Since making his professional acting debut on stage in 1996, Cillian Murphy has steadily built up an impressive resumé. His films include Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Inception, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Wes Craven's Red Eye. Now he headlines Red Lights, Rodrigo Cortés' second English language feature after the 2010 claustrophobic thriller Buried. Cortés made his feature directing debut with the 2007 Spanish film Concursante (The Contestant). Cortés and Murphy made the press rounds in San Francisco to promote Red Lights; we spoke at the St. Regis Hotel.
G: So the title of the film, Red Lights, refers to this notion of kind of tell-tale signs that tell you when something is off. And Cillian, you once said, "I know what I don’t want to do much clearer than I know what I do want to do." What are some of the "red lights" for you in your career or indeed in life—signs this is not a place I want to be right now or a person I want to be around?
CM: Well, that’s an interesting question. I’ve always tried to trust my instinct both in life and work, and when I’m acting I just go with the gut instinct, and when you try to do that, you try to do it with people and with situations. But I don’t have any things that I look for or try to avoid that I can name off the top of my head.
G: Rodrigo, this film shows your impeccable taste in casting. The three top-billed actors here especially make the film a draw just by reputation. Can you talk a bit about your impressions of how they work and their power on screen?
RC: Well, every actor works in a very different way. They have different approaches to performance. For instance, in the case of Cillian, he’s so intuitive and physical and has a very organic approach to the performance. He takes a lot of consideration as to technique so he can implement any instruction, even very specific about camera or pace. But he gives everything a very emotional weight. He never pretends to be—he just is. In the case of Sigourney, she needs to know everything about her environment. If she’s going to do something in a kitchen, be sure that she’s going to open every drawer to have a real familiarity about what she has around. Once she understands everything she has around, she dissolves in the environment that she gets to immediate things in an apparently faultless way. And seeing De Niro work is fascinating because he doesn’t have—he doesn’t push himself in order to get a specific goal; he doesn’t go anywhere. He just focuses on being. He starts to play with words like they were clay. Here and there, or if you are fast enough, you steal it, and you edit it.
G: Cillian, Matheson is a mother figure to Tom. And he wants so badly to tell her something but feels he can’t. Though the particulars get twisty, it’s a very relatable situation at heart. It’s like a child who can’t say "I love you" or confess who he really is.
G: Can you talk about your take on that relationship in the film and Tom’s search for self?
CM: Yeah. I think it’s quite a unique relationship that Rodrigo’s drawn here. It’s an older woman, younger, and it’s completely platonic. And she is as you say a mother figure—sort of a surrogate mother figure, and also a mentor and someone he looks up to. At the beginning of the movie, it’s very clear he is her assistant and defers to her in every way, and she has great knowledge and charisma, and then you see over the course of the movie, he begins to kind of rebel a little bit, and she becomes a little confused or shocked by his behavior. But, yeah, I loved that relationship so much when I read the script because it is so warm and so believable and we—I don’t know, myself and Sigourney clicked so quickly when we met and started working, and we hung out a lot offset, and she’s an amazing woman. Everybody knows how extraordinary an actress she is, but just as a person, just to be around her, her warmth—she’s so caring and funny and yeah, we really got on and I believe that if you get on with someone and you are supposed to be playing a relationship that is strong, I do think that bond can transfer onto screen so we were lucky with that—she’s so strong in the movie.
G: Yeah. Rodrigo, Dr. Matheson is named, I assume for Richard Matheson ?
G: Am I right in thinking that Hell House was a particular influence on you?
RC: Well, no. It’s more the spirit of Matheson is every work he did. I mean that he starts with small premises that doesn’t sound transcendent or something like that, but in a way they root inside you and flourish in very powerful ways. It’s like when you see Duel or something. But Hell House is, I guess, a specific influence in the séance at the beginning. I like the way he approaches to the genre in a very scientific way. And since I wanted to give the film a very deep sense of rigor in scientific terms. I guess that’s part of the influence.
G: So I suppose the obvious area that everyone’s probably going to get into with you is this central theme of belief. And Cillian, when you were promoting Sunshine, you said, "It got me thinking about life and religion, science versus religion and all that—I was verging on being an agnostic and this film confirmed any of the atheistic beliefs that I had." I wonder what Red Lights got you thinking? It’s a kind of fine line between skepticism and agnosticism.
CM: Yeah, there’s an interesting crossover in themes, I guess, between those two movies. And in both I play a physicist. I was sort of a confirmed skeptic before I went into making this film. That sort of thing—I find it entertaining and interesting, and I can see why it’s so ripe for drama because there’s so much mystery and stuff and illusion and that’s fantastic for making films and stories. But no, I would still remain skeptical, but I would be very open and very curious, and I think what I discovered in doing the research for the piece was that I was fascinated by how people had this need to believe and this desire for the unknown and for something magical or something special or people having powers that are beyond our explanation—and how intelligent people would set aside logic and reason and rational thought because they just needed to believe. And that to me was really fascinating. But in terms of changing from a skeptic to a believer, no, I’m still in that skeptic camp. But I guess a little bit better informed now.
G: Rodrigo, skepticism is a highly honorable pursuit, I think, but there are also demonstrable proofs that perception can exert a certain will over reality, the mind-over-matter thing, or the placebo effect. What are your thoughts on the subject, and what did you hope people might take away from on that?
RC: There’s no specific theory that I want everybody to accept. I actually was very careful in a sense in the way I explained, in the most intelligent way I could, both sides...If you ask me, in my case, I think it’s about questioning everything. I’m not interested in believing, but in trying to understand. That’s it. I mean, even if you have, for instance, a deep perception of God, whatever, it will be useful for you to try to understand him than to try to believe him. So it’s not that I don’t think there are things that cannot be explained. It’s that I don’t believe in the supernatural. I don’t think there’s anything that—I don’t think nature can be transcended. There’s nothing beyond the margins of nature. But inside those margins, there are many things that cannot be explained yet.
RC: The same way that centuries ago probably radio frequencies would have been perceived as paranormal.
RC: So I simply question everything. I doubt about everything. And I try to understand everything.
G: Okay. I wanted to ask a little bit about the element of magic in the film too, or illusion rather, perhaps. You know, some of the greatest skeptics were magicians, like Houdini and James Randi. So maybe you could both talk a little about that and, Cillian, maybe about the coin manipulation and the pen trick you do in the film.
CM: Yeah, I did spend quite a bit of time with magicians researching this, and I went to see Copperfield and Criss Angel in Vegas for that sort of showbiz aspect of it, because I guess that De Niro’s character is kind of an amalgam of like the showbiz aspect of it, the sort of televangelist—of a psychic, a mentalist—he’s all of those in one, really. And Randi, I read a lot of his books and looked at a lot of materials he has. And—you know, there’s this guy in Britain called Derren Brown who’s like a similar thing as Randi, like a brilliant magician who’s come out and just shown how it works. And in terms of the coin trick, that was just purely practice and, there’s eleven-year-old kids on YouTube showing you how to do it. So you just practice. But it’s not a very impressive trick, but I wanted to be able to do it, and not to have to have someone put their hand in there and do it.
G: Right. I also wanted to ask Cillian...before they give me the hook here: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is coming to an end, and so I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit on that particular journey. I know you weren’t much into comic books, but when you did do your homework when they gave you your reading to do, what did you think of the material and of that character of Jonathan Crane?
CM: Yeah, he’s one of the oldest villains I think in the comic books. And you recognize the sort of weight of responsibility you have when you portray a villain in a Batman movie and in that franchise. So I did my best, I think, and we had some fun with it, and it was a great privilege to be involved in those movies. I think that what he did, really, there is set the bar for all superhero movies. I think they’ve yet to be topped—those films—in that genre and it’s been a great privilege to work with him over the years.
G: Did you get at all wistful in closing that chapter on the third film?
CM: I think it’s the smart thing to do. I think he’s made amazing films, and I think it’s always good to get out when you’re on top. Those films are stand-alone wonderful pieces of cinema anyway. But yeah, I just feel thrilled to be a part of it.
G: And coincidentally, your favorite film is Scarecrow, right?
CM: That is a fact. It sounds unbelievably cheesy but it is a fact. It’s Gene Hackman and Al Pacino and Jerry Schatzberg movie from like 1973, I think.
G: When you inevitably bump into one of your acting heroes, is it tough to keep your cool? Have you met Pacino, for instance?
CM: I have never met Mr. Pacino. I would love to do. But you know I got to work with Mr. De Niro so that’s pretty good. And he was amazing. And inevitably you’re very, very nervous, and there’s a lot of anticipation, but you’ve got to do your best—just put that aside and go to the work. And he was very generous about that—sweet, and—it was amazing.
G: I wanted to ask about the political nature of the film as well, in terms of allegory. We’re in a time right now, in America in particular, where there’s been a lot of talk about how we all want to reinforce our own beliefs. And there’s this kind of duality of liberal and conservative, and so it would be easy to read the film, I think, in that way: encouraging people to get out of that—try to understand the other side, to use your word, to understand. Is that something you had in mind? I know you mentioned the Silver character is partly political in design as well as a magician and a psychic.
RC: Well, it’s political in the sense that it’s allegory. But it’s not ideologic. I never work in political terms in this obvious way because political truths tend to last a couple of years. And then they change. There’s no truth to find inside it. But yeah, there’s a reflection on the roots of our beliefs—of how some people can make you believe in whatever—just using information in a certain way. Especially in emotional terms. And one thing that I found out when I studied both sides of the paranormal discussion is that, actually, both sides behave in a very similar way. Both just accept it—only what confirms their previous positions, and they reject everything that puts them at risk, which means that everybody believes what’s more convenient for them to believe.
G: Yeah. All right, well it’s been great talking to you guys.
CM: Likewise. Thanks, man.
RC: Thanks for everything.