Cillian Murphy: “Clean-cut heroes don’t interest me”

Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy talks British gangsters, PTSD, and the 'dark side in all of us'

The last few years have been good to Cillian Murphy. A Hollywood giant and favourite of Christopher Nolan – he was the only villain to feature in all three of Nolan’s Batman films – Murphy’s US star has never been brighter. But while the heavyweight Stateside offers roll in, the 38-year-old has opted for an immediate future in Britain.

“The square-jawed, clean-cut hero doesn’t interest me,” explains Murphy, who has just wrapped up Ballyturk at the National Theatre and is now anchoring Peaky Blinders. “Anything that is one-dimensional is boring. Somebody said once, ‘If you’re gonna play a miser, play his generosity’, and that’s interesting to me.”

Cillian Murphy and co-star Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, 2010

The Irish actor still lives in north London and has never been afraid to take professional risks. He got his big break in 2002 when Danny Boyle cast him in post-apocalyptic zombie horror 28 Days Later and has since divided his time between the stage, mainstream box office (Red Eye, Inception) and obscure indie gems (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Breakfast on Pluto). Now his focus is on the small screen.

Cillian Murphy in The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan-directed Batman film

Peaky Blinders, created by Dirty Pretty Things writer Steven Knight, follows Murphy as gang head honcho Thomas Shelby. Set in a lawless, murky 1920s Birmingham, Shelby’s Blinders – so-called as they had razor blades hidden in the peaks of their flat caps – have slashed, fought and manipulated their way from humble racecourse racketeers to kings and queens of the Brummie underworld, with eyes now firmly set on London power.

The Big Issue meets Murphy on the Stockport-based Peaky Blinders set in between shoots for the series two finale. Murphy dons the finest 1920s vintage chic: tailored pin-stripe suit, polished black boots and gleaming Great Gatsby-esque jewellery adorning his neck, wrist and fingers. It’s a far cry from Shelby’s rough-edged, horse-backed introduction in Peaky Blinders.

Peaky Blinders

“The world has expanded,” Murphy notes. But for all the new Scarface glamour and mob-rule powerplays, maintaining a British identity is crucial. “What makes this distinctive is that it’s very British, and not American,” Murphy says. “Americans mythologise their gangsters wonderfully and we’ve never done it successfully, I think, until this show.”

All the great characters, in theatre, in literature, in film – none of them are straight, 100 per cent infallible heroes

Its all-star cast – Tom Hardy has joined Murphy, Sam Neill and Helen McCrory for series two – and ambitious £1m per episode budget has attracted nods to the titanic US TV shows that Peaky Blinders aspires to. And like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or House of Cards, the show is driven by an unpredictable, dangerous but likeable anti-hero in Shelby. Did this attract him to his first major TV role?

“All the great characters, in theatre, in literature, in film – none of them are straight, 100 per cent infallible heroes, they’re always an anti-hero because that’s what we respond to. These guys, they make tough decisions and sometimes they do the wrong thing and sometimes they do the right thing, and all of us have our dark side.

“I like that, the duality, he [Shelby] has to do these things that none of us would agree with, and he operates with this cold attitude that none of us would necessarily agree with but yet it’s compelling, and yet he has morals, and yet he does love and he has weaknesses, so that to me is the most exciting kind of character to play.”

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Shelby, with Peaky Blinders writer and creator Steven Knight

The addition of Hardy, who plays big-time London gangster and Blinders’ nemesis Alfie Solomons, reunites the Englishman with Murphy after the pair co-starred in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. “He’s a brilliant man and a good pal,” Murphy says. “When you work with great actors you have to step up and we’ve always enjoyed that, and I think we work well together. It’s always a buzz working with Tom.”

These men were demobbed and came back so damaged, many of them suffering from what we would now know as PTSD

Beyond its blood-and-thunder machismo, Peaky Blinders boasts some of the strongest female characters on British TV, with McCrory central as Shelby matriarch Aunt Polly. Steven Knight said the show’s women – also including Charlotte Riley, who plays Murphy’s love interest May Carlton – “are main players within the whole thing”.

The theme of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – or shell shock, as it was casually known then – is visible through the entire series. Almost all male characters have returned from the trenches with their own psychological damage. “This year, being the centenary of the First World War, this was very key in our thinking,” explains producer Laurie Borg.

Cillian Murphy as The Godfather-inspired Thomas Shelby

“These men were just thrown back into society, there was no such thing as counselling,” says Murphy. “So many of them were self-medicating, and it made for a massive societal change because all these men were demobbed and came back so damaged, many of them suffering from what we would now know as PTSD.

“I read a lot about this and about the First World War and men’s experiences during and after it, so I was aware of it.”

Peaky Blinders is on BBC Two, Thursdays at 9pm