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Murphy's law: seek diversity

Irish actor's varied roles have made him noticed, and content

TORONTO -- The eyes are hidden.

The icy blues that terrorized a plane-mate in ''Red Eye" and stared down the Caped Crusader in ''Batman Begins" are, this afternoon, locked behind sunglasses.

But Cillian Murphy, the 29-year-old Irish actor whose 2005 included three terrific performances, most recently a delicious turn as a transvestite Candide in ''Breakfast on Pluto," isn't really doing the star thing. Yes, in the middle of a hotel patio interview at the Toronto International Film Festival here, he catches a photographer snapping a few shots, and questions who he is and why he's shooting. (The photographer scuttles away.)

For the most part, though, Murphy is frank and disarming -- not evil, not eerie, not even eccentric. Just a sensible Irish bloke, the son of educators, married with a son, and proud of his work. Even the name misleads. Soft as it looks on paper, it's pronounced the hard way: Kill-ian.

In a year with fewer great lead actor parts, Murphy would have a shot at an Oscar nomination for the Neil Jordan-directed ''Breakfast on Pluto," now in theaters. He portrays Patrick ''Kitten" Braden, a foundling who blithely skips from small-town Ireland to glam London, family woes and sectarian violence always nipping at his high heels. It's a rich role -- Kitten withstands a brutal police interrogation by imagining he's a superspy who fells enemies with a spray of Chanel -- that Murphy plays with fearless conviction.

After smallish parts in British films, the actor broke through internationally as one of the last Londoners alive in Danny Boyle's zombie masterwork ''28 Days Later." He had small, vivid moments in ''Cold Mountain," ''Girl With a Pearl Earring," and ''Intermission." But 2005 made all the difference, first as mad psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, who devolves into the villainous Scarecrow, in Christopher Nolan's ''Batman Begins" and then as an assassin in Wes Craven's thriller ''Red Eye."

Next up: back with Boyle for a sci-fi story and a starring role in a Ken Loach historical drama. In the meantime, though, there's Kitten to talk about:

Q: I can't think of an actor who's had more costume changes than you do in this movie. When was the first time you put on a piece of the clothing and knew that it felt right?

A: We did screen tests, we tested all the different looks before we went and shot. Some stuff can look butch. I wanted always to look quite graceful and effeminate, but never camp. I wanted her to be a beautiful transvestite. It suited the character for her to be beautiful.

Q: How did you develop the voice?

A: I have quite a deep register in my voice and that would not suit it. I wanted something that was quite natural and quite quiet, so that when the character spoke you wanted to listen. The voice, the walk, the mannerisms, all that stuff -- I had some time on my own, I spent two weeks away working on it, and I brought it back to Neil and he liked it.

Q: Did the script give clear guidance that the character is so gentle, so quiet? Underneath the plumage, this is not a flamboyant person.

A: In the book, the character has the claws out a bit more, is a bit more vicious with the put-downs, and is more barbed. That's been done very effectively before, and immediately, then, you get camp. And I didn't want that. The way Neil and [co-screenwriter Patrick McCabe] wrote the character is so beautiful, and good. The character is more full of pure goodness than anyone I've every played. To do the bitchy, queeny thing wouldn't have been appropriate.

Q: But too good isn't very fun to play, is it?

A: Good is probably the wrong word. I mean well-intentioned, or naturally warm. She falls in love with people and trusts people far too quickly. . . . She represents these beautiful misfits that you encounter throughout life, these creatures that never fit into society, and they're just taken advantage of or are just damaged. Luckily Kitten survives and the world actually comes into focus for her at the end.

Q: Did you feel it was risky to take the part? You're working on this, and traditional Hollywood is calling on you in a way that it perhaps hadn't been. Were you worried about that at all?

A: No. The only thing I've ever insisted upon in my career is diversity. I would have fought tooth and nail for this part. The actors in it, Neil's participation -- the whole thing.

Q: What does the era mean to you?

A: The '70s? A lot of the music that I most enjoyed is from the late '60s, early '70s, mid-'70s. Not some of the more cheesy stuff in this movie --

Q: No Bobby Goldsboro?

A: Not really, no. But I loved the way they got all the trashy music from the '70s and Kitten finds such true sentiment in all that trashy stuff. . . . In Ireland at that period, it was still a very repressed society. And to see [David] Bowie on TV then, or [Marc] Bolan, people could not deal with it. Everything came 10 years later in our lives. So people were still appalled by the Beatles, you know what I mean? Bowie and all these guys, that was a whole [expletive] revelation.

Q: Did you feel you were going to need to leave Ireland to make your way in the world?

A: No, but I did definitely want to. Cork, where I'm from, is a small town and it's quite parochial. I love it but I knew I'd leave. I went to Dublin for a few years and then to London.

Q: How important is it that Kitten is Irish? Could he have been a small-town figure anywhere else?

A: Neil and Pat are fluent in that, having been brought up in that era of the '70s and the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And the influence of the church, and the slow lifting of that repression -- no, I don't think the story would have worked.

Q: I'm interested to talk about the rest of your year. I've read that you were excited and wanted ''Batman" for yourself at some point. You didn't get it, and did such a great job as the Scarecrow.

A: I have to correct you. I never saw myself as Batman. It was Chris Nolan who asked me very flatteringly to come in for a screen test. I mean I don't think I have the right physique for Batman. And so I was just intrigued to get to work with Chris Nolan within a screen test situation. And then he was kind enough to offer me the other part.

Q: What did you think when you saw it?

A: I can't really comment on my own performance. I love the movie, though. It was an adult movie. It was dark, intelligent, shot beautifully. Christian Bale -- I thought he was the best Batman.

Q: What do you want people to see in you when they watch ''Breakfast on Pluto"?

A: I don't really think of it in terms of audience perception. I just really believe in the movie as a wonderful story. Neil is a filmmaker who takes risks and never underestimates his audience's intelligence or his audience's capacity to follow a story, to slip into fantasy and reality. He shows his audiences a lot of respect, I think, and I think it's refreshing to see films that still get made like that.

Q: Of those great set pieces, which is the one that was the most purely fun to do?

A: Chanel. That's the closest I've gotten to a musical number.

Q: Do you think you'll get a musical?

A: I'm quite happy with this one so far. But any chance to sing a song, I'd love that.

Scott Heller can be reached at

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