Why Christopher Nolan Allowed Actors To Improvise In Oppenheimer



  • Christopher Nolan allowed his Oppenheimer cast to improvise in certain scenes, which created a continual process of surprise.
  • Each actor did extensive research on their real-life counterpart, adding passion and knowledge to their performances.
  • The immersion of the powerhouse cast in the research process made the characters in Oppenheimer believable and captured the ambiguity and complexity desired by Nolan.



Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan explains why he let his actors improvise on set. Depicting the life of legendary physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in creating the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer features a star-studded acting team including Cillian Murphy, Florence Pugh, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Kenneth Branagh, and Robert Downey Jr. Upon its July 21 release, Oppenheimer has been met with rave reviews from audiences and critics alike.

In an interview with The New York Times, Nolan explains the creative liberty he let his Oppenheimer cast explore while shooting the biopic. Nolan explained that “each actor was coming to the table with research about what their real-life counterpart had been.” Nolan then allowed his actors to “improvise the discussion” in some scenes, which the director said created “a continual process of surprise.” Check out the full quote from Nolan below:

Each actor was coming to the table with research about what their real-life counterpart had been. They had tons of homework to do. [Laughs] They had a great resource with “American Prometheus.” They then did their own research and what it meant for me, which isn’t something I’d ever really been able to do in the past. So, for example, with the scene in the section classroom with all the scientists, we would be able to improvise the discussion. The script is there, but they could come into it with passion and knowledge based on all of their own learning.

It was a continual process of surprise. Sometimes you’d have a really invigorating discussion about what’s really going on, because this is a story where people’s behavior, political or personal, is riddled with ambiguities.

For example, there’s a moment where James Remar, who played [Henry L. Stimson, Truman’s secretary of war], kept talking to me about how he learned that Stimson and his wife had honeymooned in Kyoto. And that was one of the reasons that Stimson took Kyoto off the list to be bombed.

I had him crossing the city off the list because of its cultural significance, but I’m like, just add that. It’s a fantastically exciting moment where no one in the room knows how to react.

The Superstar Cast Behind Oppenheimer Was Up for the Challenge

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Nolan’s creative process is fascinating here, especially when considering where Oppenheimer sits within his filmography. Prior to Oppenheimer, Nolan directed predominantly large-scale sci-fi and action fare, save his one other historically-based movie with Dunkirk. Oppenheimer is the first biopic that Nolan has taken on, and as such it makes sense that the manner in which the research was done was so essential to Oppenheimer.

Thankfully, Nolan also had an incredible cast to support his research efforts. Murphy’s co-stars have raved about the actor’s performance for months, calling him “brilliant” and fully committed to the role. Considering the actor’s acclaimed filmography and history with Nolan, it is no surprise that Murphy immersed himself fully in Oppenheimer research, though it seems this dedication extended beyond just him. James Remar’s understanding of Kyoto’s role, for example, is a great insight about that character that was only discovered through the vigorous research process.

Letting a powerhouse cast become an equally immersed team is a fascinating way to go about making a historical narrative of Oppenheimer’s scale. While Nolan had a research team providing essential details about everything from the facts of the story to the details of his costume, the director also recognized the importance of letting actors delve deep into the truths of their characters, and then act on that. This choice makes Oppenheimer’s characters believable and human, capturing the ambiguity and complexity that Nolan so hoped to create.

Source: NYT