Cillian Murphy, star of the new horror sequel A Quiet Place Part II, is something to behold: X-ray eyes at once penetrating and ethereally blue, cheekbones so pronounced you could stretch out and go to sleep on them. Unfortunately, the beholding will have to wait. We have barely exchanged greetings over Zoom when his voice breaks up, the screen freezes and the room falls silent. A quiet place, indeed.
We switch to phones. We can do this, I tell him. “I have faith,” he replies, in a soothing Cork accent that compensates for the lack of visuals. Murphy’s gift for intensity has made him a natural fit for characters damaged (Dunkirk, The Edge of Love) or outright villainous (Batman Begins, Red Eye), but today he is quick to laugh and keen to talk. He is speaking from a flat in Manchester, where he is staying while he shoots the sixth and final series of Peaky Blinders. That stylish crime drama, which rocketed from BBC Two cult success to global phenomenon, revolves around a 1920s Birmingham gang led by Murphy as the vicious Tommy Shelby. With his eyes, looks could kill – although he keeps razor blades in the brim of his cap, just in case.
Last month, Helen McCrory, who played Tommy’s formidable aunt Polly, died of cancer at the age of 52. When I ask Murphy what she meant to him, he sighs fondly. “Oh, man. She was my closest colleague on Peaky, and one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked opposite. Any material, any scene … she made it special. She could do power and vulnerability, one after the other. She was just so cool and fun, and had such compassion for everyone she met. I was kind of in awe about how she lived her life – the way she balanced her work and her family so beautifully.”
In A Quiet Place Part II, the threat comes not from Brummie thugs in newsboy caps but sightless carnivorous monsters that hunt their human prey by sound alone. Murphy was impressed enough by the original 2018 film to compose a congratulatory email to its star and director John Krasinski, though not bold enough to send it. “I got a bit embarrassed,” he says. “I thought: ‘He’s going to think I want something.’ And I didn’t.”
Does he often write fanmail? “I used to when I was younger. Actors are so cosseted and no one ever reaches out. But I think it’s a good thing to do. I always tell that to younger actors: if there’s someone you admire, write them a letter.” Has he had much correspondence himself, then? “Hahaha! No!” He will be inundated once this article comes out. “That was not my agenda,” he says, squirming through his giggles.
In the new film, he plays Emmett, a grieving father holed up in an abandoned factory away from the monsters. Not long after he loses his own family, another one stumbles into his life: a mother (Emily Blunt) and her three children. The picture marks a return for Murphy to the mayhem of the 2002 zombie horror 28 Days Later, which began with unforgettable scenes of him wandering through an eerily deserted London. He remarked at the time that the true star of Danny Boyle’s movie was its premise. The same could be said of A Quiet Place Part II. Did he find enough as an actor to sink his teeth into?
He mulls this over. “Well, it felt like enough for me to try to give a performance. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing if the premise is the star of a movie, if it’s a good premise. If the job is to serve the concept the best you can, I’m totally down with that.”
Hints of Emmett’s past can be found in his reading matter: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson. “He was another man before all this,” the actor explains. Dickinson also provides a link to the project Murphy was working on immediately before A Quiet Place Part II. She wrote the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers; Murphy, by coincidence, was coming fresh – or, as he tells it, not so fresh – from Enda Walsh’s devastating stage adaptation of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter’s novel about a father raising his sons after their mother’s death. The actor doubled up as the lone parent and Crow, the creature that personifies his torment. For that alter ego, he took inspiration from some eclectic sources: Tom Waits, Beetlejuice and Dr Evil from the Austin Powers series.
“It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” he says. “But it destroyed me. I was 43 at the time, and your body doesn’t always live up to your demands. Mine was telling me: ‘Please stop jumping up on to a bunk bed every night on stage!’ That and the emotional trauma meant I couldn’t sleep, so I wasn’t bouncing back the way I normally would.” He is in the market for something more sedate next time. “A sitting-down play,” he says.
But then none of his work with Walsh (who is his most frequent collaborator aside from Christopher Nolan) has exactly been a cake-walk. He made his professional acting debut in 1996 in the playwright’s feverish two-hander Disco Pigs, about a pair of mutually obsessive teenage delinquents. Between that and Grief is the Thing with Feathers, he has also toured Walsh’s frantic solo show Misterman and his kinetic comedy Ballyturk. The critic Michael Billington in these pages marvelled at him in Ballyturk, “jumping on to a high ledge with the agility of a gazelle”.
Eileen Walsh, Murphy’s co-star in Disco Pigs, tells me that acting in that play “felt dangerous, and yet at the same time we were safe because we trusted each other so much”. They went from sweaty, sellout runs in Cork and Dublin to the Edinburgh fringe and beyond. “We felt we could do anything. It was like being inside a firework.”
Murphy’s career took off like a Roman candle. He was on stage in The Seagull and The Playboy of the Western World, and on screen as assorted reprobates and misfits: in the film version of Disco Pigs, in the comic thriller Intermission with Colin Farrell and in On the Edge, a kind of Boy, Interrupted, which begins with Murphy knocking on the coffin lid at his father’s funeral (“Nope, still dead”) before driving off a cliff.
It was as Kitten, a transgender dreamer searching for her mother in Breakfast on Pluto, that he first proved his remarkable versatility. The film’s director and co-writer, Neil Jordan, wasn’t sure if the role was even playable until he did some early tests with Murphy. “Cillian brought absolute conviction to the part,” he says. “I realised that perhaps it could work if I had someone like him to bring the character to life. After that, he kept calling me – ‘When are we doing it?’ – and eventually kind of wore me down.”
Why was he so tenacious in pursuing that role? “The thought of working with Neil was huge,” Murphy says. “And the transformative aspect was very appealing. I was young. You have a lot of stuff to prove to yourself.” His high, strained voice and fluid physicality eliminated any trace of the conventionally masculine. “Cillian’s a special animal,” says Jordan. “To go from playing Kitten to Tommy Shelby – who is such a savage, muscular character – shows an extraordinary range.”
He was in pester mode again when he auditioned for Peaky Blinders. The creator, Steven Knight, had boiled it down to two candidates and was leaning toward the other one, Jason Statham. “There was a bit of convincing needed,” says Murphy. “Initially, there may have been some doubts about whether I had the requisite physicality, which I understand. I’m not the most physically imposing individual.” Legend has it that he sent Knight a text that said simply: “Remember I’m an actor.” He gives a little snort. “It’s a cool story. If I was that succinct, I’ll take it.” But was he dissing the Stath? Did he mean: “Remember I’m an actor … and Statham isn’t”? He bats the idea away with a laugh. “They are entirely unconnected.”
What he strives for these days is the unselfconscious immediacy he experienced as a young actor. “I felt fearless doing Disco Pigs. I didn’t realise how good it was because I had nothing to measure it against. Then, as you go on, you think: ‘Ah, not quite there now. Not quite there with this one.’ The thing I’m always chasing as a performer is being in the moment.” He saw that in Millicent Simmonds, the 18-year-old star of both Quiet Place films. “Millie has it. I suppose you’d call it presence. As you get older, you want to get back to that transcendent thing – that point where you’re no longer thinking: ‘I’m going to hit my mark now and then she’s going to say her line.’ You’re just existing.”
He witnessed it recently in his youngest child, Aran, who was 11 when he played Shakespeare’s son in the one-boy show Hamnet, which toured New York, Boston and Hong Kong in 2019. “He was so chilled about it, you know? He would come off stage and ask what the score was in the Liverpool game. And, again, you’re slightly jealous of that! There’s the danger that overanalysing everything can erode the simplicity.” The nearest he has come to that state since Disco Pigs, he thinks, was in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s 2006 Palme d’Or winner about the beginnings of the IRA. “It was the most I’ve ever learned about film acting,” he says. “Ken sets up an environment where you can’t intellectualise. All the research and preparation is useless unless you react truthfully on the day.”
Peaky Blinders and five films with Nolan, including Inception, have made Murphy famous. But Eileen Walsh singles out the little seen 2010 thriller Peacock, in which he plays a man with a dissociative personality disorder, as an example of the actor at his best. “The layers of character work that Cill does in that are incredible,” she says. “It made me think: ‘Yes, you’re handsome. Yes, you’re cool. Yes, you get the Batman films and all that. But doing this level of work in something where you can’t even guarantee it’ll be seen? You are fucking good.’”
If Murphy is to be believed, he has barely even started. “Early on, I read that it takes 30 years to make a good actor,” he says. He has been at it for a quarter of a century now. “So hopefully I’m approaching … well, something.” This summer, he will be the main attraction at the Manchester international festival, where All of This Unreal Time, a new film in which he stars (and which teams him with the musician Jon Hopkins and Grief author Max Porter), will be screened as part of an immersive installation. He will also turn 45 a few days after we speak, so I wish him a happy birthday as we wrap up. “Oh, God,” he groans, as though he has just been reminded of a large outstanding bill. “Yeah. Thanks.” Here’s to a few more sitting-down roles. “I’ll take that all right.”