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Cillian Murphy was so taken by Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place that he wrote Krasinski a flattering email, which he ultimately couldn’t bring himself to send. But as fate would have it, Krasinski and Blunt happened to be binge-watching Murphy’s hit series Peaky Blinders after Krasinski had finished writing A Quiet Place Part II, and that’s when it dawned on the two of them that Murphy would be the perfect fit for a “morally ambiguous” character named Emmett.
Murphy, who’s currently filming the sixth and final season of Peaky Blinders after a 10-month delay, is still astonished that the story of Thomas Shelby and his gangster family has reached the status of global phenomenon.
“First of all, that’s very kind of [Krasinski] to say that, and I’m glad he took the time to watch the show,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter during a March 2020 interview before the coronavirus pandemic shifted A Quiet Place Part II‘s release date back more than a year. “Yes, [the impact of Peaky Blinders] does continue to surprise me. We’ve just been doing a junket here in New York, so you get a lot of foreign journalists from Venezuela, Peru and Japan. And people talk about the show and how much they love it. And that is a completely unexpected occurrence for us. Nobody knew this would happen because the show had no advertising; it grew completely just by word of mouth.”
Looking back on his A Quiet Place Part II performance, Murphy greatly enjoyed the chance to explore nonverbal communication, something he hadn’t done to this degree since his early theater days.
“I did theater for about four or five years before I ever did any screen work,” Murphy recalled. “So I feel like I’ve done a lot of physical acting, and since I’ve continued to do theater, it was a real sort of liberating experience to get to explore some of that on screen. And it’s rare enough you get to do that these days because most screen acting is about the close-up nowadays, which is good, but when you get a chance to express yourself non-verbally and physically, that’s really something to enjoy and to relish.”
In 2003, Murphy was a finalist to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. He even screen tested opposite Amy Adams, who, as a favor to the casting director, served as the audition reader. Despite putting on the Batsuit for his screen test, Murphy rejects the notion that he was in the running for the role.
“I don’t believe I was close to landing that role,” Murphy shared. “The only actor who was right for that part at that time, in my estimation, was Christian Bale, and he absolutely smashed it. So, for me, it was just an experience, and then it turned into something else. It turned into that character, Scarecrow, and it turned into a working relationship with Chris. So I think back very, very fondly on that time, but I never, ever, ever considered myself Bruce Wayne material.”
In a conversation with THR, Murphy also discussed the intimacy of Nolan’s Dunkirk set, and why it’s important to reach out to his peers directly.
First things first, I just want you to know that I won’t be asking any Red Eye questions. So you can breathe easy.
(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s strange. I’ve gotten a few Red Eye questions over the course of this junket, which is quite out of left field. Now how did you know that?
I keep close tabs on my competition.
(Laughs.) That’s interesting.
Well, even though I’ve been following your career for almost 20 years, I somehow didn’t recognize you in the first trailer for A Quiet Place Part II.
Well, that is the highest compliment you can pay because that’s my job — to become somebody else. That’s what I’ve always tried to do with my work, and the actors that I’ve always admired are the ones that make you question yourself and say, “Is that the same guy? Is that the same girl?” They’re the sort of performers I’ve always tried to emulate, so that, to me, is a compliment. Thank you.
I consider you and Emily to be two of our finest actors right now. Had the two of you ever crossed paths over the years?
Yes, I think Emily is one of the finest actors working today. She’s extraordinary. There’s nothing she can’t do, and I’ve admired her work for a long, long time now. We kind of came up at the same time through the business, but we never met or worked together until now. It’s lovely when you get to work with actors whose work you’ve admired, especially when they turn out to be wonderful people as well. And that was the case with Emily. She’s just a really good person and really great company — and same with John. That’s such a bonus when you have to go through quite an intense, grueling shoot with your colleagues.
I’m curious about how you prepared to work with her. Did you rewatch the first film so you could get a feel for some of the non-verbal communication? Or did you just let instinct take over once you were on set?
Me, John and Emily hung out and talked about the scenes, the characters, the characters’ backstories and the history that the characters would’ve had. But we never rehearsed anything because I’m not a fan of rehearsal. I don’t really enjoy rehearsal on film, and Emily is the same. So we first got to work together during the first day on set.
Since actors often have differing techniques, did the two of you get into a groove rather quickly?
I don’t really know what technique is. I don’t understand that word, really, when it comes to how I work. It just happens sometimes. You rely on the director and you rely on the other actor. But technique is not in my vernacular, really.
Did you enjoy expressing yourself non-verbally more than most performances? Did you do a lot of this in your early days?
Yes, is the short answer. I started off in theater so I never really trained; I just learned as I made more theater. And I’m still learning, man. (Laughs.) But I did theater for about four or five years before I ever did any screen work. So I feel like I’ve done a lot of physical acting, and since I’ve continued to do theater, it was a real sort of liberating experience to get to explore some of that on screen. And it’s rare enough you get to do that these days because most screen acting is about the close-up nowadays, which is good, but when you get a chance to express yourself non-verbally and physically, that’s really something to enjoy and to relish.
Do you still need a dialect coach for most American accents?
I’ll always go back and refresh. I don’t think you can ever get complacent about doing American, so I did go back and refresh, yeah. But it’s always easier when you’re shooting in America because you’re in the environment and it just starts seeping in sort of by osmosis, I hope.
Your character, Emmett, is being marketed as a bit of a wild card. He’s isolated himself in a way that makes him unpredictable. I know you discussed backstory with John, but can there be an advantage to learning as little backstory as possible so that you don’t tip your hand?
I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to backstory. Some of it is important, and some of it is irrelevant. But it differs from job to job. In this case, I found it relevant because there’s very much a line of before and after with this character, so it was crucial for me to have an awareness of the before. I mean, it’s explored a little bit in the movie, without giving too much away. But yes, it was relevant for me to have some sort of scaffolding on which to build the character. And then when we’re doing the after bits, you can sort of perform in the shadow of that, if you get what I mean.
Emmett and Regan go on quite a journey in Part II, and you had a front-row seat as Millicent Simmonds really came into her own. What was it like to be her scene partner?
It was a really educational experience. I had seen the first movie and I thought she was phenomenal. You just can’t take your eyes off her. She has an aura in person and on screen, and that’s not something that you can learn or be taught. She just has that. By educational, I mean that I have always learnt a lot from working with young performers because I think they haven’t gotten to the point yet where they intellectualize everything or analyze everything the way that older actors can do. You get a script and you spend days and weeks pouring over it. You’re thinking about motivations and why you would do this and why you would do that, whereas younger actors just plug straight into an emotion and are just present. And she has that. That’s why she’s such a phenomenal screen presence, and that’s why she’s the hero of the movie. She’s an effervescent presence on the screen.
Much has been said about the “effusive email” you almost sent John regarding the first movie…
Now, by the way, it’s you guys who have talked a lot about the email. (Laughs.)
Hey, I heard you talk about it in the press kit!
Not me! (Laughs.)
Even though things worked out without you having to click send, are you more inclined to reach out to your fellow artists after this experience?
I think it’s a healthy thing amongst artists to reach out and to compliment your colleagues on their work, whether you know them or not. I don’t tend to do it so much with actors and screenwriters because it can look like you’re just petitioning for a job, and that’s probably the reason I didn’t send it to John. (Laughs.) But I have done it many times with musicians, writers and novelists, just to say, “Look, you don’t know me, but I wanted to say your creation had a big impact on me. It was a serious piece of work and thank you for that.” It’s important for us to do that because a lot of this industry is set up around representatives, and I think, sometimes, the sort of artist-to-artist interaction can be lost.
Since you saw the first film with your kids, what do they think of their dad joining a story they particularly like?
It came so out of the blue, and it came about a year later after we had seen the movie together. They’re teenagers so they’re rarely impressed, but they were kind of impressed by that. (Laughs.)
I just got off the phone with John, and he said that watching Peaky Blinders with Emily inspired him to offer you the role of Emmett. Does the impact of that show never cease to amaze you?
Well, first of all, that’s very kind of him to say that, and I’m glad he took the time to watch the show. Yes, it does continue to surprise me. We’ve just been doing a junket here in New York, so you get a lot of foreign journalists from Venezuela, Peru and Japan. And people talk about the show and how much they love it. And that is a completely unexpected occurrence for us. Nobody knew this would happen because the show had no advertising; it grew completely just by word of mouth. So I think we’re all really proud of it and delighted that the fans enjoy it so much. Our fans are very, very devoted and very, very loyal, and they’re all over the world, which is kind of a lovely feeling and very humbling.
I think you’re in pre-production now, but have you read most of season six’s scripts yet?
Yeah, we start shooting in ten days, so we’re ready to go. So, yeah, it’s just about to happen.
[Writer’s Note: Unfortunately, ten days became ten months.]
What’s your working relationship with Steven Knight like at this point? Do the two of you have a meeting of the minds before he starts writing each new season?
Well, I think Steven Knight is one of the greatest writers working today. Before he delivers the scripts, we meet for lunch and we talk about it. He tells me his ideas, and they’re always so unexpected and unpredictable. It’s crazy to think about, but we’ve been making the show for almost eight or nine years now. So he can write for the actor, I think. He knows the actors very well and he can write for the actors, so each script is a gift. And we can discuss things, we can talk about things, but I never disagree fundamentally with any of his choices for Tommy because this is all coming from one man’s brain. By the time we finish this series, he’ll have written 36 hours of television on his own, and I don’t know if anybody else has done that in this new age of TV.
[Writer’s Note: When this interview took place in March 2020, it was not yet known that season six of Peaky Blinders would conclude the series at 36 episodes.]
Is it still hard for you to believe that you’ve helped create a fashion icon?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I can’t really process that. I just have to work on the character and chart his emotional journey, not his sartorial journey. (Laughs.)
This is oddly specific, so forgive me, but I know you have a tendency to pass on roles if a wig is involved. Since Tommy’s iconic haircut is such an extreme cut, have you had to pass on some jobs that immediately come up because you can’t grow your hair out in time?
(Laughs.) That is a very specific question, but it’s a fair one. What I like to do after each job is take a long rest. I think it’s unhealthy to go from job to job to job. I think it’s unhealthy for your mind, your psyche and your creativity. So, generally, when the next thing turns up, enough time has elapsed after I’ve gone on holiday and had a rest. So it’s okay. I’ve survived. Yeah, it’s not really a haircut that you can reshape into something kind of jaunty.
In general, Tommy bottles up his pain while Arthur [Paul Anderson] detonates at any given moment. That being said, I still believe that Tommy is worse off than Arthur since he suppresses his emotions to a fault. Where do you weigh in on this?
That’s a tough one. I would not like to speak on behalf of another character, really, or another actor’s interpretation of their character. All I can say is that having read about these men that did come back from the first World War, each trauma had its own unique set of symptoms, and every man that came back reacted in a different way. And Tommy’s one is just his way of dealing with that, and Arthur is just his way of dealing with it, I suppose.
One of my favorite scenes of the last decade is when your Shivering Soldier inquires about the health of Barry Keoghan’s character, and Tom Glynn-Carney’s character lies to spare your character more anguish. What do you remember about shooting that moment in Dunkirk?
Well, thank you for saying that. I just remember shooting on that boat. Chris shoots everything for real, so we were on the ocean, on this little boat with huge IMAX cameras and just Chris and his little monitor. And nobody else was around except Chris, the cameraman, the boom op and us guys on the ocean. It felt incredibly real, and I felt a great responsibility playing that character. Even though it’s a small part, I felt that I was representing huge amounts of lives that had been destroyed by what they call shell-shocked and what we now call PTSD. So I felt like I had to represent that in the most truthful way I could. But you’re in the hands of a master director, one of the greatest living directors, in my opinion. So it’s always a gift to be on a Chris Nolan set.
Were you relieved that you didn’t have to wear a bag over your head in Dunkirk?
(Laughs.) Every time I see Chris or every time we talk about doing something, we have a laugh about whether or not I’m going to be wearing a bag over my head at some point in the story. So it is a gag that has developed. I don’t know why he insists on doing that. (Laughs.) But yeah, there was nothing on my head in Dunkirk.
Did you get a heads-up that your Batman screen test was being released?
(Laughs.) Oh, on some sort of anniversary thing?
I believe it debuted on a blu-ray set for the whole trilogy in 2013.
I can’t remember if they gave me a heads-up. I think my kids showed it to me online or something. (Laughs.) I can’t really remember, but it’s not something I’d really wish to see more than once. (Laughs.)
There’s an artifact that proves you were a contender for Chris Nolan’s Batman. Not many people can say that.
Oh no, I don’t believe that, man. I don’t believe I was close to landing that role. The only actor who was right for that part at that time, in my estimation, was Christian Bale, and he absolutely smashed it. So, for me, it was just an experience, and then it turned into something else. It turned into that character, Scarecrow, and it turned into a working relationship with Chris. So I think back very, very fondly on that time, but I never, ever, ever considered myself Bruce Wayne material.
A Quiet Place Part II opens in theaters nationwide on May 28. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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