Helen McCrory Remembers Cillian Murphy | Television

I first met Helen in the late ’90s when I attended an audition for a play at the Donmar Warehouse in London – I think Colin Farrell got the part. For some reason she was there. I was just getting started, really nervous, and I think she got that. We went out at one point to smoke a rollie and she was really kind and supportive. I told her about it when we started doing Peaky blinders and she really remembered it.

Helen had this sincere compassion. It was part of his DNA. It wasn’t an actress who showed up, did the gig, and came home. All along Peaky blinders, she chatted with the members of the team as well as with the actors. She knew everyone’s name. It’s a huge collaboration to do a show like that and it’s easy to think of it as just the actors, but she’s always been very aware of the collective aspect of what we do. At the end of series two, she actually stood up and performed a poem for all of us. It was about how special the show was and how great the team was. It was humorous, but really caring. She had obviously thought about it a lot. It was pure Helen.

At Peaky blinders, I think the key relationship has always been between my character, Tommy, and his character, Polly. It was complex. She was his aunt, but sometimes his mother and sometimes his sister. Sometimes they were almost a husband and wife team.

In terms of her acting, I felt from the start that she was functioning on another level. She elevated every scene given to us on the page. She would find one revealing little thing and exploit it in order to make the scene more emotionally intense.

McCrory as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders. Photograph: Robert Viglasky / BBC / Caryn Mandabach Productions Ltd 2019

Her preparation was rigorous because she wanted every scene to be as good as possible. She constantly came up with ideas, suggestions, requests. It was inspiring, especially for the younger actors, who all admired him. The thing was, however, that she couldn’t receive any praise. She was immune to it, even embarrassed. She would get rid of it. I think people loved him for that when we were promoting the show. She was grounded.

Helen gave Polly that matriarchal aspect and imbued her with a degree of humanity and fallibility that many people have come to relate to. Family is at the heart of the Peaky Blinders drama. It was one of the first British television series to portray a working class family as strong and powerful as the American series. We have talked about the violence from time to time. It’s never the violence of Hollywood superheroes – it has real consequences. Nonetheless, I think Helen struggled with it and she spoke about it publicly. She was honest and open about her feelings that way.

On set, a lot of the scenes could be incredibly intense, but we laughed so much. She was so funny, very dry and self-deprecating. With a series like Peaky blinders, when you’re there for the long haul, you really need to have a partner on set who you can laugh and joke with. If I was worried about anything, I would go see her. Helen was my best friend on set and I think I can say it was the same for her.

Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory at the Peaky Blinders Series 2 premiere in Birmingham, 2014.
Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory at the Peaky Blinders Series 2 premiere in Birmingham, 2014. Photograph: PA Images / Alamy

There was a point where we both realized that the show had become this global phenomenon and for me it was pretty tricky in a way. She was much more comfortable in the public role – dealing with fans and all the media attention. This stuff terrifies me, so I was in awe of how she could do it with so much ease and grace. She walked this line very elegantly.

Towards the end, Helen was incredibly deprived of her illness. She didn’t tell everyone, so most of the people on set didn’t know, even in series five, when she was really sick and in treatment. She would never ask for sympathy. She just wasn’t that kind of person. I spoke to her towards the end and she was still making jokes. The way she handled it was absolutely courageous and dignified.

She would have been in series six if the pandemic hadn’t put everything on the back burner. We were only five days away from filming in March 2020 when the lockdown was announced. Helen was the heart of this show and it was hard to do it without her. Really hard. There was this enormous absence on the set. We have all felt it. She died while we were filming. She was too young. You can’t help but think of all the amazing roles she would’ve had.

As an actress, Helen was all about truth, dedication, commitment, ambition, empathy. When I think of his best performances, it is above all his power and his presence that come to mind. As a person, you are running out of superlatives. I guess for me her kindness is what I miss the most. I think about her a lot. I still can’t believe she isn’t here.

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