Cillian Murphy excels at playing characters marked by a fierce sense of determination. In director Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, the Irish actor delivers an intense performance as Josef Gabčík, a Slovak soldier in the Czechoslovak army who teams up with Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich. Given the nature of his itchy trigger finger, patriotic agenda, even his Slovakian accent, Murphy’s character jeopardizes and sacrifices many lives along the way to his goal. This film, based on a true story, reveals the bravery and courage of the men and their collaborators who killed the high-ranking Nazi. On the eve of Anthropoid‘s opening, the actor chatted with me about the nature of patriotism, the film’s harrowing production, working alongside fellow Irishman Dornan, and the psychological impact of playing a character who’s experience is far removed from his own.
I’m curious if you’re a history buff? Is there a specific appeal to your playing Josef, a Nazi assassin?
No. I exclusively read novels. I can’t read biographies, autobiographies, or historical materials unless I need to for a role. My career is haphazard. My impulse is to try not to repeat myself and to explore different genres. I go on whatever is the best story or script available. It wasn’t about the period, but about the characters and the opportunity to work with Sean Ellis, who made Metro Manila. For me, it’s more about the character and what he goes through under this amount of pressure. It’s an investigation into heroism. The assassination is a failure. Heydrich dies after the event, so it’s them dealing with the responsibility that the innocent men and women die from the reprisal of the Germans.
What strikes me about Josef is that he’s a loyal patriot. He even says, “Sometimes you have to pick a side.” As an Irishman, where do you think patriotism comes from?
You can’t help but be formed by your extraction. Your history is in your DNA. Ireland has been an occupied country, and we’ve risen up against oppression. That’s a universal story. Your politics are formed by your parents, your upbringing, and your culture.
Josef diffuses tense situations, especially with Jan. How do you deal with stresses in your life? Are you a calm, forceful guy, like Josef?
I could never put myself in the same category of those guys and that bravery and courage. I try to get through the day by being a reasonably nice and good person.
Josef suffers from survivor’s guilt. He feels responsible for risking—and losing—the lives of those he’s encountered in his operation to assassinate Heydrich. Can you speak to that aspect of his character?
It’s very kind of harrowing to figure out how to play it, and what is patriotism, and heroism, and real true courage. I don’t know. It never comes easy. There’s a high price to pay, and these guys didn’t have the benefit of history or hindsight or how it would be viewed. Josef’s way was to be as emotionally closed as possible, but he meets this girl [Anna Geislerová‘s Lenka] and they become romantically involved. His friendship with Jan is deep, but he tries to keep it closed because he can possibly die.
How did you and Jamie develop the bond between your characters?
When you make a film that’s a two-hander, you try to create chemistry. It’s a weird alchemy. We got lucky. We hadn’t worked together before. We had similar sense of humor and the same approach to work. We’ve stayed friends. We spent time together to the degree we developed a level of trust. We each have big emotional breakdowns in the film, and you have to trust the other actor in order go there.
What can you say about the climactic shootout, and being waist-deep in water? Those scenes must have been hell to film.
It’s rare enough to shoot a film in vaguely chronological order, but we endeavored to do that. I was in a tank in Prague. Jamie had finished shooting by then. I’m very proud of the film, but the second half is where it got wrenching.
The psychological and emotional weight is the hardest part of it. You knew these men actually lived and they died in this way. The inevitability of what was happening, and trying to process and rationalize it is difficult. You try to portray it convincingly.
What about doing all the gunplay? It’s all make-believe, but I think the power of all the shooting informs your character, especially in contrast to Jan, who struggles to shoot his gun in some scenes.
I’m a pacifist. I abhor guns and firearms, but they pop up in films. We’re not glorifying it. But giving a representation of what actually happened. I don’t get pleasure in it. You have to do it so the character appears competent.
Can you talk about doing the Slovakian accent and being hobbled, as Josef is in his early scenes? How did you find the character’s voice and body language?
I enjoy playing transformative roles. They’re the most satisfying. I gravitate to them. I admire actors that do that. You can’t always do it, but accents are useful in that regard.
Yes, Kitten in Breakfast on Pluto!
Case and point. That was an extreme transformation.