‘I’m shit at being anything else other than an actor’: Cillian Murphy, the most humble Oscar nominee in history

The star of ‘Oppenheimer’ is one of those actors who is allergic to Hollywood. He tries to live far away, pose as little as possible, promote his films just enough and focus on projects that he believes in

Cillian Murphy
Cillian Murphy, pictured on the red carpet at the London Film Festival, in 2016.John Phillips (Getty Images)
Eva Güimil

Last week, Cillian Murphy, 47, received his first Oscar nomination for his role in Oppenheimer. He was surprised by the announcement while having tea with his wife and parents. For that same work, he already won the Golden Globe for Best Actor a few weeks ago. But for the majority of the public, Murphy is still the bloodthirsty Thomas Shelby from the successful Peaky Blinders TV series. And, for those who have never seen one of his movies, he’s a meme.

The internet has memefied his permanently uncomfortable attitude. By typing in the words “Cillian disappointed,” you can find thousands of jokes about his awkwardness. His face has made a place for itself on the internet, among sad kittens and repetitive choreographies. However, he’s oblivious to this, because he doesn’t have social media. He is — in his own words — “too old for it.”

His status as a pop culture phenomenon has nothing to do with his successful performance in Oppenheimer. Rather, on Tumblr in July 2017, a user posted several photos of the actor at press conferences, accompanied by the text: “Cillian Murphy always looks like someone somewhere is disappointing him.” In all of them Murphy seemed oblivious to the conversation with the journalists — he remained serious and distant, with a cavalier air. From there, social media worked its magic on him. His image multiplied, as occurred with #sadAffleck, which was employed to ridicule Ben Affleck due to the appearance of deep sadness on his face, during a promotional interview for Justice League.

You may not remember Murphy’s name, but it’s hard to forget his face: those huge blue eyes that Matt Damon — his Oppenheimer partner — claims he sometimes finds himself “swimming” in. His angular face can be seen as demonic or harmonious. “He has the blessed curse of beauty,” said Sally Potter, who directed him in The Party (2017), “but he doesn’t care in the least.” He could be a classic heartthrob, but he has expressed a complete disinterest in romantic comedies. He’s also not keen on promotional tours, red carpets, interviews and everything that involves the Hollywood game instead of pure acting.

Cillian Murphy at the premiere of '21 Grams' in Los Angeles, circa 2003.
Cillian Murphy at the premiere of '21 Grams' in Los Angeles, circa 2003. Steve Granitz (WireImage)

“I’m shit at being anything else other than an actor. I’m shit at being a personality. I’m shit at red carpets. I’m shit at being on talk shows. I’m shit at, like, all the other stuff that comes with it,” he has stated.

The intensity of his gaze also captivated Christopher Nolan. While he was preparing Batman Begins (2005), he came across a photo of Murphy in 28 Days Later and couldn’t shake off those “crazy eyes.” Murphy auditioned for the lead role, although they both knew he wasn’t the right candidate to be Bruce Wayne. “When he started acting, the whole crew, everyone in the room, paid attention,” Nolan confessed, fascinated. Until then, Batman’s villains had always been stars: Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey... It was going to be difficult to convince the studio that this unknown Irishman could be a good antagonist. However, as soon as they saw the evidence, there were no doubts left: they had found the new Scarecrow.

Murphy became part of Nolan’s troupe. In addition to the Batman saga, he took on a solid role in Inception (2010) and appeared in Dunkirk (2017). When the director considered bringing a monumental biography on Robert Oppenheimer to the screen — American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin — he was clear about who would play the man behind the atomic bomb. “I try not to think of actors as I write, but Cillian’s eyes were the only eyes I know that can project that intensity,” Nolan told The New York Times.

When the director called him (technically, it was his wife who called him, because Nolan doesn’t have a phone), Murphy didn’t hesitate to accept. The role was of extraordinary complexity, while also requiring a physical element. Oppenheimer survived on Martinis and tobacco, meaning that Murphy — a tall man — had to lose a lot of weight. For 57 days, he was immersed in Nolan’s unsophisticated filming system, which doesn’t include luxurious hotels or chauffeur-driven limousines. “It was not glamorous. The way Chris works is that everything is equitable. No one has trailers or personal makeup. Everyone gets in a bus. It feels like independent filmmaking, but on a fucking grand scale. And that’s the way I enjoy working,” Murphy explained to the Los Angeles Times.

 Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy at the Governors Awards in Hollywood, in January 2024.
Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy at the Governors Awards in Hollywood, in January 2024.Christopher Polk (WWD via Getty Images)

The result has been unbeatable. Murphy has already won the Golden Globe for Best Actor and is now a strong candidate to win the statuette at the upcoming Oscars, where Oppenheimer is the film with the most nominations. It has also been a box office success: it has grossed more than $300 million, an impressive figure for a film about a physicist that’s more than three hours long. The so-called Barbenheimer phenomenon contributed to its success: both Barbie and Oppenheimer were released simultaneously in the summer of 2023, but they were shown as an indivisible experience, rather than as competitors at the box office.

Murphy was on board with this, although he had to see Greta Gerwig’s film alone: the premiere of Barbie caught him at the world premiere of his film in Paris. By the time he got home, his wife and children had already seen it.

The grueling promotional tour for Oppenheimer has been swampy terrain for a person who closely guards his privacy. However, Murphy has had good training: Peaky Blinders – the British gangster drama that aired for six seasons — became an unpredictable hit that made him an international star. The bloody Thomas Shelby — a dandy version of Tony Soprano — is printed on t-shirts, while the character’s style is outlined in laudatory fashion editorials. The now-iconic haircut that Murphy sported — which he so desperately wanted to get rid of — is one of the most requested in barbershops.

Television brought him excessive popularity, something that wasn’t on his agenda when he accepted the role. However, the broadcast of the series on Netflix multiplied his audience.

“I don’t like being photographed by people. I find that offensive.” When strangers approach him, he’s aware that they want to see Shelby, not him. “People expect this mysterious, swaggering… it’s just a character. I do feel people are a little bit underwhelmed,” he reflects.

Growing up Irish

Cillian Murphy is the son of two teachers from County Cork, the largest and southernmost county of Ireland. He has three brothers and was raised in a cultural environment that favored his first passion: music. As a teenager, he formed a band, The Sons of Mr Green Genes, which, in 1996, was offered a recording contract by Acid Jazz Records, the highest aspiration of any musician... if it weren’t for the fact that while waiting for the offer, he had caught the theater bug. A stage performance of A Clockwork Orange had changed his life. When he had to choose between continuing with the band or accepting a role in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, he had no doubts. The play became a small phenomenon that had another happy consequence: it allowed him to meet his wife.

In 2001, he replayed the role in its film adaptation. That was when he was discovered by the casting director of 28 Days Later (2002), who knew she had found the perfect lead. The role that Danny Boyle gave him put him on the map. In 2005, he was praised for portraying a trans teenager in Breakfast on Pluto (2005), Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel. This got him his first Golden Globe nomination. To prepare for the role, he spent weeks touring the cross-dressing clubs of London, done up like his character. Jordan didn’t feel like revisiting the themes he had already portrayed in The Crying Game — sexual ambiguity, the IRA and nightclub culture — but it was Murphy who insisted on it.

Cillian Murphy at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards party in London, circa 2006.
Cillian Murphy at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards party in London, circa 2006.Fred Duval (FilmMagic)

Another brilliant British director — Ken Loach — gave him what is his favorite role to date: that of the doctor who abandons his profession to fight for the freedom of Ireland in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). Murphy is an Irishman who’s proud of his origins. After spending 14 years in London, he returned to Ireland in 2015 to raise his children “as Irish,” close to their grandparents. He also wanted to escape the winds of Brexit that were hovering over England. “We felt like rats on a sinking ship, it was the right time to come back,” he confessed.

His life is very far from what a star is supposed to have. He’s not obsessed with work; he enjoys the months he spends between one project and another. He likes spending time with his family, walking his dog, cooking — he and his wife are vegetarians — and chatting with his friend Colin Farrell. Music is still important in his life, as is running (he has participated in the Paris Half Marathon).

While reluctantly (but professionally) promoting Oppenheimer in the race for the Oscars, he finished a much smaller and more personal project that he’s been working on for some time: the movie adaptation of Claire Keegan’s novella, Small Things Like These, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2022. It’s a heartbreaking work about the complicity of Irish society in the Magdalene laundries, which trapped thousands of unmarried Irish women in asylums for years. They were forced to labor in terrible conditions without pay and were abused by Catholic nuns and priests. Their babies were taken from them and adopted off. This national drama was also addressed 20 years ago by director Peter Mullan in the devastating The Magdalene Sisters.

In the film version of Small Things Like These set to be released in 2024, Murphy – in addition to starring – serves as a producer for the first time, alongside Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It will premiere in February during the Berlin Film Festival. Murphy is proud of the story he has in his hands. “What happened with the church, I think we’re still kind of processing it. And art can be a balm for that, it can help with that.” That — and not the red carpets — is why he decided to become an actor.

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