Cillian Murphy

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

With a pair of steely blue eyes equally able to charm females or scare the hell out of the entire filmgoing public, Irish actor Cillian Murphy portrays both everyman heroes and ultra-bizarre villains with skill, style, and a certain amount of apparent emotional nakedness. The revelations are all on the stage and screen, because Cillian appears to be yet another boringly down-to-earth professional and family man who keeps the press at arm’s length and has led an apparently gossip-proof life. He was born within six days and a couple of hundred miles of fellow Irishman Colin Farrell, but the similarities end there.

Born in 1976 to a family of educators in Ireland’s Cork, Cillian’s first creative love was music. Though he dabbled in acting, the young Frank Zappa fan’s primary creative outlet was his band, the Sons of Mr. Greengenes. After the band spurned a dicey record deal, however, Cillian took a brief stab at a life of “real” work when he began law school, but it was obvious pretty soon that a legal career wasn’t going to be in the cards. At about the same time, he began to do more acting. Although he has claimed he wasn’t serious at first, he must have been doing something right, because very shortly thereafter obtained the lead in the quirky play, “Disco Pigs.” The show was supposed to have a brief run, but it turned into a surprise international hit, so it was a permanent goodbye to both the law and Mr. Greengenes.

After that, Cillian appeared in a number of English plays and independent films, including the film version of “Disco Pigs”. That led to his casting as the lead in director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland’s ensemble nouveau zombie tale, “28 Days Later” – establishing him as a go-to guy for genre films. That was followed by parts in both “Cold Mountain” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” –establishing him as a go-to guy for the kind of films that get Oscar nominations.

That put him on the short list of up-and-coming actors, but he still wasn’t quite what you would call famous. That would change in 2005 with two key genre roles. Cillian lost the role of playboy-crime fighter Bruce Wayne to Christian Bale, but director Christopher Nolan was properly impressed and allowed him the chance to frighten the bejesus out of audiences as the psychiatrist-gone-way-bad Scarecrow in “Batman Begins.” Even though he was technically only a second-banana supervillain, he nearly stole the show from the film’s main bad guy, Cillian’s good friend and mentor, Liam Neeson.

Cillian also scored a starring role in 2005 as the subtly named Jackson Rippner, the initially charming assassin who menaces Rachel McAdams in Wes Craven’s modest hit thriller, “Red Eye.” Even when Cillian’s films were greeted with something less than universal enthusiasm, most critics had nothing but praise for Cillian and he wound up with a Golden Globe nomination as a transgendered Northern Irish glam rocker on the run in Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto”

Since then, Cillian appears to have somewhat avoided the “superstar” path, while carefully pursuing the “working actor” niche – though major league stardom might well find him despite himself. His biggest traditional starring role so far has been as a sensitive young doctor turned conflicted IRA freedom fighter in Ken Loach’s multi-award winning “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” which earned international acclaim and controversy and became the most successful Irish independent film of all time. More of a disappointment was his 2007 reunion with the “28 Days Later” team for the ambitious outer space thriller, “Sunshine.” Still, there’s plenty of others roles to come and, despite his resistance to publicity, he’s just one monster hit away from having the most famous pair of baby-blues since Paul Newman. He’ll just have to deal with it.

On the Screen

As far as we know, Cillian has never turned in a dull performance. But so far, our favorites are two poles-apart performances. No surprise that one of them is probably his best known role so far, as shrink-gone-very-bad Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. Scarecrow. We can’t remember anyone transitioning between over-controlled nerd to terrifying insane psychopath with more style. The other was his role as a doctor who reluctantly becomes an IRA hero, and a killer, in “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” Director Ken Loach is known for his ardent realism and Cillian’s fame in the UK was less of an asset in obtaining the role than the fact that he is an actual native of County Cork where the film is set –Loach will brook no fake accents. Even so, the director asked him to audition several times. In any case, Loach loved the results and the young actor more than earns his place onscreen. An early scene in which his sense of duty forces him to kill a likable teenager who has betrayed his IRA cell is so well done it’s hard to watch. Cillian’s face shows us just how big a price his character is paying – and will continue to pay for the rest of his life.

Cillian Says

On doing non-Irish accents:
“You’re an actor who’s Irish, not an Irish actor. And you shouldn’t be limited by your extraction.”

On playing Scarecrow:
“I can have a bit of fun with it, too, because my only motivation really is being bad. I love doing proper dramatic character studies, but it’s also good to have a but of fun, dress up and stuff”.

On being a thespian:
“That’s what acting is about … Funny wigs and voices, that’s what we do.”

On what drives him:
“I think there’s such a thing as a performance gene. If it’s in your DNA it needs to come out. For me it originally came out through music, then segued into acting and came out through there. I always needed to get up and perform.”

And yet people still compare them…:
“But I don’t look like Colin Farrell, I don’t behave like Colin Farrell, and I do different movies than Colin Farrell.”