May 18, 2024

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Cillian Murphy had to “sit down for a moment” and gather his thoughts when he received the out-of-the-blue call from director and longtime collaborator Christopher Nolan about playing the lead in his epic biographical thriller Oppenheimer.

Murphy said during Deadline’s Contenders Film: Los Angeles panel for the Universal film, “I knew it was a big one, but it was absolutely kind of electrifying feeling but also terrifying, but that’s the place I always want to be when I’m making work – I don’t ever want it to feel easy or safe, but this was a biggie and I knew it was a huge responsibility and a huge amount of work.”

Murphy plays the titular complicated and brilliant physicist tasked with leading the Manhattan Project, the secret effort to create the atom bomb. 

The story plays out in an unusual first-person approach, with a moral conundrum gathering in Oppenheimer’s head as he begins to envision the dangers beyond a short-term use of a weapon that could — and did — spark an arms race and a new world order that changed us forever. 

The movie has been a worldwide hit with $949.8 million in global box office leading into this weekend. Oppenheimer launched in Nolan’s preferred July slot and became part of the zeitgeist with the Barbenheimer phenomenon that followed, but regardless the career-best box office success is nothing short of an astounding feat for a three-hour R-rated drama.

Murphy was joined at Contenders by producer Emma Thomas, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick, Jamie Leigh McIntosh of the hair department and VFX supervisor Andrew Jackson.

“The script was genuinely one of the best things I’d ever read — it was staggering kind of in its ambition and the scale, but also in how clearly he had plotted through the story of Oppenheimer,” Murphy said. “[Nolan] had written it in the first person which I had never encountered before so that was a new experience for me reading that. … These are the biggest moral dilemmas possible, the biggest drama possible the stuff that all these characters are grappling with so you just have to dive in. … But Chris having written it and adapted it from the book and having lived with it so long, he has such a wonderful understanding of the story and how he wants to tell the story and how the character should be portrayed.… We worked incredibly closely from the very beginning to figure it out.”

Added Thomas, “Every film that you make sort of has its own challenges and I think that oftentimes when I read the scripts that Chris writes I’m sort of super nervous because I’m thinking about what on Earth this is going to be for the next couple of years, but also how on Earth are we going to do these things. With this script it was actually very different because I felt like we had a handle just with the experience we had had up until this point. We had a handle on how to shoot in the desert, we had a handle on the sort of logistical aspects, but what I felt to be kind of much more of a challenge on this was how on Earth were we going to be able to condense this massive story on a film — it’s also huge issues, deep moral ambiguity, how do we put a movie out like that out in the summer and have people engage with it and make a film that can entertain whilst also allow people to be challenged by the ideas that are in it.”

She praised Murphy and the team.

“I think in large part due to Cillian’s performance which expresses so much and of course with everybody else’s work that went into the film, it just somehow Chris managed to thread the needle while also entertaining and dealing with big issues respectfully while bringing audiences into theaters to have an experience,” she said.

Check back Monday for the panel video.

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