Batman Begins is now old enough that moviegoers have witnessed multiple more cinematic Batmans hit the screen, but it’s worth remembering: The quality that surrounded Christopher Nolan’s gritty reinvention in 2005 was downright mythic. Who could not only take over the mantle of Batman but reinvigorate the property to the levels of Batman 1989, before the campy streak of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin snuffed it out?
The answer turned out to be Christian Bale, but as many Extremely Online casting dorks knew at the time and many have forgotten in the last two decades of Bat-castings, there were more contenders — including Cillian Murphy, who would go on to play the Scarecrow in Batman Begins. The casting shuffle was so well known in the immediate aftermath of the film’s release that Warner Bros. would, in a rare move, release Murphy’s screen test as a bonus feature on the DVD.
What wasn’t as known at the time is how truly smitten Nolan was with Murphy, who was still a relative unknown. The unexpected success of Danny Boyle’s low-budget zombie nightmare 28 Days Later made Murphy a known entity in Hollywood, but not a box office draw or even a logical name for the premiere villain role in a Batman movie. Those roles went to names like Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Jim Carrey — movie stars. But the thing Nolan realized at the time was that Murphy had the stuff, and just needed someone to anoint his movie star status.
“You came out to L.A. for the screen test and we had dinner at a hotel. I felt an immediate connection,” Nolan said in conversation with Murphy in a new dual interview in Entertainment Weekly. “I felt like, this is somebody that I want to work with, somebody who has an interesting take on things creatively [... But] when we had our first conversation I think both of us knew that you weren’t going to wind up playing Batman.”
Nolan screentested Murphy anyway, and said he “made sure that executives came down and watched what you were doing on set.” When the director pitched the risky casting choice of Murphy as Jonathan Crane, there was apparently no dissent from the folks writing checks at Warner Bros.. Nolan, falling so hard for Murphy’s slimy, needling take on Scarecrow, never actually locked up the villain or killed him off. Instead, Crane kept finding his way back into the Dark Knight trilogy, popping up in the sequel and then again in Rises as a kangaroo court judge.
“I love that scene,” Murphy said in the chat. “I remember when you called, you said, ‘You want to read the script?’ and I said, “‘You know what, I don’t actually want to read the script. Just tell me what I’m doing, just tell me what my motivation is, and then I want to see the movie.’ I didn’t want to spoil it. So I just came in for that one day, did that little bit on that amazing set, and then waited to see the movie. And it was worth it.”
The Batman movies were just the beginning for Murphy and Nolan’s collaborations. The actor would go on to play notable roles in Inception and Dunkirk, and now leads the director’s new film, Oppenheimer, set this June. Throughout their conversation for EW, it’s easy to see why Nolan was so giddy to build his Batman reboot around Murphy, even if he was never going to be his Bruce Wayne — the two are on the same wavelength, and just want to make great movies. Which is why Nolan cites ringing Murphy to star in Oppenheimer as a career highlight.
“No one knew what I was up to, no one knew what I was doing,” Nolan said. “To be able to pick up the phone, and call you, and be like, ‘This is the one where you carry the movie and really get to show what you can do,’ it’s honestly one of my favorite moments in the movie business, when I had that conversation with you.”