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You are here : Home > Productions > Misterman > The Sunday Times - June 26th 2011

THE SUNDAY TIMES - June 26th 2011

Acting for a best friend

Cillian Murphy is taking a break from Hollywood to star in a low-key one-man play written and directed by his old pal Enda Walsh, writes Eithne Shortall

Three years ago, Cillian Murphy and a few friends trudged through several feet of snow into the wilds of Toronto, driven by a desire to make something with no commercial upshot. The resulting short film, entitled The Water, can be found on YouTube but has had a low profile — and the Cork actor is happy with that.

"I'm a big music fan/groupie, so I'm friends with the guys in Broken Social Scene, and Kevin Drew [the Canadian musician]. We met and were like, 'We should do something together', so we ended up making this little short film with Leslie Feist [better known as Feist]. It accompanies one of her songs," he says.

"I was delighted with that, because there were no representatives or anything involved. It was just us meeting and saying, `Yeah, we should do it'. We shot it in two days and we're proud of it."

Murphy's motivation was to make something with friends whom he respects professionally. A rekindling of that desire led him to follow Inception, a €110m (£98m) movie in which he appeared alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, with a solo performance in a little-known play in the west of Ireland.

Misterman (1999) was written and first performed by the playwright Enda Walsh, who has now reworked it. Its revival at the Galway Arts festival marks the first time he and Murphy have worked together in 15 years; since Walsh cast the actor in Disco Pigs. That 1996 play toured internationally, picked up multiple awards and, as Murphy puts it, changed the course of his life. It launched the then 20-year-old's acting career, leading to principal screen roles in The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Batman Begins.

Without Disco Pigs, Murphy doubts he would have made it as an actor. "It's hard to explain the intensity of that relationship at the beginning, between me and Eileen [Walsh, his co-star], Pat [Kiernan, the director] and Enda," he says. "We did the show in Cork, at the Triskel, and then it just exploded. I got to go to Canada; I'd never been across the Atlantic. It went to festivals and was the toast of the town. It was intense. Certainly, for me and Eileen, being that young — we were 19 and 20 — that's seminal stuff. Each of those guys were hugely important figures in my life, and I hadn't worked with any of them since, though Eileen continued to work with Pat over the years.

"The right amount of time had elapsed that you have a perspective on it, on how
important it was. Yet it was far enough away, and you'd matured as a person and creatively as an artist. Misterman is important. It's our own show, but by coincidence Eileen and Pat are there again [with a separate play at the Galway Arts festival]. It's kind of like Fleetwood Mac getting back together," he says with a laugh.

While they separated professionally, the group remained close. Murphy, Walsh and Eileen Walsh live around the corner from each other in London, and their children are friends. About two years ago, Murphy started to get restless about his hiatus from the stage — his last theatrical run had been in the West End staging of John Crowley's Love Song in 2006. He also realised how long it had been since he'd worked with his friend.

Murphy knew Walsh's Misterman hadn't been produced much and asked to play its sole character. The actor was only interested in doing so if Walsh would direct. When I arrive for the interview, they are sitting side by side in a Dublin bar, poring over plans and images. They've flown in for a production meeting, and as the welcome-home rain pounds outside, they're having a laugh.

"There are lots of my friends who I'd love to work with, who are in music or who are writers and directors. You'd love to do it but you never really bring it up," Murphy says. "This sounds very misty-eyed, but there seemed to be a much more collaborative thing around years ago where people would just say, 'Do you want to work together?' and they'd make work together. That seems to be less the case now. I don't know why."

He talks about how "brilliant" it is to see his friend becoming one of Ireland's most important playwrights but bats away a sug¬gestion that Walsh must feel the same about his acting successes. Whenever Murphy veers anywhere near self-praise, his voice drops to a barely audible mumble. Before he became an actor, he wanted to be a musician. Although he still plays gui¬tar, he wouldn't release anything because he says it wouldn't stand up against the music he rates. Similarly, he has no intention of turning his hand to writing. "People like Enda and Mark O'Rowe [the playwright/screenwriter] have such a true voice. I don't. You concentrate on what you're good at — or think you're good at," he says.

Murphy is dressed in a simple brown T-shirt and baggy navy trousers, with between-washes hair and a hefty beard. As snug as he looks working quietly with friends, he is equally composed in the face of flashing cameras and blockbuster hype. After every job he returns to his London home where he plays guitar, reads and does the school run. He goes to cinema and theatre regularly and is rarely pestered on the street.

He, his wife and their two sons — aged five and three — spend a lot of time in Cork and the west of Ireland, and they have a lot of expatriate friends in London. "I love living in a world capital and all that it offers in terms of culture and size, and I like a bit of distance from Ireland," he says. "I was keen to get out of Cork and I came to Dublin, I was keen to get out of Dublin and I came to London. I would have gone to New York but it wasn't the right time. London, I love. I really like our house; I like the shops by it and the park by it."

He and Walsh have spent most of the rehearsal period at a small venue in their borough. In typical Walsh style, there is a lot to dissect. Misterman is about a man coming to terms with a troubling past event.

"For me it's a play about guilt and loneliness," says Murphy. "That is the most corrosive of emotions; guilt. It just eats away at you. It destroys you. The feeling of trying to live with that is fascinating territory to explore psychologically."

Murphy is known for thoroughly researching his characters. Before taking the lead in Breakfast on Pluto, Neil Jordan's adaption of the Patrick McCabe novel, he went clubbing in full transvestite attire and make-up. Before playing a butcher in Girl with a Pearl Earring, he spent time at a slaughterhouse. For the physicist in Sunshine, he shadowed the scientist Brian Cox, mimicking his mannerisms.

Of course some parts are easier to research than others. One of his earliest film roles was playing a suicidal youngster in John Carney's On the Edge. While he could talk to psychiatric nurses, he knew that a "floppy-haired actor" couldn't come in looking to chat with suicidal people. Similarly with Misterman, Murphy opted to read up on guilt, depression and loneliness. While the play has its roots in reality, it has been warped into something otherworldly.

"If you're familiar with Enda's work, you'll know he likes putting his characters under pressure, making them overcome obstacles," he says. "People always say doing Enda's work is such an Everest climb. There are so many words to learn and the energy of it can be so intense, but the rewards- are amazing."

Murphy's next screen role is as a soldier in Wayfaring Stranger, a second world war movie directed by Stephen Bradley, the Irish director of Boy Eats Girl. On stage he would like to play Hamlet — to get over a "hang-up" about never having done Shakespeare. He says at the start of his career he needed to prove he could do American films — that he wasn't just an Irish actor— but it doesn't trouble him any more.

He also doesn't get involved in the post-production of projects and prefers not to work back to back, unless the role is too good to refuse. "If that's what you need to do, then definitely," he says, with his hands stretched comfortably behind his head. "But I don't need to be working to exist."

Misterman runs at the Galway Arts festival from July 7-24.