Cillian Murphy seems to be drawn to dark tales. Most recently, of course, he starred as J. Robert Oppenheimer in 2023’s Oppenheimer, the grim, multi-award-winning thriller about the development of the atomic bomb. He also starred in Peaky Blinders, a British TV drama about Birmingham’s gangsters in the early 1900s. But one of his very first major breakout roles was in 2002’s 28 Days Later, a horror movie about the outbreak of a deadly virus in London. And that particular dark tale might have inspired him to make some major lifestyle changes. While Murphy is vegan now for health and ethical reasons, it all started because he was afraid of contracting a contagious deadly virus.

Early 2000s: ‘28 Days Later’ in the movies and Mad Cow Disease on the farms

In a nutshell, the plot of 28 Days Later follows a bicycle courier (played by Murphy) after he awakens from a coma to find that a mysterious, deadly virus has been released in London, turning its victims into aggressive Zombie-like figures before eventually killing them. Widely considered to be a horror masterpiece, it was one of the most profitable horror films of 2002 (a sequel has recently been confirmed, but it’s not yet clear if Murphy will star).

But while everyone was flocking to the movies to watch 28 Days Later more than two decades ago, something pretty sinister was also going on in the real-life food supply. In the same year, a British woman living in Florida developed Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which she likely contracted after consuming meat from a cow that had bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or as it was more widely known, “mad cow disease.” 

VCJD, which is fatal, affects the brain. And while rare, the spread of mad cow disease had many people panicking. Murphy was no exception—in fact, the star has barely touched meat since the early 2000s because of the fear of developing vCJD.

“I was vegetarian for about 15 years. But it was never a moral decision. It was more that I was worried about getting mad cow disease,” Cillian Murphy told ‘Mr Porter’ in 2017

He reiterated this reasoning recently on the WTF Podcast, telling host Marc Maron: “There was loads of mad cow disease and stuff like that happening … it was a bad scene. So I just don’t do it now.” But he also explained that while the fear of developing the rare brain disease was one of his initial motivators to ditch meat, now, he follows a vegan lifestyle for many reasons.


2024: Cillian Murphy is vegan for his health and the planet

“I’ve been trying the vegan thing,” Murphy told Maron, stating that while he does miss cheese, he doesn’t miss meat at all. “I’ve been off the meat for a long time,” he explained. “I had kind of a relapse [when I ate venison], and I didn’t feel any better, so I’m back off it again.” He confirmed to the host that he now follows the plant-based lifestyle for health and ethical reasons. “I think it’s better for the planet, right?” he said to Maron.

Indeed, research suggests that Murphy’s new lifestyle is better for the planet. In 2022, for example, one study from the University of Bonn in Germany concluded that meat consumption in rich countries must drop by 75 percent to reduce strain on the environment.

Animal agriculture is responsible for around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, drives water and air pollution, and is a leading cause of deforestation and habitat destruction.

“If all humans consumed as much meat as Europeans or North Americans, we would certainly miss the international climate targets and many ecosystems would collapse,” Dr. Matin Qaim said.

Following a plant-based lifestyle also has multiple health benefits. In fact, research suggests that lifestyle may significantly reduce the risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. And of course, it reduces the risk of vCJD, however, it’s important to note that this disease is incredibly rare. Only four cases have ever been reported in the US, and these were likely acquired from eating contaminated meat outside of the country. 

That said, scientists have warned that animal agriculture is a disease threat. 


The real risk of another pandemic might come from factory farms

The world has been battling a worsening outbreak of bird flu since 2021, and now the virus has spread from birds to animals like foxes, dolphins, cats, mink, seals, polar bears, and cows. And again, just like in the early 2000s, there are concerns that the disease could spill over into the food supply.

The USDA is urging against panic over milk products, but all milk from affected cows is being destroyed in a bid to stop it from entering the grocery stores. And experts also cannot say for certain that the virus won’t mutate to the point where it can spread between humans (although this doesn’t seem to have happened yet).

Some are pointing the finger of blame at factory farms, where thousands of animals are kept in cramped, often dirty, industrialized conditions. “Intensive farming has accelerated the circulation and mutation of the virus and continues to do so,” Wendla Beyer, Policy Coordinator at international animal welfare organization Four Paws, recently said in a statement

So given all of the above, Murphy’s decision to go vegan makes perfect sense. While many of his roles may be dark, serious, and at times, frightening, being compassionate offscreen may just help to keep the real-life world a little brighter.  

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