Cillian Murphy said yes to "Oppenheimer" before reading one of Christopher Nolan's red scripts

Cillian Murphy jumped to act in “Oppenheimer,” even before reading writer and director Christopher Nolan’s script.

The decision paid off. Murphy won a Golden Globe for the role and he’s nominated for an Oscar for the first time in his decades-long career. There have been six Nolan films for Murphy.

“It’s always paid off for me, you know, in every film that I worked with him on,” Murphy said. 

Working on “Oppenheimer” 

Murphy did eventually read the script from Nolan, printed on red paper so that it couldn’t be photocopied. 

“I did genuinely think it’s one of the greatest screenplays I’d ever read,” he said. 

Murphy views it as a miracle when films, including “Oppenheimer,” get made.

Cillian Murphy
Cillian Murphy

60 Minutes


“And then if it’s any way good, that’s a miracle. And then if it connects with audiences, that’s a miracle,” he said. “So it’s a miracle, upon miracle, upon miracle to have a film like ‘Oppenheimer.’ It really is.”

That miracle came after months of hard work. Murphy lost 28 pounds so that his silhouette would match that of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, often credited as the father of the atomic bomb. For six months, Murphy read and listened to Oppenheimer’s lectures. He performed for his dog Scout as he walked on the beach. 

“I remember at one point, I said to Chris — ‘Chris, there appears to be, he appears to speak Dutch here. And I think he’s giving a lecture in Dutch here. What are we gonna do about that?’ And Chris said, ‘You mean what are you going to do about that,'” Murphy said. 

Murphy said he put all he learned in the back of his mind and acted on instinct.

“I think instinct is your most powerful tool that you have as an actor. Nothing must be predetermined,” he said. “So therefore you mustn’t have a plan about how you’re gonna play stuff. And I love that. It’s like being buffeted by the wind and being buffeted by emotion.”

Emily Blunt
Emily Blunt

60 Minutes


Emily Blunt, who played Oppenheimer’s tortured wife, describes being in a scene with Murphy as a “very visceral” experience. She doesn’t know of many people who can do what he does. 

“If you’re as agile as someone like Cillian, and as vulnerable, and as clever, you can play it all,” she said. 

Playing it all 

While “Oppenheimer” may be the role that made Murphy a household name, he’s been acting for decades, starting in his hometown of Cork, Ireland. Murphy and his brother had a band in high school and performing led him to an acting class and then his first play in the Triskel Arts Centre, which housed a small stage with 100 seats.

He was 20 in 1996 when he acted in his first play, “Disco Pigs.”

“I was very comfortable on stage in front of an audience from when I was little. I never had any nerves doing that,” Murphy said. “It felt natural, you know? And thrilling.”

Some of his earliest audiences were “drunk guys out of their mind bashing up against” a fire escape door. It used to energize him. 

“So I remember learning about, like, taking whatever you have — sort of responding to whatever the energy is in the room and using it,” he said. 

Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley
Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley 

60 Minutes


Today, the former stage is undergoing a transformation so it can be used by aspiring actors. Murphy, who hadn’t been back to the space since 1996, visited it with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

Since that first play, there have been a dozen others and 40 movies. Murphy’s breakout role as a leading man came with 2013’s “Peaky Blinders.” In the series, Murphy plays Thomas Shelby, who survives World War I and goes on to lead a family of gangsters. 

“I like to be challenged. And I, and when I read something, I want to go, ‘I don’t really know how I can do that,” Murphy said.

Murphy came into his own during his 10 years acting in “Peaky Blinders.” Early in his career, he heard from “one of the Sydneys,” either Lumet or Pollack — he’s not sure — that it takes 30 years to make an actor. 

“It’s not just technique and experience and all that, it’s maturing as a human being and trying to grapple with life and figure it out, and all of that stuff. So by the time you’ve been doing it for 30 years, you have all of that banked, hopefully,” Murphy said. “And eventually, then I think you’ll get to a point where you might be an OK actor.”

What’s next for Murphy 

Murphy’s newest movie is “Small Things Like These,” which premiered Thursday at the Berlin International Film Festival. He plays Bill Furlong, tormented by injustice that he sees on his route delivering coal. His wife fears his empathy will upend their lives. 

Murphy is joined in the critically acclaimed movie by Eileen Walsh, who’s known Murphy longer than any other actor, having acted with him in “Disco Pigs.” Walsh has seen how much Murphy will put into his roles.

“From the very beginning, our warm-ups for ‘Disco Pigs’ involved us punching each other quite hard,” she said. 

Regardless of how far Murphy’s pushing has taken him, he still sees himself as an actor, not a movie star.

“Oh, OK, am I? I think you can be both. You know, I’ve never understood that term, really, ‘movie star,'” he said. “I’ve always just felt like I’m an actor. That’s, I think, a term for other people, rather than for me.”

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