THERE’S something about seeing Irish film star Cillian Murphy standing on Santa Monica Beach that causes a momentary brain disconnect. The ethereal European vibe practically radiates from him as he clasps his arms protectively over each other, a small, thin figure in varying shades of blue -- blue corduroys, blue striped shirt, a buttoned-up ratty blue cardigan. He’s an island to himself amid the seagulls flocking about and the dizzyingly bright sun and the Pacific stretched out beside him. Giant brown shades cover his surreal, light-blue eyes -- the ones that practically leap out of his face with every performance he gives.
Big-budget Hollywood directors have used Murphy’s otherworldly-ness to create villains in such popcorn pics as “Batman Begins” and “Red Eye” -- deceptively mild-manner sociopaths with inner reserves of malevolent creepiness. In the rest of the world, the 30-year-old’s profile is more varied, including the vulnerable transvestite in Neil Jordan’s “Breakfast on Pluto”; Jim, the bicycle courier, his career-making part in Danny Boyle’s zombie flick “28 Days Later”; and now, an Irish revolutionary in the early 1920s in Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” which premieres Friday in the U.S.
Last year, that film won the Palme d’Or, the biggest prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and has gone on to become the highest-grossing independent movie in Ireland. It has also created something of a ruckus in neighboring England for its portrait of the English army brutalizing the Irish people as they struggled for independence.
Murphy plays a medical student who joins Flying Column -- a guerrilla band fighting the British, a posse led by his older brother. Yet the peace that follows in the form of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 (which created the Irish Free State) pits the two against each other.
Loach is one of England’s great neo-realists dedicated to shooting life as it truly is, mostly for Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable. He rarely uses recognizable stars. In fact, Murphy chanced upon the part only because he hails from Cork, where the film is set, and Loach had asked a childhood friend of Murphy’s to cast it. After seven meetings with Loach -- six in which he and other actors were asked to perform improvisations dealing with moral dilemmas -- Murphy was hired.
“He casts so carefully, to the point that if he doesn’t find the right actor, he won’t make the movie,” Murphy says. While he researched his character intensely, neither he nor the other actors were allowed to read the script in its entirety. Unlike most film directors, Loach shoots the action sequentially, so “I experienced events like my character did,” Murphy explains. “Things unfolded in front of me. I amassed information as my character did, and I made choices based on my experiences and the character’s experiences kind of as one. It’s completely instinctual.”
For instance, in the opening sequence, some men are “hurling,” an Irish game similar to field hockey, when they’re set upon by British paramilitaries. “I didn’t know that was going to happen,” Murphy says. His surprised reaction when he sees them? “That’s genuine. That’s not manufactured. Obviously, you have to repeat it. The second time, you’re acting.” Yet when Murphy asked Loach about the process, the director told him, “It’s nearly always the first take that I use because it’s the most visceral and the most real.”
Murphy, who lives in North London with his wife and toddler son, is in Los Angeles to promote the film. On the patio of the deluxe hotel Shutters, he’s drinking coffee right next to the much-tattooed hard rocker Tommy Lee, whose demeanor is as aggressively in your face as Murphy’s is deliberately -- at least in public -- retiring. Still, Murphy seems amused to see Lee, as well as a breakfasting Kiefer Sutherland (apparently, Murphy’s burgeoning stardom hasn’t made him jaded yet).
Just seven years ago, he came to L.A. for the first time and stayed a few blocks down at the more downscale Holiday Inn. “I went around [to meetings] and everybody called me Sillian. That all changed when ’28 Days Later’ became a big hit. Suddenly, they could all pronounce my name.” (It’s pronounced with a hard C -- there is no K in the Irish language, the actor explains.)
His family goes back generations in Cork, although Murphy knew relatively little about the Irish civil war or even the War of Independence other than what he had learned in school. When he started researching his part, his father, an educator, told him how the British had once shot at his grandfather for playing traditional Irish music. “He wasn’t killed, obviously, or else I wouldn’t be here,” Murphy says.
His first love was music, and until he was 20 he played in a Frank Zappa-esque band that was good enough to be offered a record deal, which his parents nixed. He discovered theater randomly during a desultory year spent studying pre-law in Cork. He was transformed, however, when he saw a production of “A Clockwork Orange” in a nightclub.
“I never thought theater could be like that. I thought it was only proscenium arches and classic plays, and this was unbelievably affecting.” He found the director of the play and begged to audition for his theater company, landing the lead role in the play -- and later the movie -- “Disco Pigs,” about an obsessive teenage folie a deux. He had -- and still has -- no formal training. “I was unbelievably cocky and had nothing to lose, and it suited the part, I suppose.”
“Trainspotting” director Boyle cast the then unknown as the lead in “28 Days Later” and has hired him again to play a physicist who saves the world in the upcoming sci-fi film “Sunshine.”
“He’s really come on a lot” since they first worked together, Boyle says. “He’s made some really good choices and worked with really interesting people. It’s improved his confidence and his knowledge of his own ability.”
Murphy seems eager to keep expanding his roles. His fantasy project? “A western,” he says with a shy laugh. He used to watch John Wayne westerns on TV with his dad. “There’s nothing cooler than a cowboy in jeans and a 10-gallon hat,” he says. “To someone in Ireland, it looked pretty cool.”