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Red Eye To LA

'Do I look like a Batman?' - Cillian Murphy's journey from jazz musician to Best Actor

Cillian Murphy is now the definition of a leading man.


BEFORE THERE WAS Oppenheimer, before there was Peaky Blinders, before there was even Red Eye, there was Sons of Mr Green Genes. 

Fans of Cillian Murphy – or viral Irish content – will probably be familiar with a particular interview the actor gave when he was 19 years old. At the time, Murphy had never appeared on screen before, and he was the little more than the lead singer and rhythm guitarist of an experimental jazz rock band – the aforementioned Sons of Green Genes, named after a Frank Zappa Song. 

In a short clip from the RTÉ Archives, the young man muses on the whether the philosophy of jazz has been lost due to the pop sensibilities of the 1980s and 1990s.

“People our age are beginning to appreciate musicianship, as opposed to a catchy tune,” Murphy says, sounding appropriately teenaged. Sons of Green Genes ended up being offered an album deal by Acid Jazz Records in the United Kingdom, but they turned it down.

In the end, all that happened was that Cillian Murphy went on to be nominated for – and then win – an Oscar for his portrayal of J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, in Christopher Nolan’s 2023 biopic.

The movie swept the board at the Oscars overnight and Murphy added yet another awards statue to his cabinet – having already gotten the nod at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

And jazz never made a comeback, anyway.

It has been 28 years since Cillian Murphy’s first professional acting role. Murphy began by treading the boards as the male lead in the debut run of Enda Walsh’s 1996 play Disco Pigs. The play tells the story of a boy and girl in Cork with a strange bond, their own vernacular, and deals with themes of sex, violence, and growing up in Ireland. 

Disco Pigs earned a strong review from the Irish Times when it premiered. Critic Mary Leland wrote that the play was “evidence of a very notable talent,” though she was speaking about its writer and director Walsh. The reviewer reserved only one comment for Murphy – that he played his role “with total commitment”. Murphy would go on to reprise his role when the play was adapted for screen in 2001. 

That idea of commitment remains central to what impresses Murphy’s costars. While doing press for Oppenheimer, Emily Blunt, who plays Murphy’s onscreen wife, spoke of how the Irish actor avoided cast dinners and social occasions while filming. Speaking to People Magazine, Blunt said: ”The sheer volume of what he had to take on and shoulder is so monumental. Of course he didn’t want to come and have dinner with us.”

Fellow Oppenheimer star Matt Damon expounded further, saying: “He was losing so much weight for the part that he just didn’t eat dinner, ever.” 

It’s a narrative that has great appeal in the case of Cillian Murphy, who has been known throughout his career to play especially intense characters. It also marks a parallel between Murphy and the last Irish actor to win an Oscar: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Murphy’s filmography does not lend itself to a like-for-like comparison to Day-Lewis, who won his third Best Actor gong in 2013 for his titular role in Lincoln.

Murphy’s catalogue features horror movies like 28 Days Later and A Quiet Place 2, and thrillers like Red Eye and Inception. He’s been in three superhero films.

He loves working with Christopher Nolan, whose projects have occasionally failed to match their blockbuster budgets with quality. At the age of 47, this is his first Oscar nomination. 

Murphy’s working relationship with Nolan has come to define his big screen career so far. Nolan cast a little-known Murphy as the comic book villain Scarecrow in the first of his Batman trilogy. In a 2005 interview with Blackfilm, Murphy was asked if he had auditioned for the lead role, to which he said: “Come on. Do I look like a f****** Batman?” 

Maybe in 2005 the idea sounded silly, but at this stage of his career fans are more than familiar with Murphy as an onscreen antihero and leader. 

His starring role in Ken Loach’s Wind That Shakes The Barley may not be his best known outside of Ireland and the UK, but Murphy’s performance as a conflicted Irish rebel leader added an iconic film to the Irish canon and proved that there are few actors more watchable over the course of a feature-length film. 

Murphy was catapulted into superstardom by his performance as an interwar period gang boss in Peaky Blinders. In Tommy Shelby, Murphy was charged with portraying a Brummie crime boss and family patriarch struggling with PTSD in the aftermath of his role as a tunneller during World War I. 

Murphy’s performance, complemented by creator Steven Knight’s vision – complete with sharp suits, flat caps and skintight haircuts – became known the world over, with Shelby seen as an iconic character and leader, in a similar mould to Tony Soprano and The Wire’s Stringer Bell.

It was a role that saw Murphy performing stress, anger, terror and genius, effectively laying the perfect groundwork for the three-hour one-man unravelling that is Oppenheimer. 

12 years ago, Murphy gave an interview to Corcadorca – the Cork-based theatre company which set him on the path that has led to LA’s Dolby Theatre. In that interview, he explained that the difference between stage and screen is that “in film, if you’re bad, you’re bad forever”. 

By that logic, Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer  – whether he had won or lost in LA – has already been immortalised as one of the greatest in modern mainstream cinema. 

Now that’s he’s officially an Oscar-winner, he’s almost certainly the first ever Best Actor to have deejayed at the Cork Opera House.

Does he look like a Batman? Maybe not.

Does he look like a leading man? He’s now the very definition of it.

(A version of this article was originally published yesterday morning – it’s been updated this morning).