April 2 - 8 2007
Having starred in mainstream movies like Batman Begins and edgier flicks like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Cillian Murphy now turns to sci-fi thriller Sunshine, teaming up with Danny Boyle and Alex Garland. Still, though, he doesn’t feel like a star, he tells Leigh Singer.
Stars. Funny how the same word is used to refer to both those twinkling heavenly bodies dotting the universe and our favourite screen icons. No doubt PR gurus would flaunt inflated parallels – They light up our lives! They’re out of this world! - but in new sci-fi thriller Sunshine, comparisons are even neater; it’s a movie about the mission to reignite a dying star, namely the Sun, fronted by a rising one from our own planet, Irish actor Cillian (pronounced “Kill-ian”) Murphy.
Just don’t look to Murphy himself to stoke up his own hype. A pale, almost gamine figure, with saucer-sized blue eyes and porcelain mantelpieces for cheekbones, the 31-year old Cork native is a measured presence, boyish in the way he flops across his chair, feet tucked beneath him, yet negotiating questions like a seasoned pro. One thing that readily becomes clear is his disregard for the trappings of potential movie stardom.
“If you behave like a celebrity, people will treat you like a celebrity,” he says matter-of-factly. “I just finished a play in the West End, I got the tube in and out every day and it was never, ever an issue. If you behave like a normal person, there’s really nothing to write about or photograph.”
It’s the smart answer but not one that takes much account of those wanting to investigate one of the most impressive burgeoning acting careers around. In a few short years, Murphy has displayed remarkable versatility and unerring good taste in his choice of role. Peg him as a convincing psycho from mainstream hits like Red Eye or Batman Begins, and he’ll turn round and break your heart as a fragile transvestite in the underrated Breakfast on Pluto or as a conflicted Irish revolutionary in Ken Loach’s Cannes Film Festival winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Sunshine is yet another notable addition to the CV. Directed by Danny Trainspotting Boyle and written by Alex Garland, who were responsible for Murphy’s breakthrough zombie thriller 28 Days Later, it’s a blazing, white-knuckle splice of Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Murphy’s role as the key astrophysicist on a mission to save mankind meant having to grapple with heady “science-faction” concepts - and convey them convincingly.
“It’s so counter-intuitive all of this stuff,” he admits. “Trying to grasp it for any length of time is difficult. It gave me a huge amount of respect for scientists in general. But what I did learn is how much they don’t know. I mean, they know 5% of what the universe is made of. 95% of it, we don’t have a fucking clue.”
It’s a concept Sunshine exploits to the full, using the pressure-cooker setting of a small, crew 150 million miles from home, slowly decimated and suddenly confronted with the power source of our existence. Understandably this connected with Murphy more than any speculative cosmic theories.
“I was more interested in the mindset of these people and how it affects their behaviour and their perspective on the world. If you’re thinking about these profound questions, why we’re here and where are we going to, and what’s it all in aid of,” he smiles knowingly, “basically what that does to you. And I do think it changes your view of the world and your view of your role in it, which is so insignificant, really.”
This overriding pragmatism doesn’t seem to affect Murphy’s commitment to his craft. His tenacity in pursuing coveted roles, notably those for Ken Loach and Neil Jordan in Breakfast on Pluto is already well founded. Murphy’s perseverance didn’t just win him the role of transvestite Patrick “Kitten” Brady, but helped push Jordan to go ahead with the entire project.
“The reality is,” he states, “if you’re given 100 scripts over the course of a year, four of them are going to be worth doing. If that. So when one comes along that you have a shot at, that hasn’t gone straight to Leonardo Di Caprio or somebody else, I think you have to give everything to secure it.”
Small wonder, then, that after their successful collaboration on 28 Days Later Danny Boyle recalled Murphy for Sunshine, though the admiration is obviously mutual. “I’d work with Danny again tomorrow, he’s one of the most exciting and visionary directors around,” Murphy asserts. “28 Days was very important for me in terms of what it did for my career. But I think the interim period was crucial too, because I did grow a lot as an actor and as a person too. When I did that movie, I was a young kid. Then I moved over to London, got married, had a child, settled down. That makes you a fuller person.”
Murphy’s formative years, before the acting bug took hold, found him studying law, an experience he now refers to as “a sort of silly deviation from what I was going to do, but I had to go along that road.” But he always had what he calls “the performance gene.” Back then his means of self-expression was music; the band he formed with his younger brother Páidi, Sons of Mr Greengenes (named after a song by his hero Frank Zappa), was even offered a record deal.
“It was great being with your buddies,” he reminisces of his band days. “but you know, it’s really a young man’s game. It was great, boozing and parties and playing but as you get a bit older you know, it’s hard to sustain that…”
“Also there’s not a huge amount of independence,” Murphy emphasises. “You’re with five guys and a manager and a record label and a publisher. As an actor it’s just me and there’s a longevity, if you’re lucky. The music industry is so transient; bands are cool for half a second and then they’re gone.”
As any astrophysicist knows, no star lives forever; but Cillian Murphy appears to have figured out very quickly the best way to keep yourself burning bright, for as long as possible.
Sunshine is out April 5th.