The Red Lights star reveals why he's happy to look for work on both sides of the pond.
Ireland's Cillian Murphy has come a long way since dragging an IV drip through an abandoned London in Danny Boyle's 2002 horror 28 Days Later.... In his latest film, Rodrigo Cortés' Red Lights, the 36-year-old stars alongside Robert De Niro and Elizabeth Olsen as assistant to Sigourney Weaver's paranormally-obsessed psychologist. Here Murphy tells LWLies how life has changed for him since getting his big break 10 years ago, and why he's happy to look for work on both sides of the pond.
LWLies: You once revealed that you gave up studying Law to become an actor. Was that a hard decision?
Murphy: It was a hard decision for my parents, it wasn’t a hard decision for me. Law was a foolish choice of course – I only did it really because there weren’t that many hours and it was expected of me to do something like that. There’s no scope for creativity in law – you just learn stuff and apply it. I never really went in any way. I only lasted a year.
Red Lights is billed as a Spanish and American film. Spain and Ireland are both going through great financial difficulties at the moment. Do you worry about the role of the creative arts in that kind of environment?
It’s funny – I did this play at the arts festival in Galway in July last year and ticket sales were up significantly. It seems that people, instead of buying a ridiculously expensive car, or meal, or bottle of wine, are paying to go and see a show at a theatre festival. For films it’s tougher. Particularly in Ireland, which is such a small country, with small resources. But the film community is great there.
Red Lights, a bit like Inception, has quite a strong and possibly risky philosophical bent. Do you worry that in the recession, fewer films like that will get made?
Inception was kind of a game-changer in that regard. It made so much money, it kind of confounded all the Hollywood guys. It was so complex and difficult and yet everybody’s gone to see it. Similarly, Black Swan was a very difficult, dark film and it was about fucking ballet, but millions of people watched it. Even though Hollywood keeps making the dopey franchise films, they recognise that they can’t always presuppose a level of dumbness in the audience.
You’ve recently worked again with Enda Walsh, this time on stage, and you’ve worked quite a lot with Christopher Nolan – do you think that kind of networking and keeping on good terms with your directors and writers is still important, even at this stage of your career?
For me, re-collaborating is always brilliant because the second time you work with someone, you’ve gotten over the getting to know them stage. You trust them, so you can go straight to the work. They know your abilities and you know their abilities and there’s a shorthand. For me, the second and third collaborations with directors and writers have always been better than the first. I love working with people again.
How do you get into character?
That depends, for every role it's different. Some are very transformative and you have to spend a lot of time physically and mentally. Others are just a small adjustment of who you are and your place in life. For Red Lights I did a lot of research into that whole industry; I read books, talked to the director. I actually went to Vegas to watch some of the old show guys, like Copperfield and Kris Angel – those cheesy guys.
How does Copperfield look these days? Like his face is melting?
He looks good, actually. He has good hair.
Do you think the kind of roles you’re offered have changed since your big break 10 years ago?
I was 36 two weeks ago and you can’t help but move into a different sort of place. But it’s much easier for guys – it happens much, much slower. Women are judged really quickly, and people are constantly commenting on how they look, while men are allowed to age a bit more gracefully.
When you were trying to break into acting, did your looks ever cause problems? Did people want to cast you in possibly less challenging roles, because you were handsome?
No, I never found that. I did theatre for four years, then bit part in films and it never seemed to be either a help or a hindrance.
But you must have had that weird thing of walking into a room and them just immediately saying no, based solely on how you look?
Oh yeah. That happens less nowadays, but that’s just part of the thing as a young actor – you have to get used to rejection. You’ll be told you don’t look right or stopped midstream; that’s all part of the thing.
Are you still in a band?
No, I stopped that a long time ago.
Would you ever do a music biopic?
I’m not really interested in that, but I’d never say never. The problem with those biopics is that they’re very reductive. It’s very hard to compress a musician’s life into an hour and a half, unless you pick a particular section of their life. I also think that, generally, a documentary is much better. I adored the Scorsese documentary about George Harrison that came out recently. I mean, it was three hours long and it talked to all the people who really knew him, not some actor poncing around pretending to be George Harrison. If you really want to know a musician, go and listen to his music, you know?
Although saying that, now I’ll probably be popping up next year in one of these things.
David Harewood recently said that young black British actors have to go to America to become commercially successful. Do you still think there is that pressure for all British actors to head to LA?
I’ve shot over there, I’m going over there next week in fact, but I’ve never felt the need to relocate over there. I feel European; the culture that I’m attracted to, you don’t generally find in Los Angeles. You find it in New York, but LA is a mono-industry. To me, that is a bit limiting and frustrating. Everywhere you go it’s just always, always in your face. I can do it in small doses, but not for long. I’d live in New York, but I’m probably a bit old now. I’d probably be in Williamsburg. And I want to be close to Ireland anyway. London is a good compromise because you’re close to home, but you’re also in a big world capital.
The quality of television drama seems to have increased hugely over the last few years with channels like HBO and AMC commissioning things like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Do you think you’ll ever move over to television?
I’d love to, but it has to be the right thing. I mean, you’re gone for so long. If you’re signing up for seven years then it has to be good. I’ve always said, just follow the stories. Whether that’s film, tv or theatre, just follow the stories – the medium should be immaterial.
What was it about the story of Red Lights that you liked?
It was a cracking part, you know. I was very intrigued that it took turns I didn’t expect. Generally now, with so many scripts, you can predict where they’re going to go. You’ve read so many and seen so many at the cinema, but this one I couldn’t predict. And that’s a good yardstick to measure them by. The cast was a big attraction too.
Yes. What’s De Niro like?
I’m glad you phrased it like that. Everyone else just dances around the question. He’s brilliant. A man of few words, but just being in a room and watching him act – I’ll never forget that. I mean, he didn’t really do small talk much, but that’s cool. Sigourney Weaver is very easy to chat to and we hung out a lot.
What do you do between takes, to stop you going mad?
I love it when it’s fast and there’s not much hanging around. Red Lights was like that. I’m on almost all the time, so you just get into this bubble of making a film. You’re gone for ten weeks; you don’t know what’s going on in the world, you don’t speak to your friends or see your family. It’s just, boom. I enjoy that. Then you’re spat out the other end and you generally get sick.
Do you still have to audition for parts?
If it’s something I really, really want then it’s worth auditioning, but sometimes they’ll ask you or it just sort of comes around. There are some actors who refuse to audition and I think that’s foolish, because it’s another big part of the business.
Finally, as a nice easy question. A lot of this film is about faith and belief and I wonder how it will play out in America, where so many people are religious. Do you believe in God?
No, I don’t believe in God. But I understand the place of religion. It can be a beneficial and a destructive thing. Anything taken to a fanatical level can be destructive. But I don’t think this film is about God, but rather this need to believe that there’s something else that can save you. You know, if you’re ill or you’ve lost somebody, and you’ll bankrupt yourself to see these guys because they’re offering hope. Religion does that, these TV evangelists do it, faith healers do it. It’s all filling something, some need.