In Red Lights, the chilling new psychological thriller starring Cillian Murphy, the 36-year-old Cork-born actor is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go head to head with two cinema legends, Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver.
Murphy has already proven himself as a first rate actor, but his screen career has been marked by a series of celebrated triumphs and quickly forgotten failures, often in the same year.
His high profile turns in films as diverse as The Wind That Shakes the Barley to Breakfast on Pluto to Batman Begins have shown his range as a performer, but they also remind us that although critics, directors and his fellow actors adore him, his films don’t always find wider acclaim.
That looks set to change with help from a powerful performance and his two legendary pals in Red Lights. Murphy plays Tom Buckley, an Irish American supernatural investigator whose own inner struggles turn out to be as central to the tense drama as the people he's investigating.
Murphy is ideally cast as a skeptic out to debunk superstition and trickery in the film, because with one arch of his sculpted eyebrow you can tell he doesn't suffer fools. Does he believe in ghosts and the spirit world?
“No,” Murphy tells he Irish Voice flatly. “But I’m open and I’m curious and I realize why it’s amazingly ripe for drama. I understand why everyone else is fascinated by it, but personally? No I don’t.”
For an Irishman, Murphy is unusually free of any trace of sentimentality about hauntings, spirits, leprechauns or any of that talk.
“I’m quite boringly rational and logical I’m afraid,” he smiles. “I did this film before called Sunshine which thematically addresses science and religion, and that confirmed for me views that I didn’t need reconfirming.
“I’m speaking personally, not as an actor. I know now where I stand on that stuff. I know where I stand with Red Lights, as well.”
So what attracted Murphy to the project wasn't its spooky theme, it was the quality of the writing. “It’s just a great script. I read a lot of scripts and you can predict the way most of them are going to go and with this one I couldn’t predict it at all. When you get that that’s already box ticked,” he says.
Red Lights contains some shocking twists that you simply won't see coming, but Murphy insists that's not why he decided to get involved.
“It’s very hard to talk about it without ruining it, isn’t it? I really find it hard to describe this script. I didn’t see it as a twist movie. I don’t think it would be fair to market it like that,” he says.
“The film is about magic and illusion and whether or not these psychic powers are real or not real, but it’s also about misdirection. You think one thing is occurring but really something else is.”
The revelation of Red Lights is how confidently Murphy holds his own against legends De Niro and Weaver. In fact he goes head to head with both in battles of wills that place him at the forefront of Hollywood's acting talent.
But Murphy won't be relocating to Los Angles anytime soon. A longtime London dweller, he's famously suspicious of stardom and its trappings and prefers to live the life of a family man.
Being that grounded family man (he has two young children with his artist wife Yvonne) has helped him, even when it comes to acting alongside legends.
“De Niro and Weaver are legends as you say, and before I even thought of becoming a actor they were heroes of mine from seeing their films as a kid,” he says.
“You have that awe without a doubt, but you must say, ‘Cill don’t drop the ball now, it’s going to be fine.’ It was helped by them being so generous and good to me and supportive. I will never forget it. To act with one of them, but to act with both of them in the same movie?”
It turns out that Murphy has major chemistry with his co-star Weaver, which you can see in every scene they play together. They clearly get along, both as actors and people.
“It was important there was that warmth between them in cinematic terms,” Murphy agrees. “I mean they’re platonic, they’re not related, but they love each other.
“She’s like his mentor and his mother and luckily we really clicked. We have a very similar sense of humor.”
One of the things Red Lights is about is Tom Buckley’s discovery that he’s finally ready to confront why he goes after all these fake psychics, tricksters and charlatans. He learns how much his own private motivations have been a factor in the story.
“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” says Murphy. “For me it’s the story of obsession and self-acceptance. Everybody can identify with those feelings or emotions, I think.”
Already Red Lights has divided the critics in a way that doesn't happen often. Few things make critics more uncomfortable than the supernatural, and Red Lights starts a conversation that many in America are uncomfortable having because of the way faith is politicized here.
Murphy himself doesn't mind a range of strong reactions, he welcomes it he says.
“For me films that exercise people, films that get strong reactions from them, I’m good with that. If some people walk out or some people are thinking about what they’ve seen for days I’m good with that too,” he says.
“It’s better than being instantly disposable. If they have some residue, if they stick around with you, then you’ve been affected in some way.”
De Niro gives a terrifying performance in the film, one that easily ranks with his best work as a mysterious villain, but director Rodrigo Cortes has also created a sense of menace that builds as the film progresses.
“I think what the director has done very well is something that its hard to do in film. He’s created real atmosphere. There’s a palpable sense of dread and you know that it’s not going to end well,” says Murphy.
“But in terms of that suspense thing you have just got to be open. When one character spits at me and another screams or attacks me it really was terrible to experience. You react as a person the way you would as an actor too.”
The red lights of the title refer to the tell tale signs that Matheson and Buckley pick up that there is fakery at work. They successfully search for every subtle trick behind staged supernatural events until they are eventually confounded by Simon Silver (De Niro) who may well be the real thing. That growing fear fuels the drama that follows.
Meanwhile, Murphy the family man is quite content to pick and choose which roles he plays based on what interests him, not based on how much he'll make.
“I believe nostalgia is death. You can't look back at what you did and ignore the present. You have to push forward. That's what I believe,” he says.
And Ireland is as important to him now as ever. He still speaks with his Cork accent, and he still gets home to renew himself he says.
“I go all the time. I'm from Cork and I return there but I like to go to the west as well as often as I can. I always will.” Red Lights opens July 13.
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