[Only IN Hollywood] Oscar-bound: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and their ‘Oppenheimer’ journey

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Oscar-bound: Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and their ‘Oppenheimer’ journey

Universal Pictures

'Oppenheimer' may pick up as many as 10 of those little gold man statuettes if the awards pundits have it right

LOS ANGELES, CA – With Oscar pundits weighing in, the prediction is that come March 10, Christopher Nolan and his Oppenheimer team will walk up several times to the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Make that many times – if the Academy prognosticators’ prophecy that Oppenheimer may pick up as many as 10 of those little gold man statuettes proves to be on target.

With its sweep of the best picture prize from the start of the awards season, from the Golden Globe Awards to the recent Producers Guild of America Awards, Nolan’s drama following the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer who developed the atomic bomb during World War II is indeed likely to bag the Oscars’ top plum.

Robert Downey Jr., for his portrayal of Lewis Strauss, Oppenheimer’s nemesis, and after triumphing from the Golden Globes to the Screen Actors Guild Awards, looks like a shoo-in for best supporting actor.

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RDJ. Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in ‘Oppenheimer.’ Universal Pictures

Cillian Murphy, who also dominated the best actor race this awards season, may contribute to Oppenheimer’s Oscars trophy haul for his performance as the father of the atomic bomb. But Paul Giamatti, who is locked in a tight contest with Cillian, may pull a surprise for his acclaimed turn in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers.

Oppenheimer’s imminent sweep at the 96th Academy Awards reminded me of the film’s after-screening Q and A at the start of the awards season. The panel, held at the Linwood Dunn Theater in the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood, included Cillian and Robert.

Cillian reflected on the tremendous response to Oppenheimer right from the start: “The reception has been extraordinary. When we finished the premiere in London, we did the red carpet and then we went on strike (Writers’ and SAG-AFTRA Strikes). So, it was done very abruptly.”

“Then the movie came out and it had this amazing response from audiences and so many people went to see it. And we were all texting each other, kind of in shock. You know, lots of emojis.”

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TRIO. Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, and Cillian Murphy at the 14th Governors Awards in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Ovation Hollywood. AMPAS

While Cillian initially watched Oppenheimer, which also went on to become a blockbuster, in Paris, Robert had a great anecdote about how he watched Christopher’s historical drama for the first time.

“I didn’t get a chance to see it so I screened it in East Hampton for everyone,” Robert began, referring to the New York summer hideaway. “I invited everyone that I thought was out there around that time of year.”

“Everybody RSVP’d and right before the movie started, I sat down and Paul McCartney was sitting next to me. I was watching the movie and also just listening to him breathe.”

Imagine being seated beside a music legend while watching a film. Robert was interrupted in his recount and was amusingly asked by Emily Blunt, who is also Oscar-nominated for playing Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, and was a scientist herself, if Paul is a “heavy breather.”

“No, but I was attuned to him because I thought this might never happen again,” Robert replied. “And it was incredible to see this.”

“You all know it just happened to have this communal experience. To see something that is so purely cinematic, just exquisite.”

On that striking scene depicting the first detonation of the atomic bomb and the reactions of Oppenheimer and the people around him, Cillian recalled, “Well, first of all, we actually shot that scene in Fuller Lodge in Los Alamos (New Mexico), in the real environment that those scientists would have been in, socialized and hung out in.”

“We shot there and Chris did that very deliberately. I’m not a superstitious guy but I do believe in the field of vibrations in a place.”

“You feel the energy in a room and you could sense there was something about the history of that room. I remember it wasn’t even a full day for that.”

“I remember we did that bit outside first and then we all did it. It was like half a day to do that scene. I don’t think we talked very much about it, myself and Chris because with those sorts of scenes, all you really need to do is just think about what actually happened.”

“I was very aware that at that point, it was like about the dilemma, the conflict, and the contradiction and all of those things that he was trying to deal with. We shot it really quickly.”

“I remember the extras were fucking fantastic. They were actually not extras. There were a lot of actors and they were really giving in the scene.”

“We just did it. Like sometimes with those things, the themes and the dilemmas are so huge. You just have to think about it. You don’t really have to talk about it.”

Robert discussed another memorable scene, the opening that introduces his character: “Yeah…in the script it opens and it intros Strauss and his point of view. I just remember that day we were at the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe (New Mexico).”

“I think it was the first day. It might have been the first thing we shot so I was in my body and just trying to establish something. And I was realizing, as we all did, the way, what his (Chris’) rhythms are and the way he works, and it’s so efficient that the only thing that could possibly go wrong is you.”

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AT THE HEARING. Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in ‘Oppenheimer.’ Universal Pictures

“It’s mortifying to start (a film) sometimes. But like my missus (Susan Downey) always says, once the first clapper goes, half your problems go away because the anticipation is gone and you’re in it.”

“The first scene is so critical and great directors know that a character’s introduction is the only thing you have to get right.”

Cillian talked about whether he had any affinity with Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who studied at Harvard and the University of Göttingen (Germany), taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and signed on to head the Manhattan Project’s New Mexico Los Alamos Laboratory, which was assigned to develop the first nuclear weapons.

“Genuinely, I didn’t feel that much connective tissue with the character,” answered the Irish actor with those piercing blue eyes. “Me, personally, I don’t think I need to have that. I don’t think there has to be that exchange for me.”

“When I read it (script), and he (Chris) sent it to me, I went, holy fucking shitballs. I don’t really know how to do this. I genuinely don’t know how to do this. But we had a long time.”

“Chris says in his very off-handish way, I was writing the script. And he had the book beside him and apparently, there was some physical resemblance. So, there was that, I guess.”

“He (Oppenheimer) was an astonishing, never to be seen again, individual. A lot of his contemporaries would say that he was the most brilliant of them all, like beyond Einstein and all that.”

Cillian added about Oppenheimer, “I found him intensely human. That’s what people ask me about him and I go, he was intensely, relatively human. Aside from all his genius, flaws, and contradictions, he still was naïve.”

Referring to Oppenheimer’s efforts to spouse the peaceful use of nuclear energy, discussed in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird’s biography upon which the film is based, Cillian said, “He (Oppenheimer) still believed after how it happened in 1945 (the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) that there would be a world governance and that this genocidal weapon would be managed.”

“And that all nations would come together and would have common sense and that he could still be that brilliant to think that. And that’s intensely human. So that, I connected to.”

Robert addressed quotes that had him challenging his character Strauss’ reputation as a villain, likening Strauss to Antonio Salieri and Oppenheimer to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The alleged feud was depicted in Milos Forman’s Oscar and Golden Globe best picture winner, Amadeus.

“When you get a role and you’re into it, it doesn’t end when you’re done, it’s out and you’re talking about it,” Robert said. “Or even years later, it’s a lifelong kind of a talisman that you can keep going back to.”

“So, yesterday, I just Googled Salieri. When Mozart did Don Giovanni, Salieri put out an opera (Axur, re d’Ormus) that was actually better reviewed. And history doesn’t care about that because it’s decided that it was black and white.”

“So, I think also just like Nolan and in making that reference. He was inviting us to see, well, there’s the Milos Forman version, the historical version, and now, there’s the revised history that we actually know more about, the way we were talking correctly about what it was.”

Photography, Adult, Male
NOLAN. Director Christopher Nolan behind the scenes of ‘Oppenheimer.’ Universal Pictures

“I think you can say the same thing about the Atomic Age. You can say the same thing about when political preferences become too extreme.”

“Strauss, particularly conservative, and Oppenheimer, possibly a bit too progressive. That just doesn’t serve the people because if they could have met in the middle of the aisle, then Atoms for Peace might have happened.”

“Perhaps Strauss would have said, ‘Hey, you’re acknowledging me, what is it that you wanna do? Okay, let me show you how to deal with the UN. I can help you.’ ”

“So, I think, as Nolan said, that it is a bit of a horror movie. I think it’s history and it’s also a tragedy. And it’s something that we can do better in.”

“Just because they’re geniuses and special, we hold them as the greatest generation, whatever. We’re the greatest generation now. It’s our job to try to do things a little better.”

Robert added about the Oppenheimer-Strauss feud: “I think it was animus. I think the bookends between the heart of the movie are these implied insults or slights and how petty everyone can be. What’s not petty is what happens there.”

“I’m almost feeling like Strauss. Because this is what we do, right? We take on the mantle of…I have to be in the point of view of that person fully.”

“And I have to fully be in their shoes, even if I’m nothing like them. The great gift we get is this forced perspective that is not our own. Which is why Cillian, every day he said, ‘I just really don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”

“And then he would go do something so hard, so well. So, our host was basically saying, I don’t have to know to do this well. I just have to be in these shoes.”

Turning to Cillian, Robert praised him: “Nolan is so Spartan and then you’re the focus of this Spartan important thing. But to me, the biggest sacrifice is we know all those things and actors usually love to talk about everything they had to do with their diet, regimen, and how they slept in a coffin and you know what I’m saying.”

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CILLIAN AND CHRISTOPHER. Cillian Murphy and Christopher Nolan behind the scenes of ‘Oppenheimer.’ Universal Pictures

“But what I saw was the struggle within you every day to give yourself permission to play someone so completely different from you in that you’re very engaging, very conscious, very polite, and very thoughtful.”

“And this guy is in his own world. So, the first time, you just have to let your scene partners know, hey, it’s not that I don’t like you and I don’t care about you. Clearly, it’s the character I’m doing.”

“And then you wouldn’t overcompensate but it was almost like, in every frame of this film, you had to go to a place that is not your nature. To me, that was the real hat trick because it’s lonely, dude. It’s lonely to have to do that on top of everything else. And I think that’s the weird thing.”

“You’re number one on the call sheet, you’re in every frame and in a way, you’re in this really free solo type of weirdo place. I saw you manage and survive it and that’s why you’re really quite good at this.”

Cillian returned the compliment, addressing Robert and Emily: “The reason why I think the film works is because it’s got the best fucking actors in the world. These two guys in particular…because I had so much stuff with these two guys.”

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TEAM OPPENHEIMER. Alden Ehrenreich, Florence Pugh, Christopher Nolan, Cillian Murphy, Emma Thomas, Emily Blunt, and Robert Downey Jr. at the 14th Governors Awards in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Ovation Hollywood. AMPAS

“It’s just astonishing what they did. It’s imprinted on your psyche, these two characters in this movie. The skill, the dexterity, and the nuance they give to these characters. But that’s a given.”

“We all know about these actors for years and years – they’re just legends. But for me, it was also just the kindness, the empathy, and the humanity that they showed me during the shooting of the thing.”

“Because it was tough. I mean, it was fast, it was furious, and it was tough. But it was just this huge empathy and kindness. And being in scenes with these guys, it’s never about the actors, it’s about making the best scene possible.”

“Making the most truthful, most honest work you can possibly do. And that’s what you get from actors of this caliber. I felt really held, secure, and safe working with these guys all the way through it. Not just on set but off set and that’s a gift.”

On March 10, at this year’s Academy Awards, we’ll find out how huge Oppenheimer’s victories will be. – Rappler.com

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.