Casting Controversy: Non-Jew Chosen To Play Jewish Physicist Oppenheimer

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s decision sparks debate over representation in Hollywood

<p>Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer in his Office. Atomic bomb “father” J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, is one of history’s most famous theoretical physicists.  PHOTO BY CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES </p>

Atomic bomb “father” J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was Jewish, is one of history’s most famous theoretical physicists. Yet from the start, filmmaker Christopher Nolan had a non-Jew—the Catholic actor Cillian Murphy—in mind for the role, writes Malina Saval, the editor of Pasadena Magazine, in Newsweek.

“When it comes to casting, should it matter that Oppenheimer was a non-observant Jew, a Jew who essentially denounced his Jewish identity? It should not,” Saval wrote. “Judaism is an ethnoreligion. We are a religion, we are a people, we are an ethnicity. Jews originated in the Levant. There are varying degrees of religious observance. But when it comes to one’s ethnic identity, there is no litmus test for how Jewish one is.”

Nolan does not seem to have considered the possibility that a Jewish actor might be able to more accurately portray Oppenheimer, given that the latter “was in a perpetual state of identity crisis, constantly wrestling with the fact of his Jewishness.”

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’ movie billboard is seen in Katowice, Poland on July 20, 2023. PHOTO BY BEATA ZAWRZEL/GETTY IMAGES 

The decision is “par for the course in today’s entertainment industry,” according to Saval, who was features editor at Variety for a decade. She notes that Rachel Brosnahan (who is not Jewish) played the Jewish comedian at the center of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for five seasons, and Bradly Cooper (also not Jewish) is slated to play Leonard Bernstein, the renowned Jewish composer.

“Jews are rarely cast in the roles of prominent Jewish characters,” she wrote. “The collective Hollywood push for diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to on-screen representation has almost entirely eluded the Jewish community.”


Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate

Edited by Saba Fatima and Asad Ali