The batsuit was too roomy, the Irish actor tells Amy Raphael, but he’s got in shape for a mad, bad Birmingham gangster
A six-part BBC drama set in the lawless slums of Birmingham in 1919 doesn’t sound like the obvious formula for a television hit. And yet Peaky Blinders is one of the most eagerly anticipated series of the autumn, already being breathlessly compared to The Sopranos and Gangs of New York. The drama, which follows the mob boss Tommy Shelby as he battles to perform his illegal trade in betting protection and guns, is no predictable period drama. Instead it’s a bold gangster western with music by Nick Cave and the White Stripes. Best of all, it stars the 37-year-old Irish actor Cillian Murphy as Shelby.
Murphy made his name in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie flick 28 Days Later. He is equally at home in Hollywood blockbusters as in British indie films, equally comfortable on stage as on screen. In 2011 his one-man performance in Enda Walsh’s Misterman at the National Theatre won several awards. He scared us all as Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and used his slightly feminine looks to play a transvestite in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. He returned to Boyle to play a space scientist in Sunshine and to Nolan to take the part of a billionaire industrialist in Inception.
One of Murphy’s best film roles was also thoroughly indie, playing a medical student who becomes a volunteer for the IRA in Ken Loach’s 2006 Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Murphy has what Boyle calls “a wonderful otherness” about him. It’s too easy to label him ethereal because of his celestial blue eyes, but he often has a stillness on stage and screen that belies the fire in his belly. “He was a big risk on 28 Days Later,” says Boyle. “We knew he’d be fantastic for the start of the film, where he comes round in an abandoned hospital and he’s bewildered and lost. What we didn’t know was if he could do the terrible violence at the end of the film. F*** me, could he! Cillian is very soft in many ways, but there’s a huge power to him too. It makes sense when you know he’s from Cork, where so many fighting men came from.”
As Murphy tells it, he was watching TV at home in northwest London last summer and wondering idly why he hadn’t been offered more small-screen roles. “I called my agent and the next day he sent me a script. I was like, ‘Peaky what?’ But the the writing and storytelling were really something. It was so ambitious and clever.”
Peaky Blinders director Otto Bathurst describes it as “like Blade Runner set in Birmingham in 1919” – in both stories society is divided into warring subcultures. Soldiers, proto-revolutionaries and gangs fight for power. Birmingham was so on the edge at the time, in fact, that Churchill (as Secretary of State for War) was convinced there would be a Bolshevik uprising.
The opening scene of Peaky Blinders – named after Shelby’s gang, who sew razor blades into the peaks of their caps to slash rivals in fights – is shot as though for the big screen. It helps that Murphy looks ridiculously handsome as he rides on a big black horse into the slums in an immaculate three-piece suit, his bright blue eyes hidden in the shadow of a peaked cap, his arrival soundtracked by the menace of Nick Cave’s song Red Right Hand.
“Steve Knight, the creator of the show, took me to Birmingham, where he’s from, to meet his buddies so I could record their accents,” Murphy explains. “I spent time with Romany gypsies as it emerges that the Shelby family is part Romany. I learnt about extreme poverty … A revolution was taking place in the city. At the same time, these young men were returning from the war, damaged. They were spat back into society and expected to somehow get on with their lives.”
In real life Murphy, a wiry 5ft 9in, talks with a lilting Cork accent. “My character is so conflicted, contradictory and f***ed up. The Shelby family is feared and respected, and meanwhile Tommy is drinking and smoking opium to cope with what he’s seen in the war.” His gang is dominated by men back to reclaim their city and capable of recreating the violence they experienced in the trenches at the drop of a cap. “Violence to those men was as a form of expression. If I see violence I start shaking, but they were inured to it.”
He also, he says, went to the gym. “I’m never going to be a tough guy but I wanted Tommy to have some physical presence.”
Boyle believes that the actor “can do anything”. Take Misterman, which began in Galway, went to New York and ended up at the National. Was it scary, appearing on stage alone? Murphy smiles. “It was my idea, so I only had myself to blame. I was working with Enda, one of my closest friends, and I loved every minute. It was immersive in every way. I love coming back from work feeling destroyed. I really feel like I’ve done something.”
Boyle tells me he heard Murphy was down to the last two when Christopher Nolan was casting the role of Batman; although Murphy ended up as Scarecrow, he very nearly became the Dark Knight himself.
Murphy is, in turn, coy. “I don’t think I was that close. I couldn’t believe they were actually considering me, though, and that they let me try on the Batsuit.”
How was it? “Hot and …” he bursts out laughing, “roomy. I knew I was never Batman material. Weirdly, I can’t even remember doing that screen test. Maybe it was too overwhelming.”
Not being Batman has done Murphy no harm. He has carefully avoided becoming a celebrity and values his family enormously.
I had always assumed he moved to London to work, but it turns out he was following his wife, the artist Yvonne McGuinness. “We came over 11 years ago because my wife was doing her MA. I got the gig with Danny [Boyle] on 28 Days Later and we just stuck around.”
Fiercely private, Murphy will say only that he is grateful his two young boys stop him from being too self-absorbed – “They’re not impressed, not in the slightest, by my intensity” – and that he might one day return permanently to Ireland. “My folks, who are teachers, have a place in the country. I like to go there with my family to disappear.” Is he shocked by the dire economic situation when he visits? “Most of my pals are doing OK … but I know of people who are moving back in with their parents. Irish people are pretty resilient – we’ve had to be – but I’m disappointed modern Irish people don’t protest more.”
Before acting, Murphy had hoped to be a musician. His instrument? The ukulele, which is ideal for winding down after work. “You can’t do acting alone. It might be a bit weird if I sat around my hotel room acting on my own.” He laughs at himself. “I love playing the ukulele in a hotel room. It’s the only time I can pretend I’m a rock star.” Peaky Blinders starts on BBC Two on Sept 12 (9pm)