There are a lot of things that make Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer the best film of the year. From Nolan’s confident direction and meticulous screenplay, to the immaculate work by all members of the film’s technical departments, to the large ensemble of supporting actors and actresses delivering stellar performances; they are all pieces of a puzzle that make up this exceptional piece of cinematic excellence. But the largest, and most important, piece as to why Oppenheimer works as well as it does is the deeply committed, transcendent performance by Cillian Murphy, who stars as the titular J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Murphy, an Irish actor, started on the stage when he made his debut in the 1996 play Disco Pigs for the Corcadorca Theatre Company in Cork, Ireland, where he was born and raised. He later reprised his role of Darren in the film adaption, and from then on, he has starred in dozens of films and television series over the last 25 years, giving memorable performances in 28 Days Later, Red Eye, Breakfast on Pluto, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Sunshine, A Quiet Place Part II, and Peaky Blinders. In that time, his most frequent collaboration has been with director Christopher Nolan, as the pair have worked together since 2005’s Batman Begins where Murphy was given the chance to play the villainous Scarecrow opposite Christian Bale’s caped crusader. Murphy would go on to appear in the other two films in The Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as provide life to critical supporting roles in Inception and Dunkirk.
Within their sixth and latest collaboration, Nolan has tasked Murphy with his biggest assignment yet: to fully embody one of the most interesting, complex figures in our history and examine his creation of the atomic bomb, as well as the long-term effects his creation has not just on himself, but on humanity. In taking on this role, Murphy has delivered a “career-best performance” that easily ranks as one of the best performances of the year, and showcases why he is a “generational talent.” In my conversation with the actor, we discussed his first reaction to getting offered the part and reading Nolan’s massive script, the morality of playing Oppenheimer, his daily preparation for the role, what it was like to shoot in Los Alamos, and what the praise for his performance means to him. But before we got into talking about his incredible work in Oppenheimer, our conversation started right where we all knew it had to start: talking about cheese.
Ryan McQuade: You’ve just flown back home to Ireland, if I’m not mistaken.
Cillian Murphy: That’s right.
RM: So I have to ask you, and I hate doing this right off the top, but since it was brought up the other night during the Q&A (at a screening in Los Angeles) and you’re back home. Do you have a favorite cheese that you were eating during the strike? What did you usually have with them, was it wine, crackers, some assorted meats perhaps?
CM: (laughs) Oh man, I’m a fan of all cheese. I particularly enjoy the very blue veiny, obnoxious smelling ones. I’ll take it all, man. Except for the highly processed slices. I’ll take it all.
RM: Me too. Those are the ones that my wife would probably hate because of the smell. But I love them.
CM: Me too, man, it’s the best.
RM: It is the best.
CM: By the way. I did do other things. (laughs)
RM: I know. I assumed, but I just thought that it was just such a wonderful answer because everyone would’ve been like, “Oh, I did this” or “I went hiking,” or something else, and you’re like, “Nope, I just ate cheese.” I thought that was great. (laughs)
CM: Thank you. (laughs)
RM: Getting into the film, this is a massive once in a lifetime role that Christopher Nolan presented you. What was your first reaction after reading this script and going on Oppenheimer’s journey on the page?
CM: Yeah. Well, Chris flew to Dublin to meet me. Chris’s way of working is that he always presents the script to the actor in person. He never emails anything. He doesn’t possess an email address or a computer or a phone. So he came to Dublin. And I met him and I sat in his hotel room and I read this script. He went out. He didn’t sit looking over my shoulder. It was phenomenal. It was definitely the greatest screenplay I’ve ever read.
But it’s a lot. It’s very dense and it’s very complex. But it’s written in the first person, as you say, and that, I could tell instantly that this was going to be a very detailed performance, needed a very detailed performance. And I could tell it was going to be highly subjective. And I could tell that he wanted to put the audience right into Oppenheimer’s mind, right on his shoulder through all of these crazy, momentous, history making events. And be there with him while he tried to work and figure his way out through these huge … the biggest of moral dilemmas we could possibly imagine. So it was a lot.
And when he called me, he called me and I think it was September ’21, and that was a bit of a shock, but then I instantly went from shock and delight into work. I switched into work the next day and started working. And I worked all of those six months in prep. And I would’ve taken another six months. But sometimes you can get lost in that prep, and sometimes you just need to go to work.
RM: Yeah, for sure. You’ve worked with Chris for six films now. You two obviously have a built-in trust with one another. But how did those previous collaborations with Chris factor into taking the full reins here with your work for Oppenheimer?
CM: I think it was essential to have had that history with Chris. It’s 20 years now since we started working together. So it’s a long time. And I just adore working with him. I’ve learned such a huge amount working with Chris. And he really, really pushes me. And I really enjoy that.
And I remember saying to him at the beginning of the shoot, I said, “I know you will, but I just want you to push me every single day. Push me, push me. Even when it looks like I don’t want it, keep pushing.” And boy did he do that.
And I think, you mentioned trust, I think that’s the most important thing. It’s the best outcome of a longtime collaboration is that trust and that shorthand. And we did an awful lot of talking before we went to shoot the movie. But then when we shot the movie, we just knew. And there’s a lot of it is unspoken I think between us. And when he does give notes, they are the best, most succinct, most concise notes possible. But it was a big leap of faith and leap of trust, and it felt like the 20 years had been leading to that, certainly for me.
RM: You talked a little bit earlier about the screenplay being broken into these two sections. There are two sections in the film, fission and fusion, the subjective and the objective. What about that screenplay, the work being presented that way, is intriguing to you in getting to know the mind space of the character and the subtle differences between each section that you have to play when you’re presenting Oppenheimer to the audience.
CM: Yeah. Well, it’s clear that the black and white sections that that’s Downey’s/Strauss’s point of view. And then obviously the color is from Oppenheimer’s perspective. But again, just the genius way of storytelling. And Chris, he’s so good with time and temporality and timelines and split narratives. He’s so excellent at that. And this was another instance of him doing that.
And I just leaned very, very heavily on Chris. And then the only giveaway really on set was … We didn’t play it any differently. The only giveaway on set was they’d be loading in black and white mag into the IMAX as opposed to color into the color MAX. So that was the only difference for us.
But Chris has everything mapped out in his head. In any single job I’ve ever worked with him, he knows exactly how the film’s going frame by frame, scene by scene. And that’s why there are no deleted scenes or extras on his DVDs and things because it’s all in the movie. So you feel so safe and secure and confident in his vision and that you could just go and do your work.
RM: Absolutely. You’re playing one of the most fascinating men to ever live. In doing research on and beyond just the screenplay and maybe what you had brought in through your previous knowledge, was there something that you learned along the way in doing your research that unlocked answers for you to how to play him? Simple things, maybe like how he held his pipe or how he positioned his hands when he spoke. Or you’re listening maybe to tapes with his voice to maybe not do a mimic, but to do your own version of his cadence.
CM: Yeah, it was all of the above. Everything you mentioned I employed and used. Alongside while I was doing all the reading, I was also working from the outside in on his physicality and getting that silhouette right. Because he was very physically slight, so I had to get that right and drop a bit of weight and condition myself for that. And I did notice the hand on the hip thing was in a lot of pictures, he had that. So I stole that.
And then I got to speak to people who were lectured by him, and they mentioned a lot how he held his pipe and stuff. So I stole that. And exactly as you say, mimicry isn’t really one of my strong suits. But he spoke in a very unique way. No one else spoke like him at that time. But it’s somewhere in the world of that period of American accents, which you don’t hear anymore. Mr. Rogers spoke like. And Orson Welles. We wanted it to be somewhere in there. But again, to give it that Oppenheimer feel.
And inevitably when you play any character, there’s some of you in there, it’s a synthesis of you and the character and the script. But ultimately it has to be most of Chris’s version of him.
But to answer your question about what I learned about him, I learned that he was intensely human really and intensely flawed and intensely contradictory. Like we all are. But he just happened to be a one in a million generational genius.
RM: You mentioned he was brilliant, that he was full of flaws. And some were bigger than others, like his naiveté, his arrogance. How do you feel about those flaws defining him and leading to his unfortunate downfall, and through those flaws, were you able to find empathy for him?
CM: Totally. I have empathy for all of the characters that I play. I think that’s the most important tool you have in your kit bag as an actor is empathy. Because the definition of empathy is to walk in another person’s shoes. And that’s what we do as actors. And you don’t have to agree with them, but you must above all never judge the characters. And so I never ever judged his behavior or his decisions. I just tried to figure out the motivation for them and to present them to the audience. And if they wish to judge, they can. Or if we provoke them to ask questions, that’s fine. But that was not really my job. My job was to try and make him as human as possible and to try and do that as sensitively as possible.
RM: Yeah, the totality of his creation, emotionally, takes full effect in the scene in the gym, where he relives the moment of the test all over again. Can you talk about filming that sequence with Chris and the other sequences where he is face-to-face with the morality of his creation? It felt like you were carrying that morality the whole way throughout your performance.
CM: Yeah. Well, it was all there in the script. Everything you see in that scene was scripted, from the kids on the bleachers crying and then the stamping. And then it turning into this just hall full of dust, that’s all there. So it was … you just have to be faithful to the script.
And again, you have to be confident in your director. And I have full confidence and belief in Chris’s vision. And he creates an environment where you can experiment and try things. It’s like a laboratory where you’re free to try things and make a fool of yourself and really go for it. And in that scene, I remember, I think we did that in half a day, it was super-fast, and I remember just going for it. And we both knew I think that we’d unlocked something in that scene.
RM: And you shot in and around Los Alamos…
CM: That particular scene was in Fuller Lodge where a scientist would’ve been because that was a real location. So they would’ve … that was where they hung out. And it was, you could feel, I’m not a superstitious person, but you could feel the energy and the vibrations in that room for sure.
And that’s why Chris chose it. We shot in Oppenheimer’s real house, we shot in his real office in Princeton. We could have built all these sets, but we didn’t.
RM: Yeah. I was going to ask you about just being in those places again and how you felt as you’re essentially recreating the first weapon of mass destruction, this life changing event. Obviously, you’re making this movie, but those emotions are still there, right?
CM: Yeah, for sure. I think we all understood the story that we were telling and the consequences of this point in history, what it meant for mankind, what it meant for Japan, for those cities in Japan. We were all aware of that. But we just didn’t need to talk about it. There was no point because it’s almost too huge to put into words. So we were cognizant of that all of the time.
And every single actor, no matter how big or small their role, came into the film fully armed with that and fully aware. And they had all done so much research. And everybody was so sensitive to the story and what we were talking about here.
RM: This feels like a beast of a role to perform. Did you have a daily routine, maybe certain music or different prep material to get you into the mindset of playing him every day? Or is it just, like you said, going back to the script and trusting Chris and the process?
CM: It was the voice and the physicality that I kept trying to stay in as much as possible. I knew that script inside out. It’s a big script.
RM: It is, yeah.
CM: It’s a big, thick, massive document. But I knew that I was prepared going into the movie. Because Chris works at such a fast-pace that sometimes he’ll be ahead. Every movie Chris Nolan brings home and delivers, they’re under budget and ahead of schedule. Always. So you need to be fully prepared for what’s coming next week. So I knew all of it. I knew all of the scenes.
And then in terms of the day-to-day, you get into this rhythm. You just get into this rhythm. And again, the most important thing for me at the time was to try and sleep. Because we were working long days and we were flying all over the country and we were in the desert. So I tried to stay healthy despite not eating. But it was like you’re in some sort of fever dream. It’s like being in a fever dream. And then you’re spat out at the end of it and you are altered. But a great one. It was a gift. It was a gift of a role.
RM: Yeah. And it was what, a 57 day shoot?
CM: 57 days, man. It was wild. Seemingly impossible, but yet it never felt rushed, which is, again, down to Chris’s genius.
RM: Absolutely. So much of what I think are the most memorable moments of the film are those close-ups of you going on Robert’s emotional journey. How was the creative process, working with Nolan, working with Hoyte, to capture those shots and ensure that the audience felt that emotionality without using the dialogue? Because the movie has so much dialogue, yet the most memorable parts are those close-ups.
CM: Sure, yeah. Well, they’re always my favorite moments in all films or television, the reflective moments, the moments where the character isn’t necessarily doing or saying anything, it’s their thinking. And for me, the best acting is when you can see what the character’s thinking.
And I knew that Chris was going to use the IMAX format for close-ups and try and get really, really inside the characters’ heads and consciousness. I was aware of that. And I really felt that it would be quite an interior, small performance for the most part, that felt right to me. That it needed to come from the inside out, if you know what I mean. So I tried to do that. And I think Chris was fully on board with that. And so we just really pushed it. We really pushed that interior performance.
And I think it worked because Hoyte is such a genius as well. And the two of them, again, have a fantastic relationship, again, that is multi-films together they’ve done, and they have a great shorthand. And I got on amazingly with Hoyte, and we have a great trust as well. So yeah, I just felt safe to make it that interior.
RM: You’re surrounded by the ensemble of the year, this extraordinary cast of actors. What was it like working with all of them, leading this ensemble? Did it feel like an embarrassment of riches?
CM: Completely. I had to pinch myself every day to think that I was working with all these masters of their craft, the best actors in the world without argument for me. And my favorite. And each and every one of them was such a wonderful person to work with and so kind. You check your call sheet and go, holy shit, I got a scene with Matt Damon tomorrow. Holy shit, I got a scene with Gary Oldman. Holy shit, I got a scene with Ken Branagh. Holy shit, it’s Downey. Every day it was mind-blowing.
And then I had Emily there as well, who is a friend, we’ve worked together before, and there’s nothing that Emily Blunt can’t do. She’s just one of those actors that can do everything. And I really felt that you got that history for free with me and Emily because we know each other so well. And I think that transfers onto screen for the Kitty-Robert marriage. So yeah, that was a joy. And we’ve all remained really tight now, we’re still a good group.
RM: I know; we see you guys at dinner or Q&As. You all seem like you’re having the time of your lives just continuing to hang out with your Oppenhomies. (laughs)
CM: Oppenhomies, yeah. (laughs)
RM: It’s what Downey called you all, right?
CM: Well, yeah, that came from a group chat that all of the scientist actors put together. They put together an Oppenhomies group chat. So we’ve all adopted that moniker.
RM: So it’s a hundred actors deep? (laughs)
CM: (laughs) Yeah.
RM: One of the interesting things that Chris talked about was your relationship, in the film, with Downey, with Strauss, and it almost having an Amadeus-esque relationship. Did you go back and watch the film? Did it help find clues to use in developing your dynamic with Robert that we see in Oppenheimer?
CM: I did watch it. I don’t think we stole anything in terms of performance. But I think it’s such a wonderful, wonderful film. And it was interesting to see structurally how it related to our story. Our story I think has more consequences for the world perhaps. But again, they’re brilliant performances. I hadn’t seen that movie in 20 years, so it was lovely to go back and watch it again. So yeah, it’s a good reference point.
Our film is very hard to pin down because it’s not a traditional biopic and it has all these different elements to it. It has horror elements to it, I think. But that one was one of the few ones that was a good reference point. So it was just a pleasure to watch it again.
RM: It’s a classic. I know Chris assigns things but in doing your own discovery, were there other films that you leaned on or pinpointed potentially as an influence to try to play Robert? Or was it just the text and trust in Nolan?
CM: It was the text and trust in Nolan above all. But I did go back and watch Lawrence of Arabia because that was one of the … in terms of one of the greatest films ever made, one of the greatest biopics ever made. Is it a biopic? And you can’t get much better than that. And I think that was a touchstone as well for Chris, certainly in the epic nature of the movie, the epic storytelling and telling a story on that grand scale. That’s a perfect example. So I did go back and watch that and loved it again.
RM: The ending of Oppenheimer is one of the best I’ve seen in many years. Can you talk about how that final scene with Einstein resonates with you, Cillian?
CM: Well, I think it’s the hardest thing to get right in storytelling, not just in filmmaking, but in all storytelling, your ending, your third act is the hardest. And Chris has always done wonderful endings. If you look back in his movies, they always have strong endings.
And I remember reading the script and going, “yeah, fucking yes, what a great ending!” And yeah, I remember we shot that in Princeton by the lake. And again, I don’t think we talked about it too much. I think the writing, the dialogue is so excellent that you just have to give it life. So when you work with a script that is that quality, it’s just your job to give it life. And you can’t lean into it too much because the words are doing the work for you.
RM: Yeah, for sure. You’ve received a lot of praise for your incredible performance here. And as well as the film has received a ton of praise. How are you taking that all in right now, the praise? And how do you feel about the audience’s reactions to the film, the performance of the film, but the reactions also to your performance as Robert?
CM: It’s a lovely feeling. Chris has always said to me that a film isn’t finished until the audience see it. And I think he’s right. And we had to stop our press because of the strike, and we all went our separate ways. And then the film just took on this whole life of its own all of a sudden.
And it’s very flattering. It’s lovely to be involved in something that’s really connected with people. And it’s meaningful to me that this is a film that is provocative and challenging and difficult, but that the audience are there for it. The audience are super smart. The audiences are always ready to be challenged. And it was a great summer for cinema. So I’m just really happy to be involved in this and to have made something I think that is about something, but is also very entertaining.
RM: Absolutely. Well, Cillian, I think you’re incredible in this. And it’s one of my favorite performances of the year in my favorite film of the year. And thank you so much for your time, man.
CM: Thanks, man. Lovely to talk to you.
Oppenheimer is currently available for rental on VOD and purchase on Blu-ray and more.