Cillian Murphy Stars in ‘Oppenheimer,’ His Biggest Role Yet – The New York Times

The “Oppenheimer” star is carrying a major movie for the first time, a responsibility he takes very seriously. Christopher Nolan wrote it with him in mind.
The “Oppenheimer” screenplay was “written in the first person, the only script I had ever read like that. I knew what he would demand from me,” Cillian Murphy said.Credit…Robbie Lawrence for The New York Times
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Reporting from London
The piercing eyes stare out intently from the cover of “American Prometheus,” a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb. The book, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, was the inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated “Oppenheimer,” opening July 21. And as Nolan was working on the script, only one actor came to mind: Cillian Murphy.
“I try not to think of actors as I write, but Cillian’s eyes were the only eyes I know that can project that intensity,” Nolan said in a telephone interview. And there was another thing: “I knew he was one of the great actors of his generation.”
In “Oppenheimer,” as in most Nolan films (the Batman trilogy, “Dunkirk,” “Inception,” “Interstellar”), the scale is substantial. The director, who has managed to combine ambitious conceptual ideas with mainstream appeal and billion-dollar revenues, is one of Hollywood’s most admired and scrutinized creative figures. And although Murphy (whose first name is pronounced “KILL-ian) has worked regularly with Nolan for more than 20 years, he has until now played only supporting roles in his films.
Did he feel the pressure of carrying a film that arrives with Nolan-size expectations?
“Yes,” Murphy said seriously during a conversation in a north London photo studio, where he had just completed a shoot. The Irish-born actor, who turns 47 on Thursday, said that while playing a lead for Nolan was a dream, he took the time to prepare, “knowing you are working with one of the greatest living directors” — he paused. “I have been doing this for 27 years,” he said, adding an expletive for emphasis. “So I just threw myself in. I was terribly excited.”
OVER THE PAST DECADE, Murphy’s sapphire stare and coiled intensity have become familiar to millions of television viewers who have watched him play Tommy Shelby, the mesmerizing center of the British hit television series “Peaky Blinders,” even as he has maintained a thriving career onstage and in film.
Murphy, who is married to Yvonne McGuinness, an Irish artist, and has two teenage sons, speaks in a mellifluous Irish accent and is extremely handsome. “He has the blessed curse of beauty,” said Sally Potter, who directed him in “The Party” (released in the United States in 2018). “The camera loves to watch light fall on the structure of his face. But it doesn’t interest him in the slightest.”
He is also intelligent, thoughtful and clearly sincere about the artistic motivations that have driven his choices.
“For me it’s always the script first and the medium second,” Murphy said. “I’ve always believed that good work begets good work. If you’re doing a play above a pub, someone may see it; it’s not the scale, it’s the quality.”
He has long had “a huge amount of energy and focus,” said the playwright Enda Walsh, who met him at 18 in Cork, Ireland, where Murphy grew up, the eldest of four siblings. Murphy’s parents were schoolteachers, and he loved reading and music, forming a band with his brother in his teens. He discovered theater at 16, through a drama module at school. (“I had never been to the theater,” he said. “It blew my mind.”)
After starting a law degree (“a disaster”), he tracked down the teacher, Pat Kiernan, who was running the Corcadorca Theater Company in Cork. “I pestered him continually for an audition,” Murphy recounted. “Finally he gave in.”
He was cast in “Disco Pigs,” Walsh’s breakneck, two-character play from 1996 about a teenage couple running amok while speaking in coded language. “He had an innate understanding of that character and play, the world of it,” Walsh wrote in an email, adding that Murphy was also “a natural collaborator in the rehearsal room — a creative force.”
“Disco Pigs” was a surprise hit, touring worldwide and briefly running in the West End, and after a stretch of unemployment (“I was happy, just reading plays,” he said serenely), small theater and film parts began to come Murphy’s way. After Danny Boyle saw a film version of “Disco Pigs,” in which Murphy also starred, he asked the actor to audition for the lead in “28 Days Later,” a small horror film that became a big hit in 2003. Then Nolan noticed a photograph of Murphy in a newspaper article about “28 Days.” Struck by the actor’s presence, he asked Murphy to audition for the title role in “Batman Begins.”
“When he walked in, I think we both knew he wasn’t going to play Batman,” Nolan said. “But as he started to act, the whole crew, everyone in the room, paid attention. The villain in Batman movies had always been played by major movie stars, but the studio agreed right away after seeing the tests, a real testament to him.”
Murphy went on to play that villain, Scarecrow, in all three of Nolan’s Batman films, and took supporting roles in “Inception” (2010) and “Dunkirk” (2017). “Meeting Chris and working with him was huge for me,” he said. “The rigor and excellence he demands from his cast and crew, his command of the vernacular of cinema, how he talks to actors, how concise his notes are — it’s phenomenal and has been so important for me in terms of craft.”
Equally important, he said, was what he learned onstage. “I didn’t train as an actor, and watching great actors, figuring out stagecraft, how to use your voice, what to do when someone dries up, that has been so instructive and essential.”
Even after movie success started to come his way, with roles in Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” Boyle’s “Sunshine” and Wes Craven’s “Red Eye,” among others, he continued to work in theater, collaborating with Walsh on “Misterman,” “Ballyturk” and “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers.”
AND THEN THERE WAS “PEAKY BLINDERS,” the drama about a Birmingham crime family, set in the interwar years. It started modestly in 2013 before ramping up into a cult hit that lasted six seasons and inspired themed weddings, a cookbook, a virtual reality game and a ballet.
“I had seen him in quite a few things, and when we heard he was interested, I said, yup, when he is onscreen everybody is looking at him,” said Steven Knight, who created and wrote the series. Murphy, he said, is “brilliant at controlling what’s going on in the audience’s mind.” The best actors, he added, “are their own editors, predicting their edit, how they fit into the mosaic of the work, which is very difficult, and he can do that.”
Murphy shrugged off the notion that his “Peaky Blinders” fame had changed much for him. “There is always a finite number of excellent scripts,” he said. “You are constantly in a battle for roles that challenge you, where you are really interrogating a script and doing the research.”
With “Oppenheimer,” that process began when he was given the script in September 2021. He saw immediately that the story was entirely focused on, and told through, the title character: “It was written in the first person, the only script I had ever read like that. I knew what he would demand from me.”
First-person, Nolan said, was a way of making the requirements of the role “very upfront: we are going into this guy’s head, you have to be immersed in the essence so strongly that you carry the audience with you.”
With any Nolan film, Murphy said, there is “an awful lot of prep and interrogating,” which he greatly enjoys. He took the five months until the shoot to ready himself.
“I love acting with my body, and Oppenheimer had a very distinct physicality and silhouette, which I wanted to get right,” Murphy said. “I had to lose quite a bit of weight, and we worked with the costume and tailoring; he was very slim, almost emaciated, existed on martinis and cigarettes.” Murphy added, “He had these really bright eyes and I wanted to give him this wide-eyed look, so we worked on his silhouette and expressions a lot before starting.”
On set, he said, he and Nolan talked less. “But there is space to try things, make an eejit of yourself,” he said, using an Irish expression for idiot. Nolan, he added, “always pushes you, and I like being pushed.”
Asked whether he had felt certain Murphy could carry the film, Nolan said, “I had the confidence emotionally, or perhaps rather intellectually, in Cillian. But there is still the reality of putting in the work with a level of fear.”
That work was “a marathon” for the actor, said Matt Damon, who plays Leslie Groves, a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army who worked alongside Oppenheimer at the Los Alamos, N.M., laboratory where the bomb was developed. “When you are at the center of a movie at that scale, shooting seven scenes in a day, it takes a different focus and concern and commitment. It’s beautiful to watch someone give themselves to it fully.”
Murphy “leads with truth, he isn’t an actor who chews the scenery,” said Emily Blunt, who plays the scientist’s wife, Kitty Oppenheimer. “There aren’t many people who can seemingly do nothing and be magnetic like him. And it’s not just about those laser beams on his face! He has thought about every detail.”
She added, “This movie explores not only the trauma of living with a brain like Oppenheimer’s, but what you do with it, and what lengths you are willing to go to. Cillian is brilliant at playing that ambiguity of intention.” (Off set, she said, “He is such a hoot!”)
Asked how he had understood the character of Oppenheimer, Murphy said that he wanted to let the movie speak to that. “The best films ask questions and don’t give answers,” he said.
Clearly the best actors, too.







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