“The magazine’s called RedEye?” asks “Red Lights” star Cillian Murphy, who played the villain in the 2005 horror-on-an-airplane film “Red Eye.”
Yes, I tell him, and ask if he gets strange looks on planes. “No, thankfully I don’t,” the 36-year-old actor says. “I thought I would, but people forget movies quickly, man.”
Not when actors choose parts as carefully as Murphy, who has appeared in memorable films such as “Inception,” “Batman Begins,” “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later.” In “Red Lights,” opening July 27, Murphy stars as Tom, a physicist determined to expose a renowned psychic (Robert De Niro) as a fraud.
Murphy says he embraces the entertainment aspects of psychics who feed off of people’s need to believe in the irrational, but he says it becomes “shady” when they prey upon the vulnerable and weak. “When people pretend to cure cancer, that’s dangerous territory you’re getting into,” he says. “But if people are desperate, people will keep searching and searching and searching.”
At the Four Seasons Hotel, Ireland-born, London-dwelling Murphy and Spanish writer-director Rodrigo Cortes (“Buried”), 39, talked about buying into the illusion, when a role influences your own beliefs and preferring dark material to, say, “The Wedding Planner.”
Cillian, after seeing Ryan Reynolds confined to a box in “Buried,” how concerned were you about what Rodrigo would do to you?
Cillian Murphy: [Laughs] Well, I saw “Buried” on my own in a small screening room in London in the summer time. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget. I had to go and have an ice cream afterwards. Everybody talks about that movie. It just affects your physiology. You just feel different afterwards. You could see that he was the real deal, what he achieved and the performance. I enjoy directors who push you and challenge you and test you. I like the immersive experience of making a film where you get completely and utterly involved, physically and emotionally.
Which do you find more satisfying: when you’re fooled, or when you’ve figured out the trick?
Rodrigo Cortes: When you go to see David Copperfield, you know that everything is a lie but you want to believe in that. You don’t want to be there for a couple of hours spending 200 bucks to figure out that he doesn’t fly. We all know that he doesn’t fly; that’s part of the thing. But you try to fool everybody in the sense that it’s not about surprise, it’s about challenging everybody. I love the films that don’t end … and you find yourself thinking about them a day later or two days later or three days later. So that’s what really pleases me as a creator if you achieve that.
Cillian, as a skeptic, do you try to go along with people like that or are you looking for a giveaway?
CM: When it’s entertainment … I went to see Copperfield and Criss Angel in L.A. when I was researching this and it was pure entertainment and it was amazing. It’s like saying to actors or directors, “When you go to a film, are you constantly trying to figure out how do they get that shot or how did they do that?” You’re just in it and you’re watching it and enjoying it.
What did you say to those guys? Because you met Copperfield, right?
CM: I met him briefly. He was very cool and very nice, but you can tell he plays on this aura that he has, which when you see him it’s quite palpable. But they were cool and very supportive. I didn’t meet Criss Angel.
You’ve talked about not having seen something in real life you couldn’t explain. What would be something you can think of that would make you think, “Maybe there is something else out there?
CM: Hey, man, I’m open. I’m always open. And you have to be curious I think as a creative person. You have to be interested.
What goes through your mind if someone says, “Last night, the light mysteriously went on or I saw things moving that shouldn’t have been moving?”
RC: Well, I have never seen that unfortunately. I would love to. When a mother wakes up in the middle of the night and immediately knows that something has happened her son has had an accident or whatever. When that happens it makes you think a couple of things, it cannot be measurable. You cannot analyze in a laboratory. So it goes beyond science in a way. But in my opinion, believing is not useful. But understanding—I’m interested more in trying to understand even the things that cannot be explained. I don’t think that nature can be transcended. In that sense I don’t think that supernatural exists. But if we think that paranormal is a group of phenomena in search of an explanation, there are certain things that resist to be explained yet. When you think of radio frequencies, probably three centuries ago you would have considered [those] as paranormal. Not everything can be explainable yet, but when we get the tools probably we will be able to.
Without any evidence, why are people inclined to say that if a bedroom light strangely turns on, it must be a ghost?
CM: It’s more interesting than saying there was a power surge.
I read that when you played a physicist in “Sunshine” that may have impacted the way that you saw the world. Is that accurate, and how much did this role impact the way you see things, if at all?
CM: Yeah, when I did this movie called “Sunshine” and I was sort of agnostic I guess in my beliefs, and that certainly, the experience of making that film and researching it, and spending the time with all these unbelievable, intelligent, rational people, I guess I was tipped over into I would be an atheist. But again not a fundamental, I don’t believe, but I don’t have a problem with other people that do. It’s a personal thing. And this film, it hasn’t changed me in terms of being skeptical toward the paranormal world but again I’ve seen the power these people have in terms of their personalities but it hasn’t changed my position I guess.
You’ve had a fantastic career with a lot of memorable parts. How much interest do you have in doing a romantic comedy or something that would totally lighten things up? I was also thinking of your “Inception” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who has done almost exclusively serious films recently.
CM: It’s just a matter of taste really. I don’t say, “Don’t send me any romantic comedies” to my agent. But it’s generally the films that I enjoy watching and the stories that I enjoy telling and also reading are I guess more involved in the sort of darker side of psychology I guess. Not always but I think in that world there’s the scope for drama tends to be greater. So if you’re talking about the end of the world or life and death, there’s more at stake than “The Wedding Planner.” There seems to be people might die. That appeals to me. I like human beings that are under pressure. I like seeing what pressure does to the human psyche and how people react to that. But I just did a play which has loads of physical comedy in it. I love Buster Keaton and all of that stuff. I do go and watch those sorts of movies occasionally. In terms of taste and the real films that have moved me and affected me like the great movies of the ‘70s, they tend to be striving for something more serious than [a romantic comedy].
How much more interested would you be in those films if there was more at stake or more action? If everyone was wearing a bracelet that could kill them at any moment?
CM: Write the script, man.
This year we had “This Means War” which blended action, romance and comedy, and this week “Seeking a Friend For the End of the World” sets a romantic comedy against the apocalypse.
CM: I hadn’t even heard of those movies. I must go and watch them.
A lot of people are asking you about “The Dark Knight Rises,” and understandably you don’t want to give anything away. What do you think Batman’s weakness is?
CM: Batman’s weakness? Oh. That’s a good question.
RC: Don’t say kryptonite.
CM: It’s bats, isn’t it? He doesn’t like bats, I think, from what I remember. He had a bad experience with bats, didn’t he? I don’t know. What I love about Batman, and I’ve said this before, why he’s the coolest superhero is because he doesn’t have any superpowers. He’s just a really rich guy that does a lot of push-ups and has a lot of toys. That’s a perfect example of the psychology of that character. What made him who he is. It’s fascinating world the way that Chris has opened it up and explored it. It is quite dark, those movies are quite dark, but people adore them.
You’ve talked about loving Nolan’s work and those films. Why do you think they’ve caught on the way that they have?
CM: Because they’re hugely entertaining but also very, very smart. They do not underestimate the audience and they know that the audience is able for this. This totally reinvigorated the superhero genre I think. I think Chris Nolan is one in a million. He’s quite an extraordinary director.
You said you didn’t feel like you filled the Batsuit quite right when you auditioned for the role. What was going through your head while wearing it?
CM: [Laughs] Oh, man. You do your best. You do your best. For me, it’s not a big deal, it was more of an opportunity to actually get to work with Chris and to do this little screen test and to work with him and then it turned into something else. That’s what’s really more important. Nostalgia’s very dangerous. I think artists should be about moving forward. Nostalgia can be the death of any sort of art.
Where they ate the night before the interview: Ruxbin
What they’d do with unlimited time in Chicago: “I love just walking around cities. That’s the best. I’ve been here in galleries before; there’s great art galleries here. Just hang out by the lake and lie down.” (CM) “I would love to spend a week here. Looking and walking and finding strange corners that have nothing to do with tourism.” (RC)
Why you don’t try to create long conversations with Robert De Niro: “I don’t think you fill the silences with Robert De Niro. I think you sort of defer to his status and his seniority and let the man have his time.” (CM) “Any way of impersonating him is just not saying much. If you use a couple of words to describe a complex theory, you are impersonating him.” (RC)
Guilty pleasures: “I don’t have a guilty pleasure movie. I feel very proud of the bad films I like. For instance I love a film which everyone hates, which is ‘Dreamcatcher.’ I [bleeping] love that movie. I think it’s great.” (RC) “They’re not really guilty pleasures but it’s great for me, watching the movies of the ‘80s with my kids again and just realizing why those movies are so brilliant. I was watching ‘Big’ the other day with Tom Hanks. Such a fantastic film. That’s not a guilty pleasure because it’s a great movie.” (CM)
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