Interview: Cillian Murphy Talks ‘Retreat,’ Trust, and the Death Nail of Nostalgia

By  · Published on October 28th, 2011

Interview: Cillian Murphy Talks ‘Retreat,’ Trust, and the Death Nail of Nostalgia

Retreat is a film that lives or dies by its actors. Mainly set in one location and focusing primarily on three characters constantly interacting, that’s an exceptionally tough film to make. That seems like a common thing for actor Cillian Murphy, though. No one can look at Peacock and Breakfast on Pluto and say, “What safe, easy roles.” The actor takes chances, and it all comes down to the directors he’s going to put his trust in.

When one works with the likes of Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Ken Loach, and Andrew Niccol, that must not be too difficult. The actor usually manages to work with the best nowadays, but even so, as Murphy says, you’re never going to quite know what to expect from a film. And, at the end of a film, that doesn’t matter much. Murphy’s advice: never be nostalgic and always move forward.

Immediately before talking to Murphy, I had just gotten out of In Time. In that film, Murphy spends a lot of time getting his ass kicked, being disrespected, and everything else that would make one of us feel unmanly, similarly to his character in Retreat. A lot of Murphy’s characters seem that way, but to him it’s less about emasculation, more about how everyone’s a contradiction.

Here’s what the actor had to say about emasculated characters, why an artist should never be nostalgic, and how to trust your director:

I watched the film the other night, and I also got to see In Time this morning. I’d say in both films, and like a few of your roles, have you playing fairly emasculated characters. Is that a theme that actually appeals to you, or is just a coincidence?

I don’t think you can call Raymond Leon, in In Time, emasculated [Laughs]. Do you mean Martin in Retreat?

Yeah, but also Raymond.

Go on, I’m interested in this theory [Laughs].

He’s always behind and isn’t respected much. Plus, he’s kind of incompetent [Laughs].

[Laughs] That’s not emasculation! That’s just getting there at the wrong time.

[Laughs] He is slightly unmanly.

Well, I guess he needs a better watch.

[Laughs] And he doesn’t really win anything by the end.

Yeah, I guess so. I’m glad he does, you know? For me, if you put that through my brain, to me, that’s humanity. That’s just fallibility and people trying and failing. To me, that’s human. I don’t really see that connection between the two characters [Laughs], but… For example, Martin is this normal guy trying to step up. He’s been through this terrible time with his wife, is trying to make good, and finds himself in this extraordinary situation, and has to re-imagine himself and re-imagine his relationship with his wife. I guess, at the beginning, he can appear to be a little pushed down by her. Weirdly, I think through Jamie’s character coming in and smashing up the holiday, they’re relationship reconnects briefly.

I do think that theme of who’s going to be an actual man is a big part of the film. Jack does have that line to Martin, “You actually have it in you to do this.”

It becomes mono e mono. It’s classic stuff, that triangle of the weaker man and the aggressor, but who’s posturing more and has more in them? It’s classic drama. It’s conflict.

It’s also the type of drama that lives or dies by its actors, since it’s mainly just three characters. Was that a part of the attraction, that challenge?

Well, I think that’s why it attracted the caliber of actors that it did. As you say, it’s all about the performance. It’s all about us and the director creating the tension, shifting the dynamic all the time, making the audience guess, and having the audience invest in each character. They are the better actor pieces. It’s a challenge, definitely. I felt like I knew that character and could identify with that character. It’s less of a challenge than playing, say, a transvestite. That scared me, because you’re not sure if you can pull it off. A character like Martin I identify with. I see why he reacts the way he does and I feel he’s very human, so I want to invest in as much honesty as I can.

And he almost becomes an unintentional antagonist, which is interesting.

[Laughs] I don’t follow. Explain.

[Laughs] Jack is trying to protect them and keep things civil, from what you know in the beginning. Martin and Kate get so paranoid, they kind of strike first.

[Laughs] Well, I think you may become a little unhinged if a man came into your house that sealed up all the windows and doors. But, you know, that’s what’s good about this film: everyone has their own individual interpretation of it, and that’s why I think these films are appealing at the moment. Everyone goes in and sits in the cinema thinking, “How would I react? Would I step up?” I think that’s what makes the movies fun.

I’m attracted to writing that is less simplistic, I guess. You try to look for some complexity. Most characters ‐ and most human beings ‐ are contradictions. We flaunt this one version of ourselves, but we’re maybe something completely different. I think everyone has that aspect of themselves, and good writing encloses that.

When you are doing a film like this, do you have to be more disciplined in sticking to the script? Or would [the director] Carl Tibbetts give you some room?

No, I think Carl, being a first-time director, took onboard whatever we had to say or what the DP had to say. That showed confidence in himself and the material. I enjoy working with writer-directors, because you have a direct line to their brain, since that’s where it came from. They’ve lived with this material for a long time, so they generally can answer most questions. Also, since they’re confident in the material, they’re open to collaboration and suggestions.

I’d imagine you’d have to put in a lot of trust into him. It’s a tough concept execute right.

You always have to put trust in your director.

You seem to put a lot of trust in directors, especially with roles like Peacock or Breakfest on Pluto. What creates that bond, where you can put full faith in a director to make something work?

You know, it’s a strange, weird thing. You find yourself living very closely with this person and sharing lots of emotional stuff, and very intently for a brief period. You have to feel you trust them, and that they trust you. You got to feel you can fail, experiment, and having that level of belief in each other.

Actors usually say they never know how a film is going to turn out, especially while shooting. Are there times where that isn’t true, though?

Yeah, then I’m generally wrong [Laughs]. It’s the old adage of movies that nobody knows anything, or whatever it is, is true. You never know. You think the film’s directing is going to be great, but it turns out to be shit, or vice-versa.

[Laughs] But when you’re working with filmmakers like Danny Boyle and Ken Loach, with the material they have, don’t you feel confident on a certain level?

You’re very confident in those guys. You know, whatever decision the marketing guys make, whenever the filmis released, or however the poster looks, all of this stuff goes into play. What I’ve learned over the years is that the best thing I can do is turn up on time, say the lines, and roll with the camp. Whatever happens after that is beyond my control.

I think a good example of that would be Sunshine. I think it’s great and it has a following, but the film didn’t find a big audience when it came out. Does that affect your view on a film or help define whether its a success?

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed making that movie and working with Danny, and I really love the movie. You know, as I said, I can’t control how a film is released or how people respond to it. The whole thing about being an actor is you got to keep looking forward and keep that hunger. Nostalgia is the death nail for any artist, so I refuse to be nostalgic.

That’s a good point. How do judge if a film is a success, from the working experience or the final product?

At the time, it’s the working experience. By the time the film comes out, you’re already working on something else. That’s the forward momentum of it.

Have you ever had a terrible working experience, but the movie turned out really well?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And vice-versa?

Yeah [Laughs]. You never know. I’m sure you as a journalist have seen a movie and thought, “Man, this movie’s going to bomb,” but then it ends up making 500 million dollars. You never, ever know.

That happens all the time. Jumping into In Time, I think Raymond Leon’s morals are very interesting. He’s not a villain, but he also never helps Will or assists the rich. Did you and Andrew discuss that idea, how he sticks to his own contradictory rules?

I love this character because he is just one walking contradiction. I don’t buy the emasculation thing [Laughs], but I do find that he has his own set of morals. I think what’s beautiful about how Andrew wrote the character of Leon is how, deep down from the very moment he signed on to be a timekeeper and joins the worst civil service job in the world, he knew what he was doing was wrong. Deep down he knows what he’s doing is corrupt and that the system is corrupt. You measure it against the minutemen, Leon never kills anyone in the movie. He’s just trying to enforce these set of rules he knows are wrong. I tried to put that into the character, you know, how he’s conflicted.

I actually just spoke to Andrew Niccol again the other day, and he’s a very reserved guy. What type of atmosphere does someone like that create on set, versus someone a little more intense?

He’s a lovely man. I’ve known Andrew for a few years. We were supposed to make a film together a few years ago, but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason. I think he’s one of the few real original writers around. He’s a got a gorgeous, calm influence on set. He’s definitely not the “shouty” director, but people just have this respect for him. I think he really trust his actors, and that makes for a very collaborative process. You know he’s created this whole world, and you just want to do anything for him.

What about the more intense directors?

The intense directors? [Laughs] Oh gosh, I don’t know. You know, it’s a means to an end. Everybody has their own methods. I’ve never had a crazy, shouty director, really. Hopefully, as I talked about it, it’s about trust. If you create an atmosphere of trust, where I trust in their vision and they trust me as an actor, then I think we’ll make good work together. You get that with Andrew. He hired you for a reason, and you want to be there for a reason. Hopefully, you’ll make good work together.

Retreat is now in limited release and available on VOD.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.