From the start, there was something weird about the script for Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.” Cillian Murphy noticed it as soon as he began reading in Nolan’s hotel room in London: All of the directions were in the first person. It wasn’t “He sits down at the desk,” it was “I sit down at the desk.” The I, in this case, was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” that Nolan was asking Murphy to play.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said the Irish actor who won a Golden Globe for his performance in the film. “I don’t know if it’s ever been done before. But it really puts you in the mind and the psyche of the character straight away, you know?”
At the same time, doesn’t it put a lot of pressure on the actor at the center of an epic film that’s told almost completely from his character’s point of view? “Yes, 100%,” Murphy said. “But that’s exhilarating. That’s the sort of thing that I just relish, that level of responsibility. To carry a film with Chris Nolan was a dream for me because I’ve worked with him over the years but never as a leading part.”
Murphy was a Nolan vet through his supporting roles in the “Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” with his other work including “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “28 Days Later” and the TV series “Peaky Blinders.” But nothing has gotten him the attention of “Oppenheimer,” in which a gaunt Murphy plays the brilliant, enigmatic scientist who helped the United States develop the atomic bomb before the Germans and Russians could, and who was later haunted by the idea of the deadly power he’d helped unleash on the world.
“He was quite an unknowable character in many ways, because he was so contradictory and so complex,” Murphy said. “But that was the challenge of it and the brilliance of it. That’s exactly the sort of character that you want — one that isn’t one-dimensional, that isn’t simple, but that is so multifaceted.
“You must try to understand a character to play him, I suppose. But I didn’t need questions answered. I wanted to rather pose questions to the audience.”
The actor started his prep by reading as much as he could and watching as much archival video as he and Nolan could find. He also worked on Oppenheimer’s physicality — his voice, his slender physique, the silhouette he cut with an omnipresent hat and cigarette or pipe. But at the same time, he wasn’t trying to duplicate the man.
“We’re not making a documentary,” he said. “We’re making a piece of entertainment. We researched it to within an inch of its life and wanted insofar as possible to use the iconography, the hat and the pipe and all of that. But you have license as artists to tell the story in your own way, and I was never going to do an impression. It was always going to be a synthesis of Chris’s script and what I bring to it.”
Los Alamos, the makeshift complex in the New Mexico desert where Oppenheimer assembled a team to design and make the bomb on a breakneck schedule, was peopled with the some of the most accomplished scientific minds of the day. But that didn’t mean they were easy people to work with — or, for that matter, to portray.
“I’ve played a physicist before and spent a lot of time talking to physicists and hyper-intelligent people, and I do think that being that brilliant is not actually a gift,” Murphy said. “It’s more of a burden. They see the world in different dimensions than we do. Going through the day is not a straightforward exercise for them.
“It’s a kind of an existential one, because you’re trying to poke at, What is the meaning of life? What is beyond our consciousness? That does change the way you walk around, and that was an interesting addition to try and bring into the performance.”
Of course, Oppenheimer and his team were also facing an enormous burden, because at the time nobody knew if exploding an atomic bomb would set off a chain reaction that would vaporize the Earth’s atmosphere and destroy all life on the planet.
“That was the kernel of the idea for Chris — this notion that when they pressed the button in Los Alamos in ’45, that they thought there was a chance that the world would be vaporized,” he said. “But they went ahead and did it. Of all the dramatic moral dilemmas you could put on screen, that’s probably the biggest.”
He paused. “My job was to react to the environment and the other actors and work with Chris. But all you really have to do is think about the consequences. We are all living in the nuclear age because of what happened that day in the desert. And that is huge almost beyond comprehension. We live under this sword of Damocles every single minute, and it all goes back to that moment. It’s not hard to find yourself in the correct frame of mind when you’re playing that, I suppose.”
This story first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.