From Batman to Oppenheimer: Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy discuss their epic movie partnership
Two decades ago, Cillian Murphy visited Los Angeles to audition for the role of Bruce Wayne in director Christopher Nolan's 2005 superhero movie Batman Begins. The filmmaker decided instead to hand the Batmobile keys to Christian Bale but cast the then relatively unknown 28 Days Later actor as villain Dr. Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow.
So began one of modern cinema's most enduring and fruitful actor-filmmaker relationships. Murphy would reprise the role of Crane in Nolan's next two films in The Dark Knight Trilogy (2008's The Dark Knight, 2012's The Dark Knight Rises), play the heir to a business empire targeted by Leonardo DiCaprio's dream-manipulator in the filmmaker's 2010 sci-fi blockbuster Inception, and portray the small but crucial role of "Shivering Soldier" in the director's based-on-real events 2017 war movie Dunkirk.
Nolan has reunited with Murphy again for Oppenheimer (in theaters July 21), the Irish actor's first lead role in a film by the director (see an exclusive image from the film above). Murphy plays theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Los Alamos Laboratory-based Manhattan Project during World War II, and the man most credited with the invention of the atomic bomb. The film costars Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer's botanist wife Kitty, Matt Damon as Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves Jr., and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The starry cast also includes Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Dane DeHaan, Dylan Arnold, David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich, and Matthew Modine.
Ahead of the film's release, EW brought the pair together to discuss their shared cinematic history and their latest epic collaboration.
The Dark Knight Trilogy
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN I remember I was up in San Francisco writing Batman Begins and there was something in the San Francisco Chronicle about 28 Days Later. I saw a picture of you with your shaved head and your crazy eyes — no offense. I remember being struck by your presence, literally from that one photograph, and then started to look into who you were, and what you'd done, and got very excited about the idea of meeting you, and having you screen test for Batman.
CILLIAN MURPHY I was simply a fan. I had seen Memento, and I had seen Insomnia, and then I went back and watched Following. I was a real fan of Chris' work at that time. That's around 2003, which is 20 years ago, which ages us terribly!
NOLAN [Laughs] It's a long time. You came out to L.A. for the screen test and we had dinner at a hotel. I felt an immediate connection. I felt like, this is somebody that I want to work with, somebody who has an interesting take on things creatively.
MURPHY It was clear to me from the beginning that I wasn't Batman material. It felt to me that it was correct and right that it should be Christian Bale for that part. But I remember the buzz of trying on the suit and being directed by you. Those tests were high production values.
NOLAN When we had our first conversation I think both of us knew that you weren't going to wind up playing Batman. But I really wanted to get on set with you, I wanted to get you on film. We did those screen tests very elaborately, on 35mm, with a little set. There was just an electric atmosphere in the crew when you started to perform. We did two scenes — there was a Bruce Wayne scene and a Batman scene — and I made sure that executives came down and watched what you were doing on set. Everybody was so excited by watching you perform that when I then said to them, "Okay, Christian Bale is Batman, but what about Cillian to play Scarecrow?" there was no dissent. All the previous Batman villains had been played by huge movie stars: Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, that kind of thing. That was a big leap for them and it really was purely on the basis of that test. So that's how you got to play Scarecrow.
MURPHY The villain that never died!
NOLAN [Laughs] He never died, just conveniently would be sort of offscreen somehow. Therefore [I was] able to call you up and say, "Come on back and put the sack over your head one last time."
MURPHY Yeah, he's still out there.
NOLAN He's still out there, still with a bag on his head. My favorite appearance of Scarecrow in the trilogy is definitely the kangaroo court scene [in The Dark Knight Rises] where he's on top of that massive pile of desks. I just think, in a world of anarchy, the last judge you'd want to come in front of would be Jonathan Crane.
MURPHY I love that scene as well. I remember when you called, you said, "You want to read the script?" and I said, "You know what, I don't actually want to read the script. Just tell me what I'm doing, just tell me what my motivation is, and then I want to see the movie." I didn't want to spoil it. So I just came in for that one day, did that little bit on that amazing set, and then waited to see the movie. And it was worth it.
NOLAN Having worked together on Batman Begins and then again on The Dark Knight, I was very keen to get you in that movie and work with you again. That was a wild experience, all over the world. Being on top of the mountain with everybody trying to ski in a horrible snowstorm and everything. It was great to have an ally there. It was quite an experience. I treasure that one.
MURPHY Me too. That really blew my mind, that film. You know, working with Leo and all that amazing cast.
NOLAN That was the first time you worked with Tom [Hardy].
MURPHY Yeah, and we've been co-conspirators on a few things over the years since then. He was brilliant in that film. A very special scene for me was that scene with Pete Postlethwaite.
NOLAN What you guys did was fabulous. It was quite soon before Pete died, it was quite soon before my own father died, actually. It still gets me every time, that last connection between the two of you, and then Tom Hardy in the background, having manipulated it all, watching it all take place. I find it moving and it speaks to me about a particular time in my life.
MURPHY That movie is probably the one that people ask me about most and the one that I'm least able to satisfy them about.
NOLAN [Laughs] Yeah, I think sometimes people probably expect you to have great insights whereas my memory of how you approached it was, you came to play, you came to be a character and just dive into the world.
MURPHY Yeah, that's our job.
NOLAN It's a job well done. [Laughs]
NOLAN I'll talk very frankly about Dunkirk. I remember, Cillian, I called you up, and I said, "I really need you for this small but vital part, out on that boat, suffering from PTSD, and I'll send you a script." I remember, very clearly, you called me, and said, "Can't I play a Spitfire pilot instead?" [Laughs]
MURPHY That is true. But I do think the first question I asked was, "Do I have to wear a bag over my head?" I think I had to clarify that first.
NOLAN In the draft you read, your character was underwritten and unfinished. My pitch was, come with me, spend three weeks on a boat with Mark Rylance and Jack Lowden and Barry Keoghan et al. and we'll figure it out.
MURPHY Yeah, and we did. Again, that was one of those parts that I treasure because I like going to those places psychologically. It was quite humbling to play that part, when you think what all these men had to go through, and to try to represent their experiences. I think the best thing that happens from re-collaboration is that you get this level of trust. I think that's allowed us to continue to make interesting work. To me, that's the most important thing. If you trust the director, you can really go out on a limb, and be vulnerable, and expose yourself emotionally.
NOLAN Trust is creatively freeing, because you feel like you can try things, and there are no wrong answers, nobody's going to chastise you, or laugh at you. It's like, okay, let's just try a few different things, and then trust on the fundamental level of, okay, we're going to take you on a boat, and we're going to sit you on top of an overturned hull, and on a cue, you're going to jump off into the sea. [Laughs]
MURPHY People should be aware, Chris, that before you put me on top of that overturned hull, you went up there yourself to make sure. You said, "I'm not putting him up there unless I go up there myself." You do that a lot and so people should be aware of that. Again, that's something that makes the actor feel incredibly safe, not just emotionally, but physically.
NOLAN No one knew what I was up to, no one knew what I was doing. To be able to pick up the phone, and call you, and be like, "This is the one where you carry the movie and really get to show what you can do," it's honestly one of my favorite moments in the movie business, when I had that conversation with you.
MURPHY It was one of the best days of my life, I'll tell you that, when you called me. [Laughs] I'll always turn up for Chris, no matter what the part is, but, secretly, it's a dream to play a lead part. The thing was, I had no idea. There was no preamble or anything, I just got the call. So it was incredibly exciting, and daunting, and terrifying, all at the same time.
NOLAN Yeah, and that was before you read the script…
NOLAN …which probably didn't make it less daunting.
MURPHY I'll say this, it's the best script I ever read, that's for sure.
NOLAN I flew over to Dublin to hand you the script, you read it in my hotel room, I went off to look at the Francis Bacon installation in the Hugh Lane [Gallery], and then came back. I'm actually curious if the fact that the script was written in the first person will have added to the feeling of responsibility that you were going to have taking it on.
MURPHY Yes, massively. That's the only script that I've ever read that's been in the first person. It took me a minute, maybe a bit more than a minute, to figure that out. But then it became clear that you wanted it to be completely subjective, that everything was to be seen through the character's eyes as it were, and, again, yeah, that added massively to the terror. [Laughs] But when it's Christopher Nolan, you just have that confidence. You believe 100 percent in his vision, as I have always done. So it was terribly exciting.
NOLAN The shoot was very sort of fast and furious and efficient. Hoyte (Van Hoytema, Nolan's regular cinematographer) and myself — from the technical end — we kind of jumped back to an earlier point in both of our careers, where we had no Steadicam on set, we had no playback or monitors. We were approaching it in a very stripped-down manner which gave us a terrific energy. I think it gelled very well with the ensemble nature of the piece. Even though Oppenheimer is at the center of it, we had this incredible ensemble of actors bringing so much to the table, and we really wanted to be able to move fast, jump around, and capture anything that was going to get thrown up by that.
MURPHY Every day, you had these phenomenal actors, who are heroes of mine, coming in. Every day, you were having to raise your game to work with these legends. Everybody was so unbelievably well-prepared. Every single actor, no matter what size their role or the significance of their character in history, each one of them had this massive depth of knowledge that they could draw on.
NOLAN I was thinking that it even applied to the extras. We were in the real Los Alamos and we had a lot of real scientists as extras. We needed the crowd of extras to give reactions, and improvise, and we were getting sort of impromptu, very educated speeches. It was really fun to listen to. You've been on sets where you've got a lot of extras around and they're more or less thinking about lunch. These guys were thinking about the geopolitical implications of nuclear arms and knew a lot about it. It actually was a great reminder every day of: We have to be really on our game, we have to be faithful to the history here, and really know what we're up to.
What EW is up to, alas, is drawing a close to this conversation between the two friends and collaborators who, it is clear, have very much not gotten sick of each other yet.
"Not at all," says Nolan, with a laugh. "If I could cast Cillian in every film I ever do, and just lean on him for the rest of my career, I'd be a happy man."
"Well, I'm here for you Chris," says Murphy. "Just call me up!
Oppenheimer opens July 21.
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