Cillian Instinct: Despite his startling eyes and immense talent, actor Cillian Murphy shuns the limelight
Throwback is a new-century buzzword, and old-century proponent Cillian Murphy is one through and through. He has purposefully maintained his obscurity at a time when celebrities openly share their true selves on social media. He doesn’t use X (Twitter) or Instagram; he doesn’t even have a mobile phone or computer. Instead of posing for photos with fans, he approaches them and asks if he can shake their hand, converse with them, or sign something.
He aggressively rejects the notion that he should be renowned and doesn’t even want to be known for anything. And the 43-year-old aims to keep it this way regardless of the hype generated by Oppenheimer, the latest addition to his long catalogue of both artistic films and blockbuster hits. Truly, Murphy nails the quiet masculinity of a man who strikes his own path in life with the air of supreme self-assurance while inwardly dealing with his own moral quandaries.
The striking Irish actor was born in Douglas, the eldest child of four; his mother was a French teacher and his father worked for the Department of Education. He attended Presentation Brothers College in Cork, and went on to study law at University College Cork but – realising the profession wasn’t for him – left after a year.
His first passion was music, singing and playing the guitar in several bands. He was then wooed by acting, taking roles in student productions and joining the Corcadorca Theatre Company in Cork. He made his professional debut on stage in 1996 in Disco Pigs, a play whose initial six-week run extended into a two-year international tour and was made into a film in 2001.
Having relocated to Dublin and then London to secure theatre work, Murphy was noticed in this first major screen performance by the casting director for Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror film, 28 Days Later (2002). He landed the star role and earned himself nominations for Best Newcomer at the Empire Awards and Breakthrough Male Performance at the MTV Movie Awards. The acclaim that he didn’t want began in earnest.
Fast forward to 2023, a time of blockbusters that spotlight women, but there is still something to be said for storylines that let men be men. Particularly if they are brilliant, charismatic men. A prime example of this is Oppenheimer, the epic biopic of the American physicist who designed the atomic bomb.
Ten years earlier, a BBC series headlined by Murphy changed television forever. Peaky Blinders combined the intriguing genres of historical fiction, gangster drama and psychological thriller to create an irresistible hybrid. Much like in Oppenheimer, a brilliant man finds himself thrust into a position of power while on his own (dubiously moral) mission, and whether that’s pushing the boundaries of science to develop a weapon of mass destruction or taking out his enemies one by one, you can’t help but root for him.
Murphy’s signature looks, most notably his piercing blue eyes, have drawn in audiences around the world. It appears that his Oppenheimer co-stars were also affected by this mesmerising gaze. “It’s a real problem when you’re doing scene work with Cillian,” said Matt Damon. “Sometimes you find yourself just swimming in his eyes.” Emily Blunt added: “It’s like that Ocean Eyes song by Billie Eilish. We just hum it all day.”
The choice to cast Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer was a straightforward one, according to the film’s director Christopher Nolan. “I’d been staring at the cover of the book American Prometheus [Oppenheimer’s biography] for so many months, and there’s this photograph, black and white, a light blue-eyed stare, very intense, of this guy,” says Nolan. “And I thought, ‘Well, I know who could do that.’”
Murphy has appeared in six of Nolan’s films, but this is the first in which he plays the lead. The filmmaker reportedly admitted to being originally captivated by Murphy’s “crazy eyes” when casting him as the evil Scarecrow in Batman Begins (2005), beginning an 18-plus year collaboration. He portrayed the petulant heir of a business magnate in Inception (2010) and appeared as a traumatised soldier in Dunkirk (2017).
Consequently, the public perception of the actor is that because he is usually a little spooky onscreen, and we almost never see him off- screen, he must be kind of a creepy guy. But there’s really more than meets the eye.
The actor delivers a powerhouse performance in Oppenheimer. It’s a complex role and Murphy soars in it. It will surely result in Murphy’s first- ever Oscar bid, but unlike the Golden Globe Best Actor nod he received for playing a transgender woman in Breakfast on Pluto (2005), many critics think that it will go one better than the nomination and he will win on his first try.
His Oppenheimer silhouette is one of the most striking cinematic images of the year. Blunt has said he ate only one almond a day in preparation for the role. While he hasn’t revealed his exact diet, Murphy did say: “I love acting with my body, and Oppenheimer had a very distinct physicality and silhouette, which I wanted to get right. I had to lose quite a bit of weight, and we worked with the costume and tailoring; he was very slim, almost emaciated, existed on martinis and cigarettes.”
His dedication to the role also extended to learning 3,000 words of Dutch over one weekend. He shares: “I used to set aside, ‘I’ll work on this for a week and I’ll work on that for a week.’”
Cult of obscurity
He has rigorously assembled a creative body of work on his own admirable terms. One consequence of those choices is that his career has been spent further from the white-hot centre of show business than his talent would suggest; he’s remained purposefully guarded against the notoriety that he finds antithetical to creative success (not to mention personal happiness).
Oppenheimer, though, as a box-office giant has changed all that. It displays the full breadth of his gifts – and has earned him a level of fame he finds completely mortifying.