By now you know Cillian Murphy makes an uncredited appearance in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (he is a kangaroo court judge who bangs his gavel yelling “Death or Exile?!!” in a shredded robe that echoes his memorable Scarecrow look in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). Murphy also appeared in Nolan’s Inception and has become something of a regular.
His career is remarkably diverse, with movies spanning several genres and tending towards the offbeat, arty and unusual. Murphy’s latest is Rodrigo Cortés’ paranormal thriller Red Lights. He plays Tom, a scientist who challenges a renowned psychic (Robert De Niro) to debunk him as a fake.
Tom suspects him of murdering his academic partner (Sigourney Weaver) who was about to publically reveal his true nature; but what is Tom’s true nature? We spoke with Cortés and Murphy in Toronto about psychics and con artists.
M&C: Psychics have been roundly discredited over the past century, but do you think there has been a resurgence of interest lately?
Rodrigo Cortés - There are many people doing this kind of stuff. I did a year and a half of research and the ideas in the film are based on actual debunkings. There is a huge business behind this especially this kind of “healer” thing who has power and take advantage of people and their feelings.
On the other hand the film doesn’t completely belong to your time as it has the general time of the seventies.
They're using cellphones and laptops and have the feeling it could be in the seventies or eighties, we tried to create a touchable atmosphere, very dense, very real that makes sense in cinematic terms and skillful in terms of the screen, and hopefully telling the story.
M&C: Do you believe in psychic powers or healers?
Cillian Murphy - What my beliefs or lack of beliefs are, isn’t important. My duty is to the character and to be open and a blank slate as we all know we should do. Personally I would be skeptical and am boringly rational I’m afraid. I’m so interested in this dimension I care very little about others. My feelings didn’t change over the course of the filming.
RC – Unfortunately I don’t know as a concept but I try to understand. I try to understand but these things change when you get new tools to interpret reality.
If you were to ask me if I believed in the supernatural, I would say no, I don’t think nature can be transcended but if we go see the paranormal in search of an explanation, there are certainly things out there that are yet to be explained, like radio frequency.
So I am interested in trying to understand the shape of things. Not in believing or not.
M&C: What has caused the most debate among people who have seen it?
RC - In my opinion movies shouldn’t only be about answers but about questions. It goes on inside your mind and you have to do a process of digestion and you find it survives three days later and gets inserted in your brain. In the film we are trying to find certain solutions but we never wanted to put them clearly and obviously in the film.
M&C: Cillian, the man you play is extremely complex. Aside from the script and Rodrigo’s direction, how did you find your way in?
CM - I did all the research but acting is essentially isn’t an intellectual thing, its emotional. You have to be open to the emotions of the character and be instinctual and intuitive and not intellectualize everything so that’s what I do. For me in simple terms, the film is about self-acceptance and obsession.
I reckon those are the twin things that drive Tom and everyone can identify with those things to a greater or lesser degree and just go after the human story.
M&C: Rodrigo, there is a lot of Hitchcock in your work, it’s suspenseful, simple and pure in technique and doesn’t depend on effects.
RC - I wanted everything to be very physical. Everything is based on balance and everything has to be touchable and believable and everything starts to turn around. It could be a projection of your physic energy or underground or a setup so no matter what you choose to believe the other option is always possible because everything has to be based on doubt.
You have to ascribe to your own thoughts, you have entering another territory. It has more to do with fantasy and everything become more touchable. On the other hand, you use the same tools to instill doubt.
That’s what Hitchcock did and you shouldn’t use my name and his in the same sentence and try everyone to look at your right hand while you steal a couple of wallets with your left hand. That’s what filmmaking is about, manipulating people in the most honorable and friendly ways.
M&C: Your character has an interesting relationship with De Niro’s villain as they shared a history before the story starts. It’s not in the film, so how did you develop it?
CM - He couldn’t have been more generous and warm. Whenever you mention his name, people have an immediately instant reaction because he’s legendary and iconic. It’s very hard to talk about what is veering into cliché but he was amazing and if you talk about breaking it down to the essentials, I am obsessed with him and the character and the obsession begins to destroy the things in his life.
He’s not quite sure why he’s obsessed by him but we’ve all had that to a greater or lesser extent about women, other people, celebrities, whoever so you try to draw on that. Working with someone of that great stature raises your game a little bit.
M&C: Sigourney Weaver is a phenomenal actress, you and she have a special relationship and we feel it when she’s gone. What was she to Tom?
CM - I thought it was a beautifully drawn because it’s unique and she is like a surrogate mum and he's her surrogate son, they're mentor and student, it’s platonic but they love each other. I don’t think I’ve read a relationship like that before, and that was very appealing to me.
There are so many ways as wonderful an actress as Sigourney is, you’ve got that sophistication and that warmth and complexity there and luckily we clicked very early on and had great fun and I really got on with her. She’s a very caring person and I hope some of that warmth transfers to the screen.
M&C: You’ve played a wide range of characters so far. Is there a kind of role you’d like to get to one day that you haven’t had the chance to?
CM - The beauty and scary thing of being an actor is not knowing what’s coming next. Unless you write yourself you can’t really write the character. The only constant is that I don’t want to repeat myself but just challenge myself the whole time.
M&C: The opening scene in the car main characters, without getting into details, plays it to what the story is or are you just setting the characters?
RC - You try to do three decisions at the same time, you define your characters your story, the atmosphere, the crew, or to see a red light that nobody’s going to notice yet that’s going to have sense later. That’s what you try o do. An actor doesn’t always see what’s ahead and in a way, they don’t need much. There’s usually a beat and what he says so it’s funny you feel that warmth but there sleepy and being awake.
The film is full of these ideas. The first thing we see is the ground and the car and the last thing is the guy in his car, a long way between the first shot and last shot and we try to do these things consciously but in a way it effects people on different levels.
M&C: You referred to the 70’s thrillers and that occurred me that Red Lights was classically made. What is it about those films that you really liked and used?
RC - First a big trust comes with characters. You think the films of the golden age, Rosemary’s Baby, was challenging. They are real characters there with emotional contradictions, and a sense of dense atmosphere that you feel you can touch them. The political thrillers you almost think this are happening now, that you are not seeing characters but a report of what’s happening in front of your eyes and touch it.
I was trying to create this atmosphere to try to shape it in an elegant way, using certain tricks to allow your characters to develop their emotions and contradictions and everything that they say but you somehow feel. You have this sense between these characters, they never express their emotions, they only talk about experimental or professional things but you still feel all these emotions that are happening there.
That’s what I tried to achieve and you bring that to every decision even the weather and those films, the color, the framing, all with the director’s control because you have a direction and you want everything pointing to that same direction.
M&C: The film asks the audience to be patient which is rare. At what point did it hook you?
CM - You’re right. I’m always banging on about a lack of patience in our life today and I’m trying to learn patience myself but the thing is that form the get go, and most scripts you can predict where they are going, pretty quickly, but this one has surprise every moment I went forward.
M&C: What do you hope the audience gets out of it?
RC - It’s up to them. I didn’t want to write a prescriptive script and the film is a big question mark. People have intelligence and they are hopefully going to do some work. They leave the theatre they need to talk about it with their partner or whatever and discuss different theories.
And go for a real response whatever it is. I try to play fair so you don’t think it’s a circle that has been closed but something you want to think of even if you don’t want to. It shouldn’t be voluntary, even that. It should be a process of reflecting, and digesting.
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