Cillian Murphy talks to Hamish MacBain about playing a nothern gangster in BBC drama Peaky Blinders, sharp dressing, learning the Brummie accent and the revolution happening in television
Photography by Ram Shergill
Fashion by Barnaby Ash
Of course it is the eyes that you first notice. But the second thing – in the room, in the flesh, in Berluti, even – is just how unassuming Cillian Murphy is. Yes, in interview, it is customary for film glitterati to impress upon us just how un-showbiz they are, but this is unmistakably genuine. Here, after all, we have a man who, despite being one of only five people to have appeared in every instalment of the defining cinematic trilogy of our time continues to shun Los Angeles in favour of Kilburn (well, not shun; the reasons are “purely pragmatic”).
There is no entourage whatsoever, only reasonable demands (vegetarian sandwiches). There is a man whose posture – slightly hunched, almost shifty – is that of someone actively trying to avoid standing out, and whose clothes – the ones he arrives and departs in, at least – are, in his own words “not flamboyant, just well-made, well-cut stuff. I like the classic elements: leather jacket, denim jacket, desert boots, good jeans, good T-shirt. Good belt. But I don’t really go beyond that.”
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Still, when the camera flashes, you see he’s special. Murphy is not film-star beautiful or male- model handsome. He is otherworldly striking.
The latest chapter in Murphy’s personal adventure, and his first post-Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, is maybe not what you would expect. Or maybe, these days, it is.
Like a lot of big-name film people – like a lot of people in general – he has, in the past few years, become more excited by TV, and by the possibilities of long-form drama. Having just finished a film in Albuquerque, New Mexico – Transcendence, due next year with Johnny Depp – he has witnessed the extent of Breaking Bad fandom. He loved The Wire, The Sopranos, House Of Cards and The Fall.
“For your blockbuster movie, you’ve got to get the clean-cut hero and the baddie,” he enthuses. “But in TV now, there seems to be this grey area.
It’s like things were in the Seventies: we’re now able to make the antihero or the complex, conflicted, f*cked-up character the main character again. If you look at the people in these shows, they’ve all got big issues, they’re all dealing with sh*t, because you have the time to explore them and shine a light into all the little corners of their personalities.”
Certainly, this is true of Tommy Shelby, the lead character portrayed by Murphy in long-form BBC drama Peaky Blinders. The first small-screen script that landed in his lap just 24 hours after he asked his agent why he wasn’t getting any TV scripts, it takes us back to post-First World War Birmingham and into the life of Shelby, ruler of the city’s criminal underworld and head of a vicious gang/family (the nickname ‘Peaky Blinders’ comes from the practice of stashing razor blades in the peak of their caps). The series is being billed as the UK’s answer to Boardwalk Empire, and stylistically and thematically, that is fairly accurate. But it delves deeper into the psyche of its characters than that show did. Not just because of an absolutely brilliant performance by Murphy, it is a must watch – the most exciting programme on British TV in 2013.
“I do think [shows like this] show you how smart audiences are,” he says. “How willing they are to go deep, deep into character and complex narratives. And yet [film companies] keep dishing out the same… sh*te. Not that there aren’t great films being made in Hollywood – there are – but in terms of the stuff that brings in the dollar, a lot of it is just trashy.
“It’s what writers thrive on, what actors thrive on. But unfortunately that’s been squeezed out of movies as we see more and more of these multimillion-dollar franchises. You get those, and then you get these tiny little indie movies. But my bread and butter, which is kind of the middle ground, has been squeezed away. That’s the case for a lot of writers and directors. And that’s why you see this migration to television a lot.”
The initial spark for Peaky Blinders came from the first-hand accounts of writer Steven Knight’s father: tales of running errands for immaculately dressed men sat around with piles of money. Murphy accompanied him on trips to his native Birmingham (“We sat in the pub with his mates, drinking Guinness, me recording them on my iPhone to get the accent”) and reading books such as Robert Roberts’ The Classic Slum: Salford Life In The First Quarter Of The Century. And he delved deep into people like Shelby who, as Murphy puts it, “have just been demobbed from the Army, from the First World War, which has changed warfare forever and they’re just… f*cked-up. No counselling, no pharmaceuticals, nothing to bring them out of it. They are just spat back into society, trying to find a way to exist. And they have access to violence, and violence as a form of expression.”
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All of which makes for a fascinating setting for a conflicted, on the surface horrific lead character, but one whom, thanks to Murphy’s portrayal and, of course, the beautiful clothes (“They didn’t have much [money], but what they had they spent on their clobber” he notes), you cannot help but warm to, or at least empathise with, him on some level. “Some characters require a big old journey from yourself,” he says. “Others, it’s a slight adjustment. This guy was a big old journey.”
It’s strange: watching Peaky Blinders, it feels like you are watching a breakout performance; like seeing an actor who you know will soon be making the transition from small screen to big.
And then you realise how the world has changed, and how Murphy has been smart enough to change with it.
Peaky Blinders is on BBC Two, Thursdays at 9pm