Blue streak

Cillian Murphy's big year culminates with an incandescent performance-wearing a dress-in Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto

Photo: William Ciccocioppo

Photo: William Ciccocioppo

"All you do is play the creep." That's what Irish actor Cillian Murphy heard all summer, thanks to roles as chilling psycho killers in Batman Begins and Red Eye. But in Neil Jordan's 1970s-set fable Breakfast on Pluto,Murphy plays a strikingly different part—a happy-go-lucky transvestite persevering in the face of prejudice during a period of bloody civil strife in Ireland.

"I didn't consciously say I had to make this movie now to counteract the other choices," Murphy, 29, explains from the patio of the InterContinental hotel during September's Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, he says, he wanted to play Patrick "Kitten" Braden, the bubbly cross-dresser in search of his long-lost mum, because it was "a once-in-a-lifetime role."

Glammed up, purring seductively and dressed in a variety of fashions from "black leather terrorist" to "Indian squaw," Cillian (pronounced "KILL-ee-in") Murphy makes for a most appealing cross-dresser—a type of person, he admits, he hadn't known much about. "With most characters you have a reference point, but I had none here whatsoever." To prepare for the role, he sought out a transvestite who agreed to dress him up and take him to clubs, where he gained valuable insight into his character's psyche.

"What I noticed about all these transvestites I went out with is that they're so quick and witty because they spend their whole life having insults thrown at them," says Murphy, who lives in London with his wife, Yvonne, and newborn son, Malachy. "They can be as bitchy as fuck, but it's a total defense mechanism. Kitten has that too, because the character has been hurt so much and has built up this shell." More specifically, he survives various traumas—starting with being left at a church door by his mother, and moving through repeated beatings, an attempted rape and further instances of abandonment—with a childlike idealism that never caves in to encroaching despair.

A fan of both director Jordan (who's mixed bombs and trannies before, in 1992's The Crying Game) and Patrick McCabe's 1998 novel, on which the movie is based, Murphy auditioned for the role four years ago. When Jordan dragged his feet, Murphy turned on the pressure. "It's the kind of film that, if you can't find the actor for the role, it wouldn't really work," Jordan maintains. "I tested Cillian and he was so alive and moving. But I was a bit nervous about revisiting issues I had covered before—you know, with the cross-dressing and the terrorism. So I put it aside and kept working on the script. And Cillian kept coming to me and saying, 'We have to do this movie. I'll be too old by the time you make up your mind.' "

When the film finally began shooting, Murphy threw himself into it. "I loved all the grooming. I loved dressing up. I loved looking beautiful," he says. "I suppose that's the energy of the character, that effervescence and irrepressibility and energy that carries her through life." His favorite garment was the fur jacket Kitten wore during some of her lowest points. "And I still managed to look pretty chic," he jokes. The character's ebullience even infected his daily life. "Generally, when I work I stay off the booze and I'm clean, but I was in party mode the whole time," he recalls. "It's not a conscious thing, but the character was probably the reason."

In Breakfast, the costumes and the characters who wear them reflect a libertine subculture from decades past. "Because of the androgynous vibe of Bowie, Jagger and [T. Rex glam rocker] Marc Bolan, everyone was fucking with their sexuality a bit, so you could have total license," Murphy says. "It was probably the coolest era for dressing."

As a musician himself (from age 17 to 22 he played guitar and sang with his brother in a Frank Zappa--inspired band, the Sons of Mr. Green Genes), Murphy also used the film's tunes to get into character. "During the '70s, there was lots of serious, progressive music," he says. "And then there was all this fluffy, nonsensical music, which is what we used. It's very saccharine and over the top, and Kitten finds deeper meanings in these trashy songs." Murphy even sang on one of the movie's tracks— the Lee Hazlewood--Nancy Sinatra hit "Sand"—for which he voiced the female part next to punk notable Gavin Friday, who has a small but pivotal role in the film.

While Murphy identified with certain aspects of the era the film captures, he lacks firsthand knowledge of his homeland's history of violence. Born in Cork in 1976, he has little memory of the Troubles. "You might see it on TV, but it was very remote for me. And I've never been politically minded as far as the IRA struggle," he says. "Unless you lived in that part of Ireland, anyone from my generation and from a middle-class backgroundboth of my parents were teacherswould say that," he continues. "I can understand why people became politicized and would use physical force. I understand it, but I'm against it."

Sounds as if a bit of Kitten's guilelessness has yet to leave Murphy. "It's incredible to come across a character that is totally benign," he says. "He hasn't a bad bone in his body. I just thought that was amazing."

Breakfast on Pluto opens Wednesday 16.