Benny Safdie is an acclaimed director in his own right, but over the past couple of years he’s been recognized for terrific supporting turns in films like Licorice Pizza, The Stars at Noon, and Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. Now, he gives one of the most memorable performances in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer as the controversial Hungarian American physicist Edward Teller, who joined the Manhattan Project under J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) and eventually became known as the father of the hydrogen bomb — a nuclear hawk, in opposition to the more conflicted Oppenheimer. Somewhat amazingly, Safdie himself had considered becoming a physicist in high school before deciding to go into film. That fascination with the wonders and paradoxes of science appear to have informed his interpretation of Teller. We spoke last month, before the SAG-AFTRA strike, about his journey with Nolan’s movie, and his thoughts about this character.
What did you and Christopher Nolan talk about initially with respect to the part of Edward Teller?
We were talking about the movie in general and about science and physics. I said to him, “This is actually a very interesting confluence of things, because I was a millisecond away from becoming a physicist.” It was such an unbelievable coincidence. When I was young, I wanted to become a nuclear physicist. I had studied the standard model in high school. I was working with a physicist at Columbia University. I was doing cosmic rays. It actually is a deep passion of mine! So then, when he asked me to play the part of Edward Teller, it was a no-brainer, because I knew who he was.
How did you work on Teller’s accent?
The accent was something I was so nervous about. I remember Chris asking me, “How’s the accent coming?” And I’m just like, Oh my God, how am I going to accomplish this? I didn’t know if he was going to want me to do it. But he sent me all of these interviews and we talked about how Teller speaks and who he is. It was a long process of working together to really nail it down. I would ride my bike listening to these interviews. Whenever Teller spoke, he was always kind of posturing, so we were trying to figure out what he sounds like when he’s not performing in that way. Then Chris sent me this one interview that Teller did talking about his friend who had just passed away, Johnny von Neumann. He’s quiet and gentle, but you still get his cadence of speech.
The accent sounds extreme, but this is a man who was one of the models for Dr. Strangelove, no?
He really was! I remember finally I was like, You know what? I could sound crazy, but I don’t care. This is what Teller sounds like and I’m just going to do it. I sent a voice-memo where I just narrated what my breakfast was and how Teller really liked pineapple.
Chris also said to me, “We need to figure out a way for your voice to change when you get older.” So before each take, I said, “Okay, I’m going to yell. I’m going to really break up my vocal cords.” It makes such a big difference. We also came up with this weird laugh-snort that Teller has when Kenneth Branagh is talking and we realize the Germans are behind and we’re ahead of them. Snorting and hitting the leg. We spent so long on that! Just that little snort. You’re not afraid to look stupid in a lot of ways, because when you’re free like that, it’s a fun place to be.
And I am proud to say that it’s all my eyebrows. Teller had the best eyebrows. Every once in a while I have a straggler that I’ll just pluck out, cause it looks a little too crazy. But Chris said, “Don’t do that. Let’s just let it go crazy.” I had the most insane eyebrows for months and months, and you just had to brush them out and then they shined in all their glory.
You were surely more familiar with the science than I was, but I was struck by how the film always feels like it’s on the verge of giving you too much science — but it never does. It gives you just enough.
I had seen these videos of Richard Feynman talking about the world at large, and he talks about rubber bands and how when you look at a rubber band, all the energy and all the atoms are constantly banging against one another in order to keep themselves connected. I thought to myself, That’s such a crazy way to walk around. How could you live your life that way, seeing things that aren’t there? One day, at the lodge at Los Alamos, there were all these real physicists there. So during the downtime, I talked to them about that specific question, and they said, “Look, you may say that to me, but I look at you and say you’re seeing the world the wrong way.” That was so profound. But that’s kind of what the movie is doing. It’s showing you somebody who’s really struggling with that. “I know this information, and I know what’s possible. Do I show the world?”
It feels like Teller and Oppenheimer wind up on two opposite sides of that question.
There was this Teller interview that I sent to producer Emma Thomas. It was all about how a scientist’s job is to discover. It’s not up to them how it’s used or not, because their point in life is to find and research. One of the examples he gives is fertilizer. Because without it, we would have no food, people would die. But that fertilizer also gave rise to explosives. So he feels it’s not up to the scientist to make that moral decision. But that’s such a shaky ground to go on. The movie plays with this idea of what it means to be a scientist. It’s a fine line.
The thing that I remember when I watched the film that was so crazy was, as they’re getting ready to test the bomb, I was so excited. I was sitting there thinking, I cannot wait to see this thing go off. I cannot wait! It’s like you’re in the mind of a scientist. “I figured this stuff out, I want to see the end result. Let’s go.” Then as soon as it happens, you immediately think, Oh my God, what’s wrong with me? What did I just root for? What did I just want to watch? That’s what Oppenheimer went through. So for a movie to put me in exactly that position on such a large scale, it’s crazy.
There’s a speech that Cillian gives after the bombs are dropped. It’s so powerful and scary and so intense; that’s where the movie took off to another level. What’s so amazing about Cillian’s performance is that it is Oppenheimer, but it’s also an interpretation of who Oppenheimer might be, from a point of view of trying to understand what his struggle was. It’s an interpretation that’s fully internalized. You’re watching someone exploring and living in that mind. I saw it when I was acting with him, but when you see the whole film together, you realize how it plays through.
Even toward the end, when he’s speaking out against nuclear proliferation, it feels like Oppenheimer hasn’t fully reconciled himself with his role in this whole thing. But the people around him are much more certain about who they are — whether it’s Isidor Rabi, or Kitty Oppenheimer, or Leslie Groves, or Teller. It’s almost like you guys have to batter him with explosives to get him to express himself.
Emily Blunt did such an incredible job with that — exactly what you just said. She’s frustrated that he can’t do what he feels, and she really understands him. She wants him to be somebody who he refuses to be. “Why are you doing this? Why are you tarring and feathering yourself in front of them?” You see this look on Cillian’s face where it’s almost like he has to do that. It’s his penance for seeing something through.
There was a moment when we were all in the makeup trailer, getting old together in a matter of six hours. Then we’re in that room at the end and I had to shake their hands. Going into the scene, I felt so good. Like, “Okay, we understand each other.” Then the way she turned her head to me — it was such a gut punch. Chris had sent me all these things about Teller. I remember finding out that after that moment, Teller actually went and cried. It was a horrific experience for him. He was hated.
We did have a lot of fun with Teller’s character because he’s so different than Oppenheimer, and yet there’s this respect that exists between them. There was one moment when I had to enter — my first entrance in the movie. Chris gave me so much stuff to have to carry into that room, on purpose: jacket, bag, lunch bag, so that I was constantly fidgeting with all these things. Once I came in, Cillian was like, “Oh, hello, Teller.” I just said, “Yes.” That was how I said hello. It’s very funny.
What was the vibe on set like?
I didn’t know what to expect going into one of Chris’s films because they’re so well crafted and you don’t really know how they’re put together. But on set, it was so open. The blocking, the discovery of the shots — it was collaborative in a very deep way where you felt really good about everything that you were doing. Literally at one point, Hoyte van Hoytema was just rolling on the floor with the dolly — no track, just rolling the dolly, moving it around, just finding the right way to see it while you’re there.
As a filmmaker, I remember sitting in the lodge and I’m like, We’re going to be here for a while because this is like seven, eight scenes. It’s a hundred people. It’s period. They banged out everything so fast! We moved to a new location before lunch. I said, “I have no idea how you did that.” It was just perfect execution, while still feeling free and light on your feet.
From a technical point of view, I’d never even seen an Imax camera. And I had never heard an Imax camera. I’m sitting in this scene, and I’m about to give the testimony to the Senate, and there’s all these bright, intense lights because they’re shooting black-and-white Imax. Then all of a sudden I hear [makes a loud engine sound]. I’m just like, “Oh my God. Something is going wrong here.” I turn around, and I see everybody totally calm. I make eye contact with Chris, like, “Are you going to cut?” He was so gentle. His hands were like, “Just go forward. Just go through.” I turned around and then proceeded with the scene. I’d never seen so many intimate scenes shot on Imax, because when you actually hear what that thing sounds like, how we were able to even perform is remarkable. You’re seeing real conversations and moments, not just these big vistas in that large scale.
I talked to Jennifer Lame, the editor, about the way the film focuses on things like droplets and ripples, or the breaking of crystal or the blowing sparks inside an explosion. I thought that was a fascinating and poetic way to try and address some of the science.
I was just at the Natural History museum yesterday. There’s the whole new wing, and it goes back to Powers of 10, the Eames film, where they zoom in and they zoom out. It’s the same thing. There’s this big room where it’s a big projection and it goes into the brain and you see how the brain works and how information travels along the nerves and it’s zooming in and out and it goes through a forest. Then you see the roots of the ground and how water travels through the roots up into the tops of the trees. And the organisms in the bottom of the ocean look very similar to the stars and space. I was looking at this big giant crystal. If you cut out the edges of the crystal and you look at the center, it looks just like the universe. There is all this interconnectivity to everything. If you’re religious, you can go toward there. Or if you’re scientific, you could just say that everything is a mirror of itself, because once it figured out how to work, it just did that again and again with different organic matter.
But what I got that to mean in the film was that was Oppenheimer’s brain working through the science. You’re seeing these synapses kind of fire and trigger. It’s not that dissimilar to a chain reaction in an atomic bomb in that way. The movie is following that process of discovery. And to see how each scientist can provide a specific element — how one person can focus just on the explosives, and one person can focus on how you actually direct that explosion into the center. It really is that process of each person doing what they do well. It mirrors itself in a lot of ways.
So, the film’s structure actually winds up mirroring that concept of a chain reaction — it just keeps going and going, until the world ends.
Yeah, and the thing that’s so interesting about Teller and his obsession with the hydrogen bomb — the Super, as he says — is that, yes, we all know that you need a fission bomb to make a fusion bomb, but we know a fusion bomb is possible, so why not just go right for that? Again, that’s the scientists getting ahead of themselves and wanting to do the best of the biggest. With Teller, there were parts of him that were just blind to what he was doing because he wanted to see through his idea at all costs. He really truly believed that nuclear weapons were going to change the world. You could build canals, there were no health effects to it — all of these things he gives interviews about later on in his life. How is a man this smart able to convince himself of that? Maybe that’s what he had to do to be able to live.
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