“TV is the high water mark for all the quality stuff being made – and I kind of wanted a piece of that”, Cillian Murphy told Shelley Marsden at BFI last week.
There for the premiere of his first major TV work, the six-part BBC mini-drama Peaky Blinders, about a gang in a grim, industrial Birmingham on the cusp of the 1920s, the Cork-born actor said he’d been inspired to do television after watching quality dramas like The Wire and Breaking Bad.
Murphy said: “A lot of my actor buddies were doing it and telling me how brilliant it was. You can sense when there’s a movement happening, when it’s clear that there’s quality happening in a certain medium. Selfishly, you’ve got to go with that.
“I was aware of all this amazing telly being made, and I wasn’t getting sent any of the scripts! I told my agent I really wanted to do some good television and, being the brilliant agent that he is, the following day I got the two episodes of Peaky Blinders. I read them and I was blown away.
He added that, every project, be it film or TV, for him begins with the writing: “It has to start on the page. The writing on Peaky Blinders is so confident, so original. And the idea of exploring a character over six hours is a gift to any performer. You can go in so deep on TV. You see a lot of actors migrating to telly because of that broad canvas.”
Murphy plays antihero Tommy Shelby, the boss of a gang who hide razor blades in their caps, in the epic and highly stylised series, which features music by Nick Cave and Jack White and will be broadcast on BBC2 in mid-September.
The Dark Night Rises star said his biggest challenge, but also the greatest pleasure in shifting from film to TV, was the pace: “In a film it’s like, here’s a six-page scene coming, we’d better get ready for it… with this you were ‘on’ every day. Each scene was dialogue-heavy, and we were working six day weeks. It was completely immersive, and I like immersive roles. You check out of reality for a while – that character becomes your reality.”
Director Otto Bathurst said he wanted the set to “look like a 1919 version of Bladerunner – Downton Abbey this is not! I want people to I want them to look at Cillian’s half shaved head and all the caps and the suits and go wow, that’s a cool show!”
Writer Stephen Knight, whose idea for the series came from stories about a real-life told to him by his family as a child, said of comparisons to US gangsters: “Of course, Goodfellahs is going to be an inspiration to most people in film, but Peaky Blinders is set in England. Nor is it a ‘Western’; the opening scene sees Cillian Murphy riding in on an English horse down an English street.”
The actor is back in familiar territory soon, however, as he will plunge into work next month on Ron Howard’s new movie, In the Heart of the Sea. Co-starring Chris Hemsworth, Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson, In the Heart of the Sea is based on a true event in 1820, when a whaling ship was upturned by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days.
Murphy told the Irish World that he is enjoying a welcome break at home in London with his family before filming starts.
He said: “It’s based on an incredible book of the same name by Nathan Philbrick; it’s what inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. I wanted to be involved for that reason and also because Ron is such a fantastic director.”
Asked if he had his sea legs already or would need to get some training in, Murphy said: “I think I’ll be alright – well I hope so, anyway! I’ve been doing a little bit of rowing when I get a bit of spare time actually, so that might help.”