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Cillian Murphy: The “60 Minutes” Interview with Scott Pelley | Transcript

“Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy pulled back the curtain to talk about his approach to acting.

“Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy pulled back the curtain to talk about his approach to acting.

Published on February 19, 2024

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SCOTT PELLEY: 2023 was the year the world learned to pronounce Killian. The ancient Irish name seemed to be on everyone’s lips as the film Oppenheimer became a blockbuster, with 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Killian Murphy. Murphy has worked non-stop for nearly 30 years, but it was the epic drama of the atomic bomb that ignited a star. In this moment, with a Golden Globe under his pork pie hat and the Oscars 3 weeks away, Murphy is more famous than well known, so we set out to learn more. We were warned the 47-year-old Irishman is reserved and wouldn’t talk about himself, but we discovered finding Killian Murphy depends on where you look.

PELLEY: Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula was named for a goddess before such things were written, and for 6,000 years, stories have passed by ear. So if verse inhabits every Irish soul, then in a country pub, Killian Murphy is among peers, as he would have it, just a man with a pint to lift and no fame to bear.

PELLEY: What is the meaning of Ireland to you?

CILLIAN MURPHY: I don’t think I can answer that question satisfactorily. It’s defined who I am as a person, um, and my values. It’s just home.

PELLEY: Home includes his wife of 20 years, two teenage sons, and Scout, a lab named from the character in To Kill a Mockingbird. That figures. Murphy has always let stories lead his path.

MURPHY: You find so much empathy in novels, you know, because there you are putting yourself into somebody else’s point of view. And I’ve always been a big reader. When a movie can connect with someone and they feel seen or feel heard, or a novel can change somebody’s life, or piece of music, an album, can change someone’s life, and I’ve had all that happen to me, and that’s the power of good art, I think.

PELLEY: There’s a straight line from the music in the pub to Oppenheimer.

MURPHY: I think they’re from the same source. I mean, I really do. I don’t see… I see it’s all in a continuum, you know what I mean? It’s just a form of expression.

PELLEY: Expression in the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who created the atom bomb but never controlled it.

MURPHY: I remember reading at the beginning about him that he was more riddle than answer, and I thought, “Oh, okay, wow, that’s interesting.”

PELLEY: I’m curious about your notes.

PELLEY: The riddle was in this script by writer-director Christopher Nolan, printed in red so it couldn’t be photocopied.

MURPHY: I did genuinely think it’s one of the greatest screenplays I’d ever read.

PELLEY: And you told him, “I’ll do it.”

MURPHY: I mean, I said I’d do it before I read it. I always say…

That’s quite a risk. Why would you do that?

MURPHY: It’s always paid off for me, you know, in every film that I’ve worked with him on.

PELLEY: There have been six Chris Nolan films for Murphy: Dunkirk, Inception, and three Batman titles.

PELLEY: You told me that getting a film made and getting it seen, yeah, is a miracle.

MURPHY: It is. And then, if it’s any way good, that’s a miracle. And then if it connects with audiences, that’s a miracle. So, it’s a miracle upon miracle upon miracle to have a film like Oppenheimer. It really is.

PELLEY: His Oppenheimer was not so much a miracle as hard work. He lost 28 lbs to get the silhouette, then he rose to the character step by step over six months, reading, listening to Oppenheimer’s lectures, and covering miles on the beach, performing for Scout.

MURPHY: I remember at one point I said to Chris, “Chris, there appears to be, um, he appears to speak Dutch here, and I think he’s giving a lecture in Dutch here. What are we going to do about that?” And Chris said, “You mean, what are you going to do about that?”

PELLEY: Murphy says he put all he learned in the back of his mind and acted on instinct.

MURPHY: I think instinct is your most powerful tool that you have as an actor. Nothing must be predetermined, so therefore you mustn’t have a plan about how you’re going to play stuff. And I love that. It’s like being buffeted by the wind and being buffeted by emotion.

PELLEY: Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s tormented wife.

EMILY BLUNT: He’s very visceral to be in a scene with. It’s like, you, he transports you. He’ll kidnap you in a scene.

PELLEY: My favorite acting moment of his in Oppenheimer is the scene after the bomb has been dropped, and he’s addressing all of the people at Los Alamos.

PELLEY: He somehow welds together the concept of being proud of what they did and regretting it very deeply, all at the same time.

BLUNT: No one moment is about one thing, and if you’re as agile as someone like Killian and as vulnerable and as clever, you can play it all. But I don’t know if many people can do what he does.

PELLEY: Killian Murphy discovered agility in his hometown Cork. His mother was a teacher; his father, a school inspector. In high school, Murphy and his brother had a band, performing led to acting class, and his first play.

PELLEY: This is more like the size of a storage room than a theater.

MURPHY: Yeah, but that’s all we were used to.

PELLEY: His first theater, 1996, age 20. The play was Disco Pigs, which grew to bigger theaters and became a movie.

PELLEY: Why did you think you could be an actor?

MURPHY: I didn’t. I was very comfortable on stage in front of an audience from when I was little. I never had any nerves doing that. It felt, um, natural, you know, and thrilling.

PELLEY: In this theater, what did you learn about acting?

MURPHY: There’s a fire escape door right there, and that’s a kind of an alleyway there, and so you get a lot of like drunk guys out of their mind bashing up against the fire escape door, and it’s used to kind of energize us. So I remember learning about, like, taking whatever you have, sort of responding to whatever the energy is in the room, and using it.

PELLEY: That’s really good training, maintaining your character with the drunk guy yelling through the fire escape door.

MURPHY: Yeah, I, and I, think theater is such an absurd undertaking when you think of it, you know, because at any point, it could collapse and go wrong.

PELLEY: It’s dangerous.

MURPHY: Yeah, and I love that aspect of it.

PELLEY: That love led him to drop law school, and since then, there have been a dozen plays and 40 movies.

MURPHY: I love it when it becomes an immersive experience, um, uh, I love getting lost in it. In the early days, that was with theater. It felt kind of extraordinary that with just the power of will and a couple of lights and a good script, we were creating this world, um, so, so it’s, that’s kind of addictive when it works well.

PELLEY: It worked well in 2013, in a breakout role as a leading man. In the series Peaky Blinders, Murphy plays Thomas Shelby, who survives World War I to lead a family of gangsters.

MURPHY: They’re all damaged, broken men, but something got knocked in him, and he came back with this incredible drive and ambition, and like, “I’m not afraid of death, so now I can do whatever I want.”

PELLEY: In Tommy Shelby, you created a sympathetic, relatable monster.

MURPHY: I like to be challenged, and I, when I read something, I want to go, “I don’t really know how I can do that.”

PELLEY: In 10 years of Peaky Blinders, Murphy came into his own.

MURPHY: I heard very early on in my career, a director, it was one of the Sydneys. It could have been Sydney Lumet; it could have been Sydney Pollack, but one of them said, “It takes 30 years to make an actor.” It’s not just technique and experience and all that, it’s maturing as a, as a human being, and, uh, trying to grapple with life and figure it out, and all of that stuff. So by the time you’ve been doing it for 30 years, you’ve all of that banked, hopefully. And eventually, then I think you’ll get to a point where you might be an okay actor.

PELLEY: Maturing is the theme of Murphy’s next film, based on the novel Small Things Like These. He plays Bill Furlong, tormented by injustice. His wife fears his empathy will upend their lives.

PELLEY: That’s Eileen Walsh. No actor has known Murphy longer. She was his first partner in Disco Pigs 28 years ago.

PELLEY: Is his work ethic rooted in fear or joy?

EILEEN WALSH: Oh, that’s a good question. I think it can only be joy, but it sometimes takes a lot of pain to get to that joy. The deeper we go with acting, the cost is greater for us, and physically, I know Oppenheimer, you know, has cost him, for the weight loss. He insisted, and you know, it was his choice to do, but, and it was the right choice to create that amazing silhouette. But from the very beginning, our warm-ups for Disco Pigs involved us punching each other quite hard, and like, going for it, and then bursting out into this huge ball of velocity coming into it was the beginning of an ‘Oppenheimer’ was the whole kind of atom of us.

PELLEY: Now, after three decades of work, Killian Murphy is cast in the most familiar Irish legend of all. Maybe there is gold, a 24-karat gold-plated statue, at the end of his spectrum of talent.

PELLEY: You have screwed this up, though, you know.

MURPHY: In what way?

PELLEY: You used to be an actor.

MURPHY: Yeah.

PELLEY: And now you’re a movie star.

MURPHY: Oh, okay. Am I? I think you could be both, you know. I’ve never understood that term, really, ‘movie star.’ I’ve always just felt like I’m an actor. That’s, I think, a term for other people rather than for me.

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