Cillian Murphy: Dressed for success

Cillian Murphy plays a transvestite in Neil Jordan's new movie. Sheila Johnston encounters the rising Irish heart-throb
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The Independent Culture

No heads turn when, on a midweek, midwinter evening, Cillian Murphy slopes discreetly into a sleepy backstreet wine bar in Brondesbury Park, near his home in north-west London. He says he's still rarely recognised, and that's just the way he likes it. Not for Murphy the dedicated hellraising of his countryman Colin Farrell, though the two actors are often, lazily, compared. "If you behave like a celebrity, then people will treat you like a celebrity, and if you don't, they won't," Murphy says, ordering a single glass of Montepulciano. "There's not much to write about me in the tabloids."

I first spoke to Murphy six years ago, when he really was an unknown quantity and seemed rather bemused at the media attention. But the Hollywood tipsters had hinted that the young actor was a coming man and, shortly afterwards, he appeared in 28 Days Later, a low-budget sci-fi movie directed by Danny Boyle, which duly became a sleeper hit.

Regrettably, any lingering anonymity may not last much longer. Last summer, Murphy made a splash as a brace of bad guys in high-profile studio movies. He played the Scarecrow, a corrupt, bespectacled psychiatrist, in Batman Begins, then, barely weeks later, was back again in Red Eye, by Wes Craven. In that unassuming - but well-reviewed - horror flick set on an aircraft, Murphy's silky psychopath was a "picture-perfect villain" for The New York Times and "one of the most elegantly seductive monsters in recent movies", according to The New Yorker. And, if any of Murphy's fellow drinkers tonight were to peer a little closer through the candlelight, they would have to admit that there is indeed something slightly unearthly about his fine, sharp features and startling, pale blue eyes; a sense of mystery that could easily turn degenerate.

But now he has confounded all predictions of typecasting with a sensational turn in Breakfast on Pluto, directed by his fellow Irishman Neil Jordan. The story follows the misadventures of Kitten, an exuberant transvestite growing up on the Irish border in the 1970s. Travelling to London in search of his long-lost mother, he - or perhaps that should be she - encounters a violent Womble, a melancholy magician, an unexpectedly benevolent British detective and the mainland bombing campaign of the IRA.

"Oh, serious, serious, serious," shrugs Kitten, pouting prettily, when faced with all these troubles (and the Troubles). Her irrepressible spirit, sense of absurdity, and eternal innocence enable her to survive. "Kitten is wonderfully optimistic, probably the most optimistic character I've ever played," says Murphy.

With its rambling, picaresque story and eccentric tone, half whimsical, half tragic, Breakfast on Pluto harvested mixed reviews in the US. But there was widespread acclaim for Murphy, whose performance - among a crack cast that also includes Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, Brendan Gleeson, Ian Hart and Bryan Ferry - has earned him a Golden Globe nomination. This was the year that Hollywood put its imprimatur on gay heroes: his fellow nominees include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the gay writer Truman Capote, Heath Ledger as a gay cowboy and Felicity Huffman as a pre-op male-to-female transsexual. But Murphy, with his sensuous, bee-stung pout, high cheekbones and those baby blues, is most certainly the fairest one of all.

Cillian (pronounced "Kill-ean") is serious, serious, serious - though that's not to say that he's devoid of a dry, understated humour. "I enjoyed wearing drag," he says. "I looked at myself and saw a resemblance to my younger sister. I spent a lot of time observing women. Neil said, 'Go and treat yourself like a lady,' which involved buying a lot of products and getting facials and massages and just thinking about stuff that most men generally don't think about. And I swapped notes with Gael Garcia Bernal." The Mexican, who had donned drag for Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education, gave his fellow actor some grooming tips. "He told me, 'Wax, don't pluck.' But I plucked," Murphy admits, with a note of faint regret in his voice.

"I had no reference for the transvestite world, but my agent in Ireland knew someone who knew someone. I found the trannies warm, protective people, very smart and creative. I went out with them to clubs in London as a boy on his first night out in drag - the 'androge look', as they call it. That's Kitten's look for most of the movie - it's only towards the end that she's in the full regalia, because Neil was determined to move away from The Crying Game."

In Jordan's much-praised 1992 film - also set against a background of sectarian violence - Jaye Davidson's enigmatic femme fatale turns out, in a shock mid-plot twist, to be a man. "The whole film was about that revelation," Murphy says, "whereas Kitten is very feminine, but definitely a boy. The character wasn't in any way trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes."

He had admired Patrick McCabe's novel The Butcher Boy and Jordan's film version of it. So, when Breakfast on Pluto, also by McCabe, was published in 1998 and Murphy heard Jordan was working on a screenplay, he lobbied for the part, first auditioning for it six years ago. "For anyone interested in the arts in Ireland, Neil's enormously important," he says. "We're great storytellers but we're not that strong visually, and he's the exception. And he makes intelligent films that won't pander to an audience." When Jordan put the project on the back-burner, Murphy - who is now 29 - pushed to get it made before he became too old for the role.

"Acting wasn't a dream I'd had since I was six," he says. He was studying law in Cork and playing guitar and writing songs for a Zappa-style band called Sons of Mr Greengenes when he had what he calls an "epiphany moment". This was a promenade stage production of A Clockwork Orange at a nightclub in Cork. "It was just so sexual and visceral and in your face. It came as a complete revelation that theatre could be this affecting and immediate and free, and I basically pursued the director to get a part."

He was cast as an intense, anarchic teenager in Disco Pigs, which went on to win numerous international awards and was made, less successfully, into a movie, also starring Murphy. Then came a scattering of small roles in big films (Cold Mountain; Girl with a Pearl Earring) and big roles in small, mostly Irish ones (Sunburn; On the Edge; Zonad). He was also the young entrepreneur caught in a romantic trap in the 2001 BBC version of Trollope's The Way We Live Now.

"When I started out, I didn't think I was in it for the long run," Murphy says. "I was just a total interloper having a blast. Then I realised it was something I could do for a living, and do for the rest of my life. Today I pick and choose my films very carefully. There's nothing I've done so far that I can't talk about with commitment and passion." Murphy speaks of Red Eye and Batman Begins with as much enthusiasm as he expresses for his next film, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley, about the guerilla armies that battled the British Black-and-Tan squads in 1919. "It's about, I guess, the genesis of the IRA, and a time when Cork was a hotbed of resistance - a very strong story about a small community and a load of farm labourers, university students and shop hands, who drove the English out of Cork.

"I shot it in my home town, and stayed with my mum and dad. We were out in the countryside and it was a beautiful summer. It was the one of the most satisfying times I've ever had on a film set.

"But you can make wonderful films within a small, independent environment and you can make wonderful films in Los Angeles, within the studio system. You hear a lot of actors saying, 'I'd never go to Hollywood and sell out.' But, if it's a good script and a good director, why not? To shut oneself off completely is, I think, very limiting."

What with Batman Begins, Red Eye, the Globe nomination, the Loach film and Sunshine, another sci-fi movie with Danny Boyle, Murphy is getting some heat on him as they say in Los Angeles - though, as he has remarked, "This thing about heat, it's all really just hot air." For now, he drains his glass and heads off into the sub-zero darkness. He and his long-time partner, the video installation artist Yvonne McGuinness (whom he married in 2004), have a brand-new baby. Malachy has put the kibosh on any lingering party-going urges his father might still harbour. "And I've got a 6.10am pick-up tomorrow," sighs Murphy, who is working on Sunshine at a studio on the other side of town. "But I don't want to complain about getting up early because I'm having the time of my life."

'Breakfast on Pluto' opens on 13 January