20 Questions With… Cillian Murphy

Golden Globe-nominated Irish actor Cillian Murphy – who’s now starring in the European premiere of John Kolvenbach’s Love Song – admits that music was his first love, he owes a debt to Disco & loves singing to his baby son before work.

Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy’s most recent film was Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which won the 2006 Palme d’Or in Cannes. His other major film credits include Wes Craven’s Red Eye, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto and Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.

John Crowley – who now directs Murphy in Love Song at the New Ambassadors Theatre – also directed him in his first film, Intermission.

Murphy also starred in the film version of Disco Pigs, reprising the role he created in Enda Walsh’s stage play. His other theatre work includes The Country Boy, Juno and the Paycock, Playboy of the Western World and The Shape of Things, all for the Gaiety Theatre Dublin. He also played Konstantin in Peter Stein’s 2003 Edinburgh International Festival production of The Seagull.

Love Song is directed by John Crowley. The story focuses on oddball Beane (Murphy). His well-meaning sister Joan and brother-in-law Harry try and make time for him in their busy lives, but no one can get through. After Beane’s apartment is burgled, Joan is baffled to find her brother blissfully happy and tries to unravel the story behind Beane’s mysterious new love Molly.

Date & place of birth
Born 25 May 1976 in Cork, Ireland.

Lives now in
North-west London. I’ve always been drawn to big cities. I like to be away from Ireland but also stay close to it. I do like New York, where I have stayed for extended periods, but you can’t beat London for its thriving theatre scene and for the anonymity. I suppose I’m a bit of a culture junkie, and London is surely where it’s at for the arts right now.

Is your wife an actress?
No. Yvonne is an artist with no theatre connections. She’s a Dublin girl, but we first met up about ten years ago in Cork. Now we have our little boy called Malachy.

You’ve landed major roles in Hollywood. Would you consider moving there?
It’s not a requirement these days. A lot of films are cast out of London and you can easily get there for meetings.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I studied law at university but that was just a brief flirtation and I knew it wasn’t for me. Music was always my passion – no question. I was in bands before I was an actor and played guitar with a group we called Sons of Mr Greengenes, after the Frank Zappa number. I even wrote a song for the film version of Disco Pigs. I’m still very interested in music – I like all sorts, from new bands and old soul to jazz – but these days I am not composing or playing much, although I do sing a lot to our little son whenever I get the chance.

First big break

Disco Pigs, which was my first time on stage. I had been to see a show produced by the same company, a promenade version of A Clockwork Orange staged at a nightclub in Cork. It was amazing. It connected with me immediately and opened my eyes to what theatre could be. I had no ambition to become an actor at that point. I acquired a passion for acting as I went along. In Disco Pigs I had an amazing role in an amazing production that became a big success, so I guess I was kind of lucky to have such a good start.

Career highlights to date
I never pick out highlights because you are only as good as your last job. I just want to improve as an actor. That’s why I want to keep returning to theatre as well as make films. I like to challenge myself all the time. I always think I’ve still got a lot more to improve upon. If you put a ceiling on discovering new things, there really is no point in carrying on.

Where do you feel most at home – on stage or in front of the camera?
Maybe because I did theatre for so long before I made my first film, I feel more at home on stage. I certainly get much more nervous working on films. That might seem an odd thing to say, but that’s the way it is.

Even so, you’ve landed major film roles both at home & in Hollywood. How do you choose them?
You just have to have the patience to wait for the ones to come along that jump out at you. When you read a film script, you know straight away if it’s going to be right. I’ve been very lucky to be able to create some great characters and work with the superb directors attached to them. If you have patience and accept that you are in this business for the long run and not take anything that comes along, you’ll be okay.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley was shot in your home county of Cork where some of the Irish civil war events depicted actually took place. How special was that film to you?
Very special, partly because I knew all the locations but also because it connected with my own family history. I had a cousin who was killed by the British “Black ‘n’ Tans” and there’s a plaque to him in a nearby village. Also, my dad told me that his father had been shot at by them, just for playing Irish traditional music. All this stuff is only two generations ago, so I guess it’s in your DNA. We felt a lot of responsibility when making that film, but with a director like Ken Loach at the helm you are always in good hands.

Which stage or movie actors have you learned most from?
I couldn’t possibly nominate any. There are so many good ones that I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out. The actors I really admire and aspire to be like are the ones that have healthy careers in both stage and screen.

Favourite productions
It was a memorable experience to get to work with a director like Peter Stein on The Seagull and to play a classic role like Konstantin. That was fantastic. We even rehearsed at Peter’s villa in Italy. Also, playing Christie in The Playboy of the Western World with Gary Hynes and then taking that production to the islands off the Irish west coast where JM Synge got his inspiration for writing the piece was a very big moment for me.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I go to the theatre whenever I get the chance. Frost/Nixon is the play that really sticks in my mind at the moment. It’s amazing. Brilliant writing, wonderfully directed and fantastic performances It’s really thrilling when you get new writing as good as that.

Favourite playwrights
There’s a very strong wave of new Irish writers coming through, some of whom I have worked with and some I haven’t. Most recently, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at the National, also directed by John Crowley, was a big theatre moment for me.

What is it about Ireland that it produces so many good writers & actors?
Maybe it’s because we have such a strong tradition of storytelling at home and the fact that it’s a small island. There is something poetic in the Irish air and yet it can also become quite self-destructive.

What made you want to accept your role in Love Song?
Beane immediately fascinated me when I first read the play because he’s a young American living on the outside track of life – misfit is probably too easy a word to describe him. He has an assertive sister, played by Kristen Johnston, and a well-meaning brother-in-law, played by Michael McKean, but then this mysterious young woman called Molly, played by Neve Campbell, enters his insular life and sort of reawakens it. What I look for in a play is something that I haven’t explored before. Beane is a real challenge because he’s so unusual and nothing like any of the characters that I have ever played, either on stage or on film. The entire world is pressing down on this weird fellow, but he’s very funny, as well as intriguing. John Kolvenbach’s dialogue is so wonderful to speak too. You just go with the writing. He really looks after his actors.

Where do the ‘Love’ & the ‘Song’ of the title fit in?
It’s too easy to call the play a love story. In rehearsal, John Kolvenbach spoke to the cast about the cheesiness of love songs and how sometimes when you are listening to them your state of mind can become elevated. The play deals with that and how, when you fall madly in love, everything becomes so wonderful.

You’ve worked with your director, John Crowley, before on the film Intermission. How did you two first meet?
We’re both from Cork in Ireland, although we never actually met there. I always thought very highly of his work so when I first came over to London I went to see him at the Donmar Warehouse, where he was an associate director, just to get some advice at a time when I was starting off and beginning to get theatre roles. We talked and remained in touch and when he came to make Intermission I auditioned, got the part and it grew from there.

What makes Love Song stand out from the crowd in the West End?
Well there’s a scarcity of new writing in the West End at the moment, apart from Frost/Nixon and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I’m sure it will appeal to the kind of audience that spends money on movie tickets, not just because of the starry cast, but because of the material, which is very entertaining – and it hopefully touches the old heartstrings a bit as well. Apart from that, we’re in a nice intimate theatre, which is just perfect for this play.

You were last in the West End in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. How does Love Song compare?
They are very different pieces but both with the same high quality of writing. Disco Pigs was much more visceral and certainly had a fantastic life, starting at Cork and then the Traverse in Edinburgh and the Bush in London and finally around the world. We played briefly at the Arts Theatre in the West End, but I don’t think it worked as well there because it needed to be seen in a small space where you could connect to the audience.

How do you switch off after an evening playing the love-struck Beane in Love Song?
I have my little boy now so what’s wonderful about doing this particular play is that during the day I’ll be able to be with him. He keeps me very level-headed. That’s the nice thing about doing theatre in London and living here as well – you can have the entire day to be with your family.

What role would you most like to play next?
I can’t think like that. I have two movies to come out in 2007 – Sunshine, a sci-fi movie directed by Danny Boyle in which I play a scientist, and Watching the Detectives, directed by Paul Soter, which is a romantic New York comedy about a film noir buff and a femme fatale. But my only ambition is to keep on doing film and theatre. I just have to wait for someone to come to me with something good.

Cillian Murphy was speaking to Roger Foss

Love Song opened on 4 December 2006 (following previews from 25 November) at the West End’s New Ambassadors Theatre where its limited run continues until 3 March 2007.

** DON’T MISS the chance to join our Outing to LOVE SONG – including a post-show Q&A with Cillian Murphy & his co-stars Neve Campbell, Kristen Johnston & Michael McKean – all for only £25!! – click here for more details! **