We caught up with Cillian Murphy and talked about his most recent role as Birmingham bad boy, Tommy in Peaky Blinders, and to see what’s in store for the Irish actor
Cillian Murphy is softly spoken and every bit as intense as his iconic pale blue eyes. Perfectly balanced, he gives away just enough with a few cheeky smiles whilst reigning in his answers with press-perfect control. After a slew of well-considered roles in films, from the villainous Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batmantrilogy to a critically-acclaimed role in Enda Walsh’s epic one-man play Misterman, Murphy tries his hand at television in brand new BBC drama series, Peaky Blinders, which has been dubbed by critics as the newSopranos.
Murphy plays Thomas Shelby, gang-leader of the Peaky Blinders, whose presence is both commanding and terrifying to the citizens of Birmingham. A vulnerable character, Cillian instils a sense of violent authority in Tommy, whilst also humanising him with a softer side seen only by the audience and a handful of female characters in the show. As the ultimate antihero, you are both endeared by his complexity as well as frightened of what he may be capable of.
What first attracted you to the role of Tommy?
It was principally the writing. I read the first two episodes and I thought they were amazing, compelling and confident. The character was so layered and complex – the idea of spending six hours playing that character was very appealing to me.
Tommy is certainly a complex character – at first we think of him as a villain of sorts, but as the episodes go on we can see a more humanised, vulnerable side to him. What do you think his role is?
I think he needs to be contextualised by highlighting what he’s just been through, which is the First World War. He has come back and is psychologically damaged and wounded by what he has witnessed. He has lost all faith in the establishment and lost all respect for authority; he is totally godless at this point. He is a natural leader and for some reason he commands respect which is apparent by the loyalty he inspires. Some people are natural leaders and he seems to have that quality.
Would you say that Tommy is either an inherently good or bad character?
I never see his character in such reductive terms. Everyone has different facets – he is the show’s antihero. We see his weaknesses, faults and strengths and we can all relate to that. What’s happening in television at the moment is that all of the protagonists are flawed – you may not necessarily like them at the beginning but you want to understand them and invest in them, and then hopefully grow to like them. I think Tommy has that energy about him.
The violent aspects to his personality are quite harrowing. Do you think the violence is a product of his environment and how he has been brought up?
It’s a means of expression for his family and for Tommy especially it’s a way of blocking out his memories of the war by taking control of violence in his own way. In his mind, it’s a way of achieving something for the family and going beyond Birmingham.
How did you prepare for the role?
There were two sides to the preparation; the academic and the practical. I did a lot of research and got sent a lot of materials, whilst the practical side was the accent and hanging around with horses. I went to the gym for the first time in a long time and I spent a lot of time with people in Birmingham, from going to the original Garrison pub and drinking Guiness with a load of Brummies to hanging out with the show’s creator and writer Steve Knight. I love going deep into a character like that – you really have to absorb it and then hopefully it percolates deep into your veins.
Was there anyone in particular you were excited to work with?
We were very lucky with the cast and crew; everyone got on really well. That’s the key to casting these shows, because you have to spend four months with everyone. I had obviously seen so much of both Sam Neill’s and Helen McCrory’s work and when you’re working with actors of that calibre you have to raise your game, and they just elevate any role that they’re in. I didn’t know many of the younger guys before but I got on so well with them. We’re all good pals now.
The music featured in Peaky Blinders is really interesting – the combination of factual, historic content and contemporary artists really emphasises the show’s darkness and lyricism. As a musician what do you think of the music side to the show?
The fact that they all had to watch it before they agreed was a great endorsement – that Nick Cave watched it and said “take more if you want it” is incredible. There’s a lawlessness to all of the artists that we used; Jack White, The Black Keys and Nick Cave – they have that kind of outlaw quality. It’s not highly produced, it’s quite raw, and that really propels the show on – I don’t think it would have benefitted from a score.
You recently appeared in the National Theatre’s Misterman – have you got any plans to do more stage acting?
I’m going to be doing another play by Enda Walsh next year which we’re going to start performing in Ireland. He gave me my first ever job [in Disco Pigs] so I owe him.
Do you have an ultimate role you’d like to play?
I don’t really get hung up on classical theatre because I didn’t train but maybe one day, if I find the right director. As an actor you just wait for the script to arrive, and until then you can’t prescribe what it’s going to be; it just turns up.