Anthropoid may be yet another World War II movie, but it stands out from the typical cinematic take on warfare. For one thing, director Sean Ellis has worked toward the gold standard in historical accuracy, building to-scale sets and creating character bibles from painstaking research. The story is also laser-focused on a lesser-known part of the war: the Czech resistance and assassination of the high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy play two Czechoslovak soldiers who undertake the film's mission. During a press day at the Langham Hotel in New York, Vulture caught up with Dornan and Murphy to discuss making Anthropoid, the presence of another Holocaust-adjacent story in the current global political climate, and why Hollywood is so often drawn back to this particular era of history.
Anthropoid is incredibly historically accurate. How did you approach these roles given that you both play real historical figures?
Jamie Dornan: Neither of us knew much about the operation before we got sent the script, but there’s lots of stuff online, obviously, and Sean [Ellis] gave us these amazing booklets — he said, “This is your bible until we start filming." Luckily, we were both cast pretty early on. Cillian was cast before me, but we were both cast with plenty of time before we started filming. [The booklet had] every single thing that we needed to know about the operation, about every aspect of it. It’s very rare to be handed something like that by a director. It was kind of great, he did so much of the work for us in giving us this book. I got a lot of stuff out of that.
Cillian Murphy: Yeah, same, for me the fact that we shot the movie in Prague, you know, we shot in a lot of the real locations. We spent a lot of time in [Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where a manhunt following the operation took place], me and Jamie walking around. You know you see where the hand grenades have gone off, you see the bullet holes in the walls. It was very affecting, very moving, and then we built a to-scale replica of the church in the studio. It was so genuinely detailed.
JD: I went from the real church in the morning to the set in the same day, and you couldn’t tell the difference.
With that accuracy in mind, how did you create your characters?
JD: There has to be a distinction between these two characters. With two leads going through the same story, going through the same scenario, if they’re behaving and reacting the same way to every incident, then why have the two characters? That wasn’t necessarily based on anything historical, but there has to be a distinction, and it’s very clear that Cillian’s character Jozef was the alpha. He was the one that was in control, and headstrong about completing the mission. His motive was, “Get in and do what we’re told,” and I think [my character] Jan is a little bit more relatable to people, because the reality is that, if I was in that situation, I would behave more like Jan, where I would have a fucking panic attack. I’d be like, “I’m not shooting someone in the back of the head.” To me, that’s the reality of the situation, whereas Cillian’s character is more of a man, basically.
Between Brexit and the ascendance of Trump, we’re seeing politics driven by xenophobia on a global scale. What do you think is the significance of a WWII movie in the context of those current events?
CM: I don’t think it’s our job to teach lessons. If a film is prescient or relevant, then that’s up to the audience to decide. We must never be — as filmmakers or artists — we must never be prescriptive. You should take from it what you will. Every audience member can take a different thing. Obviously we must learn from history, everybody knows that, but it’s a piece of entertainment. If you’re entertained, but then it also makes you think, “Fuck, it all lines up,” if it resonates because that is what is happening, good. If it doesn’t, then that’s good, too. That’s my opinion, and I feel very strongly about that. I don’t like didactic films. Films should just be a piece of entertainment, and if you take something from it on a more a subliminal level, that’s also important.
Cillian, you're also working on another WWII film, Dunkirk, right now. Has that changed your personal perspective?
CM: The thing is that the reason why it’s such amazing material is because, arguably, in my opinion, WWII was possibly the last truly just war. There’s the Third Reich, there are Nazis, and there are allies. With everything that happened, it’s very clear cut. You’re not like, “Oh, I’m not sure what side I would be on.” Whereas nowadays, everything is so convoluted and complicated, like what’s happening in Syria, it’s all so messed up. That’s why filmmakers and writers are drawn to [WWII], because there’s obviously protagonists and antagonists. So it’s endlessly rewarding as a writer to delve into that.
What was it like working with Christopher Nolan again? What is his vision for Dunkirk?
CM: That’s a totally random thing. I had no idea Christopher Nolan was going to be making a WWII film. I only realized once we started shooting, it was totally random. But again, it’s not a very well-known part of the second World War. I mean, Dunkirk was effectively a retreat. It was a failure, you know what I mean? In the classic Churchillian way, he remolded it into a victory, though that’s not what happened. So it’s fascinating to see that, and to see Chris’s take, and to see such rigorous directing.
Jamie, Anthropoid was definitely a step away from the Christian Grey universe. Were you hoping to diversify?
JD: I think that diversity as an actor is a pretty useful thing to have. You don’t want to be too repetitive. I wouldn’t want to do just those films, I wouldn’t want to do any films where you’re playing the same character all the time, whatever it is. You’ve gotta keep it interesting, and challenge yourself, and do roles that you think are worthwhile and interest you. That can come in all different forms, but you want to make sure that they’re not the same over and over again.
Anything you can tell us about 50 Shades?
JD: We’ve done them. They’re over.
This interview has been edited and condensed.