- up. The very thought almost makes Murphy choke on his bubbles. “Theatre should always be a wide shot. Theatre’s close-up is stillness. What I love, in the theatre, is that I get to act with my body. The idea of someone putting a camera on that – I wouldn’t do it.” 

Murphy will have been working virtually nonstop for 18 months come October, enjoying one day off after wrapping Peaky Blinders before starting rehearsals for Ballyturk. “It’s been kinda ridiculously intense,” he says, “After that I’m definitely taking a break – be normal for a while.” This means spending time with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and their two sons Malachy, eight, and Aran, seven, at their home in north London. He values what he calls “the quiet life”.

He’s a truly grounded type of star. Before he disappears back into the social whirl of Dublin, I ask how he’d like to be described by someone who’s worked with him. Patting away the question as “a little too narcissistic for me”, he eventually plumps for: “I turn up on time.” Ah, not always. 

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Peaky Blinders returns on BBC1 tonight at 9.00pm