Q&A: Robert Downey Jr. on how 'Oppenheimer' represents the Manhattan Project with nuance

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This image released by Universal Pictures shows Robert Downey Jr as Lewis Strauss in a scene from "Oppenheimer." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures via AP)

SANTA MONICA, Calif.Robert Downey Jr. said he came away from Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” thinking about how important context is to understand significant moments in history.

The film tells the story of the controversial theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), who oversaw the development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. Downey plays former chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, a key figure in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

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“Oppenheimer” is out in theaters July 21. The interview, which was conducted before the actors strike was called, has been edited for clarity and brevity.

AP: You were immersed in this project and have focused on this pivotal moment in history, what has been your takeaway?

DOWNEY: Context is so critical. The timing of the Manhattan Project, the need for it, the deployment of it, necessary or not — you can read plenty of data that would support either — regardless, the “why” can be debated, but the “here we are now” is the cold, hard truth. Under Chris Nolan’s direction, we're able to invite the audience to be involved in this meditation. We all know the films over the last 50 years that have been important in that way, as well as entertaining and thrilling and just cool to watch. And I guess that’s the transcendent thing about certain films, you know? And so, I got to be in one. Yay.

AP: Yeah, it is forcing you to think philosophically. But also, it’s a really interesting and entertaining movie, which I think is very impressive given that it’s just a lot of men talking for the better part of three hours.

DOWNEY: Yes, apologies. And there’s something about that, too. Maybe if more men were listening to each other, as opposed to having petty arguments and infighting and trying to get each other destroyed, we’d have more space for a larger dialogue. One of the things about Nolan in particular that is now evident is big scale, big impact, thrilling cinema — but there’s also this exploration of the subtleties of all of us, including our frailties and our defects and all these things that are really difficult to describe. And painted this picture that’s historic and very personal and also shocking, in a cool way.

AP: Did you guys have conversations about the objective versus subjective portions of the film?

DOWNEY: The way Chris wrote it was meant to be, as often as not, Oppenheimer’s subjective experience. So that was, I think, one of the great, genius decisions he made. By doing that, he puts us all in the position of someone who is just a human being, but they have a certain skill set and it needs to be brought to perhaps the verge of extinction to supposedly save us from another extinction. And it’s just incredible that we’ve even been to a place where, as a species, we have to make these kinds of decisions because of technology.

AP: To go back to the topic of men talking, the nature of when this took place means that there weren't a lot of women involved in these conversations. The absence of women in some scenes felt even more deliberate than that. I was curious if you took away any commentary on patriarchy and war?

DOWNEY: Men start wars and the entire planet should be a matriarchy. But I’ve never changed positions on that.

AP: You already had that belief going into this?

DOWNEY: Well, this is just a triple confirmation.

AP: Do you think there are parallels in this story to anything we’re seeing right now, politically?

DOWNEY: Of course. I think that mid-century Red Scare has now kind of splintered into a million sets of everything is an “other.” But again, I think that’s the influence of the Information Age. And while we claim we’re in the Information Age now, we’re still in the atomic age because we still haven’t figured it out. It’s arguable that we’re less safe now than we were during the height of the Cold War. So, I mean, it’s a lot to take in, but I think great films are meant to humble us to the point where we can actually have these sorts of dialogues.

AP: Do you think we’ll figure it out? You seem like an optimist.

DOWNEY: Yeah. And as usual, just in time to not eff it all up.