Cillian Murphy ‘Was Desperate’ to Be Christopher Nolan’s Lead in ‘Oppenheimer’ After Five Movies as a Supporting Actor: ‘It’s a Huge Responsibility’

Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy’s working relationship spans nearly 20 years and counting as the filmmaker has directed the “Peaky Blinders” favorite in six movies: Three Batman films, “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and “Oppenheimer.” Notably, however, the upcoming atomic bomb drama marks Murphy’s first time headlining a Nolan picture in the lead role. Murphy stars as theoretical physicist and “father of the atomic bomb” J. Robert Oppenheimer. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the actor admitted he “was desperate” to lead a Nolan movie.

“I have always said publicly and privately, to Chris, that if I’m available and you want me to be in a movie, I’m there. I don’t really care about the size of the part,” Murphy said. “But deep down, secretly, I was desperate to play a lead for him.”

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Murphy landed the lead role in “Oppenheimer” via a cold-call offer from Nolan.

“He’s so understated and self-deprecating and, in his very English manner, just said, ‘Listen, I’ve written this script, it’s about Oppenheimer. I’d like you to be my Oppenheimer,’” Murphy said. “It was a great day… We have this long-standing understanding and trust and shorthand and respect. It felt like the right time to take on a bigger responsibility. And it just so happened that it was a huge one.”

“Oppenheimer” is based on the 2005 book “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin and tracks the physicist as he wrestles with the creation of the atomic bomb during World War II.

“You realize this is a huge responsibility. He was complicated and contradictory and so iconic,” Murphy said of the character. “But you know you’re with one of the great directors of all time. I felt confident going into it with Chris. He’s had a profound impact on my life, creatively and professionally. He’s offered me very interesting roles and I’ve found all of them really challenging. And I just love being on his sets.”

“The question will be how Chris presents it,” Murphy added of the film. “I think people will be very surprised and wowed by what he does. Anything I say will just seem a bit lame as compared to seeing this in an IMAX theater.”

Joining Murphy in “Oppenheimer” is an all-star cast that includes Emily Blunt as Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer, Matt Damon as Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves Jr. and Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, a founding commissioner of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Florence Pugh, Benny Safdie, Michael Angarano, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Dane DeHaan, Dylan Arnold, David Krumholtz, Alden Ehrenreich and Matthew Modine also star.

Murphy revealed last year that in prepping to play Oppenheimer he skipped over all the mechanics of what makes an atom bomb and instead focused on the man himself.

“[I prepped by doing] an awful lot of reading,” Murphy recently told The Guardian. “I’m interested in the man and what [inventing the atomic bomb] does to the individual. The mechanics of it, that’s not really for me — I don’t have the intellectual capability to understand them, but these contradictory characters are fascinating.”

“Oppenheimer” opens in theaters July 21 from Universal Pictures.

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