IT HAS been noted before by various interviewers that Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy is shy.
There’s some truth in that, but we’d guess he suffers not from shyness but rather old-fashioned modesty. We are here to talk about this, that and the other, including the actor’s latest incursion into theatre — Ballyturk, which premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival in July, and which opens at the National Theatre September 11.
Murphy describes Ballyturk as “essentially, a play about life; the struggle of getting from the start of a day to its end. It’s also the struggle of creative life, what it means to be a creative person, and how that particular struggle can compound and impact on a person.”
Noted Irish actors Stephen Rea and Mikel Murfi join Murphy in Ballyturk; while the former always lends an air of gravitas to anything he appears in, the latter is renowned not only for his theatre directing but also performances of innovative physical comedy.
Ballyturk, imparts Murphy with authority, stretches the creative envelope to near snapping point.
Theatre, of course, is where the teenage Murphy started his career, and Ballyturk reunites him once again with playwright Enda Walsh, his longstanding close friend and creatively empathetic mischief-maker.
Walsh is the writer of, among other acclaimed works, Disco Pigs (in which Murphy made his professional acting debut in the mid-90s), and Misterman (which premiered at the Galway International Arts Festival, 2011, and for which Murphy picked up numerous awards, including the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Actor).
“Theatre was always my thing,” he nods. “I started off doing that with Cork’s Corcadorca, then with Galway’s Druid. What I like about theatre is that it’s ephemeral. Films and television, on the other hand, are preserved — they become a legacy, of a kind, because they can be rewatched and reviewed.”
The live element of theatre is what appeals most to Murphy. He started off wanting to be a musician — in thrall to Cork bands such as Frank & Walters and Sultans of Ping FC, before forming his own, which, like hundreds before and after, surfaced, floundered, departed and disappeared.
“The most important aspect of music is playing live, but then I moved into theatre, which has a similar contract and exchange with the audience.
"When you go into film, you’re way down the food chain in terms of maintaining that level of exchange — to be honest, you’re little more than a building block. So theatre brings me that exchange again, and allows for the potential of magic to happen in a space between audience and performer.”
What Murphy loves most about theatre is the inherent possibility of danger. At any moment, he says, it can all go horribly wrong.
“I could forget my lines, the lights could falter, people could get up and leave, they could faint, a curtain might go up or down when it shouldn’t. When it happens that all of these elements go right at the same time it is actually magic. And then it’s gone! For me, that’s the beauty of it.”
Murphy has been clued into the beauty of it — or of what clicks within such realms — for some time now.
He’s exceptionally smart with his choice of film roles, especially so from his breakthrough 2002 movie, 28 Days Later, and he seems acutely aware that working with directors that are open to at least listening to ideas (the likes of Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, Ken Loach and Neil Jordan spring immediately to mind) more often than not benefit the end results.
His next major movie role will be seen next year in director Ron Howard’s The Heart Of The Sea — “a great old-fashioned yarn based on a true story about the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s writing of Moby Dick.”
In the meantime, there are movie scripts to be read and preparing himself for season two of BBC’s successful series, Peaky Blinders. And he will, of course, continue to work in his first love, theatre.
“You have to do it for love, because it doesn’t pay well. So I need to know that the theatre work I do is something I’m going to love, and that the people I’m going on the journey with are people I trust. I’m excited by contemporary work, what’s pushing the boundaries, what makes people think.”
But how the time flies — less than 15 years ago, Murphy was living in Cork, a relatively unknown actor.
Now? Well, he’s been living in London since 2001, still retains a recognisable Cork accent, is a garlanded stage and screen actor, is married to Irish artist Yvonne McGuinness, and is the proud, protective father of two boys, Malachy (8) and Aran (6).
“We’re settled in London,” he admits, “but we have a place in Ireland, and we go there as often as we can. Because Ireland is so close, my sons are aware of their Irish heritage, they’re with their grandparents very often, and they’re running around the Irish countryside.
"I live in London for the energy; that may change, of course, but right now it’s where I want and need to be.”
Murphy says that he never felt any disadvantage at being an Irish guy in London — “and, it’s important to say, never at an advantage, either. It’s very much a meritocracy, and if you can succeed then so be it. I would concede that we hang out with a lot of Irish people in London, but I think that’s quite normal — the London-Irish thing is still there, very strong.”
And, needless to say, London is full of music venues and musicians. If Murphy eats, sleeps and breathes anything beyond his work in theatre and film, then it’s music. He has musician friends, he loves going to gigs, he occasionally dons his DJ hat, and last year directed his first music video.
Life is good, then, for the actor who simply wants to keep working with people he admires. Despite the very high profile movies (including the Dark Knight trilogy) and the very famous co-stars (including Leonardo DiCaprio, Rachel McAdams, Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson), Murphy is going about his business without, as he says, “being bothered”.
He can go to gigs, plays, restaurants, and use public transport, without anyone shoving a smart phone in his face. “I’m really happy about that. I guess I’m not very good at being a ‘personality’, and I’m not very comfortable doing the red carpet thing, or the chat show scenario. I wish I was, because it would make life easier for me.”
This being said, Murphy seems so much more relaxed in his own skin these years. It’s called getting older and wising up, apparently. He smiles. “Yeah, it is, it is. Getting older, having kids, and prioritising slightly.”
He pauses for a few seconds. “I think I was an impatient youth, but I’m happier these days for things to be a bit slower. I’m still hungry for great work, of course, but I’m not going to beat myself up if it doesn’t come immediately.”
Ballyturk by Enda Walsh, runs at the National Theatre, London, September 11-October 11