In Nolan’s most well-received film since 2008’s The Dark Knight, Arnold plays J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (Cillian Murphy) younger brother, Frank, who was a brilliant physicist in his own right. But as dramatized in the film, Frank’s one-time involvement with the American Communist Party caused a number of obstacles for Robert before, during and after the Manhattan Project.
When actors take on complex roles that an entire film hinges on, there have been plenty of horror stories about how some of them have handled that pressure on set, but what impressed Arnold the most is the way Cillian Murphy carried himself despite the monumental expectations he was facing.
“Given how much he had to do and how much was on his shoulders, I was amazed by how pleasant Cillian was the entire time,” Arnold tells The Hollywood Reporter prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike. “It just shows that you really can be a warm, lovely, inviting person on set, and when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. So it was amazing to watch how graceful he was.”
As far as Nolan, Arnold will never forget the day he sought advice ahead of a quick shot and the note he received in return.
“There was a very short, easy shot that we had to do, and I asked him what he wanted me to do. And he just looked at me and said, ‘May the Force be with you,’” Arnold says. “So he was willing to let me explore and let me bring myself to it. He just has this extraordinary trust and collaborative spirit that brings out the best in people.”
Below, during a conversation with THR, Arnold also reflects on his two Halloween movies and how he ended up wearing a skirt for his fateful scene in which Michael Myers kills his character.
Well, congrats on being employed by Chris Nolan.
(Laughs.) Thank you. I constantly pitch myself.
Did everything begin with a self-tape?
Yeah, that’s how it began. I got the initial email for a self-tape for Christopher Nolan, and who wouldn’t be excited about that opportunity? I got two scenes that I think most everyone who auditioned got. One of them was the monologue about how stars die, and then the other one was a scene between a military general and a scientist. So I just had as much fun with it as I could, and then I sent it in.
Several months later, I found out that I was gonna go in for a callback and meet Chris in person. When you’re at that point and you’re about to go in for someone like Chris Nolan, that’s kind of a win right there. Everything else beyond that was just the cherry on top. So I was happy with how the experience went, even if it had ended right there. But I was fortunate enough to be invited to play with everyone, and it’s the highlight of my very short career so far. (Laughs.)
Do you think Universal gave you a push since you’ve worked with them on two Halloween movies?
Oh, I wouldn’t have any way of knowing, but if that was the case, then I’m very grateful.
If you had to guess, do you think they were looking for someone to resemble the real Frank Oppenheimer or to resemble Cillian as Robert?
If there’s any thought that I resemble Cillian Murphy, I’ll take it as a huge compliment, but I would assume that I was probably cast to be closer to the resemblance of Cillian. You’re trying to build a world within the movie, and Cillian has features that really do resemble the real Oppenheimer. He obviously doesn’t look exactly like him, but there’s this essence about him. So it could be a combination of the two, but Chris wanted to build the world in as rich a way that he could. So I’m just fortunate that I was able to fit into that.
How was the good news delivered?
Well, I went in for the callback and then I had to forget about it, as you have to do with these things. So I was calling my agents to check in about another job that I had auditioned for, and they said, “Well, we haven’t heard anything about that, but you actually got Oppenheimer.” And so that was more of a treat than I could have asked for. I just sat there speechless.
They really buried the lede.
(Laughs.) I know! They really did. They had fun with that one.
So how deep did you dive into Frank?
I really did as much research as I could. When you’re about to work with someone of Chris’ stature, you want to be as prepared as possible and bring your A game. That’s what he expects, and that’s why everyone loves working with him. So I read American Prometheus, the book that the movie is based on, and then I devoured another book that dives more into Frank’s life. There’s not many interviews with him on the Internet, but I watched the few that I could find. So I gathered as many resources as I could to pull from, and fortunately for me, he was an incredibly fascinating man. That made the research very exciting.
Did Frank’s son, Michael, impart any wisdom on you?
In New Mexico, I was fortunate enough to get lunch with Frank’s son [Michael] and Robert’s grandson [Charles], and they were both very lovely people. At that point, I had done all the research I could, but it was definitely rewarding to be sharing stories and sharing things that I came across and hear the confirmation of him saying, “Oh, yeah. I remember when Dad would talk about that,” or “Oh, he loved that story.” So that was a moment where I really felt like I had at least done that part of my job. I was able to hold a conversation about Frank and have some grasp of who this guy was.
How did you view the differences between Frank and Robert?
Frank was much more driven by politics. Robert tended to stay in the middle a bit, because he recognized that he would not be able to do certain things if he had certain political views. They were about eight years apart, and both of them were brilliant. They would connect on physics. They would write each other letters growing up. They both loved art and science, and they both spent a lot of time in New Mexico. So they were very bonded in those ways, but I think Frank was a little more righteous. I think Frank needed to do what he felt was right and he would accept the consequences no matter what.
In my opinion, Robert seemed a little more calculating in the way that he would approach things, so that’s a big difference. There was a time when they didn’t want Frank on the Manhattan Project because he was once a known communist, but at that time, he felt like that was the right thing for him to do. And per my understanding, Robert warned him about that, but Frank stood by and said, “No, this is what needs to happen.” So he accepted the consequences down the road, and he wound up being blacklisted and unable to teach.
Chris certainly didn’t expect you to become a particle physicist overnight, so did you aim for the broad strokes?
Yeah, I wanted to have somewhat of an understanding. It still baffles me the way the Oppenheimers’ minds work, and it would’ve been a fool’s errand to try to really understand everything on the physics side. So I had a general knowledge of it, but what you want to do as an actor is tap into the human element and figure out how this guy feels about all this. And then tap into that passion and that drive, and go from there. Fortunately, I don’t have to teach any physics classes, and in any situation in which I would, it would be written for me. (Laughs.) So I knew I couldn’t fully understand what these guys talked about, but Chris did a phenomenal job in the movie by allowing you to enter Oppenheimer’s mind. It’s a really rich character study.
So once you got to set, how quickly did Chris’ reputation precede him? When did you say to yourself, “Oh, I get why he’s a titan of this industry“?
It’s hard to not set your expectations high, but they were immediately surpassed when I came on set. It felt like a playful atmosphere. Everyone was so excited to be there. The quality of work from everybody was so superb, and you just feel welcomed. Sometimes, especially when you’re a younger actor, you can come onto these more experienced sets and feel like you don’t belong. But from day one, I felt like I belonged. He makes it fun, and it’s pretty astounding that he’s able to keep all this stuff in his head and be as calm and as pleasant as he is when he’s running this giant ship. So it was just an amazing experience.
You may have felt welcomed, but knowing that you’re acting on a massive Chris Nolan set with heavy hitters like Damon and Cillian in every direction, does it ever become just another set?
I don’t think this ever felt like another set. Every day, I would come on set and look around me and just think to myself that I’m a part of something incredibly special. When it comes down to it and the camera is rolling, you can’t look and say, “Hey, there’s Matt Damon.” But I was just constantly pinching myself and reminding myself, “How lucky am I?” Everyone was just so inviting, and at the end of the day, it’s about the work. You’re there to do a job, and so is everybody else. Everybody wants to service the material just as much as you do. So, leaning into that made my job a lot easier, and when you’re across from phenomenal actors like Matt and Cillian, it just wakes you up and settles you in a really amazing way.
Did you observe these people quite closely? Were you a sponge?
I tried to be a sponge as much as I could. Given how much he had to do and how much was on his shoulders, I was amazed by how pleasant Cillian was the entire time. It just shows that you really can be a warm, lovely, inviting person on set, and when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. So it was amazing to watch how graceful he was.
Does Chris still work pretty quickly?
Well, what I was so amazed by is how much he trusted everyone. He definitely expects the best from people, but he trusts them when they come on set. And so, in my experience, he would probably do two-to-three takes, and on the first two, generally, he would not give you a note. He would let you play around. There was a very short, easy shot that we had to do, and I asked him what he wanted me to do. And he just looked at me and said, “May the Force be with you.” So he was willing to let me explore and let me bring myself to it. And if he saw something that needed to be adjusted, he would let you know. But he just has this extraordinary trust and collaborative spirit that brings out the best in people.
They say IMAX cameras are quite noisy, so how does that affect relatively quiet dialogue scenes? Chris also isn’t fond of ADR, so they must’ve come up with a solution.
So when the IMAX camera was rolling and we were doing the scene, it made this really loud sound. (Arnold mimics a shuttering-type sound.) They were taking audio, but after a while, I thought, “How are they going to get clean audio?” And then, at the end of each scene with the IMAX camera, they would say, “Okay, now we’re gonna do a sound take.” And so you’ll do the scene again without the camera rolling to just get the audio. So, for the first few days, I was not really thinking about what that take necessarily was. I thought, “Okay, they’re getting safety for the sound,” but I came to realize that the sound take was the one they would use for the scene. So you’d do the scene, you’d do one for sound, and that would generally be the take they would use for sound.
So that was new to me, and when I found that out, I was like, “Okay, that’s something to know. I need to remember that for next time.” (Laughs.) But it was a pretty amazing experience to watch [DP] Hoyte van Hoytema hoist that massive 80-pound camera on his shoulder with ease and then reload that giant IMAX mag. It’s also little moments like that where you just look around and think, “Everyone is so on it. Everyone just knows so much. Top to bottom, this is an extraordinary experience.”
Did the Los Alamos set feel like time travel?
Oh, absolutely. What’s wonderful is that Chris doesn’t allow phones on set, and it keeps everyone focused. They obviously didn’t have cell phones in that time period either. So I was driven out to the middle of the desert, and I was able to look at the canyons and the mountain ranges. I have memories of driving 40 minutes into the desert on a single dirt road in the middle of nowhere, before sunrise, and seeing the tower in the distance as I’m pulling up. And in those moments, you do feel transported back in time, which makes the job a lot easier. You don’t have to look at green screens. You don’t have to imagine where you are, because you’re there. And what’s even more exciting and energizing is that we were close to where these actual people were. We were looking at the same same terrain as them, and we were inspired by the same things as them. So it really helped me get closer to this character in a great way.
Where did you first see the movie?
I was invited to a pre-screening in L.A. with a couple other actors. I’m just so lucky with everything that’s happened on this movie. We got to have a private screening in a theater and watch it on 70 mm. I haven’t seen it on IMAX yet, so I’m very excited to take that in, but it was really lovely. We then talked about it, and it’s definitely a movie that you want to talk about afterwards.
To follow up on something that Andi Matichak, Judy Greer and I once discussed: Have you forgiven David Gordon Green for making you wear a skirt for the majority of your two Halloween movies?
(Laughs.) It was honestly partially my fault. At the end of the first one, they’re dressed up as Bonnie and Clyde, and I have the skirt on. So, when we started filming the second movie, it picked up right after the first one, and so we had conversations about where my character had gone. So David and I had a conversation before my first day, and he said, “Okay, so we can justify you changing into pants along the way, or we could have you wear the skirt the whole movie. I obviously think the skirt is more fun, but what do you think? We have to decide now and stick with it.” And I said, “You know what? I don’t see any other option than doing the skirt. I think we have to do it.” I also knew my character was gonna die at the end of that movie, so I said, “What’s better than dying in a skirt?” (Laughs.)
You and David both went to North Carolina School of the Arts. Did your shared alma mater factor into your original casting?
It didn’t! I obviously knew who he was, and everyone at North Carolina School of the Arts had a lot of respect and admiration for the alumni that had a lot of success. So I was very excited to go in and meet with him and work with him. But he actually didn’t know that I went there until we started working together. So that was a really fun connection that we were able to make once we were on set. So I can’t say that it had anything to do with my casting, but it was a really fun thing to bond over.
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace, what day on Oppenheimer will you likely recall first?
Oh wow. There’s so many. Every single day had its own really wonderful and magical moment. I would probably have to say my first day on set. I was riding a horse up the side of a mountain with Cillian and Josh Hartnett, and we were riding towards Chris behind the IMAX camera. So it was a really special experience to be out there and to be a part of this amazing cast. It was the beginning of the journey that we took, but every day was such a treat. Truly.
Oppenheimer is now playing in movie theaters. This interview, conducted prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike, was edited for length and clarity.