He’s Ireland’s quiet man but Cillian Murphy couldn’t help but be impressed by Robert De Niro, as he told film critic Tony Earnshaw.
If the old saying is to be believed, then ordinary folk should run a mile from their heroes for fear of being underwhelmed by their feet of clay.
Cue Cillian Murphy. The 36-year-old heartthrob from Cork is one of Ireland’s premier film exports and a man who takes his private life with his wife and kids seriously.
So he could be forgiven for drooling into his soup when he had dinner with Robert De Niro, his co-star, along with Sigourney Weaver, in Red Lights. Except, of course, there was no drooling. Murphy simply isn’t the type.
“It is very hard to talk about him and Sigourney without resorting to cliché, [but] it was a dream come true and all of those things,” he says.
“Even before I had dreamt about being an actor I would have watched his movies and Sigourney’s. They would have been heroes of mine so to actually be in a room working with them was ridiculous.
“But I have had the pleasure and the great luck to work with some incredible actors over the years and you have to observe and learn and take something from it and try and become better yourself.”
Murphy has indeed enjoyed the company of some significant artistes, from directors Ken Loach and Christopher Nolan to actors Colin Firth, Renée Zellweger and Keira Knightley. One assumes, however, that in De Niro and Weaver he had to pinch himself.
“The most outstanding thing for me was that they still had this joy in [acting] after all these years – a real immersion in it. [For] Sigourney, it is a huge amount of research, a lot of discussion. For De Niro it seems to be all about the detail of it. The man has presence. I think these guys must know the effect they have on an actor of my generation, but they were so generous to me.”
Playing a physicist and partner to Weaver’s career de-bunker of so-called paranormal phenomena in Red Lights allowed Murphy to investigate the skeptics and the people they target, like psychic Simon Silver (De Niro), a play-to-the-gallery showman who is as much Barnum as he is Uri Geller.
“I am boringly rational,” he admits. “I have never seen anything that can’t be explained. I don’t mind the showbusiness aspect of [psychics] – that is harmless, really. But the stuff that gets dark is when people who are vulnerable, who are sick or who have lost somebody start throwing money at these guys.”
Murphy’s involvement in a picture like Red Lights,with its Hollywood icons, puzzles those who like to type-cast him as a villain. Yet he has kept a foot squarely in two camps – low-budget independent films and comic-book blockbusters. He’s enjoyed a 14-year career thus far, cutting his teeth on short films before 28 Days Later rocketed him to fame. In 2002 he auditioned for the role of Batman in Batman Begins. He didn’t get it, landing the role of the Scarecrow instead.
But in the 10 years since he’s kept busy in intelligent dramas such as Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley or Nolan’s oeuvre of Batman movies and Inception. Working with Nolan was, he says, a no-brainer.
“I had seen Following and Memento and Insomnia and just thought he was a sensational director. I didn’t really know the Batman world, so for me it was just to get to meet him. Then I got to work on it and realised the scale of it and how important it was to everybody. I felt a great responsibility to the fans and to playing a villain in a Batman movie. It is a big deal.”
Rumour has it that Murphy reprises his role as the Scarecrow in the third Batman epic, The Dark Knight Rises. He smiles an enigmatic smile.
“It’s coming out in July, isn’t it? So we don’t have long to wait.”
And that, as they say, is that.
Red Lights (15) is on nationwide release.
From rock star to scarecrow
Cillian Murphy was born on May 25, 1976 in Cork.
His first incarnation was as a rock star, but after turning down a record deal, he made his first professional acting debut in the play Disco Pigs in 1996.
Working regularly on the stage and in films, he came to international attention in 2003 as the lead in post-apocalyptic drama 28 Days Later.
He has made something of a name for himself playing villains, from the Scarecrow in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight to Jackson Rippner in the thriller Red Eye.
He has twice been nominated for a Golden Globe.