Cillian Murphy on Red Lights, David Copperfield’s Aura, and The Dark Knight Rises
Why do we believe, or need to believe, in the possibilities that lie beyond the laws of physics and known science — the unlikely, irrational hope that suggest something more exists in the universe, be it spiritual or simply supernatural? Actor Cillian Murphy explores these Big Questions in Rodrigo Cortes' Red Lights as Tom Buckley, a paranormal debunker who goes head-to-head with a powerful pop psychic (Robert De Niro) whose self-proclaimed powers to bend spoons and read minds may be mere parlour tricks compared to what he's really capable of.
In researching the role of a paranormal investigator for the twisty thriller (Cortes' follow up to Buried), Murphy found himself studying real-life mentalists, magicians, and self-proclaimed seers. But while the self-described "boringly rational" skeptic may not believe in the existence of the supernatural, one encounter gave him an understanding of how these magnetic personalities inspire whole-hearted devotion in legions of hope-seekers. Murphy only met the magician David Copperfield for a few brief moments backstage in Vegas, but their exchange made an impact. “The man’s got an aura for sure,” he marveled, though De Niro's Simon Silver combines the charisma of Copperfield with the mysticism of Uri Geller to create a much more intimidating onscreen adversary.
Movieline spoke further with Murphy about what drew him to the storytelling and themes of Red Lights, acting opposite film legends Weaver and De Niro, and rumors that he'll pop up in Christopher Nolan's upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.
What was your initial reaction to the concept of Red Lights? Part of what’s intriguing about the script is how it plays with viewer expectation — what hooked you?
Every script that you get, you always have to judge it on the word on the page and that’s always been my sort of mantra. A lot of the time when you read scripts you can kind of predict where they’re going to go pretty quickly, and with this one I couldn’t.
And that’s no fun, when you can guess at a story’s secrets.
No! But that tends to be the majority of scripts. You kind of know what’s going to happen and what the character is like. This one took turns that I was pleasantly surprised by. And I’d also seen Rodrigo’s two other films, and you could see he was the real deal — he was a real director. And obviously you throw in a couple of legends, and the whole package was very, very appealing to me.
By legends, you mean Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro.
Of course, but unless the part and the director and the script is any use, that’s immaterial. But the fact that they were already signed on to do those parts … that was definitely appealing.
Rodrigo has said that he wrote Sigourney’s character with her in mind, which is great — those interesting kinds of female characters don’t come along that frequently. Did her character and De Niro’s character leap off the page as much for you early on?
It was really well written, and it was very smart; it didn’t pander to an audience. And the twists and turns were surprising to me, and as you say that’s a great strong female part — where her character goes, you don’t expect. I enjoy the way in the TV debate equal credence is given to both camps, and it wasn’t about ridiculing or pointing fingers — it was about rigorously looking for the truth. I like scripts that presuppose a level of intelligence in the audience, and again they’re sort of rare.
When it comes to the themes in the film — faith, skepticism, these huge ideas — how much did the chance to play with those ideas factor in for you?
I think they’re obviously big questions in the film, but for me I focused on the character, and for me the character the two driving forces are obsession and self-acceptance, or the lack of self-acceptance. Those were the two things for me that drove Tom Buckley’s character and I focused in on those, because those are quite universal. The broader picture about skepticism and belief and blind faith and science and all those things, I would personally be very much in the skeptic camp. I’d be very much about proof and logic and reason, that’s always been my boringly rational approach to life, but I’m fascinated by why people needed to believe in these things. The need to believe was the thing that really struck me — the need to believe, rather than to understand.
To many people that’s a need to have something to believe in, in order to get through.
To get through — and that’s absolutely fine and valid, but where it becomes darker is where that is preyed upon. If people are ill, or people have lost loved ones, and then people are willing to set aside logic and reason and rational thought and bankrupt themselves because some charlatan is promising them relief.
Rodrigo did a fair amount of research into real world healers and the like; did you do much of the same, and how did what you learned affect your perspective?
I did a lot of reading about it, a great deal in fact. I also went to Vegas to see the more showbizzy aspect of it.
Like a Criss Angel show?
Criss Angel, David Copperfield — that stuff is good, harmless fun. It’s like showbiz. But De Niro’s character is more an amalgam of the televangelists, the psychics, Uri Geller and all these sorts of guys who claim something beyond what the Copperfield and Criss Angel do, which is pure entertainment and great fun. But you can see there how they use their aura, or their personality — which is large anyway — and then magnify that on stage. I do think there’s a power of personality that’s important in this, that we haven’t talked about that much. I met David Copperfield afterwards very briefly backstage in Vegas, and the man’s got an aura for sure. You put that up on stage and magnify it and that’s what De Niro’s character Simon Silver plays on. That’s why it’s great casting to put someone like De Niro in there because the man’s presence is immense, it’s just massive — so you put a camera on that and it’s magnified tenfold.
Certain people do have that sort of charisma that’s palpable in the air, in a room, on a screen — but it’s interesting to hear this from you, being an actor. Some might say the same about you, given the nature of your work.
Well, I don’t know if they would or not! Obviously when you’re playing a part, there’s a part of your personality in it, but you try and sort of project different sides of it. You use whatever aspects of the personality that work. I don’t have a clue — its’ very hard for me to talk about acting, or the process of acting.
What was David Copperfield like?
Well, that was a really brief thing, and for whatever reason we were backstage and it was really dark. It was like in a little corridor and he came out, and — yeah, he definitely had an effect.
You felt it.
Yeah. And I’ve seen that, people walk into a room and they change the energy. And it’s not anything paranormal or extra-sensory, it’s just that they have, like you say, this charisma.
Red Lights is interesting in that it’s a genre movie that doesn’t act like a genre movie.
No, it doesn’t — and I’ve been in plenty of so-called genre movies and never for a moment thought they were science fiction or a zombie movie or whatever, I just thought they were about character and story. It’s easier for people to slot them into genres because they can sell them easier that way.
What was your impression of Rodrigo as a director?
Rodrigo is ferociously intelligent, very clear in his vision, very clear in his aesthetic, and luckily, our sensibilities were kind of the same. I think that when someone has that clear a vision, you feel safe, then — safe to experiment, to sort of improvise because you know that within that structure he knows what every frame of that film is going to be like. And I like working with writer-directors because they’ve lived with the character, they’ve lived with the story, so they have a deeper sense of it. They might not have all the answers, but you can really knock it around with them and you can ask them, “Why?” or “What does this mean?” We really got on; he’s got a great sense of humor, too, and shooting in Spain we shot very, very fast. It was very intense.
It was something like ten weeks...
Yes — it was eight in Spain and then some in Toronto. I like the immersive experience of acting, I like just completely disappearing into a character, into an environment, into a role — that’s always appealed to me, and this was very much like that.
Are you an actor who takes this disappearing into character off-set as well?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m probably not that easy to live with when I’m working on something very intensely, but you know, you’re working 16-17 hours a day, so you just come home and go to bed. And then you get up and go to set. I love that. It’s pure concentration, and they say happiness is concentration. I love that.
Seems like it might be something like an extended adrenaline rush.
It kind of is! And we were working, we did a crazy amount of set-ups a day, it was very fast. It’s exciting.
You said part of what drew you in was the opportunity to work with Sigourney and Robert — what was that like for you when you finally got to shoot with them?
Amazing. You’ve got to just observe and learn, don’t you? And they were beautiful and warm and generous, and ultimately you really have to put aside the legend thing as best you can when the camera turns over and it’s “Action!” you’ve got to serve the scene and the character, but they were all about that. I think they must be aware of the effect of their legacy on an actor of my generation, but they were never anything other than people there to do the work. But it was fascinating getting to watch actors that good. You’ve got to learn from that.
Was it fun shouting at De Niro?
Hey, he shouts at me, too! [Laughs]
Lastly, folks have been wondering if you’ve been working with Chris Nolan again on The Dark Knight Rises.
I love working with Chris. I’ve been lucky to work with him a few times, and any time, I’ll be there. But listen, it comes out [soon]. So let’s try and be patient! People are so impatient these days! Let’s wait and see.
I do believe there were reports of you being spotted on the set…
[Smiling] Look, I’m not going to add to any speculation. I just think that it’s going to be a phenomenal film, and the best way to watch a film — surely — is by going in there hugely excited and not knowing anything about it.
I suppose in a way that brings us full circle with Red Lights and the idea of the filmmaker as a sort of magician, keeping tricks up their sleeve.
Yeah, I do think this is a film sort of about filmmaking. Rodrigo talks about distracting here, and showing something there, and it is all smoke and mirrors. But I wouldn’t get too into that metaphor, because I didn’t make the movie.
Red Lights is in limited release this week.