IRISH actor Cillian Murphy is the anti-Colin Farrell. Though Murphy's countryman may have a higher profile in movies, Farrell's bad-boy antics have often overshadowed his thespian abilities.
That hasn't been the case with the 29-year-old Murphy, who's avoided the tabloids while racking up positive notices in a year that's included turns as a villain in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Returns," as a psychopath in Wes Craven's thriller "Red Eye," and as the androgynous hero of the biggest film of his young career, "Breakfast on Pluto."
In person, Murphy is polite and well spoken. Sweet. He's fine-boned, with expressive blue eyes and a perfect profile. He describes his wife as "beautiful" and beams when he talks about his first child, Malachy, born just two weeks earlier. "He's wee," Murphy says with a smile.
Though "Breakfast on Pluto" is about to open in Los Angeles, "the baby is most important," he says, adding that he plans to take time off to get to know his firstborn. "I am dealing with feeding and changing nappies at the moment."
"Breakfast on Pluto," directed by Neil Jordan of "The Crying Game," was co-written by Jordan and Patrick McCabe based on the latter's novel. Murphy auditioned four years ago for the role of "Kitten" Braden, a foundling who embarks on a series of adventures a la "Candide." Kitten becomes a rock singer, is accused of working with the Irish Republican Army and does turns as a magician's assistant, a popular attraction at a peepshow and even a character in an amusement park.
"I had finished the script, and I didn't know if there was anybody who could even play the role," says Jordan. "I got most of the younger Irish actors and did videotapes. Cillian gave this performance that was absolutely amazing."
A project delayed
BUT Jordan put the film on hold, not because he thought it was too close to his 1992 film, "The Crying Game," which also dealt with terrorism and transvestism, but because he didn't think the timing was right for scenes of bombing and destruction.
"So I took time off to write a novel, and I did another movie," says Jordan. "Eventually, Cillian said to me, 'Will you make this before I am too old to play the part?'
"I had been refining the script, and I kept returning to it. It was haunting me and haunting him."
"Kitten is not trying to fool anybody," says Murphy, during a 12-hour stay in Los Angeles for the "Pluto" premiere at the AFI Fest.
"She doesn't try to pass herself off as a girl at any point. She wants to look pretty and beautiful and wear flowery clothes and identifies with the feminine side of herself. Ultimately, she considers herself a lady."
Jordan found Murphy to be one of those "great actors who can do something physical to themselves and transform themselves. He could totally immerse himself in that role."
Murphy says the key to playing Kitten was to capture her soul -- to create her from the inside out.
"I knew I could do the physical stuff," he says. "You are lit well, and you have a costume designer so you can look pretty. But if people are going to invest in this character, they need to invest emotionally.
"With other characters, you can put on a watch or a jacket and say, 'Bang, this is it.' With 'Red Eye,' when I put on the suit, I saw him."
With Kitten, "I didn't want the character to be at all butch. I wanted him to be as feminine as possible, obviously."
Jordan, says Murphy, "very smartly made the decision that Kitten shouldn't smoke."
The reason? It would ruin the illusion, as audiences would see Murphy's masculine hands every time he took a drag on the cigarette.
"The curly hair gave him a soft frame to the face," Murphy says. "I used the book as a source material a lot. Pat McCabe did a reading of the book, so I listened to that. I am from Cork, which is south, and Pat is from the northern border of Ireland, and there is a definite distinction to the accent."
Murphy decided not to make Kitten's voice aggressive or assertive -- "the thing you can get with drag queens. I wanted it to be much more alluring and subtle. As a result I wanted the voice to be more purry -- kitten-like."
He avoided asking his wife for advice about playing the part. "That would have been too close, to use my wife as an example," Murphy says. "I just traveled on the tube in London or looked at women and observed them. Women rarely stand with their hands by their side. They are always doing something with their hands. Neil did suggest investing in a lot of grooming products, which my wife and I did together, to adjust your brain a little bit more to the softer, nicer things in life."
Murphy says "Pluto" isn't about Kitten's loss of innocence but about how she maintains her innocence throughout her adventures. "Mostly in a narrative, the protagonist goes on a very steep arc from A to Zed, and though she changes in increments, for the most part, other people are changing around her. She is making the change happen in all the people that she meets. There is no ulterior motive to the character."
He 'leapt off the screen'
IN "Batman," Murphy found his way into a role that was the temperamental inverse of Kitten. He initially auditioned for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman for the latest entry in the series, a part that eventually went to Christian Bale.
"Christian was the obvious choice," says Murphy. "I did my best, but I never considered myself to be 'Batman' material.
"He wasn't right for that, but he just leapt off the screen," says Nolan. "It's very rare to find that in a performer. He has amazing eyes and a great voice." Nolan says that everyone who saw his test for "Batman" couldn't get Murphy out of their minds, and "Suddenly I woke up one day and realized he was perfect for Dr. Crane."
Though it's not a huge role, Murphy gave a scene-stealing and scary performance as one of Batman's nemeses, who transforms himself into the terrifying Scarecrow.
"I had a great time working with him," says Nolan. "We would take a lot of takes to try things out."
And Murphy says he had the time of his life. "I was obsessed with Batman as a boy, and to walk out onstage and see the Batmobile driving around the corner.... Having said all that, I wouldn't have been involved in this picture without Chris Nolan."
Murphy is working on Danny Boyle's sci-fi epic "Sunshine." (The two teamed previously when Murphy starred in Boyle's 2002 zombie thriller, "28 Days Later.")
"I play a physicist on a spaceship heading toward the sun. The sun is dying, and we have to shoot a bomb into the sun. Danny is absolutely on fire."
Murphy admits that he has never had a career plan but intends to keep working in small independent films as well as big Hollywood productions. "I do think it's foolish to early on in your career renounce Hollywood or the Hollywood system," he says. "I don't think there should be any boundaries on what you should or should not do as an actor."