Cillian Murphy uses his crystalline blue eyes to great effect as gang leader Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders. What could be mistaken for a benevolent glance turns into the icy stare of a damaged, violent man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The Peaky Blinders, who get their name from sewing razor blades in the peaks of their caps, rule the streets of Birmingham, England, in the chaotic aftermath of World War I. Murphy began his career in the theater and went on to perform in feature films, starring in several Christopher Nolan pictures, including Dunkirk. Critically acclaimed Peaky Blinders is his first foray into episodic television.
TV DRAMA: When you first read the script, what appealed to you about Tommy Shelby?
MURPHY: I was handed the script by one of my agents, and the title gives nothing away, but I remember reading the opening sequence when Tommy rides into town bareback on a horse. It was quite archetypal, this stranger arriving in town—you see that in Westerns. The writing was so strong and confident and original, insofar as you can be within a genre structure, but I felt that it was. That was my first reaction. I was aware of [creator and screenwriter] Steven Knight’s work. I was an admirer of his, but this was something very different.
TV DRAMA:What kind of challenges does playing Tommy present, both emotionally and physically?
MURPHY: It’s a real gift to have this sort of character, particularly a character that you can return to. It is draining. He’s very complex and he’s about as far away from me as a person as you can possibly get! He has that physical capability, which I certainly don’t possess. It seems like he never sleeps or eats. In fact, over the whole four seasons so far, we never see Tom Shelby eat; a morsel never enters his mouth! He is all-consuming and obviously the nature of television—being that you are shooting so many episodes and so many setups per day and you have so many lines to learn—means that it does take over your life, but in a brilliant way. It’s what every actor would want.
TV DRAMA:How did you prepare and step into the role?
MURPHY: Originally, it was for me to prove to the producers and to the creator that I could make that transformation. We worked as hard as we could, regarding the hair and the costume and me going to the gym! Then there was the emotional pain of this man, who is a damaged man. There was a pre–First World War and a post–First World War man and the trauma and PTSD. I read a lot about that. I read about the First World War and shell shock, as it was called then, and had a lot of protein shakes.
TV DRAMA:The series deals with the impact of World War I on the men who fought in it.
MURPHY: Yes, it’s a brilliant device to see this character after this trauma, a man who has been completely altered through his experiences [at war] and therefore has no respect for authority. He doesn’t believe in God. He is unafraid of death. It’s a great setup for a character, and all of the male characters, particularly in the first two seasons, are products of that trauma and deal with it in different ways. We’ve never forgotten that in all the seasons we’ve done. We’ve seen the consequences of it over the years in the series.
TV DRAMA:It’s a period piece, and it deals with the British working class; we haven’t seen too much of that on television.
MURPHY: It was definitely one of Steve Knight’s priorities to mythologize the working class for a while instead of the aristocracy, which has been the tradition in British television. If you look at American television, Westerns and the gangster genre are all about mythologizing the working man, or immigrants, or cowboys. Americans are very adept at doing that, and we in British television hadn’t done that before. So yes, I think that was a new idea, and people reacted very strongly in a positive way to that, certainly over here [in the U.K.].
TV DRAMA: We see a different side of Winston Churchill in Peaky Blinders.
MURPHY: Well, there are so many sides to Winston Churchill. He is deified and vilified in equal measure depending on where you’re from. But, yes, in this we see the more cloak-and-dagger Churchill and how he was manipulating things even when he wasn’t Prime Minister; he was so involved in every facet of the British government. What I think sets Steve Knight’s writing apart is that he always sets these intimate family stories against the backdrop of political upheavals, some of which we are aware of and some of which we’ve forgotten over the years but actually did happen. He always puts [the story] up against some big change in society that happened.
TV DRAMA: Family is hugely important to Tommy. He is ambitious, but much of what he does is to protect his family.
MURPHY: Yes, and that’s a real gangster trope, something we are very familiar with in the gangster genre, the depth of the love for family. The idea that someone in the family may blackmail Tommy or the idea that he may blackmail the family is probably the thing we are all thinking at the back of our minds as we are watching. He is used to dealing with enemies quite easily, eventually, he always triumphs, but with family, you’re never sure. I think he realizes that they are really the only people he trusts, even though they go through intense trauma and they have this weird magnetic push and pull away from each other. He realizes they are the only people he has.
TV DRAMA: The ’20s were years of economic and social upheaval. What sense of purpose and belonging did the Peaky Blinders offer young men?
MURPHY: If you look at society and working-class men back then, there was no chance of being upwardly mobile. There was no chance of being part of a meritocracy. There were class strata, and there was no way you could move between them. But the idea of being in a gang seems outside of that. You can achieve power and money but still remain a working-class man. Your enemies will be the police and institutions. What will always be attractive is this different moral code that sits outside our own normal conventional moral code, one that normal people are not privy to—that’s very alluring and very sexy.
TV DRAMA: Your first acting experience was on stage. Do you prefer the theater?
MURPHY: It is very important to me and I do go back to it all the time, but it’s not a preference. For me, one informs the other. When I go on stage, I act with my whole body. You’re acting intensely for three months every night, and you come out and you’re really fit as an actor. You’re better because you have been doing it every night, and you’re in control of what’s happening live on stage. Then you take that experience back to the TV show or the movies. I’m a great proponent of live theater; when it works, there is nothing like it. It’s the most satisfying for audiences and for performers when it works. The problem is a lot of the time it doesn’t work.
TV DRAMA:What was the experience of shooting Dunkirk like? MURPHY: It was a great experience. It’s a collaboration that I’ve had for many years with [writer-director] Christopher Nolan and I feel very privileged to have had. I was so proud of the film, glad to be part of it. It’s pure cinema.
TV DRAMA: What upcoming projects do you have? MURPHY: I had a film by Sally Potter at the London Film Festival called The Party.And I’m dreaming of another stage production for next year with my friend Enda Walsh, who is a collaborator of mine and an amazing writer.
TV DRAMA: PeakyBlinders is only six episodes per season. That makes it possible to pursue other projects. MURPHY: I don’t know if I would be able to do ten hours because it does preclude a lot of other work because you’d be doing that for ten months a year. We do Peakyand it’s four months shooting and a month prep, that’s five months of your year, but then you have seven months to do other things. That’s great as an actor. As much as I love the character, I couldn’t do it all the time.
TV DRAMA: In general, what types of roles appeal to you? MURPHY: I quite like pushing myself. I quite like going to extremes, only if the role or the material justifies it. Good writing is the only thing that I look for, and if you have a good director, you’re hopefully in a position to challenge yourself and to improve. Those are my type of criteria.