The Peaky Blinders star talks Tommy Shelby, Christopher Nolan, and more.
Even for those who don’t recognize the name, Cillian Murphy is one of those actors who most moviegoers would be familiar on sight, from his frequent collaborations with Christopher Nolan—the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, and Dunkirk—to his starring role as the ruthless Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, now four seasons in with a fifth scheduled for 2019, to his roles in a wide variety of celebrated films, from 28 Days Later to the Palme d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
When I catch up with him on the phone, it’s still the first half of January, so I ask him about his 2017 favorites. He names some films—The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Blade Runner 2049, Lady Bird, I, Tonya—and for books he singles out Mrs. Osmond, the latest novel by John Banville (“one of my favorite writers”).
Also, since it’s January, I bring up awards and award shows, because ’tis the season, and in addition to Peaky Blinders, Murphy’s fifth collaboration with Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk, is a major awards season contender. On the subject of awards and Dunkirk, Murphy is quick to bring up his frequent collaborator.
“I really hope [Chris Nolan] gets Best Director because he deserves it,” Murphy says. “He’s never made a bad movie, and he manages to make extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking films that somehow resonate in the mainstream, which is a very elegant achievement.” While Nolan does have his nay-sayers just like everyone else, his career statistics are remarkable—none of his films have received below a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, and all have been commercial successes. (However, it does suggest the possibility that Nolan might end up like other cinematic legends such as Alfred Hitchcock, somehow getting looked over by the Academy until eventually receiving an honorary Oscar late in life—but I decided not to mention this.)
I then switch gears to asking about Peaky Blinders, which just had its fourth season released here in the U.S. on Netflix last month. After all, this interview only came about thanks to the enormous response generated by the piece I wrote espousing the show’s many merits two weeks ago. With that in mind, I start off by asking him about the show’s dedicated fan base, which has primarily grown through word of mouth.
“I think that for everybody involved in the show—from Steve Knight, the writer, to Katie Swinden, the producer, to myself and all the cast—the thing that we’re most proud of is the fact that the show has reached this level of connection purely by, as you say, word of mouth, and people talking about it and people saying, ‘you should watch this show,’ because the BBC doesn’t advertise, you know? You don’t get big billboards on the street,” he says. “So it grew—I hate the use of this word ‘organic,’ but I think in this context it’s appropriate—it grew organically. It was not being shoved down people’s throats, it just connected. If people had a formula for that, there would be very many rich people in this world. But there’s no formula. It’s just sometimes something strikes a nerve—something connects—and this one did, and we were very, very lucky. We are always surprised and hugely impressed by the dedication and the love from the fans. It’s special.”
Arguably one of the most interesting influences Peaky Blinders has had is in the world of fashion. In addition to sparking an 83% rise in UK flat cap sales, the show has arguably had the most significant influence on hairstyling since Friends gave us The Rachel.
While it hasn’t quite caught on here in the U.S. (yet, at least), walking down the street in Ireland or the U.K. one is almost sure to spot at least one young man sporting the distinctive side-shorn mop top worn by the men of the Shelby family. But correlation does not necessarily imply causation, so I ask Murphy just how responsible he thinks Peaky Blinders is for this rather notable trend.
“I think it’s a hundred percent responsible for the trend because I have a few friends that work in barber shops, and they’ve said people come in and ask for a ‘Peaky Blinder,’” he confirms. “That particularly brutal cut came about from hygiene rather than style—it was to prevent lice and the infestation of parasites—but now, all of a sudden, it’s fashionable, which just shows you how fashion can morph into something bizarre.”
(Two days after our phone conversation, I sit at a gate in Dublin Airport transcribing this interview, waiting for my flight back to the U.S. after visiting my family for the holidays. Inspired, I look around to see how many “Peaky Blinders” cuts I can spot. I count eleven.)
In addition to starring in the show and unexpectedly inspiring a hairstyle trend, Murphy has also been an Executive Producer of Peaky Blinders since season 3. I ask him if wearing this second hat has changed his relationship with the show in any way.
“It’s been a lovely education to kind of peer behind the curtain,” he says. “Normally as an actor you turn up and say your lines, and then you go home and you kind of fret about it until it comes out, whereas in this scenario I’m very graciously given a seat at the table and I get to look at the whole process as the show begins to form, and the different episodes begin to form, and that’s very helpful as an actor because you get a real objectivity which you don’t normally have, so I really enjoy that process, and the producers have been very encouraging and very welcoming into that fold. So it’s been good. You really appreciate what happens in post-production a lot more than you do when you’re just the actor that turns up.”
I mention that I’ve done a tiny bit of work in post-production myself (industrial and wedding videos, nothing exciting), but it was more than enough to instill a lifelong appreciation of color grading. It inspires perhaps the most enthusiastic reaction to the term I have encountered since finishing aforementioned post-production internship.
“Well the color grading in Peaky is a huge, huge element of the show’s distinctive style, you know?” Murphy comments.
On the subject of the show’s distinctive style, I bring up the music. Scoring a period piece with modern rock music is easier said than done, but Peaky Blinders has pulled it off for four seasons now. What’s the secret?
“I think the credit at the beginning must go to Otto Bathurst, who was the director of the first three episodes. He set the look of the show. It just clicked, and my thesis is that these characters are outlaws, and with most of the music that we use on the show, the artists are absolutely outlaws, from Nick Cave to Jack White to Tom Waits to PJ Harvey,” Murphy says. “They take no prisoners in an artistic sense, and that resonates very much, particularly with Tommy.”
Though Thomas Shelby is now perhaps, after four seasons, one of Murphy’s best-known roles, he has in previous interviews claimed that Tommy is the character least like him he has ever played. With that in mind, is there any character in the show that he relates to more?
“Oh without a doubt it would be Polly,” he answers at once. “Helen McCrory is one of my favorite people in the world as a human being and also as an actress, and I’m always in awe watching her create this character. She’s so incredible. I think I identify with her strength and her sensitivities and that sort of innate power that she has. I really love her work, and I love the character.”
While in years past it was suggested that Peaky Blinders was more or less planned to last five seasons, attitudes seem to be changing. The show is bigger and better than ever and shows little sign of stopping anytime soon. I ask Murphy if he can see himself still playing Tommy in five years, or even ten.
“I think it will find it’s natural conclusion, and I think we’ve been very, very lucky that the show has, in my opinion, gotten better incrementally, which is very unusual. I feel like we’ve improved each year,” he says. “You’d be a fool to walk away from writing this good. The other thing about it is that I only work for four months a year on this show, and then I have a year off, so I can go and do other things. So it’s kind of a dream gig because you can get to play other characters and explore other ideas and other concepts in between times. I trust in Steve Knight that creatively he will know when to bring it to its natural conclusion.”
With the exception of the four-part BBC miniseries adaptation of The Way We Live Now, Peaky Blinders is Murphy’s first television role. Whenever the series does eventually come to an end, could he see himself doing another TV series?
“I’ve always been an actor who works in every medium—I’ve worked in theater and film and television—I’ve never seen any difference between the three. For me, it’s been the best stories, so if the best story happened to be in television, I would certainly dive in again. It’s a wonderful time for television. I mean, the only downside is that there’s too much content, too much to absorb. I don’t know how you guys, as critics or aficionados of television, find the time to watch it all.”
I admit that for my part, I don’t. The vast majority of my coverage deals with film as opposed to television for that very reason.
Murphy suggests that one would want to have neither a job nor children to find the time. I try to think of a feasible counter-example—perhaps a multi-tasking freelancer who works from home?
“No, I think when you want to watch something you’ve got to give it your full commitment,” Murphy counters. “You can’t be on your phone or hoovering or something, you need to be watching the show.”
It’s a fair point, but binge-watching is now the name of the television watching game, and sitting perfectly still to watch even the most engrossing program for more than a few hours is far easier said than done. I go through the known binge-watching habits of various friends and family members in my head, trying to find one that might be acceptable.
What about something like knitting?
“Ah well, knitting is okay,” Murphy says after a moment’s consideration. “I approve of knitting, highly.” With such a positive response, I proceed to ask Murphy if he knits.
He does not.
Oh well. To quote Inception, another Murphy/Nolan collaboration, it was worth a shot.
Going back to his previous comment regarding valuing story over medium, I ask him if he finds any difference at all between film, television, and theater. Perhaps one he finds more fulfilling, or more challenging?
“No, I find that they kind of inform each other,” he says. “If you go and do a play, as I’m about to do, then you come out of that invigorated, and so then you go to a film, and it just informs that—it’s a great luxury to be able to hop from one to the other. I think I would get a little… weary, if I was just doing one, if I was just doing television or just doing film or just doing theater. But having the luxury to hop from one to the other keeps it lively, you know, and keeps it exciting.”
The play in question is an Irish stage adaptation of the Max Porter novel Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, written and directed by Enda Walsh, another frequent collaborator.
In addition to making regular appearances in the Irish theater scene, Murphy has maintained a steady presence in Irish independent film. I ask him about his thoughts on the Irish film industry.
“Well, you know, we’re a small country. There’s only four and a bit million people living here, and yet you look at the output of music, film, and literature that this country has produced—it’s quite extraordinary,” he enthuses. “It’s always been, for me, really satisfying to come home and to make films at home. We have amazing crews here. Television is happening all the time—it’s incredibly busy, the industry in Ireland. It just needs to be supported. But obviously, like I said, it’s a small country and obviously the revenue has only so much money and the government only has so much money to give, but whatever we can give we should give to our film industry because we’ve proven, for decades, that we can make films that are seen all over the world and can compete all over the world and are important all over the world.”
Looking more towards the future, I ask Murphy if there are any particular roles he would like to take on in future. Does he have an acting bucket list?
Murphy emphatically claims he does not. “No. I have no idea. My whole career has been completely random and haphazard. So I’m going to continue in that way and just see what happens.”
It’s somewhat surprising, considering the prevalence of specific themes and characters in Murphy’s filmography. He’s played several traumatized soldiers (Peaky Blinders, The Edge of Love, Dunkirk) and three scientists if you include Batman Begins’ Dr. Crane, which Murphy would not (“I don’t think he’s really qualified”).
“For me, there’s never been any pattern or any strategy, it’s just been stories that I’m interested in,” he insists. “It’s such a crazy business, and you just never know what’s coming around the corner. You never know who you’re going to get a call from, you never know what collaborations are going to develop, so you just never know. I decided very early on that I would never have a plan or a strategy because that seems sort of at odds with art—art isn’t about commerce, it’s about just making work and trying to be the best you can.”
Fair point. But on the subject of projects Murphy may or may not be interested in, Murphy has responded to rumors of a potential Peaky Blinders musical by insisting that if such a project were to take shape, he would not be involved. However, as an actor and a musician—Murphy pursued music before going into acting—would a musical ever be something he would potentially be interested in?
“I would not rule out a musical, what I will categorically say is that I will not be in a Peaky Blinders musical,” he specifies. “I’ve got behind the mic a couple of times in films, and I love music so yeah, a musical appeals to me.” So while we’ll never see Murphy as a singing Tommy Shelby, a musical performance—”not on stage, but maybe in a film”—is not off the table.
Time is running short, so I ask Murphy a decidedly more serious question that’s been running through my mind. In past interviews, Murphy has mentioned concerns about the nature of press and promotional coverage getting more reductive. As a member of the press not unfamiliar with such concerns, I ask him to elaborate on the subject.
“Just the speed of everything nowadays, that alarms me, and the need for headlines, and the need for people to say something outrageous on Twitter or to compress a quote into something that is not at all what the person said and to reduce a two-hour conversation to a provocative headline, that stuff sort of depresses me, but it’s the nature of what’s happening. It does make me very wary about who I talk to. You know, I don’t feel like a spokesman for anything and I don’t feel like… I’m just an actor, but I want to be represented correctly, and I feel that it may not be the journalists, but somebody else who can chop up your conversation and make it into something else, and this world kind of moves too fast for my liking. Before you could go on a talk show and sit there for an hour and a half and drink a brandy and smoke a cigar and talk about your life, but now you have to go on and be hilarious in four minutes, you know, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”
Having dealt with social media blow-ups on more than one occasion, I emphasize with many of these sentiments.
“For me, there is a distinction—I like print,” he elaborates. “The worst part is the television junkets where you sit in a room for four minutes, and you’re supposed to explain the whole film, explain your character, be hilarious, and tell people why they need to see the film—in four minutes, and I wasn’t programmed for that.”
To be fair, that does sound pretty terrible. Has he ever encountered anyone who is programmed for that?
“No, not really,” Murphy says. “Sometimes you can get in a room with somebody—with an actor who’s a friend, and you can have a bit of fun, but it’s not a normal environment. It’s a weird, weird environment. But like I said, print interviews and radio interviews—I dig them, you know?”
Speaking for Film School Rejects, I can happily say that we dig them too.