Cillian Murphy’s strange journey from jazz crooner to ‘the greatest actor of his generation’

Cillian Murphy in Los Angeles, February 2024
Cillian Murphy in Los Angeles, February 2024 - Chris Pizzello/Invision

If you were thirsty and bored enough, you could play a perfectly good – albeit lethal – drinking game based solely on the magazine profiles of Cillian Murphy. At a certain level, every actor comes with a set of observations that seem mandatory for journalists to include, but Murphy more than most.

Scanning through, you could drink one finger, perhaps, for the first mention of him absolutely despising interviews unless they’re about his work – a declaration usually attached to a light-hearted warning the writer “could be in for a long hour.” Take a shot whenever his startling pale eyes are lauded, and perhaps an extra one if there’s either an aquatic and/or hypnotic metaphor employed.

Big sips for “prefers the quiet life”, “low key”, or “refuses to play the fame game”; another for his being a frustrated musician; for how he manages to look both innocent and menacing, as employed to such great effect as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders; and for still being able to pass as a teenager at 47. And finish your drink if you come across the idea his career has been a slow-burn. The annoying thing is that they’re all true.

But such is the careful, limited self-image built – deliberately or not – by Cillian Murphy over more than two decades as a screen actor. The movies do the talking, and they’re usually interesting enough. As he puts it: “I didn’t see myself as a personality [...] My job is to portray other people. The less that people know about me the better.”

Mercifully, over the next month, a new epithet is likely to be added to all future Murphy profiles, and one which may just kill off the “slow-burn” thing forever: “Bafta and Oscar-winner.” The former is now sealed after his all-consuming performance as the title character in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer saw him win Best Actor at the Baftas on Sunday; it’s now odds-on the Academy Award will follow on March 10.

It’ll be interesting to watch him. There is a whole genre of internet memes dedicated to Murphy looking so devastatingly aloof in showbiz situations as to appear under the influence of a heavy sedative. The cover of the latest issue of GQ went viral for similar reasons: despite being so beautiful, Murphy has an unrivalled ability to look bored and incongruous around glamour. Yet he’s looking forward to the Oscars, where he’s nominated for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. He swears.

“You’d be an eejit not to enjoy it,” Murphy told Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs recently. “I have struggled with it in the past and you know, it’s not something I’m ever totally at ease with – but I think you have to, like, choose to enjoy it and I think you can do that in your brain, just make that alteration and it’s easier then.” It’s surely made a tiny bit easier by the fact that, barring a surprise victory for Paul Giamatti’s work in The Holdovers, he’ll probably come away with a nice shiny souvenir.

Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer
Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer

Much has been made of how Nolan managed to make almost a billion dollars at the box office with what Denis Villeneuve called “a three-hour movie about people talking about nuclear physics” and what others have described, not inaccurately, as “mostly men talking in rooms.” (The “mostly” is doing some work there, given it’s also about a massive bomb.)

Yet just as satisfying is the fact it’s led by Murphy, a man who seems pathologically unsuited to starring in just about the biggest film of the year; whose only real common thread between the characters he’s played over the last 25 years, from The Wind That Shakes the Barley to Peaky Blinders are “complex men who look a bit like Cillian Murphy and probably chain-smoke”; and who deserves to be recognised for his talents, even if he doesn’t care either way. Nolan calls him “the greatest actor of his generation.” It’s becoming difficult to quibble with that.

As a child, Murphy famously didn’t hold ambitions to act at all. The eldest of four siblings in a family of teachers, his first love was music. With school friends in Cork, he set up an acid jazz-inspired band, Sons of Mr Green Genes (the name was inspired by a Frank Zappa song) that were relatively successful. “I think there’s such a thing,” Murphy once said, “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.”

There exists a magnificent archive RTE news clip in which a teenage Murphy, who played rhythm guitar and sang, is interviewed about the band in the mid-90s. In a much stronger Cork accent than he possesses today, he rambles with unprecedented loquaciousness to the reporter about the essence of jazz – doing so in a way only an extremely earnest young man with questionable sideburns can. But at one point he turns to the camera and, with those eyes and that face, briefly gazes at it. The camera doesn’t so much love him as instantly marry him. As one YouTube comment puts it: “He should get into acting.”

And he did, appearing first in the Enda Walsh play Disco Pigs while he took part in a drama module run at school by the local theatre group Corcadorca. In the same month, August 1996, Sons of Mr Green Genes were offered a record deal but turned it down. He also met the artist Yvonne McGuinness at a gig. They married eight years later, have two teenage sons, and live by the sea in a Dublin suburb.

“I now look back and go, Oh, s___, I didn’t know then how important all these things were – the sort of domino effect that they would have on my life,” Murphy told GQ. He doesn’t see that serendipity as a sign of a greater power. “I love the chaos and the randomness. I love the beauty of the unexpected.”

Christian Bale and Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins
Christian Bale and Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins - Alamy

Amusingly, in hindsight at least, all early interviews pitch Murphy as “Ireland’s next Colin Farrell” – albeit “one who seems less likely to be caught tomcatting around or brawling drunkenly at premieres”. They were correct on the latter point, though in reality Murphy was never going to follow Farrell, who was born in the same month, into action films or superhero roles. (He auditioned for the part of Batman once, but Nolan felt he’d be better in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight as the Scarecrow, a sadistic professor who wears a burlap sack to terrorise people.)

Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie drama 28 Days Later saw him stagger, blinking into the mainstream, as well as into Nolan’s purview, before he played a transgender woman in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005), and an IRA fighter in Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006). He moved back in with his parents to film the latter; McGuinness was expecting their first child. But Murphy puts it better: “I was living at home with my folks; my wife was pregnant with our son; and we were running around the hills of west Cork shooting up Black and Tans. Fantastic!”

Murphy insists he rarely watches his own films, especially “the ones I hear are not good”, but in reality that’s a short list. Early bit-parts in Cold Mountain and Girl With the Pearl Earring introduced him to Hollywood. Nolan’s Inception and Boyle’s Sunshine, the latter of which he shadowed and copied the mannerisms of Professor Brian Cox for, were the kind of high-concept hits that paved the way for a slew of tricksy sci-fi blockbusters released in the 2010s.

Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later
Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later - Alamy

Even the B-movies, like 2005’s Red Eye, in which Rachel McAdams stabs him in the throat with a biro, have a cult following. The less said about Watching the Detectives, a romcom with Lucy Liu; and In Time, with Justin Timberlake, the better. But nobody saw them. Murphy certainly didn’t, if he’s following his own rule. On stage, often working with Walsh, he’s been similarly eclectic and discerning.

Though Oppenheimer is often sold as the first time Murphy has led a film after years as a supporting player, Boyle noticed it more than 20 years ago. Murphy, he’s said, “has that thing. Beyond acting technique is this strange thing that makes you put your hopes and fears into him as a lead actor.” Nolan first caught the eyes. “I kept trying to invent excuses for him to take his glasses off in close-ups.” They really do get people: “Cillian Murphy’s eyes. AIBU to be mesmerised” asks a Mumsnet user, in a thread within the site’s legendary “Am I Being Unreasonable?” section. Consensus among the replies: no, absolutely not.

Yet it was a TV role, in Peaky Blinders, that changed his life. Steven Knight’s BBC series about a criminal dynasty in interwar Birmingham, in which Murphy played Tommy Shelby, the terrifying gang leader, made him a global star. (He beat Jason Statham to the role, so the enshrined lore has it, by texting Knight to say, “Remember, I’m an actor.”) Over six series, Peaky was the most searched for Netflix show in the world during the pandemic, and is responsible for a generational spate of severe haircuts, bovver boots and bakerboy hats from which Britain is still recovering.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders
Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders - Robert Viglasky/BBC

Murphy weathered the storm of fan interest in the show, and in him, by being himself. “I really don’t go out much,” he said when the show was ending, “And people are so underwhelmed when they encounter me, so I’m very happy with that. And I’m always happy to chat.” When he turned 40, he announced that after a wilder-than-we’d-believe few decades in London he was “ready for a bit more… decorum, I guess? A bit more moderation? Still enjoying being a young man, but looking over the wall into the other side, you know?”

Mostly, it seems, he hangs out in his basement, making playlists for his excellent on/off BBC 6 Music shows, running at night to clear his head (he used to do competitive half marathons and 10Ks), walking the dog and taxiing his children around. In Cork, he co-curates an arts festival, Sounds from a Safe Harbour, with Walsh and others. Many of his friends are artists or musicians, but hardly any are actors. His younger son, Aran, 16, has followed Murphy into the business, first in the stage adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and soon with Amy Adams Jenna Ortega in Taika Waititi’s Klara and The Sun.

“A bit more moderation” is working out in one sense, then, but it also meant taking on the biggest role of his life. J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the nuclear bomb, “was dancing between the raindrops morally. He was complex, contradictory, polymathic; incredibly attractive intellectually and charismatic, but,” Murphy told the Guardian, he was “ultimately unknowable.”

Oppenheimer involved years of research and preparation, weight loss, thousands more herbal cigarettes and a commitment to the project (he is in almost every frame) that rendered socialising with his co-stars and crew impossible. Yet still they adored him. “He’s just a lovely, sane person. He’s so, so sane. And yet he’s got such wildness in him in the parts that he’s able to play,” Emily Blunt told GQ.

In A-list, leading actor circles, being called “so, so sane” is akin to being declared a demigod, or a unicorn. Murphy was asked last week how on earth he decompressed after filming eventually finished on Oppenheimer. “Eh, I had a big sandwich and a pint of Guinness,” he said. So sane.

Blunt was a nominee alongside Murphy in 2006, when they were both shortlisted for the Bafta Rising Star Award. Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw and the eventual winner Eva Green completed the list. This weekend, 18 years on, he was back at the Baftas – no longer a rising star, but certainly still a reluctant one.

Emily Blunt, Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of Oppenheimer
Emily Blunt, Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy on the set of Oppenheimer - AP/Melinda Sue Gordon

Around awards season, though, he has been back at work. His plus-one at the Baftas was Max Porter, the writer of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, the stage adaptation of which Murphy starred in at the Barbican a few years ago; they’re currently adapting Porter’s novel Lanny for Netflix.

Meanwhile, last week Murphy was premiering his next film, Small Things Like These, an adaptation of the Claire Keegan novella about Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, at the Berlin Film Festival on Thursday. Murphy, who also produced the film, plays a quiet, complex man in it, of course. This paper’s review called his performance “very special” and conducted with a “hypnotic grace”.

But in three weeks’ time, with the eyes of the world on the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, he may well get an even greater prize than the Bafta, one which blows up this most enigmatic of actors and most interesting of careers into another league entirely.

A colleague once asked Murphy how he handles fame and recognition. “It’s never been a problem for me,” he replied. “I think the boat has sailed for me in terms of becoming a celebrity. And I’m quite happy with that.”

That was in 2011. Cillian – Bafta and Oscar-winner in waiting – we’ve bad news for you. The ship has only just set off.