In Focus

For Cillian Murphy, A Transformative Year

Breakfast on Pluto
Breakfast on Pluto. Cillian Murphy as Patrick. Credit Patrick Redmond/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (Patrick Redmond -- Sony Pictures Classic)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

When it was mentioned to a Weekend editor that we planned to run a phone interview with Cillian (pronounced "Killian") Murphy -- the Irish actor best known stateside for recent back-to-back bad-guy turns in "Batman Begins" and "Red Eye," and star of the new cross-dressing drama "Breakfast on Pluto" (see review on Page 33) -- her reaction was unequivocal:

"Ew, he's creepy."

Told of this comment, along with a reporter's half-baked notion that her reaction may have had something to do with Murphy's angelic, almost androgynous physical beauty and pale blue eyes, which paradoxically make his villains all the more villainous, Murphy is momentarily flummoxed. "Uhhhh, I think maybe it's just -- " pause for dramatic effect -- " acting , you know?"

Of course. That's it.

Let's not underestimate the eyes, though. Murphy uses them, along with some fabulous clothes, to great avail in "Breakfast," a film based on the novel by Pat McCabe in which the 29-year-old actor plays Patrick "Kitten" Braden, a gay transvestite growing up in Ireland and England in the 1960s and '70s. Yet his performance is far from being all about looks.

"Both me and [director Neil Jordan] knew we had to find the soul of Kitten," says Murphy, whose homework for the part included both watching women and hanging out in transvestite clubs, not in full drag regalia, but "pretty." (Clubs where, incidentally, he was never recognized as a famous movie star. "It doesn't happen to me," he insists, in or out of drag.)

The first part of his research, he says, was just to get down the physicality of the character; the second, and most important, was to "get into the mind frame of those compelled to dress up." Above all, Murphy says, "I wanted to avoid anything that could be construed as camp or queeny."

To that end, he aimed for the "feminine" over the "effeminate." The latter, he explains, is all external, while the former is internal, not to mention much, much harder to attain. "We knew we could do the pretty side, with a sympathetic cameraman -- not just sympathetic but a talented cameraman -- and a good makeup person. Men do that all the time. There's a long history of that in cinema." But, he continues, Kitten is about so much more than a voice, a walk, a batting of flirty eyelashes. "The audience has to invest in the character early on," he says, "to engage with Kitten right from the start."

It's a challenge that the actor says instilled a little bit of fear in him, fear that he not only welcomes but actively seeks. "I always, when I read a script, if I don't have that sensation -- if you read the script and you say, 'Yeah, well, I could do this. It'd be okay' -- then something's wrong. I wanted to do something different from before, and this is very, very different from what I'd done before, and very transformative, obviously."

The more scared he is, the better, Murphy believes, since each part he takes pushes him further in his artistic development. That development began upon seeing a production of "A Clockwork Orange" in a Cork nightclub years ago. It made such a "massive impression" on the youngster that he dropped his legal studies and pursued the director, who cast him in the stage play "Disco Pigs" (later made into a film). At each step of his career, he says, there's been a fresh fear: "Oh, my God!" he says, of his being cast as the Scarecrow in "Batman Begins." "This is a Batman villain. Can I make that step into that league? '28 Days Later' was a big leading part. Each has been a step up, a step further along the way."

Although Murphy originally read for the part of Batman -- yes, Batman -- he says he knew he was never the man for the part. "I'm not physically right; I don't have the right physique for it," he says, speculating that director Christopher Nolan nevertheless "saw something in what I did that he felt he could use in that other character."

The kind of characters closest to his heart are those Murphy describes as having a "fallen quality." Characters like the late jazz musician Chet Baker, whom Murphy (himself a passionate, if not "hugely accomplished," musician) mentions he'd love to portray someday. "I just think it would be a really good story," he says of Baker's "tragic" life of drugs and redemption. "But maybe I'm wrong. Music bio-pics tend to be awful."

So far, Murphy has made good choices, working with, in addition to Jordan and Nolan, directors Wes Craven, Ken Loach and Anthony Minghella. Still, he believes that no director, regardless of talent, will turn a bad story into a good movie. And so, it was with McCabe's tale of Kitten Braden that Murphy first fell in love, long before he was ever cast in the film.

"She's the most selfless and good character I've ever played," he says of his "Breakfast on Pluto" character, whose personal search for love and acceptance -- not to mention the absentee father and mother -- is set against the political backdrop of the Troubles. The sectarian conflict that has rocked Northern Ireland for decades, and the juncture of the personal and the political, are themes that director Jordan has investigated before, in "The Crying Game." Although Murphy grew up far away from the worst of the Catholic-Protestant violence, Murphy says there may simply be something about an innately Irish survival mechanism that's more important in plugging into Kitten than the character's sexual orientation or transvestism, which Murphy calls ultimately "peripheral, or at least less interesting" than what's inside.

"Kitten is like a pendulum," Murphy says, "swinging between intense violence and prejudice on the one hand, and pop music and absurdity on the other. She only pretends that she doesn't know what's going on with the world, but she does. I think maybe that is the Irish way, to laugh at absurdity when all else fails."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company