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Actor’s Spotlight: Cillian Murphy

Shenzhen Standard's Damien Draxler with 'Inception' star Cillian Murphy.

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With his casual chequered shirt, denim jeans, scruffy brown hair, and heavy Irish accent, Cillian Murphy looks more like a recently graduated university student at first glance than your typical Hollywood star.

Once in front of a camera however, the Cork native sitting next to me immediately springs to life, exuding mystery and danger like few other actors in the industry. At 34 years old, Cillian Murphy ranks among the most respected actors in Hollywood, having dazzled audiences and critics in hits like ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘28 Days Later’. With his starring role in this summer’s runaway box office smash ‘Inception’, Murphy’s career looks set to continue its winning streak well into the next decade and beyond.

As a teenager in Ireland, Cillian – whose name is pronounced with a hard ‘c’ – originally had his sights on becoming a rock star, even managing to secure a five-album deal with a record company in London.  However, after watching a local stage production of A Clockwork Orange, the budding artist switched his focus to acting instead, making his stage debut in the Irish coming-of-age play Disco Pigs in 1996.

Almost immediately, Cillian received acclaim from local critics, going on to tour with the show for over two years across Europe, Australia, and Canada.  Following the play’s success, Murphy received numerous roles in the Irish film industry, starring in independent hits such as 1997’s ‘On the Edge’, the film adaptation of ‘Disco Pigs’ in 2001,  and 2003’s ‘Intermission’ with Colin Farrell, which became the highest grossing Irish independent film in history upon its release.

Cillian Murphy as Jim in '28 Days Later'.

However, Murphy’s true breakthrough as an actor came in 2002, when he was cast in the lead role in British zombie thriller ‘28 Days Later’.  Directed by Danny Boyle, the future Oscar-winning director of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the film became an unexpected worldwide hit, paving the way for Cillian’s eventual Hollywood stardom.

In the film, Murphy plays quiet, reserved bicycle courier Jim, who wakes up at the beginning of the film in a deserted hospital in  London.  Unfortunately for Jim, in the 28 days since he has been a coma, the entire population has been wiped out by a deadly virus, turning all those infected into savage monsters. Together with fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris) and Frank (Brendan Gleeson), Jim embarks on a terrifying journey across post-apocalyptic England, all the while evading the infected closing in behind him.

'28 Days Later' Poster.

When looking back on the film, Murphy admits: “it was very courageous of Danny to cast me in that role when I was that young with so little experience. He let me carry 28 Days Later…” [i] And carry the film Murphy did, providing a classic performance that still ranks among his best roles. From the truly haunting opening in which a terrified Jim wanders through the streets of a deserted London, to the film’s violent climax in a military bunker,  Murphy is both aggressive and sympathetic as a young man thrust into incredible circumstances, taking the audience on an emotional journey rarely seen in the horror genre.  As director Danny Boyle agrees, “the feeling of a child forced to be a man, and by the end of the film, be almost primal…I thought Cillian had that” [ii].

Made for a shoestring budget of $5 million, ’28 Days Later’ ultimately grossed over $82 million worldwide, becoming one of the most profitable horror films of the decade. Additionally, Murphy also received major public attention in the U.S. for the first time, earning nominations for Best Newcomer and Breakthrough Male Performance at the 2003 Empire Awards and 2004 MTV Movie Awards respectively.

Riding on the success of the film, Murphy subsequently made his Hollywood debut in 2003, appearing in supporting roles in high-profile films such as ‘Cold Mountain’ and ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane in 'Batman Begins'.

Once again though, Murphy’s success was only a precursor to greater heights waiting around the corner.  In 2005, the rising star turned to the dark side for his most high-profile role to date:  the twisted super villain Scarecrow in director Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed blockbuster ‘Batman Begins’. Co-starring alongside actors such as Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman, Murphy’s chilling performance was singled out by many critics as one of the film’s highlights, catapulting him to Hollywood’s A-list almost overnight.

When remembering the role, Murphy recalls that “Scarecrow’s got this fear-inducing toxin that is his weapon. So we just discussed that a lot [with the filmmakers], the psychology of fear…” [iii] In the film, the villain’s real identity is Dr. Jonathan Crane, chief administrator at mental hospital Arkham Asylum and a corrupt official on the mob payroll. Although Crane’s public persona is hardly inviting, his chilling alter-ego is truly the stuff of nightmares: using his mind-altering ‘fear gas’, Crane is able to transform into a terrifying monster, compounded by the use of his grotesque ‘scarecrow’ costume. In order to face his fears, Batman must stop the mad doctor and a mysterious enemy from his past from destroying Gotham City before it’s too late.

Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow in 'Batman Begins'.

True to Murphy’s word, the Scarecrow is a genuinely chilling character, possibly the scariest out of all of Batman’s on-screen foes.  Although the hallucinatory scenes with the mask are suitably creepy, Murphy’s best moments are without a costume, where he manages to disturb merely with the stare of his icy, piercing blue eyes. Even director Christopher Nolan went so far as to admit ‘he has the most extraordinary eyes; I kept inventing excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups’.  When evaluating his performance, Murphy concedes that “because he’s not a physically imposing man, [we were] more interested in the manipulation of the mind and what that can do”. [iv]

Since the massive success of ‘Batman Begins’, Murphy has continually reaffirmed his position as one of Hollywood’s most prolific talents. In five years, the Irish thespian has starred in a diverse array of critically acclaimed roles, including a cold-blooded terrorist in Wes Craven’s airplane thriller ‘Red Eye’ (2005), a space scientist in sci-fi thriller ‘Sunshine’ (2007), a transvestite in ‘Breakfast on Pluto (2005), and an Irish freedom fighter in the epic historical drama ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ (2006).

With his latest role in Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi thriller ‘Inception’, Murphy once again has another hit on his hands.

'Inception' poster.

In the film, the actor plays Robert Fischer Jr., the heir to a multi-billion dollar corporate empire and the target of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream heist. Murphy elaborates: “I suppose Robert is in the vernacular of the heist movie as the mark”. [v]

Instead of being mere cannon fodder for the dream team, Murphy’s role is surprisingly deep, imbuing the movie with much of its emotion.

‘[Generally], that role wouldn’t offer as much complexity as I think this one does. So yes, I was surprised. There was some meat on the bone to get sucked into it. I think in terms of the character, obviously Cobb’s emotional journey is primary, but the emotional arc of Fischer is sort of the secondary kind of narrative.’ [vi]

Murphy also remembers the emotional process of preparing for the role.

‘For me its job-by-job. Depends on the role…I played a transvestite once, and you know, just out of respect for that community you need to go spend time with them [and] know what it’s like to live like that. But for other roles where you’re playing a guy that is sort of a version of you, you try to look inwards and take something from inside of you. For this particular role, it’s kind of universal.

Cillian Murphy as Robert Fischer and Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb in 'Inception'.

So I found that fascinating being the father of two sons and obviously having a relationship with my own dad. And I did go and read about the Murdoch family and his two boys and their different ways of dealing with being the son of Rupert Murdoch. And that was fascinating just to read about it.

But the real thing was to find some sort of truth in there with the characters. Some sort of humanity in that character and it was a great privilege to work with Pete Postlethwaite as my dad for those particular kind of emotional scenes.

So yeah, I guess that was the level of research really.’ [vii]

Murphy is also quick to praise the efforts of the film’s director Christopher Nolan.

‘I think if you ask any actor working today if they want to be in a Chris Nolan film they’ll just drop everything and go for it straight away. It’s been a great privilege to work with him a couple of times. I don’t want to embarrass the man but he has so many talents wrapped up in one – to be able to do movies of this scale that have that emotion and to be able to be such a brilliant writer.

Cillian Murphy as Robert Fischer and Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb in 'Inception'.

The thing about working on Chris’s set is it feels really intimate, it doesn’t feel like a big huge movie and you feel really secure and safe and able to experiment and he really makes time for all the performers. He allows you to find stuff and for the seed to grow organically. There couldn’t be a more conducive set to try and do your best work. ’ [viii]

In addition to Murphy, the film also features A-list stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, and Michael Caine.

Leo I’ve admired for a long time, not just his ability as an actor, but also the choices he’s made throughout his career, you know, so to get to work with him was really exciting.

And then Joseph Gordon-Levitt, again, another brilliant actor, and Tom Hardy, who’s just done such amazingly diverse work recently, and Ellen Page, who we all love, who I worked with last year actually, so it’s great to be working with her again. And then Marion Cotillard, who is phenomenal…and Sir Michael Caine topping it all off.  Really, the list goes on, and it’s great to be working with such a wonderful cast.’ [ix]

Christopher Nolan, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ellen Page on the set of 'Inception'.

And finally, what overall impression should audiences leave the film with?

“I wouldn’t prescribe anything, I’d say it’s so open to interpretation, and it offers so much [on so many different levels]. If you want to go for thrills and spills, it’s got that, if you want to be challenged cerebrally, it’s got that, if you want to go for a big emotional experience, you’ve got the emotional stuff that Leo and Marion go through, which is really heavy and involving. It’s just got everything”. [x]

Likewise, Murphy himself truly has everything going for him at this point in his career. Whereas superstars such as Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson have never been less popular, their bizarre personal lives completely overshadowing their work, the reverse is true of the ‘Inception’ star.  An actor first, a celebrity later, Murphy is ceaselessly dedicated to his craft, having amassed a multitude of classic roles in just nine years in the industry. Undoubtedly, Cillian Murphy’s legend will only increase in the decade to come.

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[i] Layne, Stacey (July 17 2007). http://www.horror.com/php/article-1655-1.html/. Horror.com

[ii] Layne, Stacey (July 17 2007). http://www.horror.com/php/article-1655-1.html/. Horror.com

[iii] Murray, Rebecca (July 29 2004). http://movies.about.com/od/batman/a/batman072304.htm/. About.com: Hollywood Movies

[iv] Smith, Adam (July 2005). “The Scarecrow”. Empire: p. 77.

[v] Giroux, Jack (29 July 2010). http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/interviews/interview-sharing-inception-theories-with-cillian-murphy.php/. Film School Rejects.

[vi] Giroux, Jack (29 July 2010). http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/interviews/interview-sharing-inception-theories-with-cillian-murphy.php/. Film School Rejects.

[vii] Weintraub, Steve (July 19 2010). http://www.collider.com/2010/07/19/inception-cillian-murphy-interview-batman-3-at-swim-two-birds/. Collider.com

[viii] Carnevale, Rob (July 16 2010). http://web.orange.co.uk/article/film/inception-cillian-murphy-ken-watanabe/. Orange Film News.

[ix] Brown, Lyla (July 20 2010). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4BL5IOecvE/. Entertainment Weekly.

[x] Harding, Robert (July 21 2010). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMoB3JHXz58&feature=related/. Star Movies.


6 Comments for “Actor’s Spotlight: Cillian Murphy”

  1. Great service. Fully appreciate the list, as collecting backlinks is definitely one of the most difficult aspects of SEO and staying online. It’s hard to find people willing to share their lists to help others, and I tip my hat to you for it.

  2. Great Review Damien
    You obviously have a natural talent for this.
    Very professionally presented coupled with in depth research.
    Please put me on your mailing list, it would also be nice to see your reviews on classic movies as well as new releases.

  3. wow great article … loved it…
    and love murphy too.. he has survived by virtue of sheer talent .. and in this fake world of glamor and scandals.. its a huge accomplishment ..
    hope to see him soon and more movies.. though he probably should not be in Hollywood thrash .. thats a sheer waste of his talent ..
    best of luck cillian ..you have a long career ahead of you …

  4. Wow, nice review Damien! I did not know you wrote for Shenzhen Standard! ^^
    Mr Damien, the film critic…I like it! You have what it takes, mate, keep at it….

  5. Cool that you have a photo with Cillian Murphy, a great review of this actor. You look like a film start too.

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The Contributor

Damien Draxler is Shenzhen Standard's exclusive film critic and entertainment journalist, and is one of South China's most prolific English language writers. Originally from Australia, Mr. Draxler has lived in China since 2006, and currently resides in Hong Kong.

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