How ‘Oppenheimer’ Casting Director John Papsidera Became Christopher Nolan's Go-To CD

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Photo Source: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures

Casting director John Papsidera’s résumé seemingly knows no bounds—he’s cast Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” and its spinoffs, and Christopher Nolan’s latest, “Oppenheimer.” But it was a certain comedy early in his career that got him on his impressive path: Jay Roach’s “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” On that film, he worked with producers (and sisters) Jennifer and Suzanne Todd, who later asked him if he’d be interested in casting a small movie called “Memento.” Ever since, Papsidera has cast all of Nolan’s films, and their creatively fulfilling partnership has given the CD all kinds of new challenges. 

“Oppenheimer” gave them their greatest challenge yet: putting together a massive cast that both honored the real-life figures portrayed onscreen and included a sparkly galaxy of Hollywood stars to get film lovers to the theater. Lucky for us, Papsidera managed to do both. 

You’ve worked with Nolan for decades. How has your partnership evolved?

Our shorthand has become more valued and intensified, but I do always think that for Chris, it’s about finding the right piece of the puzzle. If you look at Chris’ films and the way his mind works, it’s [all] a puzzle. What I realized during the “Batman” series was that Chris just wants that piece of the Swiss watch to work. In his head, he’s already got the entire film planned out. There are not a lot of surprises once we make decisions. He knows what he wants. [The movie] might change flavor; it might change shape and what it looks like, but he wants the tone or the note to be played correctly. And that’s what he’s looking for. So, I am not a puzzle maker, but it is making a puzzle with him. It’s finding that piece that fits for him. 

Casting “Oppenheimer” must have been a distinctive experience because of how sprawling and star-studded the cast is. Did this film change the way you work together? 

We had a couple of main concepts when we started. After I read the script, we sat and talked about the concepts that we wanted to go after, the kind of people we wanted to go after. But this one had an overarching view in that we decided—and Chris wanted—to replicate the people in the film since they were real historical figures. We wanted to fill the film with faces and souls that really replicated what those people were like in that time. They weren’t faceless and nobodies; they were the best and the brightest in the science community. Chris was very aware that we release his films in summer, and that means we’re going up against Marvel films and blockbuster films. And we were making a film about a nuclear scientist. So he did want to give the audience a reason to show up for the film beyond him and beyond just the story. And so we did actively work on trying to populate the film with as many brilliant actors as we could. 

Dylan Arnold and Matt Damon in “Oppenheimer”

Speaking of brilliant actors, seeing Josh Hartnett in the film caused a frenzy among women who grew up with him as a heartthrob. How did he end up in “Oppenheimer”?

It’s funny, because when we were talking about the roles, Chris said that [physicist] Ernest Lawrence was like a movie star in real life. And so we started talking about guys that were heartthrobs in a certain way. Lawrence [had] this dashing kind of movie star quality and [was] very American…. Once we started talking about those [kinds of] heartthrobs, Josh came up. Josh did not ink “Batman Begins” after having met [with Nolan]; he passed on it. And usually that’s not a [situation] where we go back—it’s one and done in Chris’ world. So it was a conversation, but at the end of the day, we both felt [Hartnett set] the right tone. It was the right kind of reinvention. And we both loved the idea that, OK, we’ll go back once. It was personally fulfilling, as well as a really different choice for what could have been an overlooked role. 

You’re trained in acting. How does that inform your work, especially when meeting with actors? 

I don’t know how people [who] haven’t trained or studied acting compare or look at work, but certainly you look at moment-to-moment work; you look at creativity. It’s informed me a lot about…what separates people. I think confidence is one of the biggest things. It’s infectious if an actor walks in with confidence and belief in themselves—and not cockiness and not hubris, but belief in what they’re bringing into the room. It’s contagious to directors and producers. I also think choices make a huge difference, and you’ll just find actors along the way [who] enable themselves…to find moments that are uniquely theirs. You’ll see a lot of people come in and the readings are fine, but they’re not individualized. They read the words on the page, and it sounds right; but it’s the person [who] comes in and makes a choice that is incredibly specific to them that then you remember those things and go, I didn’t think of it being played that way, or I didn’t know that that was what it could be. And those are truly gifted people [who] take their craft into a different realm than just anybody [who] can read lines. 

How is the casting process different when you’re looking for actors to play historical figures?

It’s basically the same. I mean, it certainly can get more difficult when [the production team is] expecting a certain voice [if] those public figures are still out there. I know actors can get afraid of things that you don’t want to copy. That’s what we did in “Oppenheimer.” There were very few limitations, but it was a nod to who that person was. When you’re doing that, it makes it more complicated for actors, and it requires research; but I think that’s the big difference. [Usually] you’re hiring them to be them, just in different situations, [with] totally different emotions. But in historical pieces, when you’re replicating somebody, it does add a second and third layer of difficulty. 

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine.