It is nearly impossible to think of Peaky Blinders without Cillian Murphy in the show’s title role of Tommy Shelby, but it turns out Murphy almost didn’t get the role. The Netflix Original via BBC has seen massive success, winning a slew of awards and gaining popularity with each passing season, mostly due to its outstanding and complex characters. The long-anticipated Peaky Blinders season 6 is predicted to air this winter followed by the recently-announced full-length Peaky Blinders movie.
Peaky Blinders begins in 1919 in Birmingham and follows the Shelby family as they murder and cheat their way from street hoodlums to legitimate business owners. As head of the family and leader of the gang, Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy) is the mastermind behind the empire, guiding the family through gang wars, turmoil within the family, complicated politics and more, all leading to the family’s pinnacle of power as wealthy aristocrats. The family returns to their illegal ways in Peaky Blinders 5, however, when they lose their fortune due to the stock market crash of 1929. Presumably picking up where the show left off, Peaky Blinders season 6 will continue with Tommy dangling at the edge of sanity, guilt-wracked and grieving from the loss of his wife and strung out on opiates.
Murphy’s portrayal of Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders has earned him multiple awards including Best Actor in a Lead Role in Drama from the Irish Film & Television Academy, along with the National Television Award for Best Drama Performance. It seems that director Steven Knight was not sure about casting Murphy as his leading man, however, and had his eyes on someone else for the role. When casting for Tommy in Peaky Blinders, Knight at one point wanted Jason Statham for the role, and it was actually Cillian Murphy that changed his mind.
In an interview, Knight says (via Esquire), “I met them both in LA to talk about the role and opted for Jason. One of the reasons was because physically in the room Jason is Jason. Cillian, when you meet him, isn’t Tommy.” Murphy sensed Knight’s hesitation in casting him and later said (via The Guardian) “There was a bit of convincing needed. Initially, there may have been some doubts about whether I had the requisite physicality, which I understand. I’m not the most physically imposing individual.”
One of the most compelling things about Tommy throughout Peaky Blinders, however, is his ability to capitalize on being underestimated. Like Knight with Murphy, Tommy Shelby’s enemies do not see him as someone to fear because he does not immediately present as someone to be feared. It is because of Tommy’s lack of physical imposition that he is who he is on the show. Casting someone as physically imposing as Statham in the role would have changed numerous factors about Peaky Blinders, and maybe not for the better.
To change Knight’s mind, Murphy sent the director a text saying, “Remember, I’m an actor.” In the interview, Knight recalls his reaction to Muphy’s text, stating “…[that] is absolutely the thing, because he can transform himself.” And transform himself, he does. When watching Peaky Blinders, Tommy is every bit as psychologically terrifying—if not more so—than a more physically dominating actor may have been in the role, because he is ruthless and brilliant and perpetually one step ahead.