The Shy Man’s Revenge


On screen, Cillian Murphy never seems to have any cushioning, any protection from the hostile worlds in which his characters find themselves. As Jim in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002), a wire-hanger-thin Murphy weathers a vampire apocalypse in scarcely more than a hospital gown. And, though Christopher Nolan threw a burlap sack over his head for much of the Dark Knight trilogy, blotting out his Starry Night eyes, Murphy’s Scarecrow remained otherwise exposed to Gotham’s myriad hostilities. In the weightiest films (including Boyle’s Sunshine, 2007; Nolan’s Inception, 2010; and Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, 2005), Murphy’s characters carry terrible burdens on the narrowest of shoulders, but they also appear to be channeling a kind of raw emotive electricity. It is as if his lack of insulation makes him into a clean transmitter of energy.

Playing the Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby in Netflix’s interwar saga Peaky Blinders, which returned for its second season over the weekend, the Irish actor has sharpened that energy still further, whittling away all excessesbe they conscience or carbohydrates—to become a fatalistic blade in a three-piece suit, carving through his gang’s competition with hardly a pause or profile enough to glint. It’s one of those performances, like a roman candle, that not only dazzles you as you’re watching it, but stays, imprinted, making you think that Murphy, despite his already impressive career, is still somehow cruelly underrated, and only getting better.

CHRIS WALLACE:  I know you’re a bit resistant to sharing too much about yourself, and admirably so, which makes me wonder, was your initial attraction to performance as a kind of self-expression?

CILLIAN MURPHY: From a very young age I had an ambition to be a musician, and to do that professionally. That’s what I pursued until I was about 20, playing in bands that were taken pretty seriously at that stage. Then, at age 20, I discovered theater sort of by accident. Quite quickly, theater became more important to me than music. I began to realize that maybe my talents as a musician were quite limited, or had a ceiling to them, whereas acting seemed to sort of stretch before me. I got very passionate about it very quickly.

WALLACE: Was it that first round of applause that hooked you? Or was it something in the sort of kinetic connection on stage that kept you coming back?

MURPHY: I don’t know. I’ve always felt kind of safe on stage, protected. I’ve talked to other performers about this and they feel the same things, particularly in the live arena. I never get nervous going on stage to do a play. Doing film or television I’ll have more butterflies. I guess because theater’s so ephemeral and it’s gone. You make this nightly contract with the audience and you redraw that contract for the next night, whereas film and television, it’s forever. I suppose it’s always about adopting personas, never about being yourself. I think they call it a “shy man’s revenge.” I don’t consider myself a shy person necessarily, but there’s something about getting under the skin of a character and allowing you an abandon or a sense of courage that you would never have in your own life.

WALLACE: Well, there is continuity of the moment on stage, and what really stirred me about this performance in particular—and I feel like I’m noticing this a lot with people who are doing amazing things on television—is the pace of revelation of character. There is no giant exposition, like, “I am this and here’s my backstory.” You seem to almost luxuriate in being able to drip and drab out characterization, to play between revelation and restraint. 

MURPHY: I agree. It’s wonderful. I will always love film, the romance of film, sitting in the darkened room with strangers and watching a story for two hours—that will always remain and never be eroded by television. But television affords you, what you just described, to—over the course of 18 hours, now that we’re doing a third season—tell the story of this man. You’re not under any obligation, really, to do massive expositional stuff at the beginning. You’re at liberty to say, “Come with us on this journey,” and, gradually, you become aware of what his motivations are, what drives him, what his weaknesses are, what his strengths are. That’s what I think’s sucking people into these worlds, because it is kind of like a novel, you just go really, really deep. And, for any performer, to be able to go deep into character is fantastic. In film you only get to do that if you’re the leading character. But in television you get 18 hours to really test the audience and take them to the edge of how far they will go with this character. I can step over this line and I love that.

WALLACE: [laughs] It’s really alluring because it is sort of mystery and provocation at once. When I first watched the first season I was sort of leaping out of my seat. Are you conscious of the gathering awareness about the show? Does it feel like some kind of turning point, something you’d mark on the wall in the kitchen? [laughs] “I’ve grown. Something’s changed.”

MURPHY: No. You know, we did the first series in England about two years ago, the second season just aired there. So it’s been very gradual. I’m in L.A. at the moment and people seem to be talking about—just people telling other people about it. It’s a very organic kind of way that people are discovering it, by word of mouth, which I always think is the best way for things to grow. In terms of the affect it’s been having on me, I don’t even notice that. It’s lovely to be able to talk about a piece of work that you’re very proud of, that I think’s a complex piece of work and not superficial and has depth to it.  All I’ve tried to do as an actor is follow the good writing. That’s been my main drive. It’s not always possible, so when you do come upon it, like when I came upon this, you realize pretty quickly this is something you need to be involved with.

WALLACE: Is performance at all like a sport, where you recognize strengths and sort of play to them, or enhance them? Can you look back at your work in any kind of cohesive sense, as a progression? Do you ever look back on something and think, “Man, I was good in that”?

MURPHY: I try not to think retrospectively. It’s important, as an artist, to look forward, always. I do try to take work that involves some challenge. If you approach a piece of work and you’re going, “Yeah, yeah, I can do that,” then that’s kind of a red flag. Tommy was a big challenge because people wouldn’t normally associate me with a physical presence or a guy that is a fighting man, a guy that can really handle himself and exert fear and command. In terms of trying to improve as an actor, for me it’s always important to return to the stage. After doing a piece of theater for a prolonged period, I can think I must have surely improved in some way as an actor—you must be fitter than you were prior to doing it. For me, theater is very, very important in keeping things fresh and dangerous.

WALLACE: There is violence in characters you’ve played before, but, as you say, this is the first time where you’re physically imperious. There’s a kind of animal confidence about Tommy. Is that physicality a qualitative difference from who you are?

MURPHY: Oh, yeah. Completely. The thing that unlocked it for me with Tommy is the First World War. That’s the context and I did a lot of reading about that. I think what we see is one man, but he is not the man that went away to war, the man who used to laugh a lot and work with horses. The character that we meet is completely different because of what happened in those four years in France, what happened in the trenches. To see men die, blown to pieces, did some things to him. Psychologically, it destroyed any respect he had for any form of authority, and any faith he had was completely destroyed. I think it also is revealed to him the incredibly fleeting nature of life and how delicate it is, but made him unafraid of it. And once you’re unafraid with death, I think your capacity for violence is immediately increased. Once you’re unafraid of death, you are a very, very dangerous adversary. 

WALLACE: I always wonder this about actors: When you’re taking “the shy man’s revenge,” and escaping into another character, are you shopping? Are you trying on modes of being, ways of looking at the world, and even behavior, going, “Oh this would work for me, I might keep that for myself”?

MURPHY: I suppose I’ve always been attracted to this sort of outsider in general—in literature, in music, politics, whatever—and to the person that is able to be relentlessly themselves. I don’t think that I have that quality, that strength of mind. That’s very appealing to me about Tommy—this unbelievable will that he has, and his self-assurance. 

WALLACE: Tommy is almost pure, Nietzschean will. We don’t really even know what drives him in his acquisitiveness of wealth, of power, of heads. Is he testing himself? Does he feels he deserves more than what he has because he is special? There is something almost mythic about him. I kept thinking that Wall Street dudes are going to hang his poster above their beds.

MURPHY: Well, yeah. I think that’s well observed and don’t disagree in any way. I would think that the experiences in France, realizing this life is so brief, made him feel like he has one shot at this and he’s not going to waste his time. And, as far as Wall Street, I think you could absolutely put them in a capitalist camp for sure. Steven Knight, the creator, certainly has an arc for the character—in the second season you really see this beginning to happen—building an empire. But I don’t think it’s because he’s interested in material things. I don’t think it’s because he wants to live in a big house and sit around drinking whisky all day. He’s doing what he’s doing just because he can.

WALLACE: Fatalism is wonderful, dramatically, like vengeance. Does any of the existential investment you make in a character remain with you, as a political awareness maybe? I’m thinking of Breakfast on Pluto in which you played a trans women in London in the 1970s. Do you remain informed on the progress of the trans community? Are there things in your career that continue to inform your life like that?

MURPHY: Well certainly enough. You know the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) that I did with Ken Loach [in which Murphy played a med student who joins the Republican army in the 1920s]? That was an important film for me, in terms of making a film with a very distinct point of view. It was a very important film in Ireland. It awakened me to the possibility that you could make an entertaining piece of work that also spoke with a strong political voice. It’s very, very rare that you get an opportunity to do that, and Ken is one of the few remaining filmmakers that can.

WALLACE: In life and work, do you feel in command of what you’re doing?  Do you feel as though you have access to a level of ability or wisdom that you previously didn’t?

MURPHY: I don’t know. It’s for other people to judge, really. I’m 38 now and I hope that I have gained some wisdom, but I don’t know. I have kids, and that certainly puts things into perspective. I think I’m a more patient person. I hope I’m a more patient person. I’m a little more relaxed about the peripheral side of this business, which I used to find very confusing and alarming. I feel very lucky to be making good work still. The confidence of youth, or that sort of competitiveness you get when you’re 22 or 23, the impatience—that’s probably been tempered. Hopefully I’m slightly better company. [laughs]