One of the things that has set Peaky Blinders apart is its stellar cast, led by Cillian Murphy as enigmatic leading gangster Tommy Shelby. We sat down with Cillian to chat about playing Tommy, and what’s coming up for him in series 2.
Tom Hardy joins the cast this season. Can you tell us anything about working with him again [Murphy and Hardy have previously worked together on Christopher Nolan films Inception and The Dark Knight Rises]?
He’s a brilliant man and he’s a good pal and I always enjoy working with Tom. When you work with great actors you have to step up and we’ve always enjoyed that, and I think we work well together. And I’m a big fan of his work at the moment. It’s always a buzz working with him, he’s great.
Where are we with your character, going into series 2?
I think the world has expanded and Tommy’s horizons have expanded further since the end of the last season. They’re going south where they encounter resistance to their expansion, and within the family there’s all sorts of shenanigans going on, and he’s always trying to keep a lid on all that stuff. It’s about the world getting bigger, really.
Laurie Borg and Grant Montogmery (Producer and Production Designer) have talked about how this season has more of a gangster feel and less of a Western feel, and they mentioned films like Scarface. Does that inform your performance at all?
I think if you make a gangster film or a gangster TV show, there’s a very narrow corridor in which you operate. You’re always going to be rubbing shoulders with the great movies and TV shows that have been made already, so that’s inevitable and I think you’ve got to wear your influences openly and you’ve got to stand on the shoulders of giants.
But I think what makes this distinctive is that it’s very British and not American. Americans mythologise their gangsters wonderfully and we’ve never done it successfully, I think, until this show. So you take your influences, you have to, but you’ve got to put your own spin on it. I think that’s what’s great about the writing, is that this could only be set in Britain.
Apparently there’s a higher body count this year?
I haven’t been counting bodies! I’ve just been trying to get through it. I think you need to have set-pieces and you need to have things that excite people. It’s a very talky show, it’s quite intellectual, aside from it being a gangster show, so you need to have those set-pieces and those exciting things that keep the audience engaged along the way. So maybe there is, I don’t know! I’m sure someone will do the counting.
What do you think about how the show represents sensitive subjects like PTSD?
Well, that condition didn’t have a name back in 1919. Shellshock, they called it, so these men were just thrown back into society, there was no such thing as counselling or anything, they just had to deal with it. And so many of them were self-medicating, or doing whatever they could to manage it, and it made for a massive societal change because all these men were demobbed and came back so damaged, carrying around these images and memories and many of them suffering from what we would now know as PTSD, so violence became kind of a form of expression. They all had this quick reflex to violence. So last year Tommy was very much [self]-medicating with opium and booze, and other fellas were dealing with it differently – [in] Arthur[‘s case] it was coming out through violence.
In terms of moral resonance, it’s something that people must be aware of, and it’s recognised now as a condition and people get treated for it, but it’s a universal problem and it’s going to be a problem for ever, having to reintroduce soldiers, men who have been through intense trauma, into normal society, and that transition is always going to be a tricky one.
Is that aspect something that you specifically prepared for, in terms of portraying someone with PTSD?
I read a lot about it. I’ve read a lot about the First World War and men’s experiences during and after it, so I was aware of it. And I loved the way it was written because it was so honest, that [Tommy] has so many faults, but he’s also really damaged and trying to get through life. You might not agree with some of the things that he has to do, but I think the thing about Tommy is the end [he’s aiming for] is a benign one, and I hope that audiences invest in him because he seems [like a] real human being that is a bit broken and a bit smashed. That’s what I really liked about him in the writing.
There’s a responsibility in portraying such an emotive subject, isn’t there?
Yeah, there is a responsibility. It’s not what the show is about, but it’s an element to it so you have to do it sympathetically.
What’s the biggest challenge in playing Tommy, an anti-hero, and getting us rooting for him even when his actions seem unsympathetic?
One of the great things about acting is that what I’m interested in is the human condition, so the square-jawed clean-cut hero doesn’t interest me. Somebody said once, ‘if you’re gonna play a miser, play his generosity’, and that’s interesting to me. So I like that, the duality, and he has to do these things that none of us would agree with, and he operates with this cold [attitude] that none of us would necessarily agree with, but yet it’s compelling, and yet he has morals, and yet he does love and he has weaknesses, so that to me is the most exciting kind of character to play. Anything that is one-dimensional is boring, I think, to play or to watch, whereas something that is multi-dimensional and [has] layers can be compelling if you do it justice, so that’s what interests me in stuff that I go to watch and in stuff that I try and be involved in.
All the great characters I think, in theatre, in literature, in film, none of them are straight, 100% infallible heroes, they’re always [an anti-hero], because that’s what we respond to. These guys, they make tough decisions and sometimes they do the wrong thing and sometimes they do the right thing, and all of us have our dark side. This is just a more exaggerated version of it, I guess.
Do you think there’s room for expansion for Tommy’s character for another season, beyond season 2?
Yeah, absolutely. Steve [Knight, the writer] has got it mapped out up until the beginning of World War Two so we’ve got a long way to go. When you get a set of characters this rich and this complex (as long as they stay alive!) there’s a lot more to be mined. And I think he’s one of our most exciting, important writers around at the moment and he’s just hit this purple patch where everything he touches is amazing and the story and the character just come so effortlessly from him, so I feel very lucky to be involved in it.
Cillian Murphy, thank you very much!
Peaky Blinders series two starts on BBC Two on Thursday the 2nd of October.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.