There’s “high and tight,” and then there’s the haircut Cillian Murphy must get – with an electric razor, shaved sometimes daily, during four-month stints over the last decade. It’s a cut he used to find ridiculous, but now finds . . . tolerable (if not sometimes unflattering), and yet it’s also one so popular because of him that men from Cork County to Orange County need only two words to copy: they sit before their barbers and bark, “Give me the Peaky Blinders!”
The cut, a “texturised crop,” requires the sides shaved to the skin, the top left long, and the front pushed forward. Before its recent revival, the cut was worn by late Victorian English street gangs; long hair was thought disadvantageous for fights, also lice. Murphy is wearing the cut now, though a more mature variation, with the sides a bit longer, his hair a touch greyer. “It’s a slightly less severe cut this year,” explains the Irish actor, who is currently on set filming the final season of Peaky Blinders – the BBC series named after the textured crop gang, the gang named after their peaked hats and razor blades (for blinding, not shaving) sewn therein. Murphy plays the gang’s leader, Thomas Shelby, sporting perhaps the most severe version of the haircut. “Last [season] it was a zero blade. So that was [shaved] every day,” Murphy says blankly.
Murphy, who lives in Dublin, has been in Manchester since January finishing the series. He was originally due on-set last March. The plotline is, by now, near cliché: everything shuts down, everything gets delayed, everyone goes home. For the Irish, lockdown meant only grocery trips and nothing more than a mile or so from one’s doorstep. Murphy, however, wasn’t too upset.
“I actually was really into it; I love not working,” he says with a guilty smile. The expression is peak introvert – the face perking at the thought of canceled plans – and no one relishes downtime more than Murphy, who makes a point to take six months to a year off between projects. The break allows him to be a “normal civilian,” walk around, go to the shops. “I find the ancillary aspects of being an actor or being in showbiz dull and draining,” he says summarily.
The actor’s privateness is well known among fans and reporters. He’s never in the news. Fellow Dubliners don’t bother him. He doesn’t do too many interviews. “My life is very simple,” he explains. “I read a lot of books. I watch a lot of movies. Listen to a lot of music. Walk the dog. Cook. Be with my family.” He describes himself as “boring.” He is always on time.
While the past year granted Murphy some extended introversion – marking the longest break for the actor since he began 25 years ago – the year ultimately delayed a transition into Murphy’s next career phase. That phase will open this month with Murphy’s return to sci-fi horror in A Quiet Place Part II. The film, originally set to premiere on March 8, 2020 will now, more than a year later, become the biggest blockbuster to hit theatrical release since. Murphy will help usher in what hopefully becomes a return to movie-going normalcy.
Then Murphy will retire his most iconic role in Peaky Blinder’s final season—due out later this year, or early next. He has played the series lead, a tortured Thomas Shelby, since 2013, a role he never imagined would span six seasons, a reported 3,000+ nicotine-free cigarettes, and hundred – hundreds – of haircuts. He’ll be getting his last “textured crop” very soon. He’s not sure how to feel.
“It’ll be very strange,” Murphy says about retiring Shelby. “I think probably when I stop, like a few months in, I’ll have to process the fact that I may not play him again. I’ll have to deal with that. But right now, I’m just still in it.”
And “it”—this year—has been more than enough to handle.
A traumatised World War I veteran turned illegal bookkeeper, turned mafioso, turned Borgia-style politician – Thomas Shelby – is perhaps the most brutal and conflicted and most un-Murphy character Murphy has ever inhabited. He loves it. Though, at times, the cost has been something precious to Murphy: his privacy. It’s one of the reasons he generally dislikes the haircut. “We dragged him out, [because] he quite likes to just go home, take a bath, and go to bed,” Quiet Place co-star Emily Blunt recently joked of an attempted normal social evening. The night ended with Blunt having to smuggle Murphy out of a restaurant when a Peaky Blinders-themed bachelorette party rolled up outside. They would have torn him apart.
The series has become a worldwide obsession, from David Beckham adding a Peaky collaboration to his clothing line to Snoop Dog writing a cover of the show’s theme song. (Snoop told writer/creator Steven Knight the series reminded him of what initially drew him to gang culture.) But that sensation requires hard work and a large time commitment. Each season demands an intense four to five months of shooting, filmed out of order, and with long dialogue scenes staged almost like theatre.
Because of this commitment, Murphy is spending a cloudy afternoon learning lines. He doesn’t seem to mind. The actor, in fact, began his career in theatre – at 20 – and has continued theatrical work ever since. His cinematic breakout came in 2001 with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, a surprise hit which inspired scenes in The Walking Dead and an entire era of zombie-running horror. In that genre, Murphy’s face remains iconic.
Murphy has been out of the sci-fi horror genre for some time since. He doesn’t discriminate based on genre; he chooses roles based on scripts. In 2018, he went to see A Quiet Place in theatres with his two sons, then 11 and 12—“but they were the right age; they are pretty sophisticated when it comes to films,” he adds, proudly. The Murphys were “knocked out.”
“I was so impressed by what John [Krasinski] had achieved that I penned an email to him,” Murphy remembers. “And I actually wrote the whole thing. And then at the end, I just got too embarrassed, and I didn’t send it.” A year later, it was Krasinski who reached out to Murphy, asking him to be a part of the sequel. He sent Murphy the script.
Murphy is selective about his films. His commitment to Peaky Blinders and his home sojourn between seasons means he hasn’t taken on too many additional roles over the last several years. When he does, he’s drawn by directors. Murphy has been in five Christopher Nolan films, his most recent, Dunkirk, where he played a shivering, traumatised soldier. It was a smaller role in the film, but the most emotionally charged. With A Quiet Place Part II, Murphy saw an equally complex challenge and another director whose vision he wanted to follow. “He understands how actors work,” Murphy says of Krasinski. “He knows what sort of fragile, delicate creatures we are. The notes that he gives are very, very subtle.”
Murphy’s character, Emmett, was also a huge draw. “He is someone that is at the same stage of life as me, and that has had a family and has experienced grief.” Murphy says these mature roles are something he’s looking forward to inhabiting more often, roles that align with his own life—“as a dad, as a husband, as a middle-aged person dealing with all that shit.” He found all that shit with Emmett, who, after an extraterrestrial invasion, lost his entire family, a prospect that appears to be the most horrifying plotline for Murphy. “Actors always talk about, ‘Oh, man, I went on a journey, the character’s journey,’” Murphy says ironically. “Well, [Emmitt] actually does—geographically and emotionally.”
Murphy characterises his own journey as traditionally Irish: growing up in Ireland, wanting out, moving to England, missing Ireland, then returning home. Though he can speak endlessly about the craft, Murphy has no formal acting training, a dearth he said made him self-conscious when he first moved to London in his mid-20s to pursue the craft. “I did feel like a little bit of an interloper,” Murphy explains, “but it was less to do with my extraction, and more to do with my own confidence, really.” Even decades later with added experience, Murphy says he’s still balancing confidence with “crippling insecurity.” He says he needs both to make “vulnerable, honest work.”
The outcome of that work is a testament to Murphy’s self-trained skill. Murphy’s lifestyle seems wildly incompatible with the frenetic energy needed to play characters like Shelby. Yet he does it with seeming ease. Still, one of the reasons Murphy takes off between roles is likely shear exhaustion. That exhaustion isn’t just physical. Filming Peaky scenes are intense, “charged,” Murphy says, especially because of Shelby. “There is so much good in him,” the actor explains, “but then there’s also this conflict and this violence and this trauma.” These are the roles Murphy lives for, though they can take their toll. “You have to give yourself a lot of self-care during [filming],” he says. “Look after yourself, get enough sleep, eat well, stay fit, because you’re on pretty much every day.”
Filming Peaky has been especially difficult this year for another reason. In April, four months into filming, series regular Helen McCrory passed away in her London home after a battle with cancer. McCrory had played Poly, the Shelby family leader and mother figure to Murphy’s Thomas Shelby, since the first episode in 2013. Murphy was off set the day he and everyone else heard the news.
“We’re all still deeply, deeply saddened,” Murphy says. “I’m deeply saddened and still trying to get over it. It’s hard to think of the series without her. She was so much a part of that. And always my favourite storylines were the Poly/Tommy storylines.” The season, Murphy says, will be dedicated to McCrory.
McCrory’s absence will make the final season especially charged for viewers as well. The word Murphy and the crew have been using to describe the final season is “gothic.” “Very big themes and big emotions,” Murphy explains. “It feels like a climax of something.” In other words, unlike its spiritual predecessor in The Sopranos, Peak Blinders will go out with a bang. Audiences will not be unmoved.
After almost a decade with the series, Murphy, too, seems ready to look beyond 20th century Birmingham. He has no idea what lies ahead for him, though when the uncertainty is mentioned he perks up again, smiling. “I don’t really know, man! I haven’t begun to think about it,” he says. Murphy is just happy to have arrived at this moment, middle age and all that shit. “You just can’t compete with the 20-year-old version of yourself that you carry around in your head,” the actor explains. “The thing that being older brings – experience, family, the comforting reassurance of home – all of that stuff I’m really into. I’m very cool with being almost 45,” he concludes with an ear-spanning smile. “I’m into it.”
Whatever the future holds, Murphy knows that once he wraps in Manchester, it’s time for a much-needed staycation. He’ll be returning to Dublin, turning off his phone, and growing out his hair. He’s excited. He’s got a lot of reading and dog walking to catch up on.
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