Cillian Murphy Is No Stranger to the Apocalypse

In 'A Quiet Place Part II,' the actor once again joins the fight to save mankind from extinction.

a quiet place 2 cillian murphy emmett
Paramount Pictures

Cillian Murphy may be new to the expanding A Quiet Place universe, but he's not unfamiliar with apocalyptic scenarios, with memorable early career roles in the 2002 pandemic-zombie movie 28 Days Later and the 2007 space horror film Sunshine, both directed by Danny Boyle. In A Quiet Place Part II, he plays Emmett, a reserved, grieving man who reluctantly helps the Abbott family, led by Emily Blunt's Evelyn, steer clear of the sound-sensitive alien invaders while searching for remnants of human civilization.

We spoke with the actor, who also stars in the BBC/Netflix crime drama Peaky Blinders, about his role in the sequel more than a year ago, right before the coronavirus outbreak caused A Quiet Place Part II to be removed from its original release date of March 20, 2020, to this weekend. In our conversation, Murphy spoke about crafting his own character in this film series' universe, the anxious, hidden messages in science fiction films, and feeling a little bit of apocalyptic déjà vu.

Thrillist: I couldn't help but compare this movie with 28 Days Later, which is also post-apocalyptic and just sets you down in this disaster situation without showing the audience what happened. Did it feel similar to you at all?
Cillian Murphy: Yes and no. First of all, 28 Days Later, I think we made it in 2001. It was just pre 9/11, so it was July 2001, when we started shooting it, so that's 19 years ago. So my memories of it are distant, shall we say? Obviously, I think thematically there are some overlaps. It's funny, because when we made 28 Days Later, I was thinking about it, the SARS epidemic, whatever you want to call it, happened the year after, right? And now this thing comes out and this coronavirus, there sort of seems to be some prescience... or maybe I should just never do these films [laughs]. Good writing is prescient, I suppose, inherently, in that it captures something. What we're dealing with here is mainstream entertainment, but I also think that it is meditating on anxieties that exist now.

Everything seems very apocalyptic.
There seems to be a sort of a, I don't know, perfect storm of terrible shit happening, you know?

How were you approached to do the sequel? Did you see the first movie?
So, there's this kind of funny story about that. I saw the first movie with my kids, and we loved it, all of us. And then I composed an email to [director] John Krasinski, just to write to another artist to say, "I thought that was fucking amazing and you did a brilliant job." But I never sent it because I got embarrassed. And then he emailed me like a year later.

Did you tell him about the email?
Oh, yeah, he makes fun of me a lot.

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Was it fun finally working with him?
So much, so much fun. But he's a true artist. He's a fine, fine actor, and such an established presence. And so many people adore him, you can't walk down the street. But to then just arrive as this fully finished article, as a director, and to be able to create such amazing suspense and tension in a film, which is a really, really hard thing to do. That and atmosphere, I think, are the hardest things to do. And to do that, and then to do it again. It's quite remarkable to understand storytelling that innately, to understand the vernacular of cinema that innately is unheard of, I think, to make that transfer that seamlessly.

It was funny when the first one came out. Everyone was like, oh wow, he can really direct. This movie is super intense, and you in particular have a lot of intense stuff in this, including being underwater with a bunch of netting.
Unpleasant [laughs]. I've done a few underwater sequences and when you're underwater and constricted your body says, "You should panic now," but you're trying to act and it was quite hard. We shot some of it in the lake and then we shot some of it in Buffalo State University in the pool there. But both times I had weights on so I wouldn't float up. And I was in that lake for about a day. But you know, I will never complain as an actor because I hate actors that moan about their job because it's an amazing privilege to get to do it. And it was uncomfortable, but it was very exciting and great fun.

Was there a particular moment or scene in this that you were most excited for?
To get to work with Emily Blunt was a big attraction for me. I had never met her or worked with her up until this, but I had been a huge fan of her work. I think she's an extraordinary actress. And then also to work with [Millicent Simmonds] so closely. In the first movie, she's got this aura or this presence that is sort of unbelievable. You just cannot take your eyes off her. And I find that sometimes working with younger actors that you learn a great deal from them, because they haven't begun to intellectualize things, they just work off pure instinct. They are in the moment, which is what every actor strives to be, to be exactly in the moment, and she just has that so naturally.

Did you learn any sign language working with her?
Well, the nature of the character is that he isn't fluent in it, so I got off the hook there. But she had a translator there all the time, so we chatted all the time through the translator, and it becomes so natural that you know, you don't even notice. She's really chatty, so it was easy.

I don't know if you followed the whole Parasite awards press tour, but there was a lot of talk about foreign films and reading subtitles. And it's funny that this movie in particular is a mainstream action blockbuster thriller, but it's almost half in another language. You're reading subtitles through almost the entire thing.
Yeah, it's not that hard to do, is it?

[Whispering] I think people should get over it.
I know [laughs]. It's not a big deal.

a quiet place 2 cillian murphy emmett
Paramount Pictures

You're the newbie in this series now. What was it like to build your own character in this universe?
Well, I had a lot of time to think about it. And I spent a lot of time talking to John about it. What I hope is apparent is that he wears his history, that he wears his tragedy and his trauma, and that the tragedy and the trauma of his experiences have placed where he is now. And that he is informed by loss, and by what he's witnessed, and that has put him where we meet him. However, I love the circular nature of the story where we see him at the beginning of the movie, and he's an average guy with his kids at the baseball game, and then you see him however many minutes later and he's a completely different character. And I thought that was a lovely, elegant piece of writing to show what trauma and loss can do to a person. And then the effect of Millie's character on him. The greatest effect she has on any character is on mine.

He's learning to be a father figure again.
Yeah, I think he's deep in grief. As is Regan, as are all the Abbotts. They're all deep in grief, in sort of immediate grief in their case and him, he's been grieving for a while. She manages to unlock that grief in this amazing way. What I loved about the relationship as well is that they challenge each other. She doesn't take any shit from him. He doesn't take any shit from her. This is a film about family and about loss, and OK, it ticks all the boxes of the jump scares if you're watching it for that, but ultimately it's about how the fuck do you protect this unit in this crazy world?

Like a lot of post-apocalyptic storytelling now, it's more about the people who survive rather than the aliens or whatever disastrous thing that's happened, and who these people are who survived, and do they deserve it.
Yeah. And ultimately it's about what are the choices you make, if faced with a world-changing event like this. People make choices. Some of those choices are based on individualism, and some of them are based on collectivism or what is good for society, you know, and I find that really interesting. Most people probably won't glean that from the movie or won't want to glean that from the movie, but if they choose to, it's there, but it's not in a sort of a didactic, "Now, guys, here's the lesson you should learn." It's just there.

Both of these movies are very elegant that way, they're not mashing some message into your face. You can totally watch them as just fun thrillers or as something else.
To me, they're the smart mainstream movies. They're the movies that people go and see and they get entertained. If they wish to scratch a little deeper, they can find some other message.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.