Countdown to 'Oppenheimer': Cillian Murphy leads epic on charismatic, controversial theoretical physicist who helped create the atomic bomb - Albuquerque Journal

Countdown to ‘Oppenheimer’: Cillian Murphy leads epic on charismatic, controversial theoretical physicist who helped create the atomic bomb


Cillian Murphy, center, in a scene from “Oppenheimer.” The film, shot in Abiquiu and Los Alamos among other locations, opens July 21. Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via Associated Press

The day Christopher Nolan called Cillian Murphy about his new film, “Oppenheimer,” Murphy hung up the phone in disbelief.

The Irish actor, though a regular presence in Nolan films going back almost two decades, had always been a supporting player. This time Nolan wanted him to lead.

Filming occurred last year, much of it in Northern New Mexico.

“He’s so understated and self-deprecating and, in his very English manner, just said, ‘Listen, I’ve written this script, it’s about Oppenheimer. I’d like you to be my Oppenheimer,'” Murphy, 46, told The Associated Press recently. “It was a great day.”

Murphy first met Nolan in 2003. He was brought in to screen test for Batman – not just the movie, the character. Murphy knew he wasn’t right for the Dark Knight, but he wanted to meet the man who’d directed “Insomnia” and “Memento.” They hit it off and Murphy got to tap into a sinister intensity to play the corrupt psychiatrist Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, who would go on to appear in all three films. Nolan would also call on Murphy to be the conflicted heir to a business empire in “Inception” and a traumatized soldier in “Dunkirk.”

“We have this long-standing understanding and trust and shorthand and respect,” Murphy said. “It felt like the right time to take on a bigger responsibility. And it just so happened that it was a (expletive) huge one.”

Soon after the phone call, Nolan flew to Dublin to meet Murphy to hand him a physical copy of the script, which he devoured right there in Nolan’s hotel room in September 2020. It was, he said, the best he’d ever read.

Then the scale of it started to sink in.

On the test ground for the atomic bomb near Almagordo, N.M., Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, University of California physicist, smokes his pipe as he contemplates the site on Sept. 9, 1945. (AP Photo)

This would be a film about the charismatic and controversial theoretical physicist who helped create the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer and his peers at Los Alamos would test it on July 16, 1945, not knowing what was going to happen. Then several weeks later the United States would drop those bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving many with lifelong injuries.

As Nolan said last week in Las Vegas, “Like it or not J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most important person who ever lived.”

“Oppenheimer,” which opens in theaters on July 21, features a starry cast including Emily Blunt as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, Matt Damon as Leslie Groves Jr., Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, Gary Oldman as Harry S. Truman, and many more rounding out the pivotal players in and around this tense moment in history.

“You realize this is a huge responsibility. He was complicated and contradictory and so iconic,” Murphy said. “But you know you’re with one of the great directors of all time. I felt confident going into it with Chris. He’s had a profound impact on my life, creatively and professionally. He’s offered me very interesting roles over and I’ve found all of them really challenging. And I just love being on his sets.”

As with all Nolan endeavors, secrecy around “Oppenheimer” is vitally important. Murphy loves the “old fashioned approach” that builds interest and anticipation.

The difference with “Oppenheimer” and other Nolan originals, though, is that this is rooted in historical fact. You can read the book it’s based on, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” You can watch the 1981 documentary “The Day After Trinity” on The Criterion Channel.

“The question will be how Chris presents it,” Murphy said. “I think people will be very surprised and wowed by what he does. Anything I say will just seem a bit lame as compared to seeing this in an IMAX theater.”

The time for discussions will be after the movie comes out.

“There’s an awful lot to talk about when we can talk freely,” Murphy said with a smile.

He did offer up that they worked hard to get Oppenheimer’s look right, from the silhouette to the pipe to the porkpie hat. The man, he said, “seemed aware of his own potential mythology.” But, again, those conversations will have to wait.

“I’m really proud of the movie and I’m really proud of what Chris has achieved. This was, for sure, a special one, certainly because of the history with me and Chris. We were not walking around the set high fiving, but it did feel special.” Murphy said. “It’s an event every time he releases a film, and rightly so. Whether I’m in them or not, I always go to see his movies.”

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