Murphy would go on to play Dr. Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow the film’s villain. But almost two decades later, Murphy gets to lead a Nolan picture with the upcoming Oppenheimer. An opportunity that seemed long in the making.
“Well, I always say that before I ever met Chris, I was a fan of his movies because I was a fan of Memento and Insomnia,” Murphy says on his introduction with Christopher Nolan. On the screen test Murphy did for Bruce Wayne, he says he thought it “was an insane idea” but says Nolan saw something in the test “and we just got on.”
Murphy would go on to appear in six of Nolan’s movies, reprising his role as Scarecrow in all of Nolan’s Batman movies, as well as Inception where he plays mind heist target Robert Fischer, and Dunkirk where he plays an unnamed soldier whose panic leads to tragedy.
But while these are all parts of varying importance, Murphy is stepping into the epicenter with Oppenheimer, where he plays real-life physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, known to most as the father of the atom bomb.
There’s this picture of Oppenheimer with this intense blue-eyed stare on the front, and I thought, 'I know who can do that' Christopher Nolan “According to Nolan, he never wrote Oppenheimer with Cillian Murphy in mind, but by the time he finished the script, there was only one person he could think of saying, “I really wanted to concentrate on who the real people were while I was putting the script together. Then you finish and you’re looking at the cover of American Prometheus, the book that I was adapting, and there’s this picture of Oppenheimer with this intense blue-eyed stare on the front, and I thought, ‘I know who can do that.’”
The actor who could do that is Cillian Murphy, who speaks of their partnership strictly in terms of work. Hard, meaningful work. “I really responded to the way he works,” Murphy says on his first time working with Nolan. “It’s really, really rigorous, really demanding of his actors, which I love. He really pushes you and I really like being pushed to the point where you think you can’t go any further.”
Murphy never angled to get the lead role in any of Nolan’s movies, saying he loves seeing Nolan movies he’s not in. But he always picks up the phone whenever he calls. “I don’t hear from him between, we don’t go and get pizza or whatever,” says Murphy. “He’ll just call me up when he is ready and I’ll always be there because I’ve learned so much as an actor from working with him.”
While Murphy is quick to praise Nolan’s professionalism at every level of the production, there were others who saw the sheer size of the task Nolan and Murphy were embarking on together. “It’s such a huge movie and such a huge story,” says Matt Damon who plays Lieutenant General Leslie Groves in Oppenheimer. “The script was written in the first person, which I’d never seen before. And it gave you the feeling that the movie does, which is all through the eyes of Oppenheimer. And [Nolan] was so clear, he was like, ‘Look, this is all going to be through Cillian’s eyes, and we are putting this entire behemoth on his back.”
Damon goes so far as to describe Oppenheimer as being built around Cillian Murphy’s performance. “Chris and Cillian built that thing together, stood in the middle of that thing, and built that performance. And Chris built this movie around that performance, and it was very clear. It was like, ‘all right, how do we support that?’”
There was no hanging around or shooting the shit. We were just working. Cillian Murphy on Christopher Nolan “Murphy jokes that being the lead in Christopher Nolan’s movie for the first time means he’s on the set more. But beyond that, he called the process incredibly intense. “I said to Chris at the beginning, I said, ‘The best performances you’ve ever gotten from me are the ones where you push me and just push me as far as you can on this one,’ And he did. And I love that.”
There are famous stories of director-actor partners partying and drinking together (Think: Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro), but according to Murphy “There was no hanging around or shooting the sh*t,” with Nolan. “We were just working.”
If their years of partnership led to anything, it’s an ease of communication that develops over time, says Nolan. This in turn allows Nolan and Murphy to rely on each other and gives them both confidence to take on challenging materials, like Oppenheimer. “It’s interesting with an actor like Cillian because you see the raw talent, you see the creativity right from the beginning.” And while Murphy talks about all that he’s learned from working on Nolan movies, Nolan cites the skills Murphy brings from the outside.
“They’re always learning with every project they do. They’re always modifying and moving their process forward and retaining the things that work and trying new things, and he’s an actor who continued to challenge himself throughout his career,” Nolan says. “There’s no question in my mind of what great things this guy’s going to achieve.”