“I was so emotionally wired that I couldn’t sleep”

When Cillian Murphy and Max Porter first worked together, Murphy worried about the show so much that he couldn’t sleep. The project was a theatrical adaptation of Porter’s novel The Sorrow is the Thing with Feathers, in which a grieving husband and father of two sons is repeatedly visited by a giant crow. Now the duo have created All of This Unreal Time, a hybrid of film, music and installation. Neither has seen the final mix yet, but Porter says it’s gonna be “f ** king noisy”. Directed by Aoife McArdle and to music by The National’s Dessner brothers and Jon Hopkins, the piece is a dreamlike denominational monologue exploring guilt, shame and climate disaster.

Cillian murphy Grieving is the thing with feathers was the most satisfying and exhausting thing I have ever done. By a long stretch. Being up there, playing daddy and crow, going through that cycle of mourning every night, was emotionally and psychologically draining.

Max Carrier I think being beaten over and over at ping pong by me must have been extremely exhausting as well.

CM Your arms are way too long – you have an unfair advantage.

deputy Ha.

CM I haven’t recovered enough to get back on stage yet. I remember when we talked about making All of This Unreal Time. I was blown away by [the script], but I said it couldn’t be a living thing. He had to be filmed.

deputy We knew we wanted to collaborate. We wanted other skills. In the literary world, I find it really unfortunate that the text is limited to the copyrighted object for sale. I’m much more interested in bringing up the text and walking around the room, sharing the meaning of the play.

CM You were like that with Grief too. You have been remarkably open and generous with the text.

deputy Controlling it is totally counterproductive. I am so much more interested in the thoughts of others now than in my own. I know mine very well and generally wish to escape them.

You work with Jon Hopkins and the Dessner brothers. What does the room look like?

MP The syntax and the rhythm were intended almost like a meteorological system, with lulls and stormy moments. I wouldn’t know what it looked like until Cillian was up and performed it. We filmed in these interesting and desolate post-industrial parts of London. Large abandoned streets, marshes, tunnels. It was really intense and we shot at night. There’s an incredible shot from the Truman Brewery, and Cillian lies down in the pouring rain in the middle of that street.

CM It was five in the morning. I was wet for quite a while.

deputy We were losing words, adding words, to allow Cillian to bring that energy to them as he walked the streets. It was more of a musical process than a literary one.

CM With a monologue, there must be musicality. When you get to perform it, it has to sing, literally. I think sometimes the rhythm is more important than the meaning in the performance. Aoife McArdle, who directed the film, has a remarkable musical ear. Mary Hickson, who produced it, is obsessed with music. Everyone on it was a music nerd.

deputy We have that, for lack of a less far-fetched phrase, a dynamic syncope between Cillian’s performance and the different musical and cinematographic elements. There is a kind of non-fixation; it is still moving.

The film follows a man who looks back on his life and faces his regrets. It’s a work of fiction, but does part of it come from your own fear, guilt, and shame about what it means to be a man?

deputy Yes. We talked about it, Cillian, about the changes in the world of cinema and the #MeToo era, and how we come to terms with the things that deeply concern us in the industries we work in, and the work we do. ‘an individual can do.

CM Max has three boys, I have two boys. We are raising boys in this world – it weighs heavily on me. In my performance, it was definitely on my mind.

deputy Yeah, boys as potential weapons, lifters. Raise them in the age of climate emergency, nuclear warheads, populism. What are the responsibilities, but also how to give these boys a sense of our unlimited love for them and the scale of things in this world that can interest, charm and enchant them. It’s a kind of painful love letter to childhood.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: Max Porter (left) and Cillian Murphy with Enda Walsh during rehearsals for the play in 2018. Photograph: Tom Jamieson / New York Times

Being a parent has to be the scariest thing in the world.

CM My boys are teenagers now, which is quite extraordinary. It’s scary, but it’s so rewarding and brilliant and remarkable and beyond your control, in large part. They arrived as their own people, and your job is just to point them in the right direction as best you can.

deputy Sometimes that sounds beautifully achievable, doesn’t it? And other times, it seems ridiculously beyond our reach.

Cillian, would you like Max to write something happy for you?

CM [laughs] I find it to be a deeply hopeful play – same with Grief. What has always attracted me about the characters, the books I read, or the movies and paintings, is seeing humans go through things. I like to see people under pressure. I have always thought that for the drama to be stimulating or touching, you have to go through a fire. That’s probably why I don’t do romantic comedies too often.

deputy There are some funny lines, aren’t there?

CM I hope!

deputy Life is dark and funny, I think. But someone read this text recently and said it doesn’t necessarily sound depressing but coming from a depressed place. I accept that I am probably, in ecological terms, depressed. I am afraid that human beings are not doing what they need to do. I think what tends to happen in the climate emergency writings is that people get big and abstract and move away from being human, or people feel guilty. It seemed quite counterproductive to me. I thought, what would happen if you somehow scrambled all of these elements?

Do you both feel like you know what you’re doing now, or are you still learning?

CM I don’t think any artist really knows what they’re doing. We find out all the time. The great thing about getting older and having a little more experience under your belt is that you can reach out to people and collaborate. This project was born thanks to artists who contact each other directly. There were no middlemen, no agents. It was just artist to artist, and then the Manchester International Festival joined us and commissioned it. I don’t think there are enough cross-collaborations between artists.

deputy I don’t want to be just in my office browsing Amazon reviews of my own work. I loved how much we learned from each other and still learn.

And after?

MP I have a bit of a crush on the theater. I write a monologue, I play with it [an adaptation of his book The Death of Francis Bacon] for the theater, and working with a director on a project that I realized shouldn’t be a novel and turn it into a play. I guess I want to write novels that look like plays or do plays that look like novels. I think the most progressive ideas about language – who owns it, who interprets it, tries to be ambitious with meaning – is on stage.

CM All I know is I need to feel like I’m ready to go back and commit to whatever it takes to take the stage every night and be open and vulnerable. I think I probably underestimated grieving, which would take me. I am so proud of it. I think whatever I do next will have to match that in some way. People often think that in the theater, we work two hours in the evening, then we have a day off. It’s the contrary. You prepare for this thing that you do for two hours all day, and then, as it happened with me in Grieving, I was so emotionally wired that I couldn’t sleep at night. I was doing the show, I couldn’t sleep, then I thought about it all day. It consumes you, in a way that for me, during this game, was not healthy. But those two hours on stage were magical. If you ever say to yourself, “Wasn’t I great in that one?” Or “That was that one,” then you have the option of stagnating or becoming nostalgic. We must continue to move forward. I like not knowing what will follow.

deputy You are very good buddy. You could be a huge asshole and you are not.

CM Thanks, Max, that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me. – Guardian

All this unreal time is at Manchester International Festival from Thursday July 1 to Sunday, The 4th of July

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