Cillian Murphy sought subtlety and detail in the role of Robert J. Oppenheimer for Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer — down to his fingertips.
In a Q&A Friday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, the Irish actor told festival director Robert Durling that he tried to keep his performance contained, since he knew every gesture would be blown up on IMAX. Durling noted that the IMAX presentation of the film was so large that he noticed apparent nicotine stains on Murphy’s fingers to reflect Oppenheimer’s smoking habit.
Murphy was delighted.
“I’m so glad you noticed that!” Murphy smiled. “Our amazing makeup artist Luisa Abel — we did that every single day and I would get really into the detail. But then I was like, ‘No one’s ever gonna see this.’ I’m so glad you saw that!”
The film, based on American Prometheus by Kai Bird Martin J. Sherwin, recounts the real-life efforts of Strauss to undercut Oppenheimer after Oppenheimer guided the Manhattan Project in the creation of the atomic bomb. It is nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and adapted screenplay for Nolan, best supporting actor for Robert Downey Jr., best makeup for Abel, and best actor for Murphy.
Cillian Murphy on Understated Performances
The advantages of shooting for IMAX came up when Durling asked Murphy about the way he approached the role. Durling noted: “We’re used to seeing actors emoting, but you do a lot of withholding.”
“I’ve always loved that sort of performance, where more is withheld than revealed,” Murphy replied. “Because I think it gives space for the audience then, in the performance. That’s just a personal preference.”
The IMAX photography also contributed to the acting decision.
“The script kind of demanded that because there was so much about his interior landscape, about what he was wrestling with and grappling with, and and then obviously when we cut to those kind of molecular-level images that Chris has created,” Murphy told Durling.
“I knew that the performance had to match that, and that it would be quiet, and that there would be room for the audience, hopefully, to kind of go with him on the journey,” Murphy said. “So in the back of your mind you remember that it’s going to be shown on a [huge] screen… so hopefully if you think it and feel it, it will transmit.”
Durling also noted that though many people smoked and wore hats in Oppenheimer’s time, in the film only Oppenheimer does. It was a deliberate decision by Nolan, Murphy said.
“That’s part of his genius,” Murphy said. “I remember very early on we were doing one of the the lecture sequences, and I said to him, ‘Don’t you think that everyone should be smoking? Because everybody smokes.’
“He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. I just want people to focus on him, so that you don’t think about it consciously, but subconsciously.”
After his own afternoon Q&A Friday afternoon, Murphy returned to Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theater Friday night to pay tribute to his Oppenheimer co-star, Downey Jr. recipient of the festival‘s Matlin Modern Master Award.
Downey told interviewer Leonard Maltin that he welcomed the chance to play a supporting role, below Murphy on the call sheet.
Downey said Nolan explained the dynamic between Oppenheimer and his character, the jealous, scheming Lewis Strauss, by citing the one between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus.
“And I was like, [imitating whiny voice], ‘But I usually play Mozart,'” Downey said, to audience laughter.
Main image: Cillian Murphy speaks onstage at the Maltin Modern Master Award during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival. (Photo by Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images for SBIFF)
Editor’s Note: Corrects galleries and typo.