“Oppenheimer” Stars Robert Downey Jr. and Florence Pugh Were in Awe of Cillian Murphy
When we spoke to Oppenheimer writer/director Christopher Nolan, his passion for getting inside the experience of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) before, during, and after he led the Manhattan Project and created the atomic bomb was, unsurprisingly, vividly evident. And when you have a star director marshaling all of his storytelling gifts to tell the tale of one man’s life, both his crowning achievement and what might have been his most profound mistake, that passion created a tremendous amount of pressure on Cillian Murphy to give a performance worthy of the subject and Nolan’s vision. The reviews have made clear that Murphy pulled it off, as the philosophical leaning, contradictory, and brilliant physicist Murphy gave the role everything he had. It wasn’t only critics and viewers who have been, excuse the pun, blown away by what Murphy accomplished, but his fellow actors, too.
“I have never witnessed a greater sacrifice by a lead actor in my career,” Robert Downey Jr. told People magazine.
“He knew it was going to be a behemoth ask when Chris called him,” Downey Jr. said. “But I think he also had the humility that is required to survive playing a role like this. We’d be like, ‘Hey, we got a three-day weekend. Maybe we’ll go antiquing in Santa Fe. What are you going to do?’ ‘Oh, I have to learn 30,000 words of Dutch. Have a nice time.’ But that’s the nature of the ask.”
Downey Jr. plays Oppenheimer’s chief antagonist, the equally brilliant Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who would go on to persecute Oppenheimer, claiming he was a Soviet spy. They spar in many scenes together. Another of Murphy’s collaborators, Florence Pugh, who plays Jean Tatlock, a key figure in Oppenheimer’s life, was equally impressed.
“Chris had one of the most incredible leads in Cillian,” Florence Pugh told People. “He is an actor that I have been watching for quite some time and have been desperate to work with for ages. You’d have to be mad to say no. It was truly one of the best experiences that I’ve had. Working with him was hugely impressive. Every single day he shows up knowing every single possible way, intonation, [and] inflection of how to bring this character to life. That was hugely impressive to me. There’s a reason why he is one of the greats.”
Another fellow performer, Matt Damon, who plays Lieutenant General Leslie Groves Jr., the man who directed the Manhattan Project and enlisted Oppenehimer’s help, understood why Murphy couldn’t enjoy a nice meal with his colleagues.
“Of course he didn’t want to come and have dinner with us,” Matt Damon told People in a previous cast interview. “He couldn’t. His brain was just too full.” In that same interview, Emily Blunt, who plays fellow Kitty Oppenheimer, a fellow physicist who suffered greatly because of and on behalf of her husband, agreed. “The sheer volume of what he had to take on and shoulder is so monumental.”
It was in that cast interview with People that Murphy also admitted the pressure he felt. “You know that when you have those big roles, that responsibility, you feel it’s kind of overwhelming.”
The pressure has been released. Oppenheimer is a critical and commercial smash. There are hundreds of reasons why, hundreds of people who made it so, but none besides Christoper Nolan loom quite so large as Cillian Murphy.
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Featured image: L to R: Florence Pugh is Jean Tatlock and Cillian Murphy is J. Robert Oppenheimer in OPPENHEIMER, written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan.