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SYFY WIRE Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer Star Cillian Murphy Says Playing Father of Atomic Bomb Both 'Terrifying and Exciting'

Oppenheimer sets the world on fire July 21.

By Josh Weiss

Nicolas Cage may have the unbearable weight of massive talent, but J. Robert Oppenheimer carried the unbearable weight of massive genius. Actor Cillian Murphy understood this right away when writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan flew to Dublin in September 2021 to offer him the lead role in Oppenheimer, his forthcoming biopic (opening in theaters everywhere July 21) on the father of the atomic bomb.

Speaking to Empire for the magazine's July 2023 issue, Murphy described the role as "terrifying and exciting in equal measure, which I think is the best place to be as an actor starting off on a project. You can't sit back and think, 'I've got this, this is going to be a piece of [cake], I hope the catering is good.' This was like, 'F-ck.' But then it started, this hunger. I could feel this hunger for the character and for the job."

RELATED: How Robert Pattinson Helped Inspire Christopher Nolan to Make Oppenheimer On Set of Tenet

"I put an enormous burden on that central character," said Nolan, who wrote the screenplay in first-person. "There always would have been a big burden with playing this type of person, but to have to carry the whole audience with them in this very subjective way... That's when I thought of Cillian."

Drawing from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (named so for the ill-fated Greek deity who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to humans), the film takes place in the later stages of World War II as the United States Government races to develop a weapon capable of bringing a swift end to the global conflict.

Oppenheimer poster UNIVERSAL PRESS

Acting on direction from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) taps Dr. Oppenheimer to assemble the country's greatest minds for the classified endeavor that will change the course of history. And while he played along with the Manhattan Project's aims, the talented physicist ultimately came to regret his terrible creation. In a way, he represents the antithesis of what Alfred said in The Dark Knight: "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

"He's a divisive character, and he's a very hard, complex character to figure out, kind of unknowable," Murphy said. "So that is different than playing a cop who's got scruples in a TV show. Not that those aren't worthy things to make. But this has an added layer to it."

The film's supporting cast represents a who's who of A-list Hollywood talent. Aside from Damon, you've also got the likes of Emily Blunt (Katherine “Kitty” Oppenheimer), Robert Downey Jr. (Lewis Strauss), Florence Pugh (Jean Tatlock), Josh Hartnett (Ernest Lawrence), Michael Angarano (Robert Serber), Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Alden Ehrenreich, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, Jack Quaid, Matthew Modine, Dylan Arnold, and David Krumholtz. Nolan produced the film alongside his wife, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven.

Oppenheimer officially sets the world on fire July 21. Click here for tickets!

Jonesing for another thriller based on true events? A Friend of the Family is now streaming on Peacock.