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Cillian Murphy on Taking an Awards Season Break With Berlin Opener ‘Small Things Like These,’ Getting the ‘Band Back Together’ for ’28 Days Later’ Sequels

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With the 2023-24 awards season galloping towards the finish line, the whirlwind of ceremonies, red carpets, dinners and other glitzy occasions for feted stars of the moment to be feted some more is keeping most of the nominees exceptionally busy. Among the busiest must be Cillian Murphy, tipped to add both Oscar and BAFTA wins to the Golden Globe he’s already won for his lead turn in “Oppenheimer.”

But just as his diary demands reach near farcical levels of back-to-back events, the Irish actor is making a quick detour to Germany to open the Berlinale. 

Festival curtain-raiser “Small Things Like These” may be a much less explosive film than “Oppenheimer,” but it’s no less thought-provoking or powerful, based on the Booker Prize-nominated book by Claire Keegan (who also wrote “The Quiet Girl,” which became the recent Irish-language hit film). Murphy stars as a Bill, a soft-spoken coal delivery driver in and devoted father in 1980s Ireland who uncovers disturbing activity at the local convent — led by Emily Watson’s terrifying nun Sister Mary — that challenges his own internal traumas.

“Small Things Like These,” produced and financed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Artists Equity, is also the first feature from Murphy’s new company, set up alongside producer Alan Maloney and called, ironically, Big Things Films.

Speaking to Variety, Murphy discusses pitching the film to Damon one night on the set of “Oppenheimer,” shooting the first project in his native Ireland for more than a decade, and returning to where his career erupted with the newly announced sequels to “28 Days Later.”

Is it nice to take a break from the chaos of awards season with a film like this?

I’m so proud of the response [“Oppenheimer’s”] been getting and am so happy to be celebrating the movie. But I made a “Small Things Like These” six months after I finished “Oppenheimer,” and it couldn’t have been more different. But I’m really proud of the film, so it’s very nice to talk about it. I try to resist the phrase “passion project” because it’s so euphemistic, but it really is kind of the best expression for this one, because it’s something I believe in passionately. 

You’re producing the film alongside Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for their Artists Equity banner. How did that relationship come about? Did you take the project to them?

I read the book and really felt it could be a film. And I called my friend Alan Maloney, who I’ve done four previous films with, maybe five, and we decided to produce this together. We got the rights. And then when I was on “Oppenheimer” we were doing a nighttime desert scene with Matt and we were sitting around and I just pitched him this. And he happened to be working with Alan at the same time on a U2 documentary, so it was all quite serendipitous. And Damon and Affleck were starting their studio, for want of a better word, and we sent them the script and they loved it. And they were such fantastic partners, because they really let us make the film that we wanted to make, which you’d expect given they’re filmmakers themselves.

What was it about the book that made you think it could be a film?

On the face of it, it’s quite a small story. But when I read it, I was so moved by it and I felt that it was actually wrestling with quite important themes. And I also felt that there was a universality in it through its kind of specificity. I was also very attracted to the character, who is a type of Irishman that I was familiar with. On the surface, he seems to be leading quite a simple life, but what he’s struggling with and what he goes through over the course the movie is quite complex. So with all of those things for me I thought if we adapted it correctly and cast it correctly it could be a beautiful film. 

Speaking of the cast, Emily Watson is fantastic as a rather ruthless nun.

Emily was first choice for Sister Mary. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since forever. And she responded to the script and said yes. So it all comes from the script. And then I asked Tim Mielants, who I’d worked with on “Peaky Blinders’” Season 3, to direct it. He’s a stunning director and brilliant with actors. And he’s a Belgian, and I didn’t necessarily want an Irish person to direct it. I felt it might be better if they weren’t from Ireland. 

Did the film come together during the phenomenal success of “The Quiet Girl,” another incredible Irish film and also adapted from a Claire Keegan story?

We were in production during the [2023] Oscars, and were so pleased because it’s a beautiful, beautiful film. But it was nice to see all that success while were shooting — it was wonderful. 

Is “Small Things Like These” the first film you’ve shot in Ireland for some time? That must have made it quite special.

Yeah, I don’t think I shot a film at home since 2010 or something like that. I’ve done a lot of theater there since then, but I haven’t made a film. So it was nice to come back and I have an awful lot of the HoDs in the crew were friends of mine that I’ve worked with on films in the past, so it was great to get those guys on the movie and they all crushed it.

With “Oppenheimer” and now this, are we experiencing a post-“Peaky Blinders” Cillian Murphy?

I don’t know, I’m just working. I did an awful lot of work during “Peaky Blinders” as well. So, for me, it’s just work. I think if you ask any actor, none of us have any sort of a plan in mind, it’s just entirely haphazard and random and you just kind of deal with whatever comes your way. And sometimes you have a little bit of agency in it, like with this one. Because I’ve produced it was different. But in terms of five-year plans, I don’t have them, I just try and keep the quality high.

This is the first project from your own production company Big Things. I’m assuming that name is because of ‘Small Things Like These’? 

It was named because we thought if we called it Small Things it might be a little unambitious.

I have to ask about the recently announced “28 Days Later” sequels. So is Jim the courier coming back for “28 Years Later“?

I can’t give much more at this point. But I’ve always said I would love to be involved because that movie changed everything for me and I have I have great affection for it and for those guys Alex [Garland] and Danny [Boyle]. I never watch my own films, except that one. It’s always on around Halloween and during the pandemic people were constantly sending me clips. And I’ve shown it to my kids. And it’s really stood up, even though it’s something like 23 years old now. So I’m really thrilled that we’ll get the band back together to makes this one. 

How was watching yourself in what was your breakout performance more than two decades on?

I was not as hypercritical as I anticipated I would be. I’ve gotten better at it because I exec produced the last three seasons of “Peaky,” so I was very involved in all of that, the cutting and the editing, and then producing “Small Things.” So you have to get over yourself and watch it and just watch it in a very objective, clinical way, just looking for stories beats. So that’s been very educational for me recently, and I’ve enjoyed that. 

You’ve never really been someone who has actively sought out the limelight. How has it been dealing with the success of awards season and all the attention that it brings? 

I think I’m getting much better at it. It’s just so lovely to see the film celebrated and to see the connection that it made with audiences and then to see it celebrated by your peers in the industry. The biggest bonus for me has been hanging out with my castmates and Chris, but then also meeting other filmmakers and other actors and other producers. Because that’s what you end up doing, you just end up being in these rooms with these talented people. And I’ve really enjoy that because I never go out normally.