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Cillian Murphy has been chased by zombies in 28 Days Later and scared Batman as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins. Cool roles in cool movies. But in Red Lights, he gets to act with a couple of people he’s always admired — Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver — and takes a wicked beating. Without giving too much away, Murphy plays a scientist who helps Weaver debunk spiritualists and mediums; De Niro plays the most powerful mentalist of them all.

At one point, Murphy’s character ends up in a bathroom and, well, things don’t go well. Ouch. He talked about the fight, about working with idols and more.

How do you make a beating on film look real?
It’s just a lot of rehearsal. It’s about being enthusiastic for it. I really enjoy the physical aspects of acting. It can get a little bit too intellectual if you’re not careful. If it’s well-coordinated and well-choreographed, it should look good. In this particular film, people may say that it’s quite brutal, but in terms of the narrative it needs to be that violent, that brutal, for the story to evolve.

How long would you rehearse a scene like that?
We rehearsed it right at the beginning of the shoot and then we shot it right at the end. We shot it over two days. It took quite a while to shoot it. With that stuff, as long as the director knows exactly what coverage he needs and exactly what shots he needs, if no one’s sitting around and no one’s getting hurt for no reason, then it’s great. Any bruises and stuff like that, that’s like a badge of honor.

It’s hard to say much about “Red Lights” without giving too much away, but your character does show a lot of range. Presumably that attracted you to the role?
Yeah, of course. I think any actor would talk about arc of a character. That’s the kind of stuff you look for. Particularly with this character, he starts off as one thing and hopefully the idea is that he’s kind of a secondary character and he’s not very important. And as the narrative evolves, you begin to realize that he’s important in the story. I enjoy that stuff. The way the film is structured is not conventional. It’s kind of like a movie of two halves. It’s quite bold, what (director Rodrigo Cortés) does in terms of his lead characters. It’s hard to talk about it. … When I read the script, I was intrigued by the fact that I could not predict where it was going to go. And unfortunately, a lot of times nowadays you can kind of predict where scripts are going.

It’s a pretty big-name cast.
Yeah, it really is. I felt totally blessed and honored to be in that company. You never sign on to a movie because of the cast. You sign on because of the script — well, I personally always sign on because of the script, and hopefully you figure other people will sign on because they enjoyed the script. This happened in this case. Rodrigo would say he got his first choices in all of the roles. So I got to work with a couple of my heroes, people who have influenced me significantly growing up. That was pretty special.

Ha. You’ve been in some pretty good movies yourself, you know.
I know, but Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, they’re in a different category completely. They’re in the legend category, the icon category. They are people who, when I was a teenager, myself and my brother would have rented their movies on VHS and watched them before I had any inkling of becoming an actor. They were heroes. It’s something different. …
But, having said that, when you get down to the work, you do need to go, “Right. Don’t drop the ball here, you’re here for a reason, you’ve got to do justice to the scene.” But I’ve always found with any of these people I’ve worked with, when the camera turns over and the director says, “Action,” the actors are there to help each other. I’ve never experienced anything but people being supportive or generous.


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