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"Oppenheimer" star Cillian Murphy on the preparation, hard work and instinct behind his acting

Cillian Murphy: The 60 Minutes Interview
Cillian Murphy: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:31

2023 was the year the world learned to pronounce Cillian. The ancient Irish name seemed to be on everyone's lips as the film "Oppenheimer" became a blockbuster with 13 Oscar nominations — including best actor for Cillian Murphy. Murphy has worked nonstop for nearly 30 years, but it was the epic drama of the atomic bomb that ignited a star. In this moment, with a Golden Globe under his porkpie hat and the Oscars three weeks away, Murphy is more famous than well-known. So, we set out to learn more. We were warned the 47-year-old Irishman is reserved and wouldn't talk about himself. But we discovered finding Cillian Murphy depends on where you look. 

Ireland's Dingle Peninsula was named for a goddess before such things were written. And for 6,000 years stories have passed by ear.

So, if verse inhabits every Irish soul—then, in a country pub, Cillian Murphy is among peers—as he would have it—just a man with a pint to lift and no fame to bear. 

Scott Pelley: What is the meaning of Ireland –

Cillian Murphy: Oh man!

Scott Pelley: —to you?

Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley
Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley  60 Minutes

Cillian Murphy: I don't think I can answer that question satisfactorily. It's defined who I am as a person and my values. It's just home.

Home includes his wife of 20 years, two teenage sons and scout, a lab named for the character in "To Kill a Mockingbird." That figures, Murphy has always let stories lead his path.

Cillian Murphy: You find so much empathy in novels, you know, because there you are putting yourself into somebody else's point of view, and I've always been a big reader. When a movie can connect with someone, and they feel seen or feel heard, or a novel can change somebody's life, or a piece of music-- an album-- can change someone's life. And I've had all that happen to me. And that's the power of good art, I think.

Scott Pelley: There's a straight line from the music in the pub to "Oppenheimer?"

Cillian Murphy: I think they're from the same source, I mean, I really do. I don't see-- I see it's all on a continuum. You know what I mean? It's just a form of expression.

Expression, in the eyes of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who created the atom bomb but never controlled it. 

Cillian Murphy: I remember reading at the beginning about him, that he was more riddle than answer. And I thought, "Oh, OK. Wow. That's interesting." 

Scott Pelley: I'm curious about your notes…

The riddle was in this script by writer-director Christopher Nolan—printed in red so it couldn't be photocopied. 

Cillian Murphy: I did genuinely think it's one of the greatest screenplays I'd ever read.

Scott Pelley: And you told him, "I'll do it."

Cillian Murphy: I mean, I said I would do it before I read it. I always say that --

Scott Pelley: That's quite a risk. Why would you do that?

Cillian Murphy: It's always paid off for me, you know, in every film that I worked with him on. 

Cillian Murphy shows red script to Scott Pelley
The script for "Oppenheimer" was on red paper so that it couldn't be photocopied. 60 Minutes

There have been six Chris Nolan films for Murphy: "Dunkirk," "Inception" and three "Batman" titles. 

Scott Pelley: You told me that getting a film made, and getting it seen, is a miracle.

Cillian Murphy: It is. And then if it's any way good, that's a miracle. And then if it connects with audiences, that's a miracle. So, it's a miracle, upon miracle, upon miracle to have a film like "Oppenheimer." It really is.

His Oppenheimer was not so much a miracle as hard work. He lost 28 pounds to get the silhouette. Then, he rose to the character step-by-step over six months--reading, listening to Oppenheimer's lectures and covering miles on the beach performing for Scout.

Cillian Murphy: 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 gonna do about that."

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

Cillian Murphy: I think instinct is your most powerful tool that you have as an actor. Nothing must be predetermined. 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 plays Oppenheimer's tormented wife. 

Emily Blunt
Emily Blunt 60 Minutes

Emily Blunt: He's very visceral to be in a scene with. It's like you, he transports you. He'll kidnap you in a scene.

Scott Pelley: My favorite acting moment, of his, in "Oppenheimer…"

Scott Pelley: --is the scene after the bomb has been dropped, and he's addressing all of the people at Los Alamos.

Scott Pelley: He somehow welds together the concept of being proud of what they did-- 

Emily Blunt: Yes.

Scott Pelley: -- and regretting it very deeply.

Emily Blunt: Yes. Yes.

Scott Pelley: All at the same time.

Emily Blunt: I know!

Emily Blunt: No one moment is about one thing. And if you're as agile as someone like Cillian, and as vulnerable, and as clever, you can play it all. But I don't know if many people can do what he does. 

Cillian Murphy discovered agility in his hometown, Cork. His mother was a teacher, his father, a school inspector. In high school Murphy and his brother had a band …

Performing led to acting class and his first play. 

Scott Pelley: This is more like the size of a storage room than a theater.

Cillian Murphy: Yeah. But that's all we were used to.

His first theater—1996—age 20 –the play was "Disco Pigs," which grew to bigger theaters and became a movie.

Scott Pelley: Why did you think you could be an actor?

Cillian Murphy: I didn't. I was very comfortable on stage in front of an audience from when I was little. I never had any nerves doing that. It felt natural, you know? And thrilling.

Scott Pelley: In this theater, what did you learn about acting?

Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley in a theater
Cillian Murphy and Scott Pelley in a theater 60 Minutes

Cillian Murphy: There's, ah, a fire escape door right there. And that's-- kind of an alleyway there, and so you get a lot of, like, drunk guys out of their mind bashing up against the fire escape door. And it used to kinda energize us. So I remember learning about, like, taking whatever you have-- sort of responding to whatever the energy is in the room and using it.

Scott Pelley: That's really good training, maintaining your character with the drunk guy yelling through the fire escape door.

Cillian Murphy: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I-- and I-- and I think theater is such-- an absurd undertaking when you think of it. You know, because at any point it could collapse and go wrong. 

Scott Pelley: It's dangerous.

Cillian Murphy: Yeah! And I love that aspect of it. Yeah.

That love led him to drop law school. And since then, there have been a dozen plays and 40 movies.

Cillian Murphy: I love it when it becomes an immersive experience. I love getting lost in it. In the early days, that was with theater. It felt kind of extraordinary that with just the power of will and a couple of lights and a good script, we were creating this world. And so, it's that's kind of addictive, when it works well. 

It worked well in 2013, in a breakout role as a leading man. 

In the series, "Peaky Blinders," Murphy plays Thomas Shelby who survives World War 1, to lead a family of gangsters. 

Cillian Murphy: They're all damaged, broken men, but something got knocked in him, and he came back with this incredible drive, and ambition and, like, "I'm not afraid of death, so now I can do whatever I want."

Scott Pelley: In Tommy Shelby you created a sympathetic, relatable, monster.

Cillian Murphy: I like to be challenged. And I-- and when I read something, I wanna go, "I don't really know how I can do that."

In 10 years of "Peaky Blinders," Murphy came into his own. 

Cillian Murphy: I heard very early on in my career, a director, it was one of the Sydneys, it could've been Sidney Lumet or it could've been Sydney Pollack, but one of them said, "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. And eventually, then I think you'll get to a point where you might be an okay actor. 

Maturing is the theme of Murphy's next film based on the novel, "Small Things Like These." He plays Bill Furlong, tormented by injustice. His wife fears his empathy will upend their lives.

That's Eileen Walsh. No actor has known Murphy longer. She was his first partner, in "Disco Pigs," 28 years ago. 

Scott Pelley: Is his work ethic rooted in fear or joy?

Eileen Walsh
Eileen Walsh 60 Minutes

Eileen Walsh: Oh, that's a good question. I think it can only be joy. But it sometimes takes a lotta pain to get to that joy.

Eileen Walsh: The deeper we go with acting the cost is greater for us. And physically I know Oppenheimer, you know, has cost him for the weight loss he insisted and, you know, it was his choice to do, but it was the right choice to create that amazing silhouette. But from the very beginning our warm-ups for "Disco Pigs" involved us punching each other quite hard. And, like, going for it, and then bursting out into it. This huge ball of velocity coming into it was the beginning of an "Oppenheimer," was the whole kind of atom of us. 

Now, after three decades of work, Cillian Murphy is cast in the most familiar Irish legend of all. Maybe there is gold, a 24-karat gold-plated statue, at the end of his spectrum of talent. 

Scott Pelley: You have screwed this up though, you know?

Cillian Murphy: In what way?

Scott Pelley: You used to be an actor

Cillian Murphy: Yeah.

Scott Pelley: --and now you're a movie star.

Cillian Murphy: Oh OK, am I? I think you can be both. You know-- I've never understood that term, really, "movie star." I've always just felt like-- I'm an actor. That's I think a term for other people, rather than for me.

Produced by Nicole Young. Associate producer, Kristin Steve. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Peter M. Berman and Jorge J. García.

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