Cillian Murphy Wins Best Actor: “I’d Like To Dedicate This To The Peacemakers”

When Cillian Murphy won the best actor Oscar for Oppenheimer on Sunday night, it was the fulfillment of a wish made—and granted—by filmmaker Christopher Nolan. That pledge came on a note attached to the front page of the script he had sent the Irish actor: “Dearest Cillian—Finally a chance to see you lead … Love, Chris.”

Murphy had played the lead in many films over the years, from the 2002 zombie classic 28 Days Later to 2020’s A Quiet Place: Part II and the TV series Peaky Blinders, but for much of his career Murphy brought his intense presence and thousand-yard stare to supporting parts. That was certainly true of the six movies he and Nolan had made together, starting with his villainous turn as Scarecrow in 2005’s Batman Begins (a role he revisited in the two sequels), and scene-stealing character roles in Inception and Dunkirk.

With his sharp cheekbones and simmering blue eyes, he physically resembles J. Robert Oppenheimer, the historic physicist Nolan chose to depict in his film about the creation and deployment of the atomic bomb. He had been one of the stars considered for the same role in Manhattan, an earlier TV dramatization of the secretive Manhattan Project that birthed the weapons at the end of World War II. In Nolan’s case, Murphy said he didn’t even need to read the completed script before saying yes. “Every time Chris has called me, I’ve always said yes before I’ve read the script. So it’s just a formality,” Murphy said in a Vanity Fair interview.

Formality is Nolan’s way, however. Here’s how Oppenheimer first came to Murphy: “He generally tends to just call me out of the blue. Or Emma Thomas, his wife and producer, calls me because Chris doesn’t possess a phone or a computer or an email,” the actor says. “So she called me and I was totally unaware that this was happening.”

Nolan then got on the line to explain: “He said, ‘Look, I have a script. It’s called Oppenheimer. I’d like you to play Oppenheimer.’ Then what he always does, though, is he flies to wherever you are and gives you the actual script himself—in person. And it’s always printed on red paper with black ink. And it was a tome. It was a doorstopper of a thing.”

The paper color is designed to thwart any potential efforts to make a photocopy, which protects the secrecy of the story, although in this case the history behind it is well documented. Nolan adapted the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer written by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Murphy spent six months preparing for the performance, dropping 28 pounds to even more closely match Oppenheimer’s skeletal visage, and refining his voice and mannerisms. This devotion didn’t let up during the shoot as he continued relentless preparation after hours for the next day’s work, learned Dutch for a scene in which Oppenheimer lectures in the foreign language, and starved himself to continue shedding weight for later scenes when the character is at a physical and mental low-point.

His costar, Robert Downey Jr.,a supporting actor winner for playing his nemesis, Lewis Strauss, recalled at a group Q&A in December that Nolan regularly checked in with Murphy about his physical transformation. “He was like, ‘You’re sure you’re going to make the very emaciated scenes later?’” Downey said. “I was like, ‘Dude, he’s already … he’s he’s a cadaver! Leave him alone!”

“We realized as the people who got to jet-pack in and out of this movie, how unfathomably lucky we were to have Cillian at the helm of it,” added his other costar, Emily Blunt, who was a supporting actress nominee for playing Kitty Oppenheimer. “It’s just the most monumental task, which he did with humility and kindness…. So when you say, did he unplug? Never ever. He couldn’t ever. I think we could. I was like, ‘Let’s get some fajitas in New Mexico!’ Cillian’s, like, ‘I’ll be in my room.’”

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