TV

Cillian Murphy: 'In this story the working-class look sexy'

Peaky Blinders' Cillian Murphy talks Brummies, Batman, and why he doesn't use Twitter

We have entered the third golden age of telly. Kevin Spacey hit the headlines recently using the phrase, GQ writer Brett Martin has a new book out, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, on the topic and critics around the world are chattering about it.

The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire: a (mostly American) wave of ambitious dramas has shown that telly is now smarter and more ambitious than cinema.

Peaky Blinders, created by Dirty Pretty Things writer Steven Knight, is among the best of the British attempts to compete with these monolithic super shows. Playing like a Brummie Boardwalk Empire and similarly set after the first world war, it follows Cillian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby, a gang leader who’s just returned from the trenches damaged and still in possession of his gun.

In a Birmingham that was at the time a major centre of industry, he finds himself jockeying for position alongside Communists, the IRA and a particularly ruthless Northern Irish police chief (played with vigour by Sam Neill). Favourite of both Danny Boyle and Christopher Nolan, Cork boy Murphy has become a proper Hollywood celeb in the last few years, but he insists that choosing a BBC Two mini-series for his next job is not as odd as it seems. Peaky Blinders fits in just fine, he says, beside 28 Days Later, Sunshine, The Dark Knight and Inception.

Peaky Blinders is a project that has clearly captured Murphy’s imagination; he spent hours listening to archive recordings of Brummies to get the accent right, as well as thoroughly immersing himself in the period. It also allowed him to stay close to his house in north London, his wife, artist Yvonne McGuinness, and his two young sons, seven-year-old Malachy and six-year-old Carrick. It’s from the kitchen in that family home, sustained by a cup of Barry’s Tea (his favourite Irish brew), that he’s speaking to The Big Issue…

Tell us about your character in Peaky Blinders.

Tommy’s been sent home from the trenches. These men came back and they were just spat out into society without any help. Most of them had lost all time for the establishment and the authorities and the church and everything else. They were damaged men. Then they came back into a society that had been run by women for four years.

The obvious comparison is Boardwalk Empire, given the era…

 I unfortunately haven’t got round to Boardwalk Empire – it’s one of my box-sets that I’ve yet to unwrap. I think it’s impossible to make a foray into the gangster genre without rubbing shoulders with the American classics, like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde and now Boardwalk Empire. You’ve just got to wear those references openly. What we’ve tried to do here is create something very British.

Birmingham at the time was the industrial capital of the world. It was producing more than Chicago and Detroit. Illegal bookmaking was huge all over Britain. It was run by gangs and there’d be pitched battles with guns and knives. It’s never really been investigated dramatically. Steve [Knight] had this whole block of history to play with, so it’s very rich. I think that separates it from the American stories. It’s refreshing that this is a story where working-class people look sexy and glamorous and stylish. Generally it’s the upper middle class and the aristocracy in British period dramas.

It seems like all the big Hollywood stars want to get involved in TV at the moment.

I definitely think that for writers, having the scope of six or 12 hours to tell a story must be so alluring. Also for me to be able to really investigate every corner, to shine a light into every nook and cranny of the psyche of a character is great. People have talked about it being the equivalent of the novel and I can see why that comparison fits. It is a golden age for TV. It’s clear it’s happening, so you’d be silly not to get involved. TV seems to be filling that place in cinema where clever mid-budget, independent films have been pushed out a little bit by the big franchise, tent-pole movies.

Big franchises like Batman?

Well, yeah… [laughs]. I would consider that a slightly more, um, intelligent rendering of the superhero genre.

How did you find the Brummie accent?

It’s not among the most beloved out there. The Birmingham accent and Birmingham itself hasn’t been fashionable for a while. In terms of the accent, we listened to a lot of archival tapes. My remit was to make it as authentic as possible but also as accessible as possible. Birmingham will deliver its verdict.

They can’t be too unhappy – you’ve made the place look a lot cooler than usual.

 I really hope so.

The soundtrack on Peaky Blinders is really striking, featuring Nick Cave, The White Stripes and Tom Waits. As a big music fan, was that exciting?

I was thrilled. It was great to know that those guys actually watched it and liked it. There’s something about those artists – an outlaw quality – that really suits the show.

Been to any good gigs recently?

 I’m going to see Björk in a couple of weeks. I saw Alice Cooper in the desert in Albuquerque. He has a lot of energy for a man of his age.

Is it harder to get to as many gigs as you’d want now you have kids?

 Yeah, it is kind of hard. Some things you’ll move mountains to see but, you know, you get old and at a certain point you think, God, I’m awful tired. I didn’t used to have that in my twenties.

You’re a bit unusual in the celebrity world in that you don’t use Twitter.

No, I don’t do that. I remember the pre-internet days. I remember when you just met at an agreed hour at the bus station. And if someone didn’t show up, you’d just stand there and wait. You’d give them 25 minutes. This immediacy that we expect now, it’s spilled over into film and everything. I mean, ‘spoilers’ – surely the clue is in the word? To spoil something is to ruin it.

So do you Google yourself?

You know, you’re a liar if you say you haven’t. But I really, really try not to do it because it’s bad for you. Human beings, the way we’re wired – or maybe it’s just an Irish thing – but you never believe the good stuff. You just believe the bad stuff. It can be a negative forum, the internet. I try to stay away from it as much as possible.

You may be right. I actually ran into an entire blog someone had set up dedicated to unflattering screen shots of you.

Isn’t that lovely now? What a way to spend your time and express your creativity. That’s the world of the internet.

The IRA makes an appearance in Peaky Blinders – and you’ve dealt with similar themes before in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. It’s still emotive territory – the director of new film A Belfast Story had to apologise after the film’s PR company sent a balaclava, nails and duct tape to journalists. Is there a responsibility to have a bit of sensitivity?

Of course there is. If you’re dealing with political or social issues, you have to be mindful of the people who have lived through it. The version of the IRA we’re dealing with is almost 100 years old and it’s very different. Similarly in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, so I think it’s fair game. But [The Troubles] are always going to be rich for drama. It’s all about how you tackle it. That’s obviously an example of not a very sensitive way to promote a film, but I thought Hunger was a great example of a film that was sort of about Northern Ireland but it was also an art film.

Last time we spoke, you were telling us about being a vegetarian and a good cook… have you been watching Great British Bake Off?

 No. I haven’t got into it. I’m a MasterChef fella. And I’m actually a lapsed vegetarian.

When did this happen?

About a year ago. I felt I needed some meat. I had some venison. It was amazing. My body was like, yes! My wife’s still veggie but the boys eat meat. We’re a very tolerant household. I do sometimes have to cook two dinners, though.

Did you hear that Christian Bale was apparently offered $50m to reprise the role of Batman in Man of Steel 2? [Before the role went to Ben Affleck].

I wouldn’t believe what you read about that stuff.

It’s a testament to how much of a cultural touchstone that series is that people would believe it. Are you glad to have been part of it?

Ah, yeah, I was very lucky to have been involved in it. I didn’t expect to pop up in the second two either, so that was a nice little treat.

Is there a superhero you’d like to play?

Surely they’ve nearly exhausted them…

They didn’t ask you to be Doctor Who?

No. Did that change hands?

Peter Capaldi’s taking over.

Oh, brilliant. I love him. That’ll be amazing. We don’t watch it – Doctor Who has kind of passed us by in this house. But maybe we will when Peter Capaldi’s in it.

What is next for you?

I’m going to shoot this Ron Howard film in September, In the Heart of the Sea. It’s the true story of the sinking of the Essex by a whale. It’s the story that Melville based Moby Dick on. I read the book in my twenties. I loved it. I mean you have to work at it, there’s a lot of going back to the appendix, but it’s a cracking, cracking book. I read it on holiday before we had kids, so I had a lot of time to lie down. I don’t have that any more.

Peaky Blinders is on BBC Two, Thursdays, 9pm

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