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Friday, April 06, 2007

'Reluctant Hero'

Interview from Day and Night magazine in today's Irish Independent

Declan Cashin

Cillian Murphy is often referred to as a ‘reluctant superstar’, which could be just media code for ‘reluctant interviewee’. He’s certainly cautious when speaking to journalists, but, then again, it is a Monday morning, it’s the first interview of the day and the Cork-born actor has just spent the previous week just hanging out in the homestead of Ballintemple. We’ll forgive him if it takes a little while to warm up.

Murphy is in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel to talk about Sunshine, an intense, effects-laden science-fiction thriller that reunites him with his 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle. In the movie, Murphy plays one of an eight-person crew who is sent on a mission to save the dying sun. In order to do so, Murphy’s physicist Capa and the other astronauts must drop a nuclear ‘payload’ the size of Manhattan into the fading star in order to reignite it and, you know, save humanity and stuff.

Sunshine makes for a nerve-wracking two hours and it’s very much a sci-fi lover’s movie, with more than a passing reference made to a range of genre classics, such as The Abyss and Alien. For a CGI-freshman like Murphy, the movie provided him with the chance to engage with a style of film-making that had long held him in awe.

“I loved Star Wars as a kid, but that didn’t qualify as ‘proper’ sci-fi I guess,” he explains, his Cork-lilt still as prominent as ever. “I love those masterpieces of the genre like Solaris, 2001, and Alien and they are inspiration for this. To be mentioned in the same breath as those would be quite an achievement and you can see that Danny is tipping his hat to them throughout the movie.

“This was the first time I made a film where there was that much of a green screen element to it,” he continues. “But Danny made sure the effects were always secondary to the performance. It never involved acting to a dot or anything.

“So, for instance, when we were acting to the sun, Danny would rig up this ginormous 20 foot curtain of gold and sparkly material that they shone a load of lights off so there was something there to tangibly react to, which makes it easier.”

It’s just one more impressive experience that the talented 30-year-old has clocked up during his steady rise up the A-list. Born in Cork, Murphy was educated in the Presentation Brothers and partially completed a law degree in UCC. It was during college that he began acting and landed the role of the disturbed Pig in Enda Walsh’s multi-award winning stage play Disco Pigs, with which he toured in Canada, Britain and Australia.

His extraordinary performance in Kirsten Sheridan’s film adaptation of the play in 2001 led to roles in short films, plays and movies like On The Edge (2001) and the smash hit Intermission (2003). However, it was when Danny Boyle cast him as the leading man in the post-apocalyptic zombie flick 28 Days Later (2003) that Murphy’s international career really took off into orbit. That movie was released in the US just after the invasion of Iraq and, by tapping into deeply engrained cultural anxieties about chemical warfare and terrorism, it became a huge hit and put Murphy firmly on the map (he refers it as his “watershed role”).

Supporting roles in the Hollywood blockbusters Girl With a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain followed suit, before delivering the villainous double whammy of Red Eye and Batman Begins in 2005. Last year, he received a Golden Globe nomination for playing transsexual Kitten Braden in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto and also assayed the lead role in Ken Loach’s civil war drama The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The immense intensity that Murphy often brings to roles – aided, in no small part, by those famous blue eyes that you could cut diamonds off – was called upon yet again to ratchet up the tension in the claustrophobic spaceship setting of Sunshine. But director Boyle had another trick up his sleeve in order to affect that level of familiarity and sense of constriction amongst the cast.

“Danny put us all up in student digs in east London,” he reveals. “We all lived together for two weeks. The idea behind it was for the opening scene of the film where you’re introduced to all of the characters individually at the dinner table. You can act that stuff, but when you’ve lived with someone, it brings a whole different energy to the dynamic and the interaction. There’s a familiarity and an irritability that develops. You can’t put your finger on the essence of what we achieved, but we certainly had lived very much within each other’s personal space. And I think you can see that on screen.”

Considering that Sunshine is a movie that is quite trippy and psychedelic, it’s fitting that the scientific adviser on set also has his own surreal background story. Murphy’s go-to man for ‘the science part’ was Dr Brian Cox, who was once the keyboard player with ‘90s pop group D:REAM.

“It’s an obvious progression: keyboard player in D:REAM to particle physicist,” Murphy laughs. He may joke about it, but it’s clear from talking to him that the science element involved in preparing for the movie did get under his skin. In fact, it’s fair to say that Sunshine has, dare I say it, turned Murphy into a bit of a nerd.

“Dr Brian Cox is just a brilliant man,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with him and he was my sounding board for everything to do with that world because I had no reference for it or no understanding or grasp on it.

“He’s not your stereotypical physicist, which I think is an image that has been manufactured by films of the eccentric elder gentleman with hygiene issues. Someone like Cox, through him being such an accessible individual, makes it kind of sexy.

“It is pretty incredible what they’re doing at the moment. I went over to visit CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, where Cox and others are building this particle accelerator which is 27km in circumference and 100ft underneath the ground.

“They’re smashing together protons in there, basically recreating the conditions of the Big Bang. It’s remarkable to talk to Dr Cox because he’s every day grappling with the most profound of questions, whereas we’re discussing the kind of milk we should buy. It does change your perspective when you spend time with these people.”

One of the over-arching themes that drives Sunshine is a recurring tension between science and faith. As the movie progresses to its knuckle-whitening finale, certain characters become increasingly involved in a literal and metaphorical clash of ideologies and beliefs. Does Murphy think there’s a religious element to the movie?

“I think this definitely touches on that science versus faith/religion argument,” he replies. “Certainly, one character we meet at the end does represent a more fanatical and a more fundamentalist viewpoint. This is someone who believes they’re in direct communion with God.

“My character Capa represents the other side. He’s all about logic, empirical evidence and science and so these two characters clash. Without giving too much away, there’s one scene where my character seems to be entering a more metaphysical realm. It is like him having this connection with the universe. Personally, I tend to think that it’s not a quasi-religious thing because I’m not religious, but there is something about Capa recognising his unimportance in the large scheme of things and the awesomeness of this thing he’s involved in.”

Murphy actually filmed Sunshine 18 months ago and in the meantime has made his next movie Watching the Detectives, a comedy co-starring Lucy Liu. While it appears to us that he hasn’t stopped working in years, Murphy has actually had a lot of time off recently at home in London. The timing was perfect as he has a 15-month old son, Malachy, with his wife of two years, Yvonne.

“I was doing a play in London [Love Songs] which allowed me to be at home during the day with the little man, so that was great,” he explains.

He’s also signed on to participate in another project even closer to home. Sitting in a hotel across the road from Government Buildings, Murphy, the son-in-law of an elected TD, tells me he’s supporting the new Irish Rock the Vote initiative, which aims to get people – particularly young people – out to vote in this year’s General Election.

“I’m just going to do a little piece for Rock the Vote to try get people motivated,” he says. “I think apathy is dangerous nowadays. People feel that politics has no relevance to their lives. But if you feel there isn’t any relevance, you have the ability to change it and make it relevant.”

As for his future movie projects, Murphy is remaining tight-lipped, but there is one that everyone keeps pestering him about: will he reprise his role as The Scarecrow in the next Batman?

He sighs and smiles. “I know nothing. As far as I know, there’s a script. It’s a film about Batman versus Joker and Two Face and we know Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart have been cast in those roles. But I’ll just wait for the call.

“Batman Begins was a brilliant experience. It was my first time working on that scale of a project. It was overwhelming.”

Was he at his co-star Katie Holmes’ famous Italian wedding to Tom Cruise last year? Murphy arches an eye-brow and stares at me. “What do you think?,” comes the reply.

Non-invite to the Tom-Kat wedding notwithstanding, there is no doubt that Cillian Murphy is a bona-fide star. It might not be a mantle he wears comfortably, but he is smart enough to realise how lucky he has been.

“Every now and again, you have to go, ‘F***ing hell, what the hell am I doing in space saving the world?!’ he says. “That doesn’t compute easily in my mind! But then you have to be aware of how lucky you are and not ever take it for granted. It’s a tough business and just to be working is an achievement.

“To get to work with people who’s DVDs you own in your collection is quite another thing altogether. It’s surreal, which is always why I love going home to Cork to hang out with my buddies. We never even talk about that, it’s not a big deal. It’s not relevant, not with friends you’ve known since you were 10 years of age.”

As we get up to leave, I ask Murphy if he still plays with his band, Sons of Mr Greengenes. “No I just play for fun with my buddies and on my own for recreation,” he says.

“In college, we were much more serious about it. We had great ambitions to take over the world - or at least release an EP,” he laughs. Settling for a humble EP over world domination? Maybe Cillian Murphy is the reluctant superstar afterall.

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