Cillian Murphy arguably delivers the performance of his career as the title character in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. Portraying the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ from his student days to the post-war years where his loyalty was called into question, he truly carries the largely subjective film on his shoulders.
And what a character Oppenheimer - Oppie to his friends - is to dig into. A man of complex contradictions, he was a scientist and an aesthete, a pragmatist who could be highly irrational, arrogant and also self-doubting. His life story is detailed in depth in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by authors Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The title of that biography - on which the film is based - references the figure from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods, and faced eternal punishment as a result.
In the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast, TF sits down for a chat with the Peaky Blinders star to talk about the role. Murphy’s a veteran of five previous Nolan films (the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk) and his performance here will surely put him at the front of the pack when it comes to the next awards season.
You can read that podcast interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Christopher Nolan has talked a lot about how he wrote this script in the first person. How did that present itself when you read the script?
I’d never read a script like that before. I’d never read a script written in the first person. You realise, then, that it’s going to be completely subjective, and very much from Oppenheimer’s point of view, and that the audience would be with him, on his shoulders, as he experiences the struggle of all these huge moral, ethical, and paradoxical dilemmas.
I kind of knew that it would be very much kind of an interior performance, as well as an exterior performance – if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
The film covers a large period of Oppenheimer’s life. Did you film in anything like chronological order?
We did some of the young stuff at the beginning – when he’s studying, and he’s a student. But then after that, no. It was mostly kind of out of order. But when you have someone as brilliant as Chris… you rely on him and you rely on the work that you’ve done. But that’s generally the way films are shot – always out of sequence.
Is it helpful when you’re playing someone like Oppenheimer where there’s just so much research material available?
Yes, it is. It is very helpful, and I did an awful lot of reading. But ultimately, it’s about the script. It’s about what’s on the page. That’s Chris’s version of the story. So that’s what you’ve got to serve. That’s your primary resource.
Was it heavy going playing this character, when there’s just so much going on in his mind?
Yeah, it was, but they’re the kind of jobs I love. They’re the kind of characters that I really enjoy portraying. It was amazing hanging out with those fantastic actors, the best actors in the world. There’s a lot of laughing and a lot of joking around, because you have to have some kind of levity when you’re dealing with this sort of material.
Matt Damon recently said that you couldn’t join them for a lot of the dinners because there was so much going on in your brain. Was that a fair comment?
Yeah. He’s played those sort of parts before. Emily’s [Blunt] played those. They’ve all done those sorts of parts. They’re big, big parts, and they require an awful lot of focus. They kind of consume you. I was in, most days. I was skipping dinner anyway, most of the time. But it’s been great to hang out with them now, on the tour.
This is your sixth film with Nolan. Is there something about the way you both work that you connected straight away?
There seems to be something. It’s developed, of course, like any working partnership or any friendship. I think we have similar tastes. We have a very good shorthand. And most of all, we really trust each other. I’d do anything for Chris. When you have that core understanding between each other, you can do good work, I think.
Where do you see Oppenheimer sitting in the canon of his work?
People have been saying all sorts of things. You can say that his work has been building towards this, that this is his magnum opus. You can draw a line back to, perhaps, Dunkirk, or Interstellar because of the science. But I just think it’s an extraordinary achievement. He is incomparable. He is a totally unique filmmaker.
You first met him during your audition for Batman Begins. Was that nerve-wracking?
It was, but it was more exciting than nerve-wracking, because I’d never considered myself to be the sort of perfect physical specimen for Batman. It was just the opportunity to get to work with him, even in a brief way. They had built the whole sets, and it was all shot on 35mm. So, it was a proper screen test. And it always felt to me like it should be Christian Bale, always.
But then something happened in that test, and he gave me that other part in Scarecrow. And we just continued to work.
Even if people are not that familiar with Oppenheimer, everyone knows that famous quote from the Bhagavad Gita that he recited. Did you imagine that’s what it’s like when an actor has to say, “Bond, James Bond”?
Maybe. And we all knew that line would have to be in there in some shape or form. But I think the way Chris has introduced it is very, very clever, because it takes a lot of the air out of it. It’s still incredibly important. But we didn’t talk about it too much when I was delivering it. He didn’t direct me very much. We kind of both knew what it meant.
Were there comparisons between the experiences of playing Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders and Oppenheimer?
I never compare characters. I think it’s death for an actor if you kind of bring some residue of a character into another performance. So, I don’t see any similarities. You want to be starting afresh, completely. You know, mannerisms, voice, emotions, everything. It has to be a fresh start.
Oppenheimer opens in cinemas on 21 July. For more from writer/director Christopher Nolan and star Cillian Murphy, plus Greta Gerwig on Barbie, listen to the latest episode of the Inside Total Film podcast. You can also read more from our interviews with Nolan, as well as actors Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, online.
In the meantime, check out our guide to the rest of the most exciting upcoming movies in 2023 and beyond.