In Spotlight: Cillian Murphy’s best TV and movie roles – from Peaky Blinders to Batman

He’s been in one of the most-popular TV shows and film franchises, but where else might you have seen Cillian Murphy – the Irish actor with the enchanting eyes?

By James Descombes Published: 15 February 2022 - 11.12am
BBC Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

In his early 20s, Cillian Murphy was offered a record deal. Thankfully for us, he turned it down (as well as turning his back on a career in law) and dedicated himself to acting.

And with the final season of the BBC hit show Peaky Blinders hitting our screens later this year, we’ll be saying goodbye to one of Murphy’s most popular characters, Tommy Shelby.

But before Murphy made the Peaky Blinders character his own back in 2013, the Irish actor had starred and appeared in a catalogue of movies and TV shows.

With his beguiling blue eyes, he may have grabbed your attention in a few of the following: 

Peaky Blinders – Tommy Shelby

Cillian Murphy Tommy Shelby Peaky Blinders BBC

Murphy wasn’t first choice for the role of Tommy Shelby, the boss of a gangster family who returns to Birmingham after serving in the British army during WWI. It was actually Jason Statham who director Steven Knight was leaning towards, but a text from Cillian which read ‘Remember, I’m an actor’ swung it in his favour.

Knight told Esquire “Cillian, when you meet him, isn’t Tommy, obviously, but I was stupid enough not to understand that.”

Watch Peaky Blinders Season 6 on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from Sunday 27 February.

Series 1-5 are available to watch on BBC iPlayer. 

A Quiet Place Part 2 – Emmett

Cillian Murphy as Emmett in A Quiet Place 2 Paramount Pictures

The original A Quiet Place movie was a huge hit worldwide and Cillian Murphy played one of the central characters in the highly anticipated follow up.

The sequel picks up where the first movie left ogg, with the Abbott family searching for more survivors to help them in a post-apocalyptic world where blind monsters pick up on sounds to hunt for humans. Murphy plays the role of Emmett, a hardened survivor and an old family friend of the Abbotts.

In fact, even before Murphy had signed up for the project, he’d written a letter to director John Krasinski to tell him how much he liked the first A Quiet Place film. He explained to WENN: “I wrote this email to John saying how much I enjoyed the film and congratulating him on it. Then I chickened out and I never sent it!”

A Quiet Place Part 2 is available to watch on Sky Cinema with a NOW Cinema Membership.

Dunkirk – Shivering Soldier 

Cillian Murphy as Shivering Soldier in Dunkirk Warner Bros.

Murphy teamed up with director Christopher Nolan for a fifth time in the World War II film, Dunkirk.

Murphy plays a character without a name – the Shivering Soldier. The actor told Fortress:

“I think my character is representative of something experienced by thousands and thousands of soldiers, which is the profound emotional and psychological toll that war can have on the individual. 

“We first meet him when he is picked up by the Moonstone, which is one of the civilian ships crossing the English Channel to evacuate soldiers at Dunkirk. He’s someone who has survived an experience that is mind-alteringly horrific, only to be told, ‘actually, we’re just heading back into it.’”

Dunkirk is available to stream now on Netflix.

Batman – Scarecrow 

Murphy plays Scarecrow, one of the key villains in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy which includes Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and Return of the Dark Knight.

Jonathan Crane was a corrupt psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, home to the criminally insane. He gets involved with the powerful secret society, the League of Shadows, and the Gotham City mafia, using his alter-ego Scarecrow to create a persona as the “Master of Fear” using this trademark fear toxin.

Murphy originally auditioned for the lead role of The Caped Crusader, as he explained in this GQ video: “About 10 of us went up for Batman and I was aware that I was clearly not the right material for Batman. So I did a screen test in the whole suit and everything. But Chris (Nolan) said there might be another part. So we met and we chatted, and I ended up playing Scarecrow in the end."

The Dark Knight Trilogy is available to watch on Sky Cinema with a NOW Cinema Membership. 

Inception – Robert Fischer

Leo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy in Inception Warner Bros.

Inception is another Christopher Nolan film that was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Murphy stars as entrepreneur Robert Fischer, the son of Maurice, the head of large energy firm Fischer Morrow. After his dad dies, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom Cobb performs inception on Robert to persuade him to split up the company.

Murphy told Irish Central that while researching the role he “looked at the Murdoch family and how his sons have dealt with his achievements” adding “it was interesting to play and to try and give him some humanity.”

Inception is available to watch now on Sky Cinema with a NOW Cinema Membership.

Sunshine – Dr. Robert Capa

Cillian Murphy in Sunshine DNA Films

Having first worked with Danny Boyle in 2002 on the film 28 Days Later, Murphy signed up to the director’s 2007 film, Sunshine.

The end-of-the-world movie sees a team of astronauts sent into space to try and revive the dying Sun and consequently save Earth with a nuclear super-bomb.

Murphy plays Dr. Robert Capa, who oversees the final calculations for the deployment and detonation of the bomb that they hope will save mankind.

For the role, Murphy worked with leading physicist Brian Cox to learn all about advanced physics.

Sunshine is available to stream now on Prime Video. 

The Wind that Shakes the Barley – Damien O'Donovan

Cillian Murphy in The Wind that Shakes the barley Sixteen Films

Ken Loach’s film The Wind that Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and became the most successful Irish independent film ever at the Irish Box Office.

The film is set in 1920 and focuses on the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. Murphy plays medical graduate Damien O'Donovan who decides against a life living in London and working in a hospital to join the IRA with his brother Teddy to engage the British troops in guerrilla warfare, before entertaining into another civil war against his former Irish comrades.

The film was shot in Cork, Ireland, which is where Murphy was born. He told The Guardian: “I'm pure, undiluted Cork. I go back and back. My granny's people were from around Ballingeary. In many ways, I had to get it right.”

The Wind that Shakes the Barley is available to rent or buy on Prime Video.

Red Eye – Jackson Rippner

Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams in Red Eye Dreamworks Pictures

Murphy was so keen to land the role of Jackson Rippner in the 2005 film Red Eye, directed by the Master of Horror, Wes Craven, that he interrupted his wedding preparations to fly to the US and audition.

Murphy told Movie Web that he had to fly back straight after a 40-minute lunch with Wes Craven to sign the papers at the registry office. On casting Murphy, Craven told IGN, “I like the idea that the broad audience wouldn't know who Cillian was physically. They wouldn't know who the actor was. They wouldn't know quite what to expect from him.”

Red Eye tells the the story of Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a hotel manager kidnapped by the sinister Rippner on a Red Eye flight to Miami. Threatened by the potential murder of her father Joe (Brian Cox), Lisa’s pulled into a plot to assist her captor and their terrorist group in a political assassination.

Red Eye is available to rent or buy on Prime Video.

28 Days Later – Jim

Cillian Murphy as Jim in 28 Days Later DNA Films

For most people, their first sight of Cillian Murphy would've been when he appeared naked in a hospital at the start of the 2002 monster-smash zombie flick 28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle. That was followed by the haunting and iconic scenes of him walking around the empty streets of Central London.

In his first real breakthrough role, Murphy plays pandemic survivor Jim, who wakes up 28 days after going into a coma to find the city has been turned into a post-apocalyptic zombie hellhole.

The part of Jim was originally intended for Ewan McGregor and was also offered to Ryan Gosling. Casting director Gail Stevens suggested Murphy and recalls that he had a "dreamy, slightly de-energised, floating quality that is fantastic for the film.”

28 Days Later is available to rent or buy on Prime Video.