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ICONS: Cillian Murphy

This year’s Oscars were notable for, among other things, the outstanding number of Irish acting nominees. What’s almost certain is that we won’t be without an Irish contender next year either: after so many memorable performances, Cillian Murphy is likely to be among the Best Actor nominees… finally!

Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic, which premiered last month, was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, and is likely to be a big hit at next year’s awards. In addition to Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr., and Florence Pugh, among others, one of the director’s favourite collaborators, Irish actor Cillian Murphy, could finally make it to the Hollywood A-list after so many unforgettable performances. In the film, Cillian Murphy plays Robert Oppenheimer, who wrestles between personal ambition and inner moral dilemmas as the “father of the atomic bomb”, which the US used to kill hundreds of thousands of people in two Japanese cities at the end of World War II. The Irish actor masterfully scales Oppenheimer’s mental acrobatics in what is noted as one of the best performances of his career. But let’s take a look at this extraordinary career!

Few people know that Murphy, from Cork, started his performing career as a rock musician. After turning down a record deal, he made his acting debut in 1996 in Disco Pigs. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he gained experience in film and stage productions, mostly in Ireland and the UK, before coming to international attention for the first time in 2003 as the hero of the post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. Murphy is not afraid to take on the role of a villain: his best-known roles include the Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film, Batman Begins, and Jackson Rippner in Wes Craven’s thriller Red Eye. From the start of his film career, he was characterised by his refusal to be pigeonholed, preferring to look for unique projects and interesting roles without worrying too much about box office success. He played Kitten, the outcast transgender heroine in search of love and her birth mother in Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel, Breakfast on Pluto (2005), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. And in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, he won the 2006 Palme d’Or for his portrayal of a 1920s Irish revolutionary. A doctor who initially refuses to fight, resigned to the fact that the war is unwinnable, but who impulsively joins the Irish Republican Army after witnessing a series of injustices. Murphy portrays his radicalisation into a soldier without striking a wrong note, and ultimately sacrifices everything for the cause. In 2010, he landed a major role in Christopher Nolan’s big-budget film Inception. He plays Robert Michael Fischer, the heir to a business empire whose unresolved father issues make him the target of an “extraction team”. Led by Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the thieves use dream technology to infiltrate the target’s subconscious and gain information. Fischer is a man of few words, and Murphy is fantastic at quietly conveying his pain and making us care about a character who is, in many ways, meant to be an enigma.

Despite his growing box-office success, Murphy never moved to Hollywood. He is uncomfortable around celebrities, giving interviews about his work but not appearing on television talk shows, and he doesn’t really talk about the details of his private life. Murphy is on good terms with fellow Irish actors Colin Farrell and Liam Neeson, and looks up to the latter as a “movie surrogate daddy”. But he is primarily characterised by the close friendships and relationships he has forged before becoming a star. In 2004, for example, he married Yvonne McGuinness, a long-time artist with whom he met at a gig with his rock band in 1996.

Finally, let’s not forget his run in Peaky Blinders, with which he made his mark in the world of television! The actor fits perfectly into Steven Knight’s historical universe, which tells the story of the Shelby crime family, notorious for their “blade-snatchers”, in the first decades of the 20th century, starting after the end of the First World War.