Cillian Murphy just might be the definition of magnetic on-screen. He can pull the viewer in with his intensity, vulnerability, or good old-fashioned charm, whatever best fits the role he’s playing. Whether he's an apocalypse-surviving reluctant hero or a quietly intimidating comic book villain, a brave rebel leader or a troubled soldier, Murphy can captivates with his performance.
Born in Cork, Ireland, Murphy got his start in theater in his hometown, and had his first professional acting role in the play, Disco Pigs. He later starred in the film adaptation of Disco Pigs, just before his breakout role in the zombie horror film, 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle. As would become a trend with Murphy, once he found a collaborator, he would often reteam with them: He once again worked with Boyle on the sci-fi thriller Sunshine.
Perhaps no director has been a bigger fan of Murphy than Christopher Nolan has been. The filmmaker first cast the actor in Batman Begins, a role that Murphy reprised briefly in The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. They worked together again for Inception and Dunkirk.
Now, Murphy stars in the filmmaker's historical thriller, Oppenheimer, in theaters July 21. In an impressive ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, and Florence Pugh, Murphy plays J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist and "father of the atomic bomb," whose work on the Manhattan Project during World War II led to the invention of the first nuclear weapons.
With this highly anticipated film coming out, below, A.frame takes a look back at 10 essential films in Murphy's body of work.
Murphy already had several films under his belt by the time he starred in Disco Pigs, a romantic crime drama based on the play of the same name — which Murphy also starred in. Here, he plays Pig, a youth in his late teens who has shared an intense friendship with Runt (Elaine Cassidy) his entire life. On the precipice of their 17th birthday (they were born on the same day in the same hospital), Pig develops feelings for Runt just as she’s starting to be interested in another boy. The intensity of Pig and Runt’s relationship worries their parents, and Runt is sent to a boarding school. Pig does not take this well, resulting in a tragic outcome for both of them. Disco Pigs gave audiences a glimpse of the intensity Murphy could bring to a role, and that he had the makings of a star.
28 Days Later is not only the movie that gave mindless zombies (or infected technically) terrifying speed, it’s the movie that put Murphy on the map. Oscar winner Danny Boyle’s horror thriller stars Murphy as Jim, a man who wakes up from a coma to find that the U.K. has been destroyed after the "rage" virus swept through the country. Alone at first, he meets other survivors, played by Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, and Oscar nominee Brendan Gleeson, and the group struggles to survive the hordes of the infected monsters that remain. Murphy was a total standout in the small but stacked cast, easily establishing himself as a star.
Murphy entered his villain era when he was cast as a Batman supervillain in Nolan's first Batman film, Batman Begins. He plays Dr. Jonathan Crane, an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who wears a burlap mask and utilizes a fear-inducing hallucinogen to terrorize his victims as the Scarecrow. Batman himself falls victim to the Scarecrow at one point. He’s not the final bad guy in the movie, but he's an important antagonist who pops up again in cameos in both sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
This Wes Craven-directed thriller takes place almost entirely on a plane, and part of what makes it work so well are its two leads: Rachel McAdams as everywoman Lisa and Murphy as the charming but threatening Jackson Rippner. Jackson reveals himself to be a hitman mastermind, attempting a political assassination by forcing Lisa to rearrange things at the hotel she runs to achieve his goal, threatening to kill her father (and many others) if she fails. The interplay between Murphy and McAdams is top notch, with Murphy playing another truly memorable villain in the process.
Breakfast on Pluto, based on a novel of the same name, stars Murphy as Kitten, a trans woman searching for her birth mother after being abandoned as a child. Kitten navigates a wide range of circumstances in 1970s Ireland and London, from the IRA to magicians to sex work, all while maintaining her kind and optimistic nature. Murphy’s portrayal of Kitten is thoughtful and hopeful, as the character wins over people with her innocent honesty and self-acceptance.
One of Murphy’s most defining roles thus far is the one that takes him back to his home country and its tragic fight for independence. In Ken Loach’s war drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Murphy plays one of a pair of brothers who end up on opposite sides of the Irish Civil War after fighting together in the war for Ireland’s independence. It's a heartbreaking film, and features an incredible performance by Murphy as he goes from idealistic rebel to leader in the fight for Irish independence, with a devastating ending reflecting the ongoing conflict in Ireland.
Sunshine reunited Murphy with his 28 Days Later director Boyle for a sci-fi thriller about a group of astronauts on a mission to restart the sun and prevent the Earth from freezing. Murphy is part of an incredible ensemble cast including Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, and Troy Garity. Sunshine almost feels like a suspenseful play in outer space, led by Murphy as the physicist who created a device that will hopefully save the world, or doom it if it fails.
Inception marked Murphy’s second major collaboration with Nolan, appearing as the target of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream heist crew. Murphy is the heir to a business empire, who the team plans to "incept" with the idea to dissolve his father’s company. Though secondary to the main action and the dream landscapes, Murphy delivers a powerful performance, going through an emotional arc with his father despite the manipulations of DiCaprio’s team (including Elliot Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy). The film received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and went on to win for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects.
Anthropoid, based on a true story, stars Murphy and Jamie Dornan as a pair of Slovak and Czech soldiers, respectively, participating in Operation Anthropoid, the real life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the principal architect of the Holocaust. Murphy and Dornan are both excellent as they struggle to complete their mission, caught between the need to make an important blow against the Nazis and the potential fallout if they’re caught.
Reunited with Nolan for a fifth time, Murphy joins another ensemble, including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, and Barry Keoghan, in the war epic Dunkirk, about the real life evacuation of thousands of British troops from a beach in France early in WWII. He’s credited only as "Shivering Soldier," the sole survivor of a U-boat attack rescued by one of the civilian boats headed for Dunkirk to rescue soldiers. Murphy brings all his intensity to the role, a man mentally destroyed by his experiences in the war, and terrified at the thought of returning to a battlefield. Dunkirk received a total of eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Directing, and went on to win for Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.