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Danny Boyle Explains What Made Cillian Murphy So Special from the Start

For some viewers, Cillian Murphy’s presence in “Oppenheimer” might have been confusing: I know I’ve seen that guy in something, but what? It’s a credit to the 47-year-old actor that, as in-demand as he is, he remains malleable enough not to be defined by any one role. 

A veteran of theater, film and television, Murphy spent nearly a decade playing the menacing mob boss Tommy Shelby on “Peaky Blinders,” while moviegoers might recognize him as the Scarecrow in “Batman Begins,” which was directed by Christopher Nolan, who has continued to work with the actor in subsequent films like “Dunkirk” and “Oppenheimer.” He was a scary survivor in “A Quiet Place Part II,” the first time he and Emily Blunt shared the screen. And Murphy has also been acclaimed on stage, earning raves for his performances in Misterman and Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. But after portraying J. Robert Oppenheimer—and emerging as a strong contender to win Best Actor at next Sunday’s Oscars—it’s likely no one will ever wonder again where they’ve seen Murphy before.

Two of his earliest films were directed by Danny Boyle. In 2002’s “28 Days Later,” Murphy played Jim, an everyman who wakes up in the hospital, discovering that society has been eviscerated by a rage virus. In the wake of 9/11, this post-apocalyptic horror movie tapped into the zeitgeist, and it remains the scariest film of this young century. Then, five years later, Murphy reunited with Boyle for “Sunshine,” a meditative, moving sci-fi drama in which his moody physicist must work with his fellow space travelers (including Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans and Rose Byrne) to try to save humanity by reigniting Earth’s dying sun. 

These two excellent genre films were bolstered by Murphy’s calm, intelligent demeanor, and both he and Boyle have gone on to even greater heights since. (Boyle, of course, won Best Director for “Slumdog Millionaire,” which took home a grand total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture.) On the eve of the Academy Awards—and with the possibility that they may work together again on a “28 Days Later” sequel—I spoke to Boyle about casting the then-relatively unknown actor. 

Our phone line wasn’t always clear, but the director’s enthusiasm for his collaborator and friend was. Below, Boyle discusses why Murphy is so good in “Oppenheimer,” the crucial difference between theater actors and film actors and the project he’s working on that he thinks will be perfect for Murphy—although he hasn’t told Murphy about it yet.

Cillian Murphy has said he had to audition six times to get the role in “28 Days Later.” Is that how you remember it?

I couldn’t swear it was six. I have read that—it just sounds a lot, doesn’t it? [Laughs] Especially when you think where he’s ended up now. 

We read scenes together, and you could tell he was a really good actor. It’s partly finding out about the part as well, which you do through the audition process. It isn’t like you’ve got a definitive oil painting in your mind of how it should be—you’re arriving at it together. In fact, the casting of him is partly the reason that it ended up as it ended up, because what they bring to the part isn’t just specific suggestions—they bring something else to it. The manifestation of them as people is part of the writing of the film—it becomes the writing of particular characters.

The thing about Cillian, it’s his changeability. For “28 Days Later,” you thought, “He’s so perfect as an affable, carefree bike messenger, but how is he going to turn into an avenging angel?”—which is what he ends up as, capable of the kind of violence that the infected are capable of. “How is he going to do that?” We had the same [transformation] in “Sunshine”: “How can a thoughtful, careful physicist turn into a kind of action hero?” It’s the same with “Peaky Blinders”: You think, “Can this shy, kind gentleman turn into that fierce [crime boss]?” 

The core, I think, is his physicality. That comes from the stage—if you’ve ever seen him on stage, he is unrecognizable. I saw him in [Grief Is the Thing With Feathers] most recently, and his physicality is absolutely extraordinary, and quite belying how sofa-bound he is [in the play] for most of the time. Even when you see him in those Oscar interviews, he can barely get up from the sofa—but you see him on stage, and that transformation is incredible.

That’s what Nolan’s done with him in “Oppenheimer.” He’s taken that changeability of him—that beauty and that ability to transform into something that’s as powerful as the atom splitting the world asunder—and he’s condensed it into a close-up, which binds the whole film together. It’s extraordinary what [Nolan] attempts to do—the range of characters, the range of the casting, it’s incredible. It’s the challenge for Cillian: “Can he hold all of it together?” And the way Nolan’s done it is through a close-up—that IMAX close-up that he adores—and it’s the most challenging close-up there is because, on IMAX, you’ve just nowhere to go, other than the belief that these powers lie within this individual. 

We benefited from it on “28 Days Later” because it was a huge kind of crescendo that he created—a physical, violent crescendo—that was completely linked to love. [The film] was romantic as well [at times]. But his blood is like liquid mercury—you know when you see mercury and it shifts its shape, and yet it remains mercury? I’m just in awe of him. I’m sorry I put him through six auditions—clearly, it was unnecessary.

I imagine part of the reason you cast him in “28 Days Later” was because he wasn’t famous—he could believably play an everyman. Did you sense immediately that he had a star quality? Or is that something that becomes apparent during the shoot?  

It’s a journey of trust that you go on. You don’t quite ever know where you’re going to end up. Everything was telling us that he couldn’t transform into that avenging angel by the end, and yet, I’d seen him on stage and I knew. To be a good stage actor, you need power—to be a great film actor, you need stillness, which is often the opposite. He has both, and yet it remains a mystery how he gets there.

That’s what is so convincing about [his “Oppenheimer” performance]: The world could blow up, and you’ve got to believe that he can see that happening. Nolan put in that close-up because he knows [Murphy] has that range within him to manifest the atomic bomb [on screen]. But [Murphy is] also the most relaxed, the calmest, the kindest, the most thoughtful person you could imagine—those two forces, [Nolan] puts them in a close-up. 

Obviously, [Murphy] does a good physical job impersonating [Oppenheimer], and he looks wonderful—he can wear a hat like nobody else can wear a hat. Should have had him wearing some hats in “28 Days Later.” [Laughs] But he’s not turning into an unrecognizable monster—you still see the beautiful creature that he is. [Murphy] has a great physical beauty—he’s blessed with that—but he uses it beautifully in film. 

With “Sunshine,” it was nervy to cast him as the film’s lead. Were you trying to subvert the idea of the typical sci-fi action hero by having someone not so obviously buff? 

Especially back then, action heroes came pretty well-defined. But we knew we had a guy who could deliver that ending, but also someone that you wanted to accompany [on the journey]. He’s not an impossible hero, either—he has great beauty, but he remains one of us, and you can be inside the space suit with him and see him suffering. 

[Murphy] doesn’t mind suffering. I’ve never seen him look in a mirror. You could say, “Well, he doesn’t need to when he’s that handsome,” but he has no personal vanity. That is a quality that you can’t underestimate—it brings him closer to people. You can sense vanity, however it manifests itself, and he doesn’t have any. 

During pre-production on that film, you put the actors through a boot camp, making them live together for a while to get used to their characters’ situation. Since Murphy plays the protagonist, did he take a leadership role during that boot camp? 

He would never assume leadership—he would just be part of [the group]. He leads movies, but he’s not someone who takes on the kind of front role.

I obviously didn’t live with them—they lived together, and I think one or two of them were a bit surprised that they were going to literally be living together for a couple of weeks. But music was a big help. The other thing about him is his music—he hosts shows on the BBC, on Radio 6. His musical taste is wonderful.

What kind of music is he into?

Eclectic high quality. I think that’s one of the things he liked about us working together, because I’m really music-driven as well. He’s got an inexhaustible appetite for music. His show that he did during lockdown [“Songs From Under the Stairs”], he locks himself away, and that’s his quiet place.

When you two reunited for “Sunshine,” did you notice that his acting approach changed from film to film? 

There was no research on the first film because it was [about] an apocalypse, but the second one, he was very diligent. He struck up a really good friendship with this scientist, Brian Cox. Weirdly, he sort of looks like Cillian. [Laughs] And he went to CERN, which is where they fire the atoms around a huge circular particle accelerator. He spent a lot of time [researching], and then he trusts his intuition. 

I can imagine he did that on “Oppenheimer”—he trusts the scene and the interaction with the other actors. I don't remember ever struggling with [him], like you can with some actors and some parts. When trying to get to grips with [a role], he preps and then he gives the absolute impression of having done no prep at all—he’s ready to go. 

We got on really well, and we’re hoping to get it together again on the sequel that we’re doing to “28 Days Later,” this “28 Years Later.” It’s not a deal done yet, but hopefully we’ll be able to get back together on that—if he’ll ever speak to me again. [Laughs]

You can’t find “28 Days Later” on streaming right now. Do you know what’s going on with that? It’s a shame newcomers to Murphy can’t see how great he is in that movie.

I think they’ve done that deliberately to create an appetite for the new film. You want his fame and his exposure on “Oppenheimer” to lead people to his other work, which is substantial, and we’re part of that, so I’d love people [to see] him in “28 Days Later.” 

He sent me a very nice message—he’d watched it with one of his sons. It’s quite a hardcore film, so you have to be careful at which age the kids watch it. But he said he thought it stood up really well, which was lovely. I don’t know what his son thought. [Laughs] 

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with actors right before they broke through: Ewan McGregor, Cillian Murphy, Dev Patel. Is that something you enjoy: “People don’t know this person yet, but after my movie they will”?

Yeah, except you benefit from it so much that you don’t think about it as a quality you’ve provided. You think about it as a gift that they’ve given you—that you’ve been lucky enough to get them early on in their career, when they’re inexpensive. [Laughs] And yet, they can generate an audience.

It’s been 17 years since “Sunshine.” Other than this potential “28 Days Later” sequel, have you and Murphy talked about working together again? 

Well, I have a project that Cillian doesn’t know about yet. Actually, it’s a stage project. He doesn’t know anything about it yet, so he may hate the idea. [Laughs] I shouldn’t really be talking to you about it, but I know in my bones it will happen. I’m still working on it—it’s been in my mind for a long time, actually—and I know it will happen. He’s about old enough now [for the role].

I won’t ask you to tell me what the project is, but is the role in the same vein as what you’ve done together before?

No, no, I can’t answer any of those questions! [Laughs] Sorry.

When you watch “Oppenheimer,” do you recognize the actor you cast in “28 Days Later” all those years ago?

I really thought “Oppenheimer” was in a different league, just in terms of his maturity as an actor. I loved watching him in it. I’ve been to see it twice, and a lot of that was to do with watching somebody that you know and admire but seeing him shift it into a different place. He’s done some wonderful work, obviously, over the years, but the attention that he’s receiving [for this film] is well-merited. It’s not a fiction of marketing, which can happen, it’s a remarkable performance in the pantheon. 

“28 Days Later” was how Christopher Nolan first became aware of Murphy, starting a long collaboration between them. Did you and Nolan ever compare notes on an actor you both love? 

No, but when I heard that they’d auditioned him for Batman, I thought, “Brilliant. Good on you, mate,” about a fellow director giving Cillian a go at that and letting him audition for it. [Nolan] was able to see real potential in him that others [couldn’t] see, and you’ve got to admire that, because he can have anybody [for his films]. I love that they’ve developed such a strong relationship, such a fruitful relationship. It’s really great.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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