You'd be hard pressed to find someone who, when discussing the BBC and Netflix hit Peaky Blinders, doesn't in the same breath comment on the physical appeal of its lead character, Thomas Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. With his frosty blue eyes and enviable cheekbones, Murphy has emerged as the show's heartthrob against all odds, given that he spends most of the crime drama swindling, murdering, and being generally unnerving. The beginning of season three, out now, finds Tommy (spoiler alert!) married and with a baby, but as the season progresses, he's stripped of his newfound happiness (and humanity) and devolves into the most unhinged version of himself.
For Murphy, the character is "the least-like-me character I’ve ever played," he said recently. "For me, drama is about shining a light on those kind of darker, weirder, stranger, more idiosyncratic parts of the psyche." His IMDb page proves his point: he's played his fair share of baddies, from the murderous Jackson Rippner in 2005's Red Eye to Crane in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. He'll be continuing his relationship with Nolan this summer when he begins filming Dunkirk in France, which tells the story of the evacuation of Allied soldiers during WWII. It's not the only historical drama he has coming up: Free Fire, out later this year, is about two Boston gangs in 1978 (and stars Brie Larson), and Anthropoid, out August 12, is about the WWII mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich.
But Murphy says this run of similar period projects was not by design. "I have no idea if one film opens a door to another. It’s just total coincidence, and they’re really interesting stories and interesting characters," he explained. Still, it seems he'll be playing in the past for some time—he's signed on to reprise his role in Peaky Blinders for seasons four and five, which means "more terrible haircuts," he said. Fans would likely disagree.
With season three, it seems like Peaky Blinders is really catching on in the U.S.
This is the first year that everybody, not just me, noticed that it had moved up a gear in terms of awareness of the show. And I think probably because there’s been a gap between the second and third series airing. There’s an amount of anticipation, and in the meantime, people have gone back and discovered the first and the second. What I’ve always appreciated about the way this show has grown, is that it’s grown in a really organic way. People have told their friends to watch it, and they’ve told their friends to watch it. Very much by word of mouth, and by people telling other people they might enjoy it or like it.
Where do you film the series?
We film these series mostly in Liverpool, a bit in Manchester and Birmingham. It’s predominantly a location-based shoot; 80 percent of the shoot was on location. I think that’s what gives it that feeling of being real. It’s a pain in the ass, you have to drive all over the country to get to these beautiful locations. To me, when I’m watching a show, if it’s constantly a build, if it’s constantly a set, it does something to me similarly to CGI. If it’s all CGI, I can’t take it.
How was the filming of season three different than one or two? It’s a very intense schedule, it’s like making three feature films in four months. And the writing is quite full-on, and the characters are pretty absorbing so it does feel like a very, very focused period of your life. What made this year particularly intense was that we shot six episodes simultaneously. So you could wake up in the morning and you’d be shooting the second to last scene of episode five; and then in the afternoon you’re shooting something from episode two; and then in the evening a scene from episode three, so it’s kind of like this weird dramatic-narrative mathematical equation that you’re trying to figure out in your head the whole time. So that was quite challenging. It was the first time we’ve done it like that, which added to the challenge. What was great was that we had one director [Tim Mielants] directing all six episodes, and that helps. The other advantage that we have is that all six scripts are delivered before we begin shooting. So you’re not acting in a vacuum, you know exactly what’s happening with the character before you start shooting.
And what's happening with the characters in season three gets darker and darker, and at the same time it seems they're starting to realize that their actions have consequences. There's a certain amount of self-consciousness. I think you’re right. Obviously I can speak for Tommy most coherently, I think what he went through over the course of the series, we meet him and he’s ostensibly got everything a man could possibly want, materially and emotionally. But in fact it’s clearly not working for him. And then that’s all stolen away from him, his wife is [murdered and] stolen away from him, his child is actually literally stolen away from him. And then he gets this extraordinary beating and is not fully put back together correctly. So when I read it I was like, "Wow, this is the most damaged we’ve ever seen him"—and all bets are off, really. His behavior is justified, given what he’s gone through. Which is a great jumping off point for a character, it’s totally unpredictable. You can’t predict how he’s going to react to any of these things. I think the finale ... I didn’t predict that finale, it was so wild and so scary.
I'm still not quite sure what that finale was about.
The beauty of it is that clearly Tommy has a plan. And I don’t know what the f— that is, because season four and five haven't been written, but clearly he has a plan. I’m anxious to know.
Does playing someone as dark and affected as Tommy seep into your personal life?
Inevitably the character that you’re inhabiting, particularly when you’re in it for a long period of time and you’re working everyday, it has its effects on you. And because Tommy is such a distance for me to travel as a character—he’s the least-like-me character I’ve ever played‚I try to inhabit that and stay fully kind of available as Tommy. But I’m loathe to come across one of these actors moaning about their job or about their profession. I love every minute of it. It’s a gift to play a character like that. For me, drama is about shining a light on those kind of darker, weirder, stranger, more idiosyncratic parts of the psyche. I’m less interested in the good man’s life, I’m more interested in the conflicted man’s life or the contradictory man’s life.
Is that what initially drew you to this role?
Above all, the strength of the writing and the confidence of the writing—and the originality of the writing, all of those things. But yes, I thought, "Oh my god, is there any possibility that I could play that character convincingly?" They’re the ones you have to say yes to. I was talking to an actor friend of mine recently, and we both agreed that the best characters are the ones where halfway through it, you’re going, "Surely this is all going to come crashing down and I’m going to get found out and fired." Those are the best ones—if you manage to pull it off.