After star turns as psychopaths in both Red Eye and Batman Begins, as well as a Golden Globe nomination for his role as a transvestite in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto, the chameleonic Cillian Murphy’s most recent role in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley sees him playing a man from his real-life hometown of Cork. Just as he’s preparing to leave to become a doctor in London, Damien O’Donovan has a change of heart. Inspired by the beatings he sees handed out by occupying British Black and Tan forces, Damien joins the IRA in the War of Independence. Here, Murphy speaks about the film’s reception and what it’s like working with Loach.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley has had a mixed reception. While the Cannes jury adored it, others argue it is a one-sided depiction of events. What do you say to those critics?
I’d like to see them point out any atrocity in the film that didn’t happen. I’ll back the film on that point. Also, we’re making a film about a group of young men. That’s our story. The story isn’t about Black and Tans. There’s a scene where one of the officers tells me that, you know, these men [the English soldiers] are back from the Somme, these men were brutalized and they’ve come home to no jobs and they’ve been sent to Ireland to terrorize. So that other side is investigated. But you can’t tell a story from every angle. You have to choose a number of protagonists and follow their story.
Like your character, you grew up in Cork. To what extent were you aware of the stories of the resistance that had taken place there?
We learnt it in school and it was on the curriculum, but the Civil War in particular is not a particularly glorious part of our history, so it isn’t discussed very often. Growing up I did hear the stories of people being killed by the Tans, but it was only when I went to research the film in great detail that I discovered how extraordinary it was and how much was at stake. It was a very pivotal point in modern Ireland.
Did any of that research change your point of view or understanding of what happened?
Yeah, I didn’t really realize how close we got to creating a very progressive socialist state. I hadn’t read about the proposed programs of the 1918 Dail, where Sinn Fein won 75 of 105 seats. The Sinn Fein had an incredibly progressive agenda. That got forgotten when we ratified the treaty in 1921 and the country slowly turned towards something much more conservative and much more controlled by the church after that. It was a very radical time in Europe, 1918 and into the ’20s, with what was happening in Russia. Ireland was part of that, but it became overshadowed by this treaty—of getting our freedom and forgetting about the north and the ports. I didn’t really know all of that stuff.
You’ve said that Ken Loach was the only director who could have made a film about the Irish War of Independence. Can you explain what you mean?
He’s an Englishman making a film about Irishmen kicking the shit out of the Brits and then kicking the shit out of themselves. Ken very much has his own point of view, but it would have been hard for anyone to come in and be completely objective. Given the heart of his films and how he treats his characters, I thought it would be very sensitively done.
How did you find working with Loach?
The freedom that you get is great. You don’t get a script and you shoot everything chronologically. You trust your instincts 100%. If you feel you need to express yourself in one way or another, you can. And the camera is invariably a long way away, with a long lens. It’s just kind of a private thing, the way the acting happens. Because things are shot chronologically, the acting process is much less intellectual and far more instinctual. It’s like the opposite of what I went through with Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto, where the character was complete from the beginning.
How did that effect the way you played the scene where you had to execute the boy informant?
I still remember that scene so clearly. That was a horrible day. We only knew as much as what was happening up to that point. And that kid was the sweetest kid. We were all hanging around with him. And then yeah, we found out right then. So as a result, there’s not much acting in it. It’s very real.
You were back living in your childhood home during the shoot. How much of an effect did that have on the way you were working?
I was back in my old room in my old house. I was speaking in my old, native accent. I knew all the areas that we were shooting in and knew all the people that were around. It really wasn’t like making a film. It was a lovely summer. My wife was pregnant with my child. It was very blissful. The word I keep coming back to to describe the experience of working with Ken is “pure.” It’s pure; there are no hierarchies, no egos, none of the stuff you associate with conventional film sets. As a result, you get great performances from non-actors who think this is the way it always is.
Did you find that being able to slip into your old accent made your acting job easier?
I had a lot of points of reference for this character and in a way that made it a lot scarier. If you’re Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto or the Scarecrow from Batman Begins, for example, there’s a lot more scope for imagination and going crazy and actors love that. This role offered different challenges because suddenly i was relying just on myself.
What are you working on now?
I just wrapped a comedy in New York called Watching the Detectives. I work in a video store. I’m kind of a layabout. Then this girl, played by Lucy Liu, comes in and turns my world upside down. It’s nice to do something like that. This other work can be quite exhausting emotionally and physically.