Cillian Murphy strolls through the gaudy interiors of the Chateau Marmont with a slight slump in his step, padding across the dimly lit lobby in scuffed up wing-tips, hands dug deep into his black skinny jeans. A face like a Calvin Klein model, his chestnut bangs are swept to the side, eyes brilliant pools of lapis lazuli.
“It’s fantastic here,” declares Murphy of the infamous Hollywood hotel, steeped in some eighty years of scandal and decadence. “There’s so much history to it. The room I’m staying in, they told me that back in 1968, Jim Morrison was standing up on the balcony, threatening to throw himself off onto the courtyard.” He adds with a light laugh, “I feel like I’m in a movie.”
With his wan, ethereal stare and melancholy, plump-lipped smile, it’s a bit remarkable that this is the same Cillian (“Kill-ee-an” for those stumped by the Celtic moniker; his name means “son of the hound”) that dazzled—and, perhaps, freaked out—audiences as The Scarecrow, Batman’s psychotic, mentally deranged nemesis in Christopher Nolan’s cerebral superhero flick, The Dark Knight. “Playing a character that’s not me,” says Murphy in a mellifluous Irish lilt. “It’s what I love to do as an actor.”
Still, the work of a film star requires focus and mettle, and, on this particular night, Murphy is more than content to sink down into a deep armchair at a secluded back table, and unwind over a glass of Provençal and the house-cured olives and nuts.
Murphy is currently in town from London promoting Inception, Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi thriller slated for a summer release. Like Memento and Knight before it, Nolan manipulates time and space, here creating a surrealistic society in which ideas are stolen from people’s heads as they sleep. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Cobb, the chief thief, and Murphy joins an A-list ensemble that includes Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, and Ken Watanabe. The project has been under lock-and-key since its pre-development days at Warner Bros. The night we meet, Murphy has yet to see a single frame of the film. Its stars are sworn to secrecy.
“I can tell you that the movie has the structure of a heist movie,” Murphy reveals, “and that is has a metaphysical existential bent to it as well, but this doesn’t really give anything away. It’s a big-scale movie that never sacrifices emotion. It’s a conceptual movie—conceptually original—and to blow the lid off that before it comes out would be a shame. I think it’s important for it to be an event, for the anticipation to be what it is, because [Nolan’s] mind is really phenomenal.”
Murphy's character in the movie, an heir named Fischer who is caught up in the dimension-hopping shenanigans. But it's not Murphy's most, um, complicated role. Murphy played a transvestite in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, for which he earned a Golden Globe nomination. “If you’re trying to convey a woman,” he explains of his innate ability to channel his x chromosome, “it requires investigating that side of your femininity. It’s all about making the distinction between being effeminate and being feminine.” Ever up for a challenge, Murphy calls the Inception experience “a selfish actor’s dream.”
Ironically, for the 34-year-old thespian, the dream almost never happened. Born in Cork to a brood rife with academics and intellectuals—his mother was a French teacher, his dad a civil servant in the Ireland Department of Education—Murphy briefly, albeit reluctantly, flirted with a career in law.
“My parents exerted some power over that decision,” he consents of his lackluster stint at University College Cork, where he flunked his first year and dropped out his second. “In Ireland, there’s this system where it’s all based on points and it’s insanely competitive. People think it’s the beginning and end of their lives. At the time, I didn’t really have the confidence to admit to anyone that university wasn’t my passion.” He pops a salted almond into his mouth, adding with a shrug, “I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t have a degree.’’
At the time, what Murphy wanted to do was play music with his band. “I was very serious about music and a record company was interested,” he tells me, pausing to sip his wine. “I was only mildly curious about theatre.”
But an impulsive knock on the door of a theatre company changed that. “I asked if I could audition,” he recalls, “and I got the part.” The play was Disco Pigs, a complex drama about two troubled teens in Cork that became a huge sensation on the local stage and in its follow-up European run. Murphy was hooked. He was twenty at the time and did theatre for four years straight.
Next came on-screen supporting roles in European fare—Sunburn, The Trench, and A Man of Few Words. But it was Danny Boyle’s sci-fi zombie flick 28 Days Later that created the first big buzz. “That was the one that made a bit of an impression,” remembers Murphy. “It made a lot of money in Ireland and Europe.”
Yet, Murphy isn’t easily taken by his ascending fame. “Am I really that interesting?” he quips. He’d rather discuss the Irish economy (“Ireland is in dire economic straits; all the educated people are working in bars”), or The Gorillaz, his favorite band of the moment, or why he became a pescatarian (“mad cow disease was rampant”). He jokes about failing his driver’s exam three times in England, meaning a move to Los Angeles is likely out of the question. If he spends his money on anything, he divulges, it’s family vacations with his wife and two young sons to Italy, Greece, and France. When he wants to clear his head, he runs along the Thames.
Predictably, like most high-profilers, Cillian isn’t keen on the paparazzi, but not necessarily for the standard, go-to, cliché movie star reasons. “There’s a big difference between being yourself and being a character,” he proffers. “I find it distressing walking down the street being photographed as myself. I’m simply no good at it.”
At the moment, Murphy currently has several projects in development, one of them At Swim-Two-Birds, Brendan Gleeson’s cinematic adaptation of the celebrated Flann O’Brien comic meta-novel. The film is set to star fellow Irishmen Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys Myers, and Gabriel Byrne, whom Murphy considers a hero. “He’s a great spokesman for Ireland,” praises Murphy. “He’s so learned and so articulate and so open. And what’s wonderful is that in Ireland it’s such a small acting community, and we all know each other, but it’s rare that you get to work together.”
Beyond this intimate community, the international caliber of talent Murphy’s worked alongside of has not left him eagerly declaring ideal future collaborations. “I sort of stopped making these lists of people,” he says. “It feels silly. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen. It’s always a real treat. You’ve got to maintain some kind of cool.”
With Inception due in theatres this July and a host of other projects in the works, Murphy is nothing but cool, poised, and eager to tackle his next act. “Anything is possible,” he says dreamily. And now, after a week packed with press junkets and interviews, he emits a sleepy yawn, hoping to retire early to the room where mad Jim Morrison once slumbered.
“This is the truth,” says Murphy, flagging down our waiter for the check. “I like performing. I like being the center of attention in a room full of people, not as myself, but as my character. I get a huge kick from that like nothing else.”