"I think he enjoys the corruption" - Cillian Murphy on the rise and rise of Peaky Blinders
A rare interview with Cillian Murphy ahead of Season 5.
Professionalism and impartiality.
Two traits often associated with the image of a stoic writer bound to some unwritten rule of playing it cool and detached.
Right now, this particular author is fanboying the hell out.
Here I am among a select group of people on the set of Peaky Blinders, getting to watch Cillian Murphy act alongside his new sparring partner, Sam Claflin, who's playing Oswalt Mosley, the infamous Labour MP who would go on to become the leader of the British Union of Fascists.
As I desperately try to embrace my inner Tommy Shelby and play it cool, it's impossible to do so because even though we're watching the scene behind a monitor, there's a tangible sense of electricity, mystery and danger in the air.
Welcome to the world of Peaky Blinders. Welcome to the skill of Cillian Murphy.
As the Irish director Anthony Byrne puts both actors through their paces, it's clear that Season 5 is adopting a whole new dynamic as Tommy Shelby enters the world of politics, where fascism is afoot.
In many ways, Peaky Blinders has never been as relevant as it is now because the parallels between Season 5 and the current global political climate are obvious. While Murphy never plays the fame game, he's always a fascinating person to listen to, as is evident in recent discussions on the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment and Brexit.
In a culture where buzz, hype, and a 'profile' seem to be key, it's refreshing to dwell on the Corkman's simple and honest approach to interviews and the press.
The more he talks in public, the less people believe him as an actor. That's basically Murphy's view towards the media and it has served him well so far.
When he speaks, people listen. When he acts, people watch.
Following filming of the scene above, Murphy strides into a room full of journalists - still dressed to kill as Tommy - and with a mind as sharp as his most famous character.
Before the interview starts, the Corkman takes a few moments, composes himself, and shakes off the character of Tommy.
The intensity of Tommy has left the room, we're left with the charming Cillian.
Truth be told, seeing that change is the exact reason why professionalism and impartiality can be thrown out of the window at times.
Sometimes, you just have to stand back and admire someone at the peak of their powers. Here's an account of how the subsequent conversation unfolded.
Where's Tommy at as Season 5 kicks off?
Cillian Murphy: I think that this year feels to me like a little more about the inside of Tommy’s head. Last season was very much about external forces - you had the guise of the Mafia - and it was pretty conventional in terms of what he was dealing with.
Of course, there was his own psyche and mental fragility to deal with - that’s always apparent with Tommy - but in this season, it seems to me that it’s more explicit. It’s more about Tommy wrestling with his own head and that’s fantastic to play, obviously.
Does that all still stem from his ordeals in World War I? The idea that he's frozen and now he's starting to 'thaw out'?
CM: I think that it all stems back to that. I think that it has often been talked about in the show, like, there’s a Tommy that existed pre-WWI and now we’re seeing Tommy in the post-war environment. They’re such different characters and it’s all informed by that experience. In terms of his relationships, now that he has become a father, you can see how he’s trying to wrestle with that and also the fact that these men just medicated themselves and didn’t have any actual help.
We usually see him smoking, or swigging from a bottle. Have those habits gotten particularly bad in this season?
CM: In terms of Tommy’s drinking, it has always been a thing with him. There’s some element of self-medication going on. We saw that last year, especially in that scene when he’s alone in the bedroom and he just got wasted, then his little boy saw him. I think that’s how he knows and feels that he’s functioning but he’s got such incredible intellectual depth and is so relentless that he manages to function. It’s sort of crazy to think about.
How does he take to politics and the House of Commons?
CM: I think he enjoys the corruption!
The season kicks off in the shadow of the Wall Street Crash. How does that impact Tommy in this new season because he's probably worried about his business interests, as well as his new political career?
CM: The crash thing is kind of like, obviously it’s a historical event, but it's about saying ‘this kind of wealth is temporary and can be stolen away at any point. All this material wealth can disappear.' In Season 5, we see the effect that this knowledge has on him.
In terms of Tommy’s new political career, does that cause any friction in the Shelby family?
CM: I think Arthur is always just in Tommy’s wake, a little bit. But because he’s such a loyal soldier, he follows on and the relationship between them is pretty good and strong between them in this season. But yeah, Arthur always has to adapt to any new scenario that Tommy confronts him with.
What's Tommy's relationship with Oswalt Mosley (Sam Claflin) like?
CM: All you have to do is Google Oswalt Mosley and you get a sense of what he’s like! If you know Tommy, you’ll know that despite all his machinations and bad deeds that he has done, you’ll know that if you set his principles and values aside, they’d be very different to Mosley’s.
Would you say that Tommy is out of comfort zone now that he's in politics?
CM: No, I think he’s eminently comfortable in this environment, actually. We saw the aristocracy a bit in Season 2 and we saw that the establishment was just as morally bankrupt as the gangs he’s familiar with. I think Tommy has been aware of this quite a long time.
What do you think about how the character and show has entered the pop culture zeitgeist? Like, there are Peaky Blinders parties and events now.
CM: I am amazed, yeah. I can’t really fathom it. There are people with full back tattoos of Tommy Shelby, I would suggest buying the DVD boxset instead! Nevertheless, we never expected that level of cultural connection. The fact that it has really plugged into something. People have Peaky Blinders weddings, it's all a bit surreal.
The reason why I can’t articulate this is because nobody knows how it happens. Some things just get into the culture, some things don’t. There’s no formula. I guess it helps if it’s just really good writing and something original - which this is - and after that, you can’t predict what happens. I’ve always been heartened by the fact that the show's growth was so incremental.
It started as quite a slow thing, this small TV show that now, five series later, has reached a pitch. But this was never instant, it was never forced down people’s throats. It was by people talking to each other about it, and sharing DVDS, and dressing up, and having events etc. They did this all off their own bat, it’s lovely that it happened that way because it’s the fans that made it.
Do you think the show is political?
CM: We addressed it a bit last season when Jessie Eden said ‘I know that before the war, you were a communist.’ I think it’s pretty clear what his values are and in terms of his experience with WWI, his approach to things like hierarchy, authority, and the establishment, he’s very anti all of that stuff.
I think it’s clear where Tommy’s politics would sit, if you need to classify them. Obviously, anyone that knows a thing about Mosley - but that’s the scary thing, people didn’t - they know where his politics lie. Yeah, it’s inevitable that the new episodes will be political but it still ticks all the classic boxes of what Peaky does in terms of entertainment and violence and sex and music. You know, all the cool stuff! But yes, there will be a political element to it too.
Stephen Knight has said that he'd love to take this show up to Season 7. Has he outlined his plans for Tommy to you?
CM: He always said that he sees the first sirens of the Second World War as the end of the show, he’d love to do that. We’re just so lucky to have such a gifted writer at this kind of purple patch in his career. He’s writing such beautiful and unpredictable characters and journeys and stories for us. Nah, I’m just like ‘let him off!’ Sometimes, we’ll meet and have lunch and he’ll tell me his ideas for the future and they’re always amazing. Nothing that I could have ever predicted.
Do you have any input into the writing and the character?
CM: You don’t need to. He’s one of the best writers in the world and he’s working at the top of his game. You just feel blessed.
Steven did say that you've got some input into the music. As you're acting in scenes, do you get ideas about what songs would fit the show?
CM: It’s not specifically like that. It’s more general because I’m obsessed and consumed by music. We’re lucky that the show has attracted so many amazing artists over the years that want to be part of it and they've been really generous with their music. It’s always nice to have chats like ‘imagine this’ or 'what about that?' That’s exciting to be in that position as a music fan.
What's the track you love the most that has featured in the show?
CM: Oh God! There are so many. It was so beautiful and moving and poignant that we got David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar. That he had asked for that to happen was really moving for someone like me. It was just very overwhelming.
Every year, you're playing against some wonderful antagonists like Tom Hardy and Paddy Considine. What's the dynamic like between you and Sam? Is it more of a physical rivalry, mental games, cat and mouse?
CM: He’s a fantastic actor and I’ve admired his work for a while. Every year, it has been different and every year, we’ve got such incredible actors joining the cast… so I don’t really want to spoil anything.
Do you miss Tom Hardy?
CM: Always! Every day!
As Alfie, I mean.
CM: Haha, you didn't specify that! Yeah, of course. It’s an incredible creation that he gave us. You know, he’ll be missed.
The first episode of Season 5 of Peaky Blinders airs at 9pm on BBC One on Sunday, 25 August.