At Rolling Stone, Cillian Murphy sits down with Christina Newland to not really talk about acting. Instead, they talk of religion in Ireland, music as Murphy’s first love, his aversion to fame, and the fact he doesn’t think he’s all that intimidating. (Let’s remember that Murphy played Tommy Shelby, he who gazes menacingly at the camera for probably 24 of the 36 hours of television that was the period gangster noir Peaky Blinders.)
Murphy has a quicksilver intellect nonetheless, and we hop from masculinity to 70s Dustin Hoffman films to religion with ease. “My family wasn’t particularly religious, but I was taught by a religious order. The Irish school system was almost exclusively controlled by the Catholic Church, and still is to a large degree. And I went to church and got, you know, communion, confirmation and all of that. I have no problem with people having faith,” he says. “But I don’t like it being imposed. When it’s imposed, it causes harm. That’s where I have an issue. So, I don’t want to go around bashing the good things about institutionalised religion, because there are some. But when it gets twisted and fucked-up, like it did in our country, and imposed on a nation, that’s an issue.”
Amid the increasingly frenzied obsession with Peaky Blinders, Stephen Knight’s series turned global phenomenon about 20s Birmingham gangsters, Murphy has become something more than an actor with a recognisable face: he’s become a cultural icon synonymous with Tommy Shelby, just as James Gandolfini did with Tony Soprano. It’s an uneasy negotiation for Murphy, who is strident about maintaining his separation from the noise. “It can ruin experiences, because it fetishises everything: you can be walking down the street and someone takes a picture like this is a fucking event. It kind of destroys nuance and human behaviour, but that’s part and parcel of it,” he says of his reluctant relationship with fame.
“No” is a full sentence with Murphy, as I soon learn. It’s the same in his creative projects, according to people who’ve known him for years: he’s unstoppable in pursuit of what he wants, and equally stone-stubborn if he decides against something. “He’s always looked to challenge himself. He’s never been an actor to rest on his laurels,” says Nolan of his leading man. “He’s the same guy he was. He hasn’t let success change him or get in the way of the truth of this process in any way. And that’s a very difficult thing for an actor to maintain across a career.”