Christopher Nolan Uses This Secret Weapon to Give Small Roles Big Impact

Editor’s Notes: The following contains Oppenheimer spoilers.


The Big Picture

  • Christopher Nolan often casts smaller roles in his films with actors who have previously played distinct character types, allowing the audience to easily understand and connect with these characters.
  • Oppenheimer takes advantage of typecasting, with actors like Dane DeHaan and David Dastmalchian being cast in roles that align with their history of playing certain character types.
  • Christopher Nolan’s clout as a respected, auteur-branded director attracts A-list actors and actresses to work with him, as he is known for being a collaborative and skillful filmmaker.

In case you didn’t hear, Oppenheimer has a stacked cast — stacked to a degree that we haven’t seen since Kenneth Branagh‘s Hamlet back in 1996. It’s one thing to have a top-level cast of main actors like Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and Florence Pugh; it’s another to have characters that appear on-screen for all of a few minutes be filled with actors like Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, and the ’90s king himself Josh Hartnett. Whether you knew ahead of time any of these actors would be in this film or not, it provides a small surge of surprise at the moment and makes the audience perk up and pay more attention to what a seemingly small character is doing if it’s somebody with a proven screen presence and a history with the audience.

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How Does Christopher Nolan Use Casting To Flesh Out Smaller Roles?

James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh as Patrick Blackett and Niels Bohr in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan seems to cast smaller roles in his films with actors who have generally played clear types of characters before. The audience’s familiarity with the kinds of characters these actors have generally played in the past fill in the smaller roles in Nolan’s films, thereby making it easier for the audience to get a handle on who these people are without fully introducing them through the writing itself. Early on in Oppenheimer, we’re introduced to Niels Bohr, a famous scientist who Oppenheimer admired, and he’s played by Kenneth Branagh, who imbues him with that feeling of commanding leadership and portentous charisma he brought to his previous roles in Dunkirk and Tenet. This ensures that we know why Oppenheimer looked up to him and was influential in setting him on his path of scientific pursuit.

Or take Gary Oldman, who has arguably the shortest role of all the major actors, since he’s in one scene for about three minutes as President Harry Truman, meeting with Oppenheimer after dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. This time, the use of Oldman comes as a misdirection, as his history with Nolan recalls being the honest and good-hearted Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight trilogy, while his heavily prosthetic-laden appearance recalls his Oscar-winning role as historical antifascist hero Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Except in this film, Truman turns out to be neither; he’s a crass and vainglorious bully who hates that Oppenheimer feels guilty for creating the bomb, calls him a “crybaby” and demands he gets out of his office. It’s devastating and almost a betrayal to Oppenheimer’s character, and the betrayal is magnified by our mixed history of Oldman as both upstanding figures and dastardly villains in mainstream films.

Christopher Nolan Uses Typecasting to His Advantage

josh-hartnett-ernest-lawrence-oppenheimer
Image via Universal

Beyond Oppenheimer‘s cameos, some characters do have larger roles in the movie’s plot but are largely defined by their function in service to the plot rather than by their personality. Those roles, then, seem to have been filled with actors who have a consistent reputation for certain characters. Take Dane DeHaan, who plays a military authority figure who works for Matt Damon’s character and spends most of his screen time glowering and staring at others with condescension. This comes off as more believable coming from DeHaan since we know him primarily for a history of playing unstable or angry men in projects like Chronicle, Lawless, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. My favorite instance of this practice is David Dastmalchian, an associate of Oppenheimer’s rival, Lewis Strauss (Downey, Jr.), who is always defined as being shifty, untrustworthy, and a human rat. Dastmalchian is delightful in this role not simply because he has the perfect big eyes and tight sickly demeanor, but we project his more notable roles as crazed suspicious men like Bob Taylor in Prisoners or the cop that the Joker recruited in The Dark Knight onto this walking red flag of a whistleblower.

If it isn’t related to past history, sometimes it’s just how an actor looks that perfectly enhances the character. The strangest example of this is Rami Malek’s presence. Malek plays a scientist of relative unimportance, who is in two separate scenes where he says nothing and just looks awkward and terrified at making a wrong move. He’s such a shivering puppy that you barely register him as even there. So when Strauss is made aware that a surprise witness could blow up his chance at being added to President Eisenhower’s cabinet, and he openly wonders who it is, and Rami Malek shows up with his gargantuan moon eyes laser focused with secrets to spill, it’s an awesome “oh THAT GUY” moment.

‘Oppenheimer’ Continues a Great Cameo-Casting Tradition

Robert Downey Jr. and Rami Malek as Lewis Strauss and David L. Hill in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

While this film may have gotten a lot of press for having so many big names in small roles, this isn’t really all that new an occurrence for a major film to do. If you look back throughout mainstream film history, there are some great instances of already reputable actors having small roles that drastically enhanced that role’s quality. Holly Hunter was already an established Oscar-nominated actress when she showed up for around six minutes in The Firm as Gary Busey‘s Southern belle secretary who existed mostly for exposition purposes, and her sass and sex appeal exploded off the screen and got another Oscar nomination (the same year she won for The Piano, no less).

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet got Charlton Heston to perform a monologue that’s irrelevant to the plot and got Richard Attenborough for just one scene to deliver the iconic statement that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. In Network, Ned Beatty is in about one and a half scenes where he mostly screams and disciplines Peter Finch about how he was threatening their media relations with his ranting, and it was so memorable that…twist, he got an Oscar nomination. Absolutely none of these roles were at all primed for those levels of success and recognition, but they were elevated to that status by having great actors in the right parts. Similar to Oppenheimer with Christopher Nolan, you get multiple actors to show up for small roles by being a hugely trusted director like Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack who are gifted with directing actors.

Christopher Nolan’s Clout Attracts A-List Actors

Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer
Image via Universal Pictures

Christopher Nolan has come a long way since Memento. He’s now a five-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker (he’s bound to add more to that resume, come award season) and one of the few truly auteur-branded directors in the business. At a time when Quentin Tarantino may be making one more film before retiring and most big-name directors get sucked into franchises before they have a chance to form their own identity, Nolan has expertly maneuvered his way through an evolving industry, attaching himself to a franchise he actually believed in and shepherded in order to boost his platform, then delivered on big original projects enough times that he can get a blank check for whatever he wants. With this power comes one of the most potent things a filmmaker can have: clout.

Christopher Nolan’s clout attracts A-list actors and actresses out of respect and allure. Plus, his films have a guaranteed audience. On top of that, Nolan is often cited as a dream director to work with, an amazing collaborator who knows how to nudge actors in the direction he needs them to go without being fully dictatorial. If you’re a high-profile actor, and you’re given a good role by a great director, with a good salary and not much time taken out of your life, what’s the downside? Just hope that your director has some good stuff for you to do.

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