Cillian Murphy revealed that when he landed his breakthrough role in “28 Days Later,” the actor didn’t consider it a zombie movie. Murphy, a first-time Oscar nominee for his work in “Oppenheimer,” discussed the 2002 hit film at a taping of SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Conversations program. In the nearly 90-minute conversation, recorded in December, Murphy talks about his lengthy career on stage and screen. That includes working with director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland on the film, in which he plays a man who wakes from a coma 28 days after a rage-inducing virus has caused society to break down.
“I wasn’t too aware we were making a zombie movie, to be honest with you,” Murphy noted, adding he hadn’t seen any of George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” series. “It was right around the time SARS happened and there was all this ‘air rage’ stuff going on. So I never felt it was a zombie film. And I’m glad I didn’t watch the Romero movies because I didn’t realize how hallowed those movies were.”
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Murphy also noted that at the time, it wasn’t a popular film trope. “Before ’28 Days Later,’ there weren’t that many zombie movies — it was kind of a dead genre,” he said, causing the audience to laugh over the unintentional pun. “So Danny and Alex rebooted it.”
Riley mentioned the film is more about a pandemic, to which Murphy credited Garland. He added that during the COVID-19 pandemic, he saw the frequent references to the film. “The amount of memes — I do know what a meme is — that everybody sent me during the pandemic of ‘28 Days Later’ was crazy,” he said. “It just shows that good writing is prescient, it always remains prescient and relative.”
Murphy recalled his process of booking the role, noting that he was already a fan of Boyle from his films “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting.”
“They were formative films for me,” he said. “I remember going to see them in the cinema, they were huge for me. So I really desperately wanted [’28 Days Later.’]” He estimated he auditioned six times for the part.
Asked if the then-newcomer was nervous to headline a film with established actors like fellow Irishman Brendan Gleeson, Murphy noted that he was grateful they had already worked together. Gleeson played the title role in 1998’s “Sweety Barrett,” a small Irish film that marked Murphy’s film debut as “Pat the Barman.”
“I remember on that film I had to pour him a pint of Guinness. My hand was shaking,” Murphy recalled, demonstrating how shaky his hands were. “But he was so kind. I was just a kid, but he would spend the time and talk to you. I think that show the measure of the man. I’ve worked with him five or six times now and he’s one of my all-time heroes and the kindest, sweetest man – and an absolute legend.”
Murphy also discussed how they shot two endings to the film – one in which Jim survives, another in which he dies. Murphy was asked if he had a preference, with Riley noting she likes the “optimistic” one. “Yeah, I think when I was younger and bit more nihilist … I liked the image of two women surviving at the end and fuck the man,” he said. “But I think they wanted the version with the hope.”
With constant talk of a sequel to the movie, Riley pointed out that it was good Jim survived — they could bring him back for another movie. “I’m available,” Murphy offered.
Though the conversation was recorded in December, it’s proven timely, as it was announced in January that a sequel has been greenlit with both Boyle and Garland returning – and that it may launch a new trilogy of films. THR also reported that Murphy will be onboard as an executive producer.
In the wide-ranging conversation, Murphy speaks on a wide range of topics, including how he would write hand-written letters to directors he admired and how he learned to perfect an American accent by growing up on television shows like “The A-Team” and “MacGyver.” He also discusses how “28 Days Later” led him to his ongoing collaboration with his “Oppenheimer” director. “Chris Nolan saw that movie and all of a sudden, I had a meeting with Chris,” he revealed. “We met and chatted and that was the initial beginning of the relationship with Chris.”
Watch the full talk from the SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations program in the video below.
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