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].
[Laughs] So, it’s just a coincidence?
I would imagine so. Again, I did ask Chris about the name of the character and he did kind of illuminate me. It’s not a big deal for him that symbolism and he doesn’t go into it. That’s what’s great about his films is that there’s so much there for the audience to read into in anyway they want.
Speaking of reading into things, what’s your interpretation of the ending?
[Laughs] I have been asked this again and I am going to remain on-the-fence firmly. You know, I never asked Chris and I don’t want to know from him. I think it’s much more exciting not knowing. I’m sure certain people will have definitive opinions on it, but for me, I much prefer not to know. I’ve seen the movie three times now and I feel differently about it each time. So, that’s all I’m saying.
Let me ask you this then, do you think whether or not it’s a dream for Cobb even matters? He still gets the catharsis he needs.
That’s an interesting question. You know, my character goes through a catharsis all be it through a dream from a huge setup. I don’t know, I find the thing about dreaming is that you tend to work stuff out as kind of a repair of the psyche. Sometimes, you go to bed having a lot on your mind and then when you have these dreams you can sort of wake up feeling better about things. So, it’s an interesting question. It’s an interesting question, but again, I’m going to leave it ambiguous.
I will say though, no matter if it’s a dream or not it’s still a happy ending for Cobb.
I think so. I think so.
Did you ever ask Chris how he came up with the ending and that final shot?
No, man. I really believe in not knowing the magic of these things. I don’t know if the top happened to spin like that on that day or if it was something he had right from the beginning. It’s sort of a masterful end to the movie. On the three occasions I’ve seen the movie when that scene comes up there’s a collective gasp in the theater. For that to happen after watching the film and that shows how involved the audience is and that’s amazing. Also, every time I watch it affects me physically. My whole body tenses up. It’s not just from the agony of watching myself up on screen, but it’s from the actual experience of the film. It’s just such a tense experience. You find that you’re sitting in a really uncomfortable experience and you’re clenching a lot [Laughs].
I know how said you don’t like to ask about the intentions behind certain things, but do you and Chris ever talk about the themes he keeps revisiting? Most of his protagonists deal heavily with the ideas of control and obsession.
Yeah, I know that. Again, I haven’t. That’s something more of journalist, critics, or cinephiles tend to be interested about. I just think that they’re themes he’s interested in and there’s a lot of scope for drama in those themes. I think you can see that in his films they do investigate similar sort of areas. They’re all very, very different.
You mentioned before how there is no clear villain or hero, similar to a few of Nolan’s films, but do you see Cobb as sort of his own antagonist? He is a part of his own undoing, in a way.
Yeah, he is. That’s a very interesting take on it. He’s kind of like a guy; he’s an addict. He’s addicted to this alternate reality and his problems are his own fault, in a way.
I love that scene where Cobb goes into that basement and sees all those unsettling people dreaming. He’s just like them.
Totally. Yeah, it’s fascinating that idea.
I saw someone ask you in an interview if you see the dreams as a metaphor for acting, do you remember that?
I was going to say, and many have said this, but it’s kind of a metaphor for filmmaking itself.
I think so. I think the filmmaking one is probably more accurate. I don’t think it’s specifically about acting, but there’s a lot that’s like allegories for filmmaking. The way they’re creating sets of infinite possibilities and letting your imagination create a world of all these things. You do that when you dream and you do that as a filmmaker as well.
Even the ensemble itself could be tied to filmmaking. Cobb is obviously the director and Saito is the money guy.
[Laughs] Yeah, well then what would Fischer be I wonder?
He’s the audience.
Aha, what would Ariadne be then?
She would be the production designer.
[Laughs] Cool. That’s cool. I like that. I’d go with that one, definitely.
What’s this process of talking about the film been like for you? I mean, I’m obviously giving you my interpretations and I’m sure you’ve already heard countless others so far.
Oh, I love it. To be honest, it’s just gotten more and more. I’ve had my friends call or text me who’ve gone to see the movie two or three times and have all these theories about it. I just think it’s brilliant. This has been said many, many times, but given the current climate I’d say people were starving for something stimulating cerebrally and viscerally. I think this really shows that you don’t have to do everything in 3D. It’s not essential and I really like Chris’s attitude to that as well. He just does it the way he wants to and he feels that the audience will appreciate it for that.
The film also works so well because you could enjoy it as totally different things. You can enjoy it as a thought provoking experience or even just as a summer action movie.
You’ve watched it different ways, though?
You know, I’ve seen the film three times and have had different experiences. For me, just watching the other performances was fantastic. That’s the beauty of being in an ensemble is that there’s so much stuff you’re not in and you can relax and watch them do their brilliant work. And then [the second time], it was really piecing together the rules of the arena. The last time, I just watched it completely for the ride and experience it without questioning it too much.
It’s easy to do that, too. The story is actually pretty simplified where you can sort of relax without thinking about every single detail.
I don’t think so either. For me, for the first two viewing experiences it was sort of me trying to figure out who’s dream we’re in and who exactly was the architect, who was the subject, and whose projections were whose. A lot of the film I have to be mildly bewildered.
Have you ever had this type of experience with any other films? Where people constantly come up to you with interpretations or where you keep forming your own?
No, I don’t. This is has been kind of unique in that way. Every film is different and every film people respond to differently. Sometimes they don’t respond at all [Laughs]. This is certainly unique. As we all traveled around from London to Paris and to LA we were all kind of amazed by the level of passion about it. People were really excited about it and there were some really profound and deep questions being asked and that’s not common. It has been a very unique experience.
There are a few scenes of yours I want ask specifically about your approach to. First, the scene in the bar where Fischer realizes he’s in a dream. You easily could’ve acted hysterical during that moment, but you act really restrained where you could still feel his confusion and that he was scared.
It’s funny that you should bring up that moment because that was my first scene in the movie [Laughs]. I sort of walked up having to act opposite of Leonardo DiCaprio on a set that turns [Laughs]. A lot of that fear is probably for real. In all seriousness, it’s just Chris. It’s how Chris can direct actors and how he knows the level of actors. If you look at most of his films everything is kind of underplayed and there’s very little hysteria in his films. That’s the sort of performance he likes. Even in the Batman movies, well the Joker is a different type of animal entirely, but you know what I mean? It’s all based in reality. I think Chris’s thing is to generally just go through the truth and honesty of it.
That’s also probably why the dream sequences work so well. He bases them in a reality rather than going crazy with them.
Yeah absolutely. In that scene for example how I perceive that I’m dreaming is done so subtlety like the water in the glass and the room tilting like that. It’s beautifully done.
When you get to the third dream level, in the snowy mountains, Fischer easily could’ve gone all, “I got this,” but you still played onto his hesitation. How’d you approach that? Keeping him still slightly hesitant?
At that stage he kind of feels like he’s been accepted to the team. I was very keen on that so I said to Chris, “He’s gotta have a gun. He would’ve graduated to having a gun,” because at this point he thinks he’s in Tom Berenger’s character’s dream. That’s another part of the con so now I feel like I’ve graduated to the team by being in Browning’s sub-conscious. Again, it’s just another part of the con. I enjoy that sequence because he feels as if he’s accepted.
What about the final moment with Fischer’s father? You gotta be careful in scenes like that because you can easily slip into over-sentimentality.
Again, I’ll refer this to Chris because he’s such a brilliant director of actors. I was very lucky to have Pete Postlethwaite as my dad. When you’re working with an actor of that caliber it really just raises your game and you really feel the moment between you. I was lucky to work with him, because I’ve loved his work for many years and I think he gave us the most heartbreaking onscreen ever in In The Name of the Father. It was just really working on hard with him and Chris just doing his thing. Doing his genius filmmaker thing [Laughs].
You can’t say that about most filmmakers I’d imagine.
Nope, not really. Not really.
My final question, about a year ago I talked to Rose Byrne, who’s extremely nice.
But I regret not asking her about the final act of Sunshine. There’s a bit of a split about it, do you know what I’m referring to?
And just to clarify, I think it’s a great film.
I’m very proud of that movie too. I never had a problem with the third act of the movie. I think it’s amazing that they fly into the sun [Laughs].
It’s a beautiful moment.
Yeah, I find it very moving. Myself and Rose spent a lot of time on top of a bomb. It was great to work with her because she’s a brilliant actress. I also thought Mark Strong was amazing in that as well. He had fun with a lot of hours in the makeup chair.
I think that movie works so well because Boyle really got what made those films like Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey great.
Yeah, again, I feel privileged to work with Danny a couple of times as well. You just have to learn from these guys. They’re amazing. When you have a director that has such a confident vision like both of those guys all you have to do is show up and say the words in the right order.
So you’re still learning with every project?
You got to, man. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s the truth. It’s about moving forward. We’re talking about Inception and it’s so exciting, but I finished that movie a year ago. You got to keep moving forward. I feel like I have a lot more to prove to myself as an actor.
Inception is now in theaters.