A soft-spoken, fair-skinned actor with startling blue eyes, a penchant for playing volatile characters, and a reluctance to forsake his critically lauded stage career for a life in film, American audiences may best know Irish actor Cillian Murphy as the bike courier making his way through infected London in director Danny Boyle's apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later. Though the film may have been Murphy's first to find wide stateside exposure, he has been appearing onscreen in the U.K. and his native Ireland since 1997. Born in Douglas, Cork, Ireland, in 1974, Murphy's father was a school inspector and his mother a French teacher. Attending school at Presentation Brothers College Cork while intending to enter into a career in law, Murphy was an avid rugby player who was turned on to the Concordia Theater's unique stage productions in his fourth year. Murphy soon signed up for a workshop with Concordia's Pat Tiernan and it quickly became apparent that he had a natural flair for the stage. Soon cast as the wildly emotional Pig in Concordia's production of Disco Pigs, Murphy debuted to rave reviews and was soon skipping school to go on tour with the production. Though his acting had initially begun as a hobby and a way to kill time on the weekends, it was quickly taking over his life and a career in law seemed less and less appealing. Though he would attempt to continue his law studies, it was soon obvious to Murphy that his heart just wasn't in it.
Subsequently cast in a series of interesting and complex roles, Murphy made his feature debut in the 1998 film Sweety Barrett and quickly followed with the coming-of-age comedy drama Sunburn. Though it was obvious that his stage talents translated well to the silver screen, Murphy still maintained that the rush of theater couldn't be touched by celluloid. The problem in Ireland of suicide and poor mental health among young men prompted Murphy to accept a role in the 2000 drama On the Edge, and his role of a suicidal psychiatric patient proved memorable and affecting. Following How Harry Became a Tree (2001), it was time to adapt Disco Pigs into a feature film, and with director Kirsten Sheridan at the helm, Murphy reprised his role of Pig to enthusiastic results. By the time 28 Days Later rolled around, it seemed that everyone except United States audiences were familiar with the rising star, and with the stateside release of the film in mid 2003, all that was soon to change. Noting that, in his opinion, the best actors alternate frequently between stage and screen, Murphy strived to keep a balance as his growing popularity found his film career taking precedence. Following 2003's Zonad, Murphy began preparation for such features as Intermission and Girl With a Pearl Earring (both 2003).
Murphy's resumé amassed higher and higher profile roles. 2005 brought his most popular film to date as he played the villain opposite hero Christian Bale in Batman Begins. Murphy's "boy next door" face seemed to make his performance as the menacing Scarecrow all the more disturbing, and he would go on to play the bad guy again later that same year in Red Eye, though this time he wore makeup to cover his boyish features. Soon he was donning even more makeup, however, as a transsexual in the indie hit Breakfast on Pluto. Playing both a victim and a hero in the U.K. of the 1970s, Murphy's ethereal performance as a boy who leaves his Ireland home to live as a woman in London was praised by critics, and the film was a cult success. He followed it up with another passion project in 2006: Ken Loach's award-winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a look at the Irish Republicans of the early 20th century and the anti-British rebellion that would continue to tear families apart for decades to come. He next signed on to star with Lucy Liu in the romantic comedy Watching the Detectives, another independent venture that would find Murphy playing a shy film geek who's pulled out of his movie collection and into the real world when he meets a real-life femme fetal, played by Liu. Also on Murphy's calendar for 2007 was the Danny Boyle psychological sci-fi thriller Sunshine, about a small crew of astronauts sent to reignite Earth's dying sun. Over the next few years, Murphy would apper in a number of other films, like Inception, Retreat, and Broken.