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Cillian Murphy Has Been Waiting to be Christopher Nolan’s Leading Man

After years of stealing the show in supporting roles, the actor stars as the father of the atomic bomb in Oppenheimer
Kosmas Pavlos for Rolling Stone UK

T HE SUN IS SHINING in the small riverside town of New Ross, Ireland. It’s Good Friday, and I’m standing outside St. Mary’s, a defunct Catholic school. Crew members scamper toward their lights and cranes. Two rows of schoolgirls are led by a nun through the yard. Incongruously, through the sunshine, a snow machine periodically emits suds that melt on your face as you pass: This is Christmas 1985 via Easter weekend 2023. There, amid a clutch of equipment and crew members in the usual on-set menagerie, stands Cillian Murphy, co-producer and star of Small Things Like These, in a cinematic return to his native Ireland.

Murphy isn’t easy to spot. Your eyes don’t immediately land on him as if following an unholy halo of superstar light. That may seem strange, given that many of us have spent years watching his charisma onscreen cut swaths through every scene, or gazing into those otherworldly ice-blue eyes that occasionally offer a flash of gangster malevolence.

A highlight reel of Murphy’s work is itself prodigious. You might recall his transgender glam-rock singer in Breakfast on Pluto. You almost certainly know his cold, feline grace in Peaky Blinders. And, of course, there was his sinister Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. 

Now his bespectacled visage can be seen in ads for this summer’s enormous new Nolan film: Oppenheimer, in which he’ll play one of the most recognizable historical minds of the 20th century, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist who created the atomic bomb.

Cillian Murphy with longtime collaborator Christopher Nolan on the set of ‘Oppenheimer.’ Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

With his distinctive face, the Cork native, 47, has become a go-to collaborator for Nolan, who’s cast him in six of his films. “I remember very clearly, I saw a picture of him in the newspaper,” Nolan tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “It was for 28 Days Later. He had his head shaved, and those extraordinary eyes. I hadn’t seen the film. It was just the look of him, it struck me.” Yet in person, that striking screen presence melts into total ordinariness: He is physically slight, unassuming, almost diffident. He sticks out his hand and introduces himself by his first name, like I was going to confuse him with anyone else.

Murphy is in between shooting exterior scenes, so he’s wearing the costume of his Small Things character, Bill Furlong, an Eighties coal man with too many mouths to feed. That means a worn-in wax jacket, threadbare trousers, artificially coal-dusted hands, and a genuinely bleeding cut seeping across his knuckles (he caught it while shoveling in a scene). We drink coffee before he rushes off to shoot again, lifting cinder blocks from a truck in the pretend snow of an Irish winter.

Adapted for the screen from Claire Keegan’s acclaimed and heart-wrenching novella, Small Things Like These was handpicked by Murphy: It’s his passion project. It deals with the insidious moral complicity of Irish society within the Magdalene Laundries, religious institutions in which women and girls were imprisoned and forced to carry out unpaid labor. “Everyone in Ireland that you talk to, of a certain generation, more or less has a story. It’s just in Irish people,” says Murphy. “What happened with the church, I think we’re still kind of processing it. And art can be a balm for that.” 

The production is set here at St. Mary’s, which actually operated as a laundry in the past. “You can feel the texture, and in the tiny house where we shot, you can feel the claustrophobia. Chris [Nolan] is also a big fan of that. If you’re put in the right environment, you will act differently when you walk on set with your fucking soy latte, or whatever.”

The influence of Nolan is clear in Murphy’s exacting attitude. They first worked together back in 2005, when Murphy auditioned for what would become Christian Bale’s role as Bruce Wayne himself before being cast instead as Dr. Jonathan Crane — Scarecrow — in Batman Begins. Thus began a collaboration that would lead to him playing Oppenheimer. “I was a Chris Nolan fan. That’s how I was when I met him for the first time, because I’d watched Following, I’d watched Memento, I’d watched Insomnia. And I met him for Batman Begins on the basis of being a fan. So it feels absurd that I’ve been in six of his films.

“But I always hoped I could play a lead in a Chris Nolan movie. What actor wouldn’t want to do that?”

“Interviews are like commuting,” Murphy says with a sigh. “You have to commute to get to your destination. I don’t really partake.”

IF IT WERE to be said that Murphy specializes in anything, it might be expressing the thoughts and motivations of inward men who are not prone to garrulousness or fervent displays of emotion. Nolan certainly seems to think so: “Cillian has this extraordinary empathetic ability to carry an audience into a thought process.”

Such is the case with his near-decade of playing Tommy Shelby, the World War I veteran turned criminal kingpin of Peaky Blinders. So, too, with the very different character he plays in Small Things Like These, a monosyllabic working man who is nevertheless constantly lost in a web of thought and memory. And in Oppenheimer, he plays the complicated scientist who became a symbol for our collective ambivalence about nuclear weapons and the American deployment of them in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But as a man, Oppenheimer was artistic and sensitive, a lover of poetry as much as of science, and a strident anti-fascist.

In ‘Oppenheimer,’ Cillian Murphy plays the real-life creator of the atomic bomb. Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

“I think it’s the best script I ever read,” Murphy says. The script was written entirely in the first person. “[Nolan] just said he wanted everything to be seen through the eyes of Oppenheimer,” the actor adds. 

Understandably, portraying such an elaborately brilliant mind had its challenges. “With that intellect — which I think can actually be a burden — you’re not seeing stuff in the normal plane that we do. Everything is multifaceted and about to collapse. It’d be a terrible way to buy milk or cut the grass, I’d say.”

Dislocation from the ordinary is hardly unfamiliar for Murphy. Congenitally private, he left London for Dublin about eight years ago with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and his sons. “We had 14 years in London. But as you hit your late thirties and have kids, living in a major metropolis is less exciting. Also we’re both Irish. We wanted the kids to be reared Irish. I think it’s the best decision we made,” he says, pointing out that he sold his kids — now nearly 16 and nearly 18 — on the move with the promise of a Labrador.

“They’re really good boys,” he says, affectionately. “We don’t do ‘Dad’s Movie Night,’ but they like some of my films. They say all my films are really intense.”

Amid the increasingly frenzied obsession with Peaky Blinders, Murphy has become something more than an actor with a recognizable face: He’s synonymous with his character Tommy Shelby, which is an uneasy negotiation for Murphy. “It can ruin experiences, because it fetishizes everything: You can be walking down the street and someone takes a picture, like this is a fucking event. It kind of destroys nuance and human behavior, but that’s part and parcel of it,” he says of his reluctant relationship with fame.

“Fame evaporates with regularity,” Murphy says, gesturing around the restaurant where we’re chatting. “I’m around here all the time and no one gives a fucking shit. It dissipates. But if … one of the guys from Succession walked in here, I’d be all intimidated and shaky. When you’re confronted with someone you’ve invested a lot in, or you think is amazing, the encounter is strange.”

There’s no sense of affectation about Murphy: He really does dislike all of the rigmarole that comes with promoting a project. Before our interview, he says to me: “I look forward to my grilling.”

“A light grilling,” I reply, a bit taken aback by what seem to be his jangling nerves.

Kosmas Pavlos for Rolling Stone UK

Later, he sighs while relating how “interviews are like commuting. You have to commute to get to your destination. I don’t really partake.” He adds, “I don’t go out. I’m just at home mostly, or with my friends, unless I have a film to promote. I don’t like being photographed by people.” 

“I think it’s the Tommy Shelby thing. People expect this mysterious [person] … it’s just a character.”

After the Season Six finale aired, talk ignited about a possible Peaky Blinders film, with creator Stephen Knight confirming the plans. “If there’s more story there, I’d love to do it,” Murphy says. “But it has to be right. Steve Knight wrote 36 hours of television, and we left on such a high. I’m really proud of that last season. So, it would have to feel legitimate and justified to do more.” 

As the evening winds down, Murphy seems more relaxed. He’s clearly happier talking about Inside Llewyn Davis and Joni Mitchell than himself. Given his interest in music — he tells me how his teenage band was nearly signed to a major label — I wonder if he’d be game to introduce a musical component into his film work.

“I almost want to protect my relationship with it,” he says of his love of music. “It was my first love, and I worked really hard at trying to be a musician and it didn’t work out,” he says. “But I’ve turned down quite a few biopic roles of musicians,” he reveals, although he won’t say which. “I’d prefer to watch a three-hour Scorsese doc about George Harrison than play George Harrison in a bad wig.” He smiles. “It wasn’t George Harrison I was asked to play, by the way.”

Back in New Ross, the sun has set and a few of us have retreated into a tent with a monitor and a headset through which we can see and hear the shooting — and the conversations among Murphy, director Tim Mielants, and co-star Zara Devlin. I listen as Murphy suggests reblocking the scene, chewing ice cubes to make the actors’ wintery breath appear, and changing the way he enters the frame. Producer Alan Moloney murmurs with tacit approval that “Cillian interrogates everything.” But it’s when Murphy and Devlin improvise that an electric energy charges through the set. A simple scene becomes heartbreaking; a gruff, terse man shows a glimpse of soft underbelly, a vulnerability all the more powerful for its restraint.

When filming breaks, Murphy stands with his hands in his pockets; suddenly he looks delicate. He’s back behind the parapet, where it’s safe for a moment. But it’s clear he’s good and ready for the skirmish. 

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