Some say that a war isn’t a war until a brother kills a brother. Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, pits kin against kin in its compelling, unadorned chronicle of the guerrilla struggle for Irish independence, circa 1920. By unapologetically depicting the British army as a tactless aggressor, Loach the irrepressible leftist has drawn the ire of writers in the right-wing British media, many of whom condemned the film sight unseen. In an astonishing feat of moral relativism, Tim Luckhurst of the Times of London excused Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films on the grounds that she didn’t fully understand Nazism (I mean, she’s a woman, right?), and added that Loach “does not deserve such indulgence. He knows precisely what he is doing.”
For young Irish actor Cillian Murphy – the deviously handsome antagonist of Batman Begins and Red Eye – the role of Damien, a medical student turned freedom fighter, was a chance to film at home in County Cork, and to directly confront vital ideas about war and compromise, land and freedom. “You need all sorts in a struggle – you need the intellectuals, but then you need the fighters,” he says. Nerve spoke with Murphy in his hotel suite on a snowy New York morning, as he prepared for the U.S. premiere of this (unfortunately) timely docudrama. – Akiva Gottlieb
This film has already stirred up controversy in the conservative British press for its frank depiction of the aggressive tactics the British government employed to suppress the IRA. Were you surprised by this reaction? Do you welcome it?
I mean, it’s inevitable. It’s not a very glorious part of British history. And the British are pretty sensitive about their army and the Empire in general. Those particular publications are always going to react as we saw. But I welcome it, personally, because I didn’t have to do the talking. Ken Loach did, and he’s so wonderfully articulate, and elegant, and he has history on his side, because no one could contest that the British administration of the time did order these atrocities, and order the troops to behave as they did. So, you know, it’s irrefutable.
Did you know what you were getting into working with Ken Loach, who has a history of making movies about social injustice – films that aren’t necessarily favorable to the government?
Sure. I mean, I subscribe to Ken’s politics, and greatly admire his films and his courage.
With The Wind That Shakes the Barley, he’s getting comparisons to Nazi propagandists. Unfavorable comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl!
It’s kind of laughable. You know, it was brilliant: I asked Ken, “How can we talk about this movie, and where we come from, and all that. . . ” And he said, “Look. If it’s a case of the firefighter, and the fire, you’re on the side of the firefighter.” In the face of all this reactionary stuff, he’s always going to come off better, you know?
How important is it that we’re seeing this film now? I know Ken has brought up, or even welcomed, contemporary parallels about hegemony and divide-and-conquer politics, things like that. Do you think it’s different making this film now than it would have been ten or twenty years ago?
Well, Ken and [screenwriter Paul Laverty] wanted to make this film for like the last fifteen years. So when I was making the film, it wasn’t an allegory we were making; we were making a film about the struggle at the beginning of our nation. But it’s a universal story, because there have been occupying armies since time immemorial, and because people don’t have any democratic means to object, they resort to violence. And that happens all around the world. Our duty was just to tell an honest and fair story about what happened in early 1920s Ireland, and if people want to draw parallels, then they’re free to do so.
I’d imagine that day-to-day preparation for Breakfast on Pluto must have been, at the very least, physically demanding. Was it a similar challenge to play Damien?
No. See, Kitten, I had no reference for whatsoever, so it was a big journey to get to that place, whereas with Damien, I mean. . . I’m from Cork. I didn’t have to change my accent or my appearance or any of that stuff. It was much more about being true to that character in that moment, because we shot everything chronologically, and it was all about instincts, and how Damien as a person would react to it. I think Ken casts instinct when he casts the actor that is closest to the character.
Is that because you’re ideologically in line with Damien?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know if I would have that moral courage. I agree with his ideals, but if you put me in that situation, no one knows how they would react. But I think there was an essence of something there in the casting. Like, Ken said to me that he would never have made Kes if he couldn’t find the right boy. The film wouldn’t have happened. I think he feels the same about any of his films; you have to cast it right.
You’re from Cork, so were you filming close to home?
Yeah, I stayed at home, where I grew up with my parents.
And you’re using your own accent?
Yeah. I mean, my accent’s probably become a little softened over the years. I left Cork when I was nineteen, but I think it’s heightened when you go home and act with all those Cork guys.
You’ve played some frightening villains. Do you ever worry about type-casting if you play a villain too well?
No, not at all.
Because, in Red Eye, Batman Begins – your most high-profile American movies – you’ve been playing villains.
You just try and do it the best you can and be as convincing in the role as possible. . . and they were both great, great roles, with great directors. I don’t worry about the character’s moral compass.
You’ve said that you’d like to work with Robert Altman, which is obviously no longer feasible. Are there other directors you’re interested in working with, particularly? Are you a big film buff?
Yeah, I am. I am. Obviously, there’s a list as long as my arm. But, to name one is to leave out all the rest.
The next film you’re doing is Sunshine . . .
Oh, it’s done.
It’s done. But it’s not coming out until the end of the year. Could you tell me a little bit about that film?
Yeah, it’s a Danny Boyle movie, scripted by Alex Garland, and it’s the same creative team that did 28 Days Later. Our templates were the classic sci-fis of 2001, Solaris, Alien . . . that’s the type of movie we were trying to make.
How do you negotiate between film and theater work? I know you were just in the London production of Lovesong.
I try to go back to it as often as I can. It’s where I started. I did theater for about four years exclusively when I began my career. It’s really where you learn. So I try to do it as often as possible.
This may be irrelevant, but do you think there are any challenges for foreign-born actors in Hollywood, and do you want to work more in America? Is it even something you think about?
Well, the last three roles I’ve done have been American, and I think, you know, Hollywood makes some wonderful movies and some appalling films. But it is the engine of the film business, so you’ve got to go there, and you’ve got to to play the game to a degree. I don’t think that it’s wise to not do Hollywood movies or not do independent films. I think you should move in both worlds.
You’re from Ireland. How familiar are Irish children with this chapter of history?
A lot more now, because the film was the highest-grossing independent film ever in Ireland, and it’s had huge DVD sales. But I think no, before that, it’s not a very glorious time in our history, particularly the civil war. And also the two main political parties trace their roots back to that fracture, so it’s always been tender, or raw, and I think nowadays people aren’t aware of how our nation is what it is, and how the partition in the North came about and why it’s still an ongoing problem.
But when you were in grade school, is this something that was part of the curriculum?
Yeah, but again, in superficial way. Not in great detail.
And did any of the success of the film in Ireland carry over to England?
And do you have any family ties to the struggle?
I had a cousin who was killed by the Black and Tans, and my grandfather was shot at. So everyone knows what it was like. My family wasn’t really politicized and active, but other families were.
Did you see this film as a sort of political corrective to other movies about this crisis? There’s Michael Collins, who’s mentioned in the film, not necessarily in a favorable light. There’s In the Name of the Father, which I actually haven’t seen in years. . .
You should never take your history from films. You know, everyone knows that. But if it makes you go and reinvestigate our history, then it’s a good thing. Michael Collins was all about the mythology of Michael Collins. Whereas this film is about ordinary people, and how this struggle affected their lives and their community. That’s what happens when you’re trying to portray political figures.
This is a small war film, perhaps necessarily so. There are no big battle scenes. Do you think that really felt true to this story, to the kind of war these characters were fighting?
Well, yeah, it was a guerrilla war about kids way younger than I am, about twenty, twenty-one, taking on the might of the British Empire in their own environment. That type of guerrilla warfare was used then, in other struggles around the world, so it was necessarily small. It had to be.
Were you at Cannes? What was your reaction when the film won the Palme d’Or?
It was extraordinary. I’ve seen the film twice; once when we did a cast and crew screening, and then again when they showed it in Cannes. I’ll never forget it, and that’s why I never want to watch the movie again, because you couldn’t surpass that. We had, like, a ten-minute standing ovation. I think it was the second movie to be screened in competition and there were loads of other movies after that, and then it won, and it won unanimously, and it didn’t win because of its politics. . . it won because it’s a great, great film. So, it was brilliant to be there, and it was wonderfully received in France as well.
Was it your first time in Cannes?
No, I’d been there before, but this was the first time when anyone cared.