Red Lights - Cillian Murphy interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
CILLIAN Murphy talks about working with two of his idols – Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro – in Red Lights and some of the issues the film raises about the paranormal.
He also reflects on aspects of his career to date, including his involvement in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, striving to be as good an actor as he can and why theatre is also a passion.
Q. What was it like facing off against Robert De Niro? Is that an ambition fulfilled?
Cillian Murphy: I suppose so, yeah. It’s very hard to talk about that and working with him and Sigourney [Weaver] without resorting to cliché really and saying ‘it was a dream come true’ and all of those things. But it was. Even before I had ever been an actor or dreamt about being an actor, I would have watched his movies and her movies and they would have been heroes of mine. So, to actually be in a room working with them and sort of hanging out with them was ridiculous. But I’ve had the pleasure and the great luck to work with some incredible actors over the years and you have to observe and learn and take something from it and try and become better yourself. That’s what you should use it for. But I will never, ever forget it, that’s for sure.
Q. So, what did you learn from them then?
Cillian Murphy: They’re both very different actors in their method and approach. I guess the most outstanding thing, for me, was that they still had this amazing joy in it after all these years. I mean, a real concentration and emersion in it. For De Niro it seems to be all about the detail of it. It’s very small, it’s very precise and then he finds it kind of through the takes and kind of builds it. Sigourney does a huge amount of research and a lot of discussion. I recall very vividly the two first scenes I had with each of them. The first scene I had with Sigourney was when she talks about her son and she did that take and that’s the one they used. It was just extraordinary watching that performance… being there and that close. And I remember my first scene with De Niro was when I come to visit him at his lair, or whatever it is… with the salt in front of him. My character is supposed to be terrified or intimidated, so there was no acting required [laughs]. I just watched him. Just to see him grow that scene and make that scene… listen, the man has presence. You can’t act presence, I suppose. Watching him use it, and when you put a camera on it, it becomes something magical. I’ll never forget that. But still the dedication to the craft was the most salient thing.
Q. What was he like off-set because in interview he can he quite hard to get to know? Is he the same when working with him?
Cillian Murphy: He wasn’t on the movie for that long, so we didn’t have much social time. We went for dinner. He’s a man of few words, that’s for sure [smiles]! But very, very warm and sweet. I think these guys must know the effect that they would have on an actor of my generation. So, they would be aware of their legacy and be aware of their status, so they were so generous to me and welcoming and warm. I just loved every minute of it.
Q. Did you ever find yourself in an awkward silence with him because he is a man of so few words?
Cillian Murphy: [Smiles] No, if people don’t want to talk I don’t generally fill the silences. I would defer to that man’s age and seniority in terms of his craft and his place in our world. So, I wouldn’t be trying to make small talk.
Q. Because of the subject matter of the film was there any research going into it? Did you attend séances?
Cillian Murphy: I read a lot about it. There’s this guy James Randi who a pretty famous sceptic, who has written some great books. He did this great talk. I went to Vegas to look at some of the more showbiz aspects of it because I think De Niro’s character is kind of an amalgam of the guys… you know, the faith healers and the kind of showbiz Copperfield/Criss Angel thing and the sort of TV evangelist. He’s all of those mixed together. So, I went to Vegas and I got to meet Copperfield briefly. And there you go again… if you’re talking about presence, you go ‘wow, that guy has got some energy’. It’s kind of mad and interesting. They are obviously personalities and they harness that energy or personality that they have and make it into a showbiz thing. But for me, I don’t mind the showbiz aspect of it because that’s harmless really. But the stuff that gets dark is when people who are vulnerable, who are sick or who have lost somebody and they start throwing money at these guys, and they put aside all rational thought and reason and logic in an effort to fill something for themselves… and when these guys prey on those people it’s very scary I think. I also hung out with this magician in Barcelona a lot as well to be able to do some of the tricks as well.
Q. Did any reformed psychics come forward and confess all?
Cillian Murphy: No. But it’s pretty basic. What you see in the film is kind of how they do it. It’s pretty basic stuff. Also, it’s not a film about pointing fingers, really; it’s not about making an attack on these people. It’s a dramatic piece of entertainment. And I think in fairness to Rodrigo [Cortes, the director] he does give equal credence to both sides. You know the big TV debate, they aren’t ridiculed these people… their arguments are put across pretty succinctly and pretty cleverly and I think that he gives credence to them.
Q. Do you give credence to them or are you completely sceptical?
Cillian Murphy: No, I’m completely sceptical. I’m kind of boringly rational, or pedantically rational. I’ve never seen anything than can’t be explained. Maybe I’m too involved in life to be worried about these things. But as I said, it’s when people are in vulnerable positions and they really start looking into this world that causes problems.
Q. So, you came across nothing that made you even doubt for a second?
Cillian Murphy: No. I did this other film, Sunshine, which was kind of about religion and science. There’s a crossover I think in terms of the subject matter and I spent a lot of time with these scientists. So, I really believe that we should be curious and always open but in order for something to be taken seriously there has to be empirical evidence. You can’t just claim something.
Q. What do you think the difference is with people who see someone like David Copperfield, who know it’s a trick, whereas people who go to see mediums and psychics do tend to believe? Why do they still want to believe in spite of what people like Derren Brown have proved?
Cillian Murphy: I don’t know and this is the thing that we’ll never really know. People have all sorts of reasons. I do think it is generally coming from a place of need for these people, so it’s doubly worse when they’re taken advantage of. But I don’t know. Scientists will say if there’s something that we can’t explain or don’t understand, we should investigate it and try and find evidence for it, whereas some people go if there’s something we can’t explain or don’t understand we’ll just attach some mystery to it, or say that it’s a super power and follow it in blind faith.
Q. How intense was the shoot for you? Rodrigo has talked about limited time and budget and sometimes capturing 102 shots in a day?
Cillian Murphy: Well, it was pretty fast and we did it in about eight weeks in Barcelona and about two weeks in Toronto. But the Spanish crew work so well. They’re brilliant. And they just love their job. Rodrigo, again… there was no hanging around and talking about stuff. He knew from the beginning the shots that he wanted, he knew every frame of that film before he shot it, so I love that. You kind of disappear into the world of the film for these 10 weeks and you have no awareness of what’s happening in the real world [laughs]. You don’t see any of your friends or any of that. But you’re so intensely involved and I really like that. I like an immersive experience in performing.
Q. What makes you choose what you’re going to do next? I’ve read that you like to choose carefully… Why does a movie like Red Lights attract you?
Cillian Murphy: I never make a distinction between doing a film in Hollywood or doing a film independently. It’s just the story. It’s always the story for me. The constants are that it should challenge me and I shouldn’t repeat myself. And the story should always be a story worth telling. Whether it be in TV or film or theatre is immaterial. And whether it have a gi-normous budget or a tiny budget is immaterial. It’s how you use those resources. I have to plan or strategy… I have no idea what’s going to come in the door next. I don’t say: “I’ll do an Irish film or an American film or a play.” It’s just what happens.
Q. You’re also quoted as saying you’re done with being a villain. Is that true?
Cillian Murphy: Well, I’ve played two bad guys in 35 films! No, I think they both came out in the same year so that’s probably from then. I never say never now. I think if it’s a good character, then why not? But you don’t want to repeat – that’s the thing.
Q. Did you get an invitation to do a cameo in the final Batman, The Dark Knight Rises?
Cillian Murphy: [Smiles] Oh well, it’s coming out in July isn’t it? So, you don’t have long to wait [smiles].
Q. So, you’re not saying… or not allowed to say?
Cillian Murphy: Listen, people are so impatient these days, huh [laughs]? People on the Internet and fans… I understand why because everyone is really anticipating that film and other films. But isn’t the beauty of it just going into the movie and not having read the script? Or not having seen footage from the shoot and just looking at it as it’s meant to be? Chris [Nolan] is very much about that and I’m very much about that, so…
Q. How does it feel to be a part of that legacy? Obviously, you played a massive part in Batman Begins. You could never have known how big it would become and it may even have been perceived as a risk going in and re-booting it in such a fashion? So, were there any nerves or was it one of the wisest career choices you’ve made?
Cillian Murphy: For me, at the beginning I just wanted to work with Chris Nolan. I had seen Following and Memento and Insomnia and just thought he was a sensational director. I didn’t really know the Batman world. So, for me it was just to get to meet him. And then I got to work and realised the scale of it and how important it was to everybody and felt a great responsibility then to the fans and to playing a villain in a Batman movie – it’s a big deal. But getting to work with and getting to know Chris was something amazing.
Q. Didn’t you initially go for Batman?
Cillian Murphy: Yeah…
Q. So, in hindsight, with the scrutiny that Christian Bale has now, are you kind of happy or regretful you didn’t get it?
Cillian Murphy: Oh man, I don’t have nostalgia. Nostalgia is a… you’ve got to look forward in this business and I’m lucky to be involved in this amazing trilogy. Also, I didn’t really fill the Bat-suit. You need to be able to fill a Bat-suit [laughs]. So, no I could never look back and say: “Oh damn it!” Christian has done a phenomenal job. The thing about parts is that if someone does it well you can’t see anybody else in the role.
Q. Did you feel that about Once as well? You were involved in that too…
Cillian Murphy: I love that movie! Enda Walsh just won a Tony for it as well, last night [for Broadway version of the film]. Yeah, I think Glen [Hansard] was incredible in that film. Nostalgia is such a f**king fatal emotion [laughs].
Q. When you first started out music was your main passion. Do you ever wonder what might have been? I know what you’ve just said about nostalgia…
Cillian Murphy: Well, what happened was I took music to a point where it was getting very serious and we were offered a record deal and it was just on the point where it was about to become a career and then acting kind of came along just at that point… just at that juncture and acting then became more important. And I think in terms of forms of self-expression it’s become a much more satisfying form. I think there was a ceiling that I could have reached as a musician, which was low, and I think and I feel that I still have a lot to prove as an actor, so I think that it’s a better thing for me in terms of creativity.
Q. If you decided to go back to music, would you get offered a record deal being the famous Cillian Murphy?
Cillian Murphy: No. Again, I like to concentrate on one thing and try and excel at that as best I can and try and improve the best I can. Music is a hobby now and I play guitar and I go to gigs and I download music and I’m a total nerd with it. But no… I get out and play with my buddies but it’s a hobby.
Q. Are you playing a rock star next in Letter From An Unknown Woman?
Cillian Murphy: [Smiles] Oh yeah, yeah. So, vicariously [smiles]. Any chance that I get in front of a mic on film and I’m there! But that’s a great script. It’s a French film and I think it’s happening this year.
Q. Will you be singing in that one?
Cillian Murphy: I think so, yeah.
Q. Are you still doing the film with Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson with Brendan Gleeson?
Cillian Murphy: At Swim Two Birds, oh yeah. It’s been there for a while. I think Brendan is just getting it together and trying to find the time in between making his movies and raising the money for it. But we’re all on board and there’s a huge amount of goodwill, so…
Q. Are you excited to be able to do that given that you’re used to playing Americans quite a lot…
Cillian Murphy: It’ll be good, yeah. There’ll be lots of anecdotes [laughs]!
Q. Is availability part of the delay?
Cillian Murphy: Partly that but it’s also a hard book to make into a film. It’s such a surreal book but he’s done a brilliant job on the script. So, I think it will happen but it’s a question of scheduling and financing. Making a film is hard, man!
Q. When was the last time you filmed in Ireland?
Cillian Murphy: I guess it was Perrier’s Bounty.
Q. So, is there a nice feeling to come home and film on local shores?
Cillian Murphy: Yeah, I loved making that film. I did Misterman there in Galway last year and that was a great buzz. I love Galway. I spend a lot of time in Ireland, just with my friends and my family, so it feels very close.
Q. Would you ever move back to Ireland?
Cillian Murphy: I like the little bit of distance that London affords me and I like living in a world capital. I like having the culture at my fingertips like that.
Q. You’ve said in the past you don’t like the spotlight on you or people trying to find out about your private life. Are you more relaxed about that now?
Cillian Murphy: No one’s interested! I think that after a while people understand the way you operate and people are very cool with me. They recognise that I like to keep that part of my life that part of my life and also if you behave like a celebrity, then people will treat you like a celebrity. If you behave like a normal person, they have to treat you like a normal person.
Q. Do you watch people like Colin Farrell and feel grateful not to have that kind of exposure?
Cillian Murphy: I admire Colin greatly but we’re very different actors. He lives in Los Angeles and I live in London. I feel European and I feel that is part of my make-up and to live in America would be very odd for me, because I like to do theatre and I like to do smaller films as well as do the other ones, so London seems like a good compromise. But I love Colin’s work and I think he is doing amazing stuff.
Q. What do you like about doing theatre?
Cillian Murphy: I guess it’s the immediate connection with the audience. The show I just did, Misterman, was a one-man show so it was just me and 900 people and it’s very daunting and scary but it’s like this contract that you make between each other and you know you have got to perform and entertain and they are there to help you…unless you’re s**t! [Laughs] And I wasn’t. So I love that immediate thing, Film is magical but it’s delayed, You have to wait a year and a half for it to come out. And you kind of give them the raw materials and they build it, whereas with theatre you are just right there with the audience and it feels very special.
Q. Did you feel scared because it was a one man show, no one there to support you?
Cillian Murphy: No, I loved it because it was such good writing and so well directed, you felt safe. So, I felt confident in it.
Q. When you initially moved to Dublin to pursue acting was there ever a stage when it was a big struggle?
Cillian Murphy: Ah yeah, there were points were I didn’t know what I should do, but you learn perseverance. If it all happened overnight it would have been strange. I worked in theatre exclusively for about four years after I left college and learned working with great stage actors in Druid and Galway. Yeah, you’re kind of poor but you have no responsibilities, so it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to go to the theatre but I could be in them occasionally.
Q. You mentioned still having places to go as an actor. What are those unexplored territories?
Cillian Murphy: I don’t know. You want to do something that tests you and that pushes you but I don’t really know. People ask you: “What is your ideal role?” But I don’t know. If I was writer I could write it but I’m not so you just have to wait. I think if you look at a script and think you mightn’t be able to do that then that’s the one you should really go for. I like stuff that is challenging for the audience and for the performer. And I like actors that do that, that really push themselves.
Q. Are there roles in the theatre that you’d like to tackle?
Cillian Murphy: Well, I’ve never really done a classical piece. I’ve never done Shakespeare… although I did, but it was terrible years and years ago. I think I did Much Ado About Nothing but I wasn’t very good. I think I may have a lack of confidence because I never trained. So, I might have a lack of confidence about the big classical roles. But there are a lot of roles in theatre that would present that, I guess.
Q. Which of your roles have you found most challenging?
Cillian Murphy: I enjoy the ones that are kind of transformative, where you have to really immerse yourself. I’ve kind of been attracted to those ones. But if it’s hard, then it’s good generally. But I wouldn’t want to pick one in particular.
Q. Do you enjoy going back and working with people that you’ve worked with before, such as Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle? Do you tell your agent to find out what they’re doing next and ask if there’s a role for you?
Cillian Murphy: [Smiles] No, you can’t really petition people. Hopefully, if the first time was successful with them they might want to work with you again. But I do love working with people a second time because it means you go straight to the work. There’s none of that getting to know you or trying to figure you out. You know each other and you know each other’s abilities. Each time I’ve worked with someone the second or third time it’s always been straight to the work and better… I’ve always performed better on the second or third collaboration.
Q. Is there potential for an Inception 2?
Cillian Murphy: I haven’t heard anything about that. I don’t really know. I think Chris is somebody who would be loathe to repeat himself. It felt to me… f**k it, I don’t know. Ask him. I know nothing about that [laughs].
Q. What about the Dali film with Al Pacino?
Cillian Murphy: Well, that was kind of up to Al. It would have been great. But I got to work with the director but Al is another hero and it would be great to work with him.
Q. How come he put the skids on that?
Cillian Murphy: I don’t know. He’s a busy man, I guess. But he’d do a great job because it was a great script as well.