Cillian Murphy pops up on screen with the discomfited gaiety of a man about to submit to dentistry. He is courteous and friendly, but without ever quite shaking off the impression he would rather be almost anywhere else. It’s just before Christmas, and the rampant Omicron variant of Covid-19 has put paid to in-person meetings. You don’t get the impression Murphy minds too much. At a Zoom’s remove, he sits back in his chair, hair restored to luxuriant cruising length after the savage chop required for Peaky Blinders. His storied peepers – organs that have inspired countless column inches and exhaustive maritime imagery – are, for once, hard to discern.

I recognise the spare white wall behind him, which is decorated with a poster for the band Grizzly Bear and a painting. This must be his famous basement. In the Dublin home he shares with his wife, Yvonne McGuinness, an artist, and their teenage sons Malachy and Aran, the basement is Murphy’s fortress of solitude. He has spent a lot of time here over lockdown, noodling around on guitars, scrolling the news about the pandemic and recording impressively eclectic radio programmes for BBC 6 Music.

“How do you recognise that?” he asks, with the haha-but-seriously-how-do-you-know? tone of a man wondering if he needs more security.

“I think you did Jimmy Kimmel from it,” I say.

“Oh yes that’s right,” he says, relaxing, just slightly, with a chuckle. “I’d forgotten. Every man needs a cave, and this is mine.”

Murphy, 45 but with the career of an actor twice that age, has always been a nightmare for dirt-dishing hacks. He does not fall out of nightclubs. He does not have a torrid personal life, or at least not one that has been made public. He is not given to bashing his colleagues or trenchant political statements. “Cillian’s not silly,” says the actor Sam Neill, his co-star in the first two series of Peaky. “He does not splash his life around. He does not turn up to set shredded. He is extremely diligent and extremely good at what he does.”

“I love getting up and being someone else,” Murphy says. “What I find hard is getting up and being hilarious or entertaining as myself. That was never in the job description and I’m not very good at it. But it’s an unwritten part of the gig. You do the work and then you have to go out and perform as yourself. I find it terrifying, because I’m not a personality, you know?”

He says the 6 Music programmes have been satisfying to do because it’s just about the tunes – Masayoshi Fujita to Al Green to T Rex – without any element of revelation. “I couldn’t do live radio – I’d find that absolutely terrifying,” he says. “I like just sitting down here in the dark, coming up with the playlists.” To listen to him, you would think he sits at home all the time, making the odd furtive expedition to Tesco.

“I really don’t go out much,” he says, “And people are so underwhelmed when they encounter me, so I’m very happy with that. And I’m always happy to chat. What I don’t like is people surreptitiously taking photographs, which someone said is like the amateur Stasi. It’s so fucking weird. I’ve been sat on the tube and people have started filming me. I don’t want to be like, ‘poor fucking celebrities’, that is not what I’m trying to say. I’m very happy and privileged and all of that. But I think this thing of having cameras everywhere is something we need to sort out.” He laughs again. “Or maybe I’m just old.”

Sadly sometimes there is no getting around a bit of press. After nine years and 30 episodes, the final series of Peaky Blinders is about to air on BBC One. There are plans for a one-off feature film, but as far as telly is concerned, this is it. The drama has become a phenomenon, with millions of viewers around the world, thanks partly to it being picked up by Netflix. The Peaky Blinders look – three-piece suits, haircuts that are long on top and shaved at the back and sides – are imitated at racecourses around the country. And the series has been built around Murphy’s performance as the gang leader, Tommy Shelby.

The origin legend of Peaky Blinders is that when Steven Knight, the creator, was deciding who to cast as the lead, he got a text from Murphy: “Remember, I’m an actor.” The Irishman was one of two men under consideration. The other was Jason Statham. It would be a surprise if they often found themselves up against each other for work. Statham is a former Guy Ritchie stalwart turned blockbuster beefcake.

Murphy, or at least as we thought of him then, was intense in a more cerebral way, a slightly otherworldly figure. He had broken through playing a troubled teen in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, first in the stage version and then in the film adaptation. But he was best known for his work with the directors Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle. Often he played scientists: the psychotic villain Scarecrow in Nolan’s Batman films, a physicist in the sci-fi thriller Sunshine; the beleaguered Jim in 28 Days Later, who wakes up in a post-pandemic London. Murphy was a subtle and charismatic actor, but he was not the first name that came to mind for a murderous Brummie gang leader with PTSD.

“Nothing really set Cillian up as the obvious choice,” Knight says. “But we knew he was interested, so we met him.” Some have cruelly suggested that Murphy’s text might have been a concealed dig at Statham, but Knight says not. “What [Murphy] meant by the text was that when he walks into a room, he’s not Tommy Shelby. But he can become him. He inhabits that role completely. It’s phenomenal. It is impossible to imagine anybody else playing him.”

“He’s very, very private,” he adds. “As a friend he’s open, he’s affable, he’s a real laugh. And I think if you’re in the spotlight you have to have two personalities. One is for when you’re being observed, and one is for when you’re just a normal bloke, which is what he is.”

Peaky did not look like a hit from the start. Set during the interwar years, it is a kind of mythic British Western, which fictionalises a real-life Birmingham criminal gang. In Knight’s vision, the Blinders are run by Tommy Shelby, a decorated First World War hero, and his brothers Arthur and John. They make their money through extortion, gambling and racketeering. As the Blinders’ influence has grown, the series has incorporated such real-life events as the Russian revolution, American prohibition and the gang wars of the UK after the 1920s. The series is built around Murphy’s performance, to the extent that Joe Cole, who played John, said he quit partly because it was “Cillian’s show, really”. Tommy is an enigma and a contradiction; a damaged man who does bad things to protect the people he loves.

“The beauty of the character is that he says one thing, but he’s got empathy in his eyes,” says Annabelle Wallis, who plays Tommy’s wife, Grace. “You cannot look away from them. He’s got that Irish colouring: the dark hair and the light eyes. I think what divides great actors and good actors are the eyes. I believe on a subconscious level that’s why the audience continues to love the character despite all the terrible things he does.”

For Murphy, the finale means mixed emotions. He is meticulous about preparation. “I do all the work before I arrive on set,” he says. “But that method thing doesn’t really make sense to me. It’s about a series of little decisions and processes, which hopefully add up to the performance you want. ” On the one hand, no more Peaky means no more of the “fucking exhausting” work to become Tommy, the immaculate Birmingham accent and the gym sessions and protein and, by his estimation, 3,000 fake herbal cigarettes per series. But it’s also the end of an enduring part that has lodged itself in the British firmament. Audiences don’t merely like Peaky Blinders, they love it: for its strangeness, its swagger, its evocation of the tricky interwar period in British history through the prism of a city, Birmingham, which is often overlooked.

“It feels like the end of something,” Murphy says. “It’s strange talking about it. I don’t have a grasp on it yet. Maybe when it’s done I’ll have some perspective. It’s the end of 10 years of my life; a big adventure with lots of colleagues and people that you became very close to.”

Among the people Murphy became closest to was his co-star Helen McCrory, who played the Shelby brothers’ beloved aunt Polly. McCrory died of cancer last April, at 52, before Covid-delayed filming began on the final series. Polly is the closest the gang have to a matriarch, unafraid to speak her mind and often serving as their moral conscience. In a remembrance of her he wrote for the Observer in December, he said she was his “closest pal” on set.

“Her death was unbelievably sad and difficult,” he says. “But I’m always careful when I talk about it. I’m a friend and a colleague, but then you think about Damian [Lewis, McCrory’s husband] and their kids. I don’t own that grief, you know? But she was a remarkable human being and a remarkable actor. It was very hard to make it without her.”

He also admired the way she balanced her home life with the demands of the job. “I think she and Damian handled them both being very successful actors, living in the public eye, beautifully,” he says. “The way she was able to interact with fans and be a mum and do the work. It was really elegant. I find it much more tricky; I overthink things.”

The irony of being so private about his life outside the work, in an era when some broadcast every hour the lord sends on social media, is that it makes fans even more desperate for intelligence. “I think being so private is what keeps his mystique and allure,” says Wallis. “It’s a dying trait in our culture, so when you have an actor who’s continually mysterious and evading the limelight, it creates a thirst for that person.”

Murphy will have to handle the limelight for a while longer. Christopher Nolan has cast him as the lead in Oppenheimer, his upcoming biopic about Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. It will be their sixth film together, after the three Batman films, Inception and Dunkirk. Those worried about the dumbing down of popular culture may be reassured that one of the world’s leading directors is spending $100m on a blockbuster about a physicist.

“I’ll always turn up for Chris, whatever the size of the part,” Murphy says. “Chris will call me up and I’m there. Isn’t it wonderful that filmmakers are still making challenging, demanding films within the studio system, shot on film rather than Imax? I think he’s flying the flag. Him, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, are fantastic filmmakers making interesting work on a massive scale.”

The film is based on American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J Robert Oppenheimer, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography. Murphy says he is preparing by doing “an awful lot of reading. I’m interested in the man and what [inventing the atomic bomb] does to the individual. The mechanics of it, that’s not really for me – I don’t have the intellectual capability to understand them, but these contradictory characters are fascinating. Tommy Shelby’s a complete contradiction, too. People identify with that, because we all walk around with these contradictory ideas coexisting in our heads.”

Reading was Murphy’s first love. He grew up in Cork, where his mother taught English and French, and his father worked for the department of education. He went to the elite Presentation Brothers College, where he steeped himself in fiction before succumbing, temporarily, to the lure of rock stardom. The band he started with his younger brother, Paidi, the Sons of Mr Green Genes, was on the verge of signing a record deal but decided against it. An abortive attempt at a law degree followed, before Walsh cast him in Disco Pigs in 1996, when Murphy was 20.

“We did pretty well, but I’m happy it didn’t work out,” he says of the music career. “I don’t think I’d have stayed friends with the guys in the band and I still am good friends with them. All bands fall out. Unless you’re Coldplay, you get signed, used up and spat out. At least as an actor you can make decisions on your own. That five-person dynamic in a band is traumatic.”

Over the past couple of years he has starting making music again, but only for personal interest. “I’m too hypercritical. It’s all shite. Never, ever for public consumption. But it was a good exercise. It’s healthy for the soul to let it out on something like that.”

There is one area where Murphy has used his platform to help agitate for change, as a spokesperson for a scheme pioneered by the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, to get empathy taught in schools. They recently had a breakthrough, with a number of schools deciding to trial it. “There’s data that shows how beneficial it is for kids, not only for their empathy but also academically,” he says. “Raising boys, it seems very practical and sensible that you would promote empathy. It’s about listening, and the best acting is about listening, too. If you’re listening to someone, you can respond emotionally to them. Social media is not an empathic form. As [the writer] George Saunders says, we’re not our best selves on there. It’s very gladiatorial. But we’re stuck with it.”

Murphy’s lockdown sounds like it has been stubbornly normal. His sons are old enough to have knuckled down to their homework without Tommy Shelby-esque motivational talks (Aran has shown signs of following his old man into the trade, appearing in a stage play of Hamnet, about Shakespeare’s only son.)

“We cook, we watch movies, we listen to music,” Murphy says, laughing at the attempt to skirt back into his personal life. “I was vegetarian for a long time then I relapsed and now I’ve relapsed back to vegetarianism. My wife is, too. It’s so unremarkable! It’s not good copy.”

In other words: remember, he’s an actor.

Peaky Blinders series six starts on 27 February on BBC One

Grooming by Gareth Bromell at Premier Hair and Makeup using Bumble & Bumble and Oxygenetix


By Damyan Ivanov

My name is Damyan Ivanov and i was born in 1998 in Varna, Bulgaria. Graduated high school in 2016 and since then i'm working on wordpress news websites.