24 June 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Disco Pigs to Big Things: A Cillian Murphy Career Retrospective
13 Mar 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Eileen Walsh and Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs, 1996
IFTN looks back at Cillian Murphy’s career and the films he made along the way to becoming the first Irish-born performer to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

September 1996. Cillian Murphy stars opposite Eileen Walsh in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. The pair play as Pig and Runt, two young people from Cork with a lifelong, but unhealthy, friendship that ends in tragedy. Originally, the play was to run for three weeks in Cork, only to end up touring throughout Europe, Canada and Australia for two years. This leads to Murphy leaving University College Cork, as well as his band The Sons of Mr. Green Genes, who were at one point offered a five album contract by Acid Jazz Records, the label Jamiroquai debuted under.

Theatre played an important role in the early stages of Murphy’s career, starring in Druid productions such as The Country Boy and Juno and the Paycock in 1999. In the early 2000s, Murphy gets his first film roles, such as Irish language short Filleann an Feall, John Carney’s solo directorial debut On The Edge, and a feature film adaptation of Disco Pigs, directed by Kirsten Sheridan and produced by Ed Guiney.

His performance in Disco Pigs is what catches the eye of Gail Stevens, the casting director for 28 Days Later. The Danny Boyle-directed zombie film ends up being a huge hit, grossing $82.7 million worldwide on a $8 million budget. The film stands out as the first horror to see zombies run as well as being shot on a digital video camera, as opposed to a traditional film camera, giving the film a unique aesthetic. This film introduces Murphy to a mainstream North American audience, reflected in his MTV Movie Award for Breakthrough Male Performance shortly after.

The following year, Murphy stars opposite future Oscar nominees Colin Farrell and Kerry Condon in Intermission, directed by John Crowley, written by Mark O’Rowe, and produced by Alan Moloney. At the time of release, Intermission became the highest-grossing Irish independent film in Irish box office history, a record that would later be beaten by another Cillian Murphy-led film, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Inbetween these two record-setting films, Murphy continues to act in theatre, touring Ireland in Druid’s 2004 production of The Playboy of the Western World playing Christy Mahon. Other notable film performances during this era of Murphy’s career include Breakfast on Pluto, another film produced by Moloney which earns Murphy his first IFTA award, as well as Sunshine, which sees Murphy reunite with Danny Boyle. Sunshine also sees Murphy portraying a physicist, which won’t won’t be the last time he does that.

Lesser known entries in Murphy’s filmography at this stage in his career include Watching the Detectives, a rom-com in which Murphy stars opposite Lucy Liu, and Hippie Hippie Shake, a film about satirical magazine Oz set in the counterculture of 1960s London. Hippie Hippie Shake was seen in a small number of advance screenings but was never released to the public. However, the film did manage to find its way to the Leaving Cert curriculum as part of an Irish listening comprehension.

Perhaps the most important role in Murphy’s career in the mid-2000s is his turn as the villain in Batman Begins, as this marks the beginning of his collaborative relationship with director Christopher Nolan. Murphy did a screen test for Bruce Wayne/Batman, a role that ultimately went to Christian Bale, but it was this audition that landed him the role of Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow. At the time of writing, Murphy and Nolan have collaborated on six films together over nearly twenty years, with Murphy returning to cameo as Crane in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, as well as performing in supporting roles in Inception and Dunkirk, before finally playing the lead in a Nolan film in Oppenheimer.

Following his performances as Scarecrow in the Dark Knight trilogy and the antagonist of Wes Craven’s Hitchcockian 2005 thriller Red Eye, many of Murphy’s roles in the late 2000s and early 2010s consist of villainous or morally grey characters, as seen in In Time, Tron: Legacy, and Transcendence.

Equally important to Murphy’s career as his collaborations with Christopher Nolan is his tenure as anti-hero Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders, a BBC television series which ran from 2013 to 2022 over the course of 36 episodes. Much like 28 Days Later earlier in his career, Peaky Blinders is an international success that exposes new audiences to the Irish actor’s talents. With a considerable theatre and film career under his belt at this stage, Murphy became interested in acting for television, which was when the first two Peaky Blinders scripts found their way to him. Speaking to the Independent upon the series’ debut, Murphy praised these scripts for being “so compelling and confident”. Adding “the character was so rich and complex, layered and contradictory”.

During his time on Peaky Blinders, Murphy remains quite active in the world of independent and mid-budget cinema, including films such as Luc Besson’s Anna, The Party starring Bruno Ganz, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire starring Michael Smiley and Jack Reynor, and Anthropoid starring Jamie Dornan.

As we reach the midpoint of the 2020s, Murphy’s career continues to reach new heights, and shows no signs of slowing down. With Oppenheimer, Murphy proved himself to not only be an incredible leading man, carrying a three hour drama consisting of scientific discussions and legal depositions, but also a bankable movie star, with the latest Nolan film generating nearly a billion dollars worldwide. His role as the titular Oppenheimer has seen Murphy earn a BAFTA award, a SAG award, and an Oscar. This makes him the first Irish-born actor to receive the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Earlier this year, Small Things Like These became the first Irish film to open the Berlinale. The film is something of a full circle moment, with Disco Pigs co-stars Murphy and Eileen Walsh playing married couple Bill and Eileen Furlong, as well as Murphy co-producing the film with Alan Moloney, marking the beginning of their new production company Big Things Films.

The producing duo’s next venture is Steve, a Netflix adaptation of Max Porter’s novel Shy. Steve is described as a reimagining of Porter’s Shy that traces a pivotal 24 hours in the life of its titular character, a headteacher (Murphy) of a reform school who struggles to keep his students in line, while also grappling with his spiralling mental health. Tim Mielants (Small Things Like These) will direct, and Porter has adapted the screenplay.

Also on the horizon for Murphy is 28 Years Later, a sequel to Murphy’s breakout film, that will see him reunite with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland. Murphy is set to return to the franchise as an executive producer, but it remains to be seen if he will act in the project.

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