Read our review of Dunkirk here.

Critics are raving about Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk, which is based on the actual events around the real Dunkirk evacuation in June 1940. AUGUSTMAN speaks with Cillian Murphy, who plays a nameless soldier in the film, about what it was like on the set of the film and how it’s like to work with visionary director Christopher Nolan for the fifth time.

What went through your mind when writer/director Christopher Nolan first approached you to become a part of Dunkirk?

Chris gave me a call and told me there was something he’d be sending me. We know each other well enough that he knows what might interest me, and what kinds of roles I might respond to and see as a challenge. And when it’s a Christopher Nolan film, chances are it’s going to be bloody good.  It’s a lovely feeling when he does call you up again. And this one… I was just knocked out by it.

What did you like best about his script for Dunkirk?

What first struck me about Dunkirk was that it wasn’t an American war movie, which so many of the great movies about war have been. If you were making a list of great modern war movies, I can’t think of a British film over the last 30 or 40 years that you would necessarily place on it. So, I think this appealed to Chris as a filmmaker because he recognized something in this story that was hugely unique and that audiences wouldn’t necessarily have seen before.

In the film, you play a character essentially without a name, who is only known as ‘Shivering Soldier.’  What was it about this particular role that resonated with you?

I think my character is representative of something experienced by thousands and thousands of soldiers, which is the profound emotional and psychological toll that war can have on the individual. We first meet him when he is picked up by the Moonstone, which is one of the civilian ships crossing the English Channel to evacuate soldiers at Dunkirk. He’s someone who has survived an experience that is mind-alteringly horrific, only to be told, “Actually, we’re just heading back into it.”

The film shifts between multiple interweaving storylines that cover the entire series of events at Dunkirk. But this being a Christopher Nolan film, these different storylines do not unfold along the same linear timeline. Each has its own pace – a week on land, a day on the sea and an hour in the air – and my character pops up in two of those timelines.

Cillian Murphy (right)

Your scenes on the ship were shot out on the water aboard the actual ship, the Moonstone.  Can you talk about why it was important to shoot on the real thing, as opposed to in a studio water tank?

I think Chris’s determination to capture as much of the action in-camera as possible is why his films have such an intensity and visceral quality to them. 

On Inception, I remember shooting on the side of a mountain in a snowstorm, and Chris continued to shoot even when it became absolute white-out conditions. If you want to get the most authentic reactions, or the most truthful responses from actors, throw ‘em into the real sea or fly real Spitfire airplanes over them. The audience will feel the reality of that – the actors certainly do.

What was it like to be on the Dunkirk set and have all these live explosives going off around you, with planes flying overhead and real battleships out at sea? 

The craziest thing about it is that, at the center of it all, Chris is absolutely calm. There is no panic. No one is worried about explosions or planes hitting the water or whatever else, because all of it becomes normalised. Chris is in control the entire time, and once he’s got what he needs, it’s, “Right, got that. Moving on.” It’s a carefully orchestrated machine, so it never feels like chaos. 

This was your fifth film with Chris, after Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy. Did this production feel like his biggest yet? 

My best memories of working on Christopher Nolan films are never the large-scale stuff. It’s the very involved, intensely focused, extremely rigorous work, with Chris right there beside the camera. That’s what I always remember because all of the big stuff – as incredible as it is to witness – doesn’t mean anything unless the human story is driving it.  

For me, Interstellar succeeded because it was a very emotional film, and it made me cry. No matter the scale of the set pieces he can pull off or how mind-blowing it is, none of it would have any impact if the story and performances didn’t hit you in the solar plexus.  

What impresses you most about Chris when you’re working with him on set?

It’s his vision; his fierce commitment to film; and his comprehensive grasp of the form. You meet directors who are extraordinarily strong visually, and you meet directors who are really great with actors and performances, and you meet directors who are phenomenal on script. But Chris has command of everything. Every person’s job on a film set – he knows every single one of them intimately. So, you’ve really got to be on your game when you work on a Christopher Nolan film. Otherwise he can do it better than you (laughs).  

What do you hope audiences experience when they see Dunkirk in cinemas? 

I hope the film takes people on an exciting, visceral journey into this experience, but that they’re ultimately moved by the human story that anchors it all. That’s what Chris does so well with all films, and very much so with Dunkirk. At its heart, it’s a film about courage and survival and the triumph of the human spirit, really. That might sound trite, but I think in this case it actually applies. That is what the real Dunkirk evacuation represents, and I think that spirit is present in every frame of the film.

Dunkirk is out in cinemas islandwide 20 July

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