So, before we start, I need to explain how this interview with Cillian Murphy will work. I met Murphy the first time at a downtown New York hotel on March 6, 2020. Even then there was a feeling of, “Is going to a crowded hotel for an interview a good idea?” (It turns out that, no, it probably wasn’t.) Ten days after this interview New York City would completely shut down and Murphy’s movie, A Quiet Place Part II would be indefinitely delayed, for what would wind up being 14 months.
So what you’re about to read is an interview with Murphy from the days right before the pandemic shut down New York City, and then again just this week, talking about what was going through his head at the time last year, traveling around on a press tour when really no one knew what was going on or what we should and shouldn’t be doing. To differentiate between now and then, I’ve put what Murphy said this week in block quotes, which kind of creates the effect that he’s almost commentating on what he said a year ago. So, having said all that:
Cillian Murphy is, of course, correct when he says really doesn’t have a long history of playing movie villains. As Murphy points out, only two of his characters are, without question, “bad guys.” But, it just so happens that both of those roles — Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow, in Batman Begins (and who also appears in both sequels); and Jackson Rippner in Red Eye — are on cable in a never-ending loop of repeats. So, yes, people do kind of get it in their head that Murphy has a tendency to play the villain, even though he really doesn’t that often.
Though, this little perceptional quirk serves Murphy well in A Quiet Place Part II. When we first meet Murphy’s Emmett (a neighbor of the Abbott family, it’s in a flashback before the invasion of those terrifying, highly sensitive-to-sound aliens that we met in the first movie. When we next meet him, after the events of the first film, he’s a broken human being and we have no idea what his angle will be or where he’s coming from. Murphy’s Emmett, sporting a haggard beard, has that look on his face of someone incapable of trust. At least at first. (And Murphy has a much, much larger role than you probably expect.)
Ahead, Murphy explains why he’s such a big fan of John Krasinski’s first film — going as far to write a praising email to Krasinski that he wound up never sending for fear it would make him look like he wanted something. Fate ensued regardless, as Krasinski reached out to Murphy with an offer to come on board for the sequel. Anyway, lucky for us, this all worked out. He also expresses his dismay as to why, 15 years later, he has to keep talking about Red Eye. Not so much the movie itself, but the fact that it seems just about everyone has a positive opinion of that movie and wants to tell him about it and he just doesn’t understand why. I try my best to explain. (And, to be fair, he’s the one who brought up Red Eye.)
I’m thinking we shouldn’t shake hands. Also, I just got off the subway…
I read it’s worse to take a cab right now than the subway.
Oh, I didn’t know that. That makes me feel better about taking the subway.
Well, whatever. Don’t get your information from an actor, of course, but yeah.
So here you are on a press tour right as things started to get bad. What was going through your head?
Yeah, well, it was so much uncertainty and confusion. This very low level anxiety that was building all the time. Every day the anxiety seemed to grow. I remember saying, talking to my whole team beforehand and going, “Is this really wise I should be flying to New York? Is this really wise?” And they said “Look, everyone is going, it’s all happening. You’re contractually obliged to do this stuff.” Also, I really believe in the film and it’s what I’ve got to do. We went, we did those three days of press, and then we did the premier. It was a slightly different red carpet because they moved it indoors instead of having it outdoors, which in retrospect is highly inadvisable.
In retrospect, what’s so weird about that time period is we didn’t know what was going on. Like debating if we should shake hands, then the subway versus cab thing, we were just looking for any information.
Yeah, everyone was just reaching. It was very confusing and kind of scary. I remember I got a Lyft back to the airport, to JFK, and we did it in like 20 minutes. The driver said it was the fastest he had ever gone because there was no one going to the airport. I got into the airport and it was dead. And I got on the plane and everyone is, again, in a high state of anxiety. I arrived home and then they shut everything down.
Yeah, right after you left things got pretty scary here.
Well, you know, we went and then had the premier party in this really, really densely packed environment. Everyone was in there kissing and hugging and high-fiving, because the film was being really well received. But that happened. It was just bizarre. Like I said, it was sort of like this cognitive dissonance, you know that thing where they say you can hold two conflicting points of view in your head simultaneously? That what it felt like at the time.
When I put in the request to talk to you I had no idea you wind up as one of the main characters.
I have not seen the movie.
No. I just haven’t had the opportunity to see it. But it feels like it’s Millie’s movie for me, from reading it. She’s just extraordinary.
Well, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised how much you’re in this.
Oh, good. That’s always nice to hear.
I assume you’ve seen the movie now.
Yeah, I watched the movie and I’m so proud of it. I think it’s an amazing piece of work from everyone. I think, I really think, it’s Millie’s story, or Regan’s story.
Yeah you said that then, before you saw it.
I think that’s clear, but I’m really proud of my work and proud of the movie. Really, I’m glad it’s being released in theaters and I’m glad people are going to see it on the big screen with the surround sound and the sound design. I’m just glad. It feels like there is a bit of hope around in the film. The film speaks to that I think.
I believe it’s fortunate it had time to get delayed. If it had come out then, I don’t think people would have been receptive. Now, I think people will be.
Yeah. I hope so.
Did you see the first one, like a normal person, and then just go, “Wow, I like this”?
Exactly that. I brought my kids to see it.
It’s a good story about families, but that’s intense.
So, they were 10 and 12 when I bought them. Perfect, you know? I thought it was one of the best movies of the year, in terms of mainstream mass entertainment. I thought it was so brilliantly executed. So elegantly done. As you say, I thought it was a movie about family and about loss and about trying to protect your children in any world, not to mind that fucked up world of the movie. You may know this, and it is true. I penned John Krasinski an email…
I do not know this.
Okay. So, I wrote him an email. I got his email off my agent, and I wrote him an email to say, “One actor to another, I think this is an extraordinary piece of work. Thank you for this.” And I didn’t send it.
I got too embarrassed.
I chickened out, man.
Do you make a habit of sending emails to actors and directors?
I generally send it. I’ve reached out to artists or writers or a lot to musicians, and occasionally to directors.
What is an example of another time you did this?
I’ve done it a lot with writers. Subsequently, then if you’d ever like to meet for a coffee or a chat, I’d love to meet.
And an invite out? That’s great.
But no, that developed, you know what I mean? What I’m trying to establish here is that I was not looking for anything.
Oh, so you were worried he’s thinking, “Well, okay. He wants something.”
Genuinely, all I wanted to say was, “Fucking hell, man. What you’ve done is made this amazing piece of work that not only is clever and smart and emotional, but has made a shitload of money. And you did it within the machine of Hollywood, in the studio system.“ That’s all I wanted to say, but then I thought it could get misconstrued to be like, “Hey man, give me a job.” Which I wasn’t saying. But then, a year later he emailed me.
Did you at least save it in drafts where you could show it to him later?
No, it’s gone. But I told him about it.
And now he doesn’t believe you.
No, he makes fun of me all the time.
So, then how does that turn into you actually being a large part of this movie?
Well then, out of the blue, my agent said, “Listen, John Krasinski, he wants to get in touch with you. I said, “No shit, man?”
Does it feel better that you didn’t send that email and then you get a request that he’s interested in you?
Yes. Well, I suppose it means that it was completely on merit as opposed to anything else.
After this movie my stomach hurt from the tension.
Well, I enjoy not just cinema but all art that exacts some sort of emotional price from you, do you know what I mean?
That you don’t go out and go, “Meh, do you want to get a beer?” It’s like, “Holy fuck, man. Oh my God, I need to lie down.“ That’s the sort of art I’ve always been attracted to. Generally, you find that in, as a performer, it is normal people in extraordinary circumstances. It doesn’t have to necessarily be in an apocalyptic situation…
Which you’ve done before.
I’ve done that, but it could be in a very banal, domestic situation or whatever. That’s where the drama lies, do you know what I mean? These in particular in the mass media market, people put themselves into the shoes of those people and they question themselves. Because it is just a bizarre magnification of what we’re all living through now.
Does that cross your mind, “Well, I’ve done apocalypse before”?
No, I mean, to me, I certainly am genre-fluid.
You’re an enigma.
Well no, man.
I think of you as an enigma.
Because I never know what you’re going to do next, which is great.
Well, I just follow what I think is a compelling story: a compelling, unique piece of writing. I mean, the concept of the first movie was so simple but so original, that you can’t make a sound. So, I didn’t think of a genre. I never do, ever do. To me, it’s just a good story, good character, and then the people that are involved.
This just popped in my head. There’s an episode of The Office where Pam tells Jim she wanted to rent 28 Days but accidentally rented 28 Days Later. And now John Krasinski is directing you in an apocalypse movie. It’s full circle.
Wow. That is an amazing reference. It is a long time since I’ve watched that show, and I did watch it, but fuck, I’d forgotten that. I’m going to say that to him. He never said that to me that day. Wow, you have good recall. That’s good recall.
So what did you watch over quarantine?
We watched a lot of stuff together as a family during the pandemic, lots of movies. What we did do, this is a little nod to John Krasinski, but we did the whole series, the whole, is it nine series of the American Office?
Yes, nine seasons.
We did that because my boys had never seen it and they became absolutely, comprehensively obsessed with it. But that’s quality, that’s really quality television.
Well last time we spoke I brought up of the 28 Days Later, 28 Days scene and you even mentioned how you hadn’t seen The Office in a long time.
Yeah! I remember! It was funny I had forgotten that entirely.
Speaking of that, with your past experience with movies about viruses, was there a moment during this, and I’m not even making a joke, where you’re like, “This is getting way too close to the way things happened in 28 Days Later, I don’t like this. This is going to be serious.”
Well, yeah. It was funny because people kept texting me gifs and things about the stuff from 28 Days Later. I had a little exchange with Alex Garland about that. It wasn’t really funny because it was pretty bleak at that time.
Oh, no question.
Yeah. So we weren’t going, “isn’t this hilarious and darkly funny?” It was more like, “holy shit.”
That’s what I’m more wondering. Like, oh, this is actually kind of going the way that movie is going at first. This is really going to turn out bad.
Well, I think if anything you can say that Alex Garland is an incredibly prescient and intelligent writer. That he had the idea in that movie, the kind of big concept of that movie is that the whole island of Britain was quarantined. Then my character sees a plane flying overhead and figures it all out. So we thought that was the most outrageously unlikely thing that could ever happen. Then it came to fruition. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and why people are attracted to apocalyptic scenarios or stories or movies or books. I think it’s because, particularly in the 21st Century, we live, it seems, on the precipice of some awful catastrophe at every minute. You know?
If it hadn’t have been that this pandemic that was going to overwhelm us, it’s climate change, or what was happening in America, or what’s happening in the Middle East, or what’s happening in Russia, or some awful thing is just around the corner it seems. So that taps into that collective anxiety of these movies.
It’s like those stories that we hear now like, oh yeah, aliens might be real. Which now just comes across as, yeah, I bet after we make it through all this, then we will then have to deal with aliens who want to kills us. That sounds right.
Yeah man, that’s the thing. I think at that point people go, well, something’s coming. Something’s coming. They try and put themselves, the audience, and I do this, you put yourself into the shoes of the character and try and figure out, what would I do? That’s the big attraction of them I think.
Well, that episode was just on a couple of days ago. You mentioned what you look for in a story. Are you at a point you can tell from the beginning if it’s going to work or not?
I’ve had a lot of ones that haven’t worked out, you know what I mean? Once you’re just the actor, then that is the limit to your input into the process. Now on this TV show [Peaky Blinders], I’m a producer on it so I can get a bit more involved, but generally that’s all you can do. For me, I was very reassured by the fact that John was back, Emily was back, Millie and Noah were back. So, that’s much better than the sequel where it’s a whole new gang with the same title. This just-
There are basically just two new people.
Yeah, and it’s expanding the world…
Sometimes “expanding the world” makes me nervous. Turning something simple into something complicated. In this movie “expanding” basically means going to a neighbor’s house.
Yes, it is grounded in some sort of accessible reality in terms of you go, “Well, they can’t get very fucking far, can they?”
When we first meet your character, the audience doesn’t know what his angle is. Because I think a lot of people think of you as antagonist.
Well, I’m glad because, I think for me, in terms of the antagonist, protagonist thing, it’s sort of become a kind of a reductive trope really now. I guess the Batman villain, right?
Yes, Scarecrow is the bad guy. There’s no getting around that.
The guy in Red Eye, right? He’s a bad guy. If you look at any of my other films…
Red Eye is a good movie.
Everyone keeps fucking saying that.
You know why? Because it’s on cable nonstop.
It’s one of those movies people will be scrolling through and wind up watching…
My point being is, Jesus, can I stop talking about that movie?
To be fair, you brought it up.
I was trying to make a point that aside from those two characters, and there were only two, I think the rest of them exist in this in-between area, which is humanity.
But those two characters you mentioned are very popular characters.
I guess, but they’re are from like the last century, maybe.
Well, no, not quite.
[Laughs] Not quite.
But they are on cable nonstop, so people are exposed to them over and over.
Yes. But so I suppose the thing that I’m trying to say to you is that, for me, that thing of contradiction, that sort of gray area, that complexity? So I think this man, Emmett, is a good man whose circumstances have forced them to exist in this area. Then it’s this girl comes along and she is the physical embodiment of hope. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true, and she transforms him. It’s a beautiful thing. But ambiguity is a wonderful thing in art, and to have the sort of nefarious villain or the square-jawed hero? Boring. To have the guy who is struggling to do the right thing, that, to me, is interesting.
So a year ago you brought up Red Eye, then I said it was a good movie and you didn’t like that and don’t understand why people like it. Guess what, people have had 14 months to do nothing but watch Red Eye.
Well, were people sitting around watching Red Eye? I’m sure they were watching other stuff as well.
I’d say Red Eye is on the list of the many movies that people had plenty of time to watch.
Really? Okay. I don’t know! The honest answer is I haven’t seen that movie since it came out like 15 or 16 years ago, whenever it was. I also think that, when I was a younger actor, I was really, really hard on everything that I was in. I hated watching myself. I hated looking at myself on screen. I remember when I saw it was like “Oh, that’s kind of a schlocky B movie. Rachel McAdams is excellent in it.” But I didn’t think I gave a very nuanced performance in it. But, listen, if people love the movie then that’s great. I’m pleased with that. I’m less hard on myself now when I look at stuff. I’m less hypercritical of my work. But that’s probably a hangover from that to be honest.
Well, thanks for reliving this interview with me. I think about it a lot, because of what happened right after.
Yeah, it’s nice to bring it up because, obviously, wherever my head was at then and wherever your head was at then, we’re now in a totally different place. It’s nice to contextualize it a little bit.
‘A Quiet Place Part II’ opens in theaters this coming weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.