There’s a lot going on in Christopher Nolan’s (wonderful) Inception. One of those things: Cillian Murphy’s Robert Fischer. If you’ve seen the film by now then you already know how truly sympathetic Robert Fischer is. In fact, he’s arguably more sympathetic than the main character, Cobb. Cobb’s problems come from his own undoing while Fischer’s come from his father. Ironically, Fischer and Cobb are extremely similar. They are both looking for catharsis and to let go of someone from the past. The closings to the arcs are parallels. They both, arguably, go through the same change.
Fischer raises a big ethical question that really isn’t delved into the film all too much: isn’t Cobb going to ruin a man’s life to save his own? His whole team seems cool with that, oddly. But then again, Cobb is never truly played as a “likable” type of guy. He’s selfish in more ways than one. Fischer is the one that comes out looking good through this whole ordeal, not Cobb.
I got plenty of time to speak to Mr. Murphy recently about this as well as throwing possible theories his way.
(Note: This interview is filled with spoilers (for Inception and Sunshine (but mostly just Inception)))
To start off, when you got the script were you surprised that Fischer wasn’t the typical, slimy boss’s son?
Yeah. First of all, when I got the script it took me several readings to wrangle it into any type of discernible shape. I was wondering if I was intellectually up to this. You know, Chris is such a great writer that I suppose Robert is in the vernacular of a heist movie as the mark. That role wouldn’t generally offer as much complexity as I think that this one does. So, yes, I was surprised. There was some meat on the bone to get sucked into it. I think in terms of the character, obviously Cobb’s emotional journey is primary, but the emotional arc of Fischer is sort of the secondary kind of narrative.
Do you see Cobb and Fischer as parallel characters? In terms of their arcs, they go through a similar type of catharsis.
Yeah, I think certainly when we spoke about it during rehearsal it became clear that for this to matter Robert really had to go through something. Even though it’s all a con and a setup, it really needed to matter. So yeah, I guess there is some type of crossover.
Since Fischer does become so sympathetic did you ever think he could possibly make Cobb and his team look bad? They’re going to ruin his business and possibly damage his future.
Perhaps. I think what’s great about this script and the film is that it doesn’t adhere to the traditional type of “good guy vs. bad guy” thing. Everybody has got a link and a chain to their character. Leo’s character is a criminal and my character is a rich kid who has feelings of misery. He’s got an emotional depth to him. I think, because of that, it’s okay because every character has a bit of ambiguity to them.
Even though Fischer is going to lose everything he has, wouldn’t you say what he gains at the end is more important?
Sure, even though it’s phony [Laughs]. That’s the wonderful thing, again, that you’re very curious to follow these characters after the fact to see how this whole adventure will affect their lives. It would be very interesting to see what Fischer is doing and whether it improves his life or if it makes him a better person. It’d be interesting to see.
Do you consider what he gets in the end as something phony? Or do you consider the change he goes through as something real?
I think, yeah. It’s definitely a real change, I would imagine. We’re talking literally, but because they go so deep into his sub-conscious right down to the most fundamental thing driving him as a human being, and to alter that is definitely going to affect him profoundly.
Are you surprised that Chris keeps making you play characters with terrible childhoods?
[Laughs] I think it’s more surprising he keeps asking me to put a bag over my head in every film. That seems to be the pattern. I actually didn’t think of that, but I assume you’re referring to Crane?
It seemed to be implied in Batman Begins he had a bad childhood.
Yeah, we did talk about that when we were coming up with the character of Crane. He probably suffered terribly at the hands of bullies because he was very physically inadequate. We didn’t go into it at any great depth, but I think the thing with Fischer is that his father-son relationship is obviously a very complicated one. It’s made more complicated by the fact that his father is such a huge influential person. I’m the father of two sons myself and have a relationship with my own father and it’s very curious to explore that.
How I tried to play him was as a spoiled kid. A kid who’s got everything he wants materially, but all he wants really is the attention of his father. That’s where we began with the character. I don’t think he has anything else in common though with Jonathan Crane [Laughs].
Fischer’s arc reminds me of Citizen Kane a bit.
I mean in a sense, even at the end when he holds the windmill, and that’s very Citizen Kane-like.
Yeah, yeah. I can see that. I’ll let you draw comparisons [Laughs].
Character wise, there’s some similarities.
Sure. I can see that. Again, I think it’s kind of a universal story that one about father’s attention, not getting it, being crippled inside, and all of that stuff.
What do you think of Fischer’s name? Bare with me for a second, but shortened it’s Bobby Fischer, and Ariadne’s totem is a chess piece. Did you notice that?
[Laughs] I didn’t, to be completely honest with you. You know what’s fascinating? As the film has come out and as people have been seeing it they’re taking it to the heart and some are seeing it several times. I have had so many different theories thrown at me, and so many different positions and it’s fascinating.
You know, Chris really doesn’t go into the symbolism of things when he’s directing you and when he’s talking about the script he talks about the emotion of the character and where you are in the scene. I think that all the other stuff… Cobb is obviously the same name as the main character from his first movie The Following, but if you look at that film there’s a scene where they break into an apartment and there’s a big batman logo there. That was clearly an accident and accidents happen often. It was years before he even made that film. His films do sort of self-reference themselves and that’s interesting. But that’s a longwinded way of saying ‘no’ [Laughs].