Cillian Murphy Is Chasing His White Whale

He’s been a zombie killer, a scarecrow, and a fiendish gangster. Now, the In the Heart of the Sea star is searching for the perfect role.

Cillian Murphy cracks up when I hand him a reeking, hexagonal gift from his native Ireland—a small piece of cheese, as olfactorily challenging as it is oleaginous—called St. Killian (pronounced just like his name).

“I fucking love cheese,” he says, delightedly. “Especially when it’s got my name on it. I’ll be eating this tonight with some nice red wine.”

I’ve traveled from Ireland to interview the actor in London, where we meet in a rented townhouse. It’s no wonder he’s got food and drink on the brain, considering the starvation diet he underwent as shipwrecked sailor Matthew Joy in Ron Howard’s whaling epic, In the Heart of the Sea, based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

It’s a remarkable transformation for Murphy, 39, who has lent those perilously etched cheekbones and fiendishly intense eyes to such roles as the psychopathic Scarecrow in the Dark Knight franchise, a murderous creep in Red Eye, and, most recently, vicious gangster Tommy Shelby in the binge-worthy Netflix crime drama Peaky Blinders.

“The sensation of going to bed hungry is not pleasant,” he says, eyeing that round of cheese. “I would like to have to get porky for a movie. Not obese, just prosperously rotund.” 

It’s hard not to empathize. Murphy practically wastes away before our eyes in the film adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s award-winning book. After the whaling ship Essex is smashed by an enraged sperm whale in 1820, Joy and the other sailors—including Chris Hemsworth as first mate Owen Chase—are reduced to haunted, blistered, sunburned bags of skin and bones as they drift on the salty wasteland of the South Pacific in three tiny boats. 

And that’s all before they’re ultimately forced to resort to cannibalism, picking reluctantly at the corpses of the dead, eating the bare minimum they need to stay alive. 

The megamillion-dollar drama was shot partially on location in the Canary Islands, and with the all-male cast isolated and removed from civilization, the on-set vibe soon shifted from Moby-Dick to Lord of the Flies. “If you put a group of lads together, inevitably it is going to become competitive,” Murphy says. “Being away from home and sort of starving, and being on this tiny island and out at sea every day, there’s something in the male psyche—we’re programmed that way. It’s that atavistic, mad, hunter-gatherer thing that comes out.” Murphy leans forward and rubs his hands together in front of a blazing fire. 

He’s a long way from the suburbs of Cork City, Ireland, where he grew up dreaming of rock stardom and spent much of his teens as singer and guitarist for an anarchic collective, Sons of Mr. Greengenes, with his younger brother, Páidi. The band (named after a 1969 Frank Zappa song) became popular on the local circuit. It was ultimately offered a five-album deal on an indie label, but the Murphy brothers, unimpressed by the terms, turned the record company down.

“There’s something in the male psyche…that atavistic, mad, hunter-gatherer thing comes out.”

He may have missed out on a music career, but Murphy met his wife, Irish artist Yvonne McGuinness, backstage at one of the band’s shows. They married in 2004 and now live in West London with their two children. Murphy began acting while in school at University College Cork, and in 1996 he met the brilliant young Irish playwright Enda Walsh, who cast him in the stage version of his play Disco Pigs (a film version, also starring Murphy, followed in 2001). His Hollywood breakthrough came in 2002 as the lead in Danny Boyle’s stylized zombie thriller 28 Days Later. He’s been an in-demand character actor ever since, spanning megabudget blockbusters (Inception, TRON: Legacy) and art-house sleepers (Girl with a Pearl Earring).

When he isn’t shooting a movie, you can usually catch Murphy onstage, and as we meet, he has just finished a three-month run of Walsh’s recent play Ballyturk.

“I’m ambitious, and I’m hard on myself in my work,” he says. “I’m limited in some regards by physicality, but I try as much as I can to play a broad range of characters.”

Unexpectedly for such an accomplished performer, Murphy suffers from a visceral social unease. Although he has no problem in front of the camera or appearing onstage, he says, the red carpet is a different story. “I get nervous going to premieres. I get nervous doing those junket things. I get nervous going on talk shows. I’ve only done two in my life.”

He prefers to be at home, hanging out with his wife and kids. He says, “I think it’s very important, when you can, between jobs, to become a normal person and just do those things. I think the idea of going straight from job to job, from hotel to hotel, set to set, car to car, makeup trailer to photo shoot—I don’t think I could deal with that. It’s not real life.” 

Photos by Rick Guest for Maxim