This summer, however, the 29-year-old Cork native reached a whole new level of distinction playing the villainous Scarecrow in the blockbuster action-adventure movie, “Batman Begins.” With his starring role in “Red Eye,” the new Wes Craven thriller set at 30,000 feet in the air, his career seems set to soar even higher.
“It was great,” the actor said of working on a movie the filmmakers have described as largely a two-person drama. “I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I never played a part like this. I got to do very interesting things.”
In the film, reluctant flyer Lisa Reisert (“The Notebook” and “Mean Girls” star Rachel McAdams) meets handsome Jackson Rippner (Murphy) in an airport terminal, shares a drink with him and is later delighted to find herself seated next to him on a night flight from Dallas to Miami.
Her hopes for possible romance are quickly dashed, though, when Jackson reveals he is an operative in a nefarious plot to kill the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (“Dallas” and “All My Children” star Jack Scalia.) Only Lisa stands in between Jackson and his goal. To ensure her cooperation, Lisa is told her father (“The Boxer” and “Braveheart” actor Brian Cox) will be slain by an assassin awaiting Jackson’s call.
“It’s a psychological thriller set on an airplane and it’s effectively a battle of wills between two people sitting beside each other in the coach section of a plane on a red eye flight,” Murphy explained. “It’s very economic. It is 85 minutes long, so it’s a very fast ride. It hits all the right buttons in terms of getting those shocks and those frights and those jumps with all the light relief that is needed, as well.”
Asked to offer some insight into who Jackson is and what motivates him, the actor admitted even he is at a bit of a loss to define the man.
“Well, part of the thing is that we don’t know,” he said, noting Jackson seems like an approachable, affable guy when Lisa first meets him, then turns out to be something altogether different. “He’s quite mysterious. There’s no investigation into who he really is or who exactly he is working for or where he comes from. There’s no particular investigation into that and so I tried to keep that as it was in the script. But I think he considers himself a professional. He is very, very good at his job. He’s a very intelligent and resourceful man, but I think he slowly unravels over the course of the movie.”
Murphy said that working daily on a set that was built to resemble the close quarters of a Boeing 767 helped establish the tension necessary to make the movie believable.
“It added to the whole thing of being on a plane-that confined space,” recalled the “28 Days Later” hero. “All the passengers were there. I’ve never experienced turbulence like that in a real flight, thank God, but it was pretty intense.”
The son of a French teacher mother and school inspector father, who first garnered attention for his outstanding performance in the stage version of “Disco Pigs” at the 1996 Dublin Theatre Festival, said he had long admired Craven for his “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” movies, which are often credited with reinventing the horror flick genre.
“He just knows — like no one else — how to achieve that suspense and that tension and he also knows the little moments that can manipulate the audience’s reaction,” Murphy noted.
According to production notes for the film, the actor so coveted the role of Jackson in Craven’s “Red Eye” that he flew from his home in London to Los Angeles to meet with the filmmaker two days before his wedding.
Producer Marianne Maddalena revealed Murphy’s bride-to-be, Yvonne, was “very nervous that he wouldn’t make it back in time.” She was quick to add, however, that, “it all worked out.”
“We talked to him for about half an hour, he flew back to London and got married two days later. He was the first and last actor we met for the role. We just knew this was the guy and he was fantastic,” Maddalena observed.
Craven was equally impressed with the actor’s talents and the lengths Murphy went through to secure the role of Jackson.
“He had immense enthusiasm,” Craven recalled in notes for the film. “He was bright, he was funny and he had those blinding blue eyes. I got a sense of intelligence and intensity. It was clear he very much wanted the part.”
Despite their characters’ nerve-wracking, on-screen relationship, McAdams also had nothing but praise for her latest leading man.
“Cillian is such an amazing actor,” gushed the “Mean Girls” star. “Both him and Wes keep things light. You’re dealing with such weight and you’re terrified all the time. The tension is so great and they’re just great guys and they are so not like what you would assume they would be like. And Cillian is a very physical actor and I love physicality. There was a lot of communication. It felt like a real collaboration.”
“Red Eye” opens nationwide Friday. Murphy will next be seen playing a transvestite cabaret singer in Neil Jordan’s eagerly awaited film adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel, “Breakfast on Pluto,” due out in theaters this November.