Playing the real life heroes who may have single handedly turned the tide of World War II was a major responsibility, but Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan were up to the challenge.
As Czechoslovakian resistance fighters Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš in director Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, they faced a haunting story: Gabčík and Kubiš parachuted into Nazi-occupied Prague and cooked up a plot to assassinate SS commander Reinhard Heydrich with limited resources, little in the way of operations intelligence, and plenty of espionage that could have unraveled their entire mission. Add in Ellis’s realistic approach, and it was a harrowing job on a harrowing film.
Inverse met with Murphy and Dornan to talk about playing real life war heroes, and whether a method acting approach works for them.
Were you guys aware of Operation Anthropoid before reading the script?
Jamie Dornan: Not at all. Didn’t have a clue.
Cillian Murphy: I don’t think many people were familiar with it, but for Czech people it’s a huge part of their history. It was a defining moment and changed the course of the war. There’s still huge amounts of the Second World War that are still unexplored, and that’s why it’s such a great mine for writers and directors.
What did director Sean Ellis bring to the production? He was pulling double duty with a lot of behinds the scenes responsibilities on this film.
JD: It’s a crazy thing to watch, but very impressive to watch him operate the camera handheld and directing by giving you a note on a scene by keeping the film rolling. Keeping that energy up keeps you in it because it never drops. Luckily Cillian and I are actors who both respond to that. A lot of actors wouldn’t like rolling takes, but it keeps things very fresh.
CM: It makes a real connection because he was so invested in it. When we were running around the church or in the water in the crypt in the climax he was there too. He was experiencing everything we were, so the whole thing was so equitable.
What was it about the script that spoke to you?
JD: You just couldn’t help but be totally taken and absorbed with the plight of the story and what these guys put themselves through. The stakes alone were what writing scripts and doing movies is all about. I was compelled from the first page where the characters are literally dropped into Prague. That’s all I needed.
What is it like as an actor reading a script like this on your own and knowing the movie is dependent on the duals Jan and Jozef roles without really knowing who the other person is?
JD: When I got the script Cillian was already attached to the film, so it was Jan for me.
CM: The film definitely succeeds or fails on that, so I was anxious about who they’d cast. But coincidentally at the time myself and my wife had become obsessed with The Fall, Jamie’s TV show, so we were watching at the time when Sean said Jamie might do Anthropoid. Then we hung out, and it just sort of worked.
It’s a gamble when you’re making a film that’s a two-hander like this. I hate this thing that they do that’s a couch chemistry test when they get people together because it’s like an oxymoron. It can’t be tested, it just either happens or it doesn’t, so we were lucky.
JD: We didn’t do any screen tests. Sean trusted that we were the right combination and went for it. Luckily — hopefully — it paid off.
What do you each do as actors to prepare for such historically-based roles?
CM: It’s always been my thing to do as much research as possible. You read all the stuff, gather all the materials. You take it all, but ultimately you have to discard it in favor of the script, which is the primary document. Your role then is just to inhabit these guys. You’re always aware in the back of your mind that they existed and lived and died and what they went through was more than me or Jamie could ever imagine. But we’re still making a piece of entertainment.
JD: You have to have carry the responsibility with you, and give yourself an awareness that you’re playing a real person. But I don’t think you should let that overburden you. Like Cillian’s thing, you absorb the research but not let it be the thing that defines what you do on-set.
What’s the atmosphere like on-set, especially shooting an intense movie like this? Do you want to try and keep it light between takes?
JD: As someone who errs on that side of life it’s of the utmost importance to have light moments when you’re doing something dark. I don’t think it’s healthy to stay in the mindset of the character if they’re doing horrific things or if they’re being put in harrowing situations. It works for plenty of actors but personally it’s not beneficial to me.
CM: I’m the same.
JD: I’d heard Cillian wasn’t like that. In like eleven years of doing this I’ve never worked with a method actor.
CM: I think that word gets misused. Everyone has a method.
JD: Very true. I could have worked with somebody that’s totally unapproachable between takes, which I would have struggled with.
It would have been almost impossible to be a true method actor during the final cathedral scene standoff. Were there moments shooting that where it was too intense, too personally affecting?
CM: It’s only in retrospect you notice things like that. I love when acting becomes immersive, and you feel you’re totally in a world and you have to cancel reality because what you’re doing is so all-consuming that the real world stops. Within that bubble it’s important to puncture that every now and then, but you do come home and think, “Wow that was fucking heavy.”