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Culture

Cillian Murphy: The eyes have it

We don’t really know Cillian Murphy, and he prefers it that way. He’d rather have his characters speak for themselves, and do they ever. Especially one Tommy Shelby, star of Peaky Blinders

If you behave like a celebrity, then people will treat you like a celebrity, and if you don’t, they won’t. There’s not much to write about me in the tabloids.

“I can charm dogs. Gypsy witchcraft. And those I can’t charm I can kill with my own hands.”

Thomas Shelby is the quintessential antihero, and even the way he utters these words tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s charming yet ruthless; a family man for whom killing comes easily. He’s the central figure in the Peaky Blinders universe of well-rounded characters, and the series’ popularity owes a lot to the life Cillian Murphy breathes into Tommy Shelby, the steely eyed head of the Birmingham gangster family.

Filming on the fifth series of this BBC/Netflix crime drama wrapped in January, and creator Steven Knight has said it should air sometime this year — punters put their money on an autumn release.

“I’m not a tough guy at all so it was by far the toughest character I have ever portrayed,” Murphy has said of his role on the show, “and him being so physical and the amount of respect and fear that this family has in this town means that we all had to look tough.

“I’ve been a fan of Steven Knight’s work for quite a while and the quality just jumped off the page. It’s just very unusual and very compelling and the character Tom Shelby is kind of an enigma.”

If you behave like a celebrity, then people will treat you like a celebrity, and if you don’t, they won’t. There’s not much to write about me in the tabloids.

That enigma is wrapped up in the complexity of his character, a quality that Murphy relishes. It’s his catnip. Moreover, the role has made him a household name, as well as sparked fashion and hairstyle trends the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a while.

Yet his path could have been vastly different. “Acting wasn’t a dream I’d had since I was six,” he told The Independent.

He was studying law and playing guitar in a Zappa-inspired band when a production of A Clockwork Orange changed everything. “It was just so sexual and visceral and in your face. It came as a complete revelation that theatre could be this affecting and immediate and free, and I basically pursued the director to get a part.”

Peaky Blinders has become a cultural phenomenon. The show is built around Murphy’s character, who gets to deliver lines such as: “My name is Thomas Shelby and today I’m going to kill a man.”

The eldest of four children, his father was a school inspector and his mother a French teacher. He grew up in Douglas, County Cork, in Ireland, and lived in London for a spell before recently moving back to Ireland with his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and two sons, Malachy and Aran.

“I’d probably have been wealthier if I had stayed with law, but pretty miserable doing it,” the actor who turned 43 in May said earlier in his career.

Instead, he’s put his steely blue eyes, strong cheekbones and defined jawline to good use, and manipulates his slight build and young features into roles varied and memorable.

Above: Ken Loach’s Palm D’Or-winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley.
Below: Murphy in 28 Days Later... and Batman Begins.

Transitioning from student and stage productions, Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Days Later… put Murphy on many critics’ radar. Roles in Cold Mountain and Girl with a Pearl Earring raised his profile, but it was with his villainous turns as Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Jackson Rippner in the Wes Craven thriller Red Eye — both released in 2005 — that he came into his own. Latter performance the New York Times called a “picture-perfect villain” and The New Yorker described as both seductive and sinister.

That same year saw Murphy deliver a completely different performance as Patrick “Kitten” Braden, an Irish transgender woman who travels to London in search of her mother, in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. Adapted from Patrick McCabe’s novel, Murphy was nominated for a Golden Globe and took home the Best Actor prize at the Irish Film and Television Academy Awards. “I had read the book before I was ever an actor,” he told the online resource BlackFilm.com.

“I think actors talk about the role of the lifetime, and I would very happily say that applied to this role. Neil Jordan is one of my favourite directors; not just because he’s Irish and I’m Irish. In the world of directors, he’s one of those guys. So, it was all of those things and also the fear that I couldn’t possibly do that. If you come to a character and say, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’ then you’re
in trouble.”

“To me, someone’s sexuality is usually the least interesting thing about them. It’s secondary. The only reason it becomes a source for dramatic storytelling is because people have made such an issue out of it,” Murphy’s said about his Golden Globe-nominated role in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. The film also features Ruth Negga, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson and Dominic Cooper.

He followed that up with Ken Loach’s Palm D’Or-winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Inception and Dunkirk with Nolan and a host of other high-profile projects.

“I’m not worried about being pegged, but it’s important for me to knock down any perceptions of me that are out there,” Murphy says.

Which explains why he uses the time between Peaky Blinders filming to do roles far removed from Tommy Shelby, even if he’s hard-pressed these days to avoid that character. The series is responsible for a sartorial revolution centred on its sharp three-piece tailoring, and sales of the flat caps that give the gang its name have skyrocketed.

It also gave rise to a contemporary hairstyle to rival the impact of the ’90s’ “Rachel”: “I think it’s 100% 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’,” Murphy told Film School Rejects.

“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.”

Knight recently revealed he’d like to see the show complete seven seasons — something Murphy should welcome, as he’s been sitting in an executive producer chair since season three. “It’s been a lovely education to kind of peer behind the curtain.

“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. 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.

“You really appreciate what happens in post-production a lot more than you do when you’re just the actor that turns up.”

So we can look forward to growing real-world implications, even if we have to scale down on our inner Tommy Shelbys. After-all, we can’t all go around saying, “I don’t pay for suits. My suits are on the house or the house burns down.”

Or can we? 

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