Newswise — Today’s Los Alamos employees play Manhattan Project ‘Labbies’ in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’
Christopher Nolan made a point of hiring Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists among the hundreds of extras he needed to create his historical thriller “Oppenheimer.”
According to a Washington Post article, “The director was amazed at how the actual scientists in the room could improvise incredibly complex geopolitical conversations based on their knowledge of the bomb. ... ‘The actors were riffing on what the extras were giving them,’ says Nolan. ‘It was a very unusual situation.’”
On various sets around New Mexico in 2022, Lab employees talked science and bumped fists with celebrities. From the 1940s town of Los Alamos reconstructed near Abiquiú to the blinding blast of the Trinity site reimagined in Belen, these Labbies, outfitted in period dress and hairstyles, found themselves immersed in the Manhattan Project and the story of the father of the atomic bomb in unimaginable ways.
Here, 17 extras share some star-studded highlights from the experience.
Arthur Bishop, roles: newsperson, community member Over four days of filming, Bishop worked closely with Robert Downey Jr., who plays Lewis Strauss, and Rami Malek, who plays physicist David L. Hill, and he even took minor direction from Christopher Nolan at one point.
“On the Santa Fe set, I got to spend some time talking to Christopher Nolan’s son Oliver. He’s a really nice guy and super down to earth. He’s the staffer handing out papers to the guys at the dais in the Strauss/Hill scenes. He seemed to think it was funny that everyone was so starstruck by his dad.”
Shane Bridges, role: scientist Bridges, who spent one 14-hour day on set in Abiquiú, notes that film crew was constantly adjusting his tie and other costume details between shots.
“The re-creation of Manhattan Project-era Los Alamos felt very realistic, from the way buildings were constructed to the civilian and military vehicles used from that era. Given the setting and our wardrobes, I felt instantly transported to 1940s Los Alamos. The sense of surrealism was only heightened by the close presence of Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer), Matt Damon (Gen. Leslie Groves) and Chris Nolan.”
Ted Dorff, roles: community member, cameraman, photographer, reporter Dorff has been on a couple dozen TV and movie productions over the past four years, but he says “Oppenheimer” was especially memorable.
“Because it was COVID, we were taking our masks on and off a lot. Occasionally, people forgot (they were wearing masks) and those scenes had to be redone or those angles cut out.”
Joshon Ebanks, role: news reporter Long after the community casting calls, Ebanks begged for a role and got one, along with a nice-looking suit that was “uncomfortable beyond belief.”
“We had to wear masks behind the scenes, and this old man walked in but he was super spry and energetic for his age, and before filming he was dancing and being silly and cracking jokes. I just didn’t know who he was until he took off his mask and we realized, ‘Holy cow, that’s Robert Downey Jr.’ He had amazing makeup and prosthetic on to make him look old. I was pretty starstruck, and by some extreme luck he sat right in front of me.
“I got up to use the restroom during a break, and I lucked out again because Robert Downey Jr. went into the hall at the same time as I did. I met him, talked to him for a bit, fist bumped him, made him laugh, and he asked for my name. He was super nice and didn’t act like a celebrity at all, just a normal fella. I was so happy, and the production people got mad at me for talking to him, but I honestly didn’t care.”
Jeff Favorite, roles: photographer, audience member The Senate confirmation hearings for Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) were filmed in the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe, and Favorite says he gladly imparted scientific knowledge when asked.
“Some of the senators question Strauss about the ‘isotopes’ that Oppie wanted to send to Norway. It is a major plot point. Between takes, the (actors playing the) senators asked me and R.T. Thompson (a retired Lab employee; also an extra) what ‘isotopes’ are. Thanks to us, the actors now know more about isotopes than any actual senators.”
“I was very impressed with how hard the movie people work. I was also impressed with how nice they all were! They were willing to talk to the extras about what they do and why they like it and about whatever piece of equipment is their specialty.”
Reed Figley, role: meeting attendee/scientist In downtown Albuquerque at an historic building (now Amy Biehl High School), Figley was on set for the filming of the emergency meeting of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee, which historically was composed of senior atomic scientists. The storyline returns to that scene multiple times during the film. The extras, including Lab employee Shane Fogerty, spent two very long days on the set along with Robert Downey Jr., Cillian Murphy, Matthew Modine, Josh Hartnett, Dane DeHann, David Dastmalchian, David Krumholtz, Christopher Nolan and the rest of the crew.
“The scene with the flower arrangement in the center of the table, which Strauss shoves aside so he can talk to Col. Nichols (Dane DeHann), was repeated so many times that the flower arrangement eventually collapsed in all directions. The props guy just replaced it with a flower arrangement off an adjacent table that was out of the shot, but it in no way matched the one previously filmed. Director Christopher Nolan got pretty upset and in flowery language made it known that this was a huge mistake. Sheepishly, they scrambled to reassemble the flowers into something presentable and filming continued. The next morning, the hallways of the school were lined with buckets of flowers (I think they must have cleaned out every florist in Albuquerque overnight!), most of which were never used. The production was telling the crew to take the flowers home with them so at least they wouldn’t go to waste!
“One of the props I was given to hold during the scene was a pack of papers topped by a copy of the AEC report on Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing. In spite of the anachronism (this scene was supposed to be in 1949, whereas Oppie’s hearing took place in 1954), the report had classification markings that had been crossed out when the report was declassified. I pointed out to the props person that if this material was even allowed in this setting, the classification markings would have been current. He said something to the effect of, ‘Oh, well, just put that sheet on the bottom of the pile.’
“I was not asked to use my Lab know-how and engineering background, which includes nuclear waste handling and dispositioning, on the set. However, a line in the dialogue did bother me, and I asked a production assistant if they would get a note to the script supervisor, because I didn’t feel comfortable blurting it out to the actors or director. The line had Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) telling Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) to ‘hand me the filter papers,’ which were used to detect radioactive contamination in the atmosphere that signaled the USSR having exploded their first atomic weapon (a copy of the Fat Man design). Actual filter paper would be contaminated and considered nuclear waste, even in 1949. What they filmed was Oppenheimer handing Strauss a graph, so the appropriate line should have been ‘show me the data.’ The PA came back and told me that this level of detail would escape the notice of everybody but a very few technical people and wasn’t worth the effort to redo. They kept the line in the film anyway. I anticipate that this will be marked as a goof in the Internet Movie Database someday.
“Spending so much time in the presence of the actors in a small room between camera setups and film reloads, we did eventually chat with them a bit. David Dastmalchian (who plays William Borden), fist bumped me as I came to set on the second day of filming!
“Finally, Robert Downey Jr. is really fun to work with! He made a huge effort to put the other actors at ease, joking, vamping and busting up after (sometimes during) takes, forgetting and ad-libbing his lines from time to time. He was almost always self-deprecating and comical off camera, and cultivated a rapport with all his fellow actors and crew. It seemed that at that point he just wanted it to be fun in spite of the long hours.”
Shane Fogerty, role: meeting attendee/scientist
Given his Irish heritage, Fogerty will never forget talking about Irish pubs and music with Cillian Murphy (the Irish actor who played Oppenheimer). For two days, he was on a smoke-filled set in Albuquerque for what seemed like an AEC meeting of a bunch of scientists.
“Talking with the stars at length for several days between shots, I found them to be kind, articulate and very interested in science! We had a lot of time for conversation and discussed everything from science topics to current events and Irish culture. Robert Downey Jr. (who plays Lewis Strauss) was very interested in fusion energy. We discussed it at length. Josh Hartnett (who plays Ernest Lawrence) was very curious about the origins of the moon. I discussed the Fermi paradox with Danny Deferrari (who plays Enrico Fermi) and RDJ.”
Timothy Gildea, role: military police officer
On set at the mock Los Alamos created at Ghost Ranch, Gildea made a ton of friends in just four days.
“I was asked to be an Army military police officer on the set. There was a moment I was standing next to Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), and I was saluting General Groves (Matt Damon). When one of the directors approached us about when I’m supposed to drop my salute, none of were exactly sure. Luckily, two of my friends standing next to me were former service members trying to catch their big Hollywood break, and they showed me how.”
Adam Howell, roles: journalist, photographer
On set for two days in Santa Fe in the background role of a news photographer, Howell was given a vintage camera to use and it could malfunction if the teeth weren’t lined up exactly; one time a bulb shot out with a loud crack and ruined a take. “I was just frozen!”
In one scene, Robert Downey Jr. (Lewis Strauss), known for his freewheeling antics, grabbed him by the elbow, cursing at him. The near tussle didn’t make the silver screen version (in which Howell appears briefly for a few frames), but he hopes there will be a director’s cut with additional footage given all the goofy takes and endless angles. In awe of the process, he notes: “Seeing Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema (cinematographer) work in close proximity was interesting.”
Howell, a nuclear engineer in real life, fondly recalls “a nerd fest” that manifested during breaks when he and some other Lab extras critiqued the atomic physics notes that were provided as props. What if the film zoomed in on the details too closely? “The equations weren’t derived right, and they didn’t make sense. It was absurd.”
Clement Livache, role: scientist
When one of the movie trailers was released, Livache got a kick out of seeing his face appear for maybe 1/16th of a second.
“I spent one day in Abiquiú (fake 1943 Los Alamos) and three days in Los Alamos (Fuller Lodge and old school/lab on North Sage Loop). I was asked to ‘accurately wear a lab coat,’ which I think I managed to pull off pretty well. During one scene in the lab, we were asked to pretend to discuss science, use old equipment (slide rules! I actually never used one before) and look at glassware.”
Frederic Montoya, role: scientist
Montoya has been an extra in many productions, but this movie was close to his heart, given his family history with the Manhattan Project. He was on set for six days at Abiquiú, Los Alamos (Fuller Lodge) and east of Belen.
“I am a third-generation Laboratory employee. My grandfather, Espidiron Montoya, was a laborer/machinist starting in 1944; my dad, Fred J. Montoya, worked in the Central Computing Facility (CCF) from the mid-60s to early 90s. Just being on recreated sets in that era as a ‘scientist’ seemed to bring things full circle given my grandfather’s humble contributions to the amazing and important world-changing mission!”
Austin Nichols, role: scientist
When Nichols got a part in “Oppenheimer,” he was unemployed, so he was on set for almost the entire one-and-a-half months they were filming in New Mexico and got to work with the actors.
“The last set I was a part of was in the Belen area. It was very flat, very windy and very dusty. An entire tower and military base camp was built for the set. The tower was the one that housed Gadget when it detonated. This was lit up at night with period-appropriate spotlights and runway lights and looked incredibly ominous on some night shoots.
“I have a background in health physics and working with transuranic materials, and just so happened to be picked as one of the scientists to help assemble and deploy Gadget in the scenes where it was featured, so it was very odd for me to be in those scenes standing next to an exposed pit with no PPE or safeguards.
“I was attached to the principal cast because of my British contingent role, and I had the privilege of being placed in scenes where real explosives were used! The explosive lenses for Gadget were the first thing they exploded out in Abiquiú. They did multiples of those. The next explosions I got to see were at the Belen shoots. The large fiery explosion where everyone was hiding behind the wooden wall was a fun one. I was about 20 feet behind that wall, and I still felt the heat come off that gasoline explosion at midday. The head of safety for Universal Pictures was on set that day, and I got to meet him. He was there to oversee the explosions and the big Gadget explosion. Sadly, the day they were filming the Gadget test, I tested positive for COVID that morning and had to quarantine at home while the filming wrapped three days later.
“The principal actors, once they found out you were an actual STEM worker from the Labs, got very curious and asked a lot of interesting questions about our fields and such. I had a great time explaining basic nuclear physics to them and explained just how crazy of a time the 1940s were in terms of nuclear research. They were very nice and polite and were genuinely interested in what you had to say.”
Andres Quan, role: scientist
On set for a single day, Quan was impressed by the extensive preparation that went into a brief scene, including haircuts, costumes and COVID-19 testing. There’s a scene in the movie where you can hear Matt Damon (Gen. Groves) say, “For the last time, your laboratory director… Dr. Oppenheimer!” and Quan is one of the people in the background clapping in the top right of the crowd.
“The day of filming we were bussed from the parking lot near the balloon fiesta park in Albuquerque for about three hours to a spot near Abiquiú where they built an entire circa 1960s Los Alamos townsite replica. … we were directed to stand in front of Oppenheimer while he gave a speech, and a 70mm IMAX camera swept over the crowd. We did this three or four times and then we returned home. So about four days’ worth of preparation and work for a 30-second scene.
“My favorite part of the experience was getting to see hundreds of people dressed up in 1940s style. Being in the middle of nowhere with hundreds of people dressed this way, amongst a replica 1940s-era Los Alamos, made me feel like I stepped through a time machine.”
Nick Ramey, role: scientist
For a total of eight days, Ramey appeared in a variety of scenes, including Oppie’s cocktail parties, a meeting of scientists to discuss whether to use the bomb post-Germany surrender and Robert Serber’s briefing of the effects of the Hiroshima blast.
“There were a couple of moments where my knowledge of the history was useful. During the scientist meeting to discuss the use of the bomb, we were asked to react according to how we ‘felt’ as if we were in the situation. Putting myself into a young scientist from 1945’s shoes and knowing the scale and loss of life an invasion of the Japanese mainland would entail, I was ‘supportive’ of using the bomb and bringing a quicker end to the war because my (character’s) brother was currently in the Pacific theater, and I wanted him to come home.
“In between takes, I had a nice discussion with one of the main cast members, Gustav Skarsgård (who plays Hans Bethe). He was very interested in knowing about Los Alamos, both as a Lab and a town. It was really neat to see the actors taking a genuine interest in the subject material beyond just knowing their lines!
“There are several memories that linger from being a part of this film. Perhaps the one most entertaining moment is when, in between setting up for scenes, I wandered into a building and found the set replica of the Little Boy device (the bomb casing). The only problem, it wasn’t the correct size; it was about three-fourths scale!
“Another small goof: several extras were handed out mini American flags to wave for the Japanese surrender announcement scene, and the Fuller Lodge scene in the trailer (“the world will remember this day”). The only problem was, these flags had 50 stars, not 48! Alaska and Hawaii didn’t become states until 1958 and 1959.
“During scenes where we were acting as scientists, we all wore alphanumeric badges. One of my LANL colleagues/extras, Tom Tierney, found a spreadsheet put together by the NSRC (National Security Research Center, the Lab’s classified library) that listed about one-third of the scientist names and badge numbers during the Manhattan Project, so it was entertaining figuring out which scientist we were ‘playing.’ Unfortunately, some of the letters (which signified divisions) didn’t actually exist during the Manhattan Project!”
Sarah Tasseff, role: community member
On set for a total of three days, Tasseff had to diligently put her hair in curlers, tied up in a scarf, each night before filming.
“Throughout the whole experience, there was very little warning ahead of time about what we were about to be doing. Since our scenes were so simple, basically reacting in a crowd, they just wanted our honest reactions. So, to see the Fuller Lodge scene unfold throughout the day was truly magical, and it was clear that it was a dream or nightmare sequence, with lots of practical effects and props. The day ended with us clapping and cheering in the crowd with ash falling from snow machines that they placed in the balcony. It was incredible seeing how it turned out on the big screen. In the movie, I can be seen for a few moments in a red dress.”
“I was chosen with another background actor (former Lab employee Jonathan Creel) to be right behind Oppenheimer and Groves during a scene on the train’s dining car. It was so interesting to hear their banter between takes. Matt Damon (Gen. Groves) had to eat in the scene and was spitting out his food in a bucket beside him between takes. He was joking about how although he didn’t gain weight for the role of Groves, he was going to use that scene to show that ‘he could eat.’”
Tom Tierney, roles: scientist, male spouse
A scientist playing a scientist, Tierney spent 14 days on set, including locations at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, Los Alamos and Belen, and he’s visible in six scenes in the final movie. Look for the guy in the orange shirt in the bleachers when Oppenheimer reveals the successful test; see him trailing Robert Serber (Michael Angarano) and Ernest Lawrence (Josh Hartnett) out of the building after the Hiroshima/Nagasaki effects briefing and standing behind Richard Feynman (Jack Quaid) near a fireplace when Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) speaks; find him in the background when the “Fat Man” nuclear bomb drives away. Since then, Tierney has been in two other films and several TV shows.
“Although the production team was aware of who the scientists were, they strictly avoided asking us to provide ‘know-how’ information. According to the film’s assistant director, this was explicitly due to concerns over potential classification restriction issues that could have halted or hampered the production. Nevertheless, I got to use a slide rule and handle some chemistry equipment in several of the scenes.
“My favorite part of the experience was seeing how the sausage was made. There are multiple takes and cuts, and many people involved with every moment of the film. One scene that appears in about five seconds of film took at least two days to film.”
Alex Wass, role: Trinity site photographer
This R&D engineer, who works at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, spent two days in Belen, where the Trinity testing site was recreated.
“My character was the ‘Trinity Photographer,’ so they gave me a real camera from that era that had prop film. They showed me how to operate it so I could pretend to take pictures and replace the film during each scene. I really enjoyed playing this character because I had a specific and unique purpose.
“There was a scene where we all gathered around (extras and main actors) to cheer and congratulate Oppenheimer after the Trinity test was proven successful. Cillian Murphy (Oppenheimer) walked towards us while we surrounded him. In one of the takes, I shook his hand with an awkward left hand, right hand handshake, and said ‘Congrats’ to him. His acting and professionalism was so good that he didn’t even blink an eye and just went with it. It was impressive.
“The way that Christopher Nolan and Hoyte van Hoytema interacted with the actors and crew was extremely immersive. Nolan would speak directly to us prior to the scenes to make sure we understood how we were supposed to react. They were at the camera and right in your face at times. There was a scene where they pushed their way through a crowd of us and I turned around, and the camera was right in my face.”