Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in finding a way to make a movie about dreams,” director Christopher Nolan says of the genesis for his upcoming sure-to-be-blockbuster, Inception. “I’m interested in the fact that it’s both a universal experience and a subjective one.” The film hinges on what transpires in the unconscious mind while sleeping. “There’s an interesting relationship between dreaming and watching movies, the way we absorb these worlds that are created for us,” he says. Paradoxically, Inception is also an action film.
As in his amnesia-fueled narrative puzzle, 2000’s Memento, Nolan has achieved the cinematic feat of dramatizing the mind’s inner workings. But it wasn’t easy. The writer-director spent 10 years from inception to Inception. Nolan’s biggest obstacle was “defining the emotional life of the characters so that they would become important to the audience and critical to the story.” Although he’s best known for his imaginative rebooting of the Batman franchise Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), Nolan never intended for Inception to be realized on a similarly grand scale. “Every time I try to address the potential of dreams and the human mind, it just expands,” he says. His desire to keep an unusually tight lid on the plot of his films, like his metaphor for dreams, is of personal and collective interest. “As an audience member, I never like when campaigns give away the whole movie. I want people to see it the way it’s intended to be seen.”
To bring his vision to life, Nolan called upon two of his go-to actors, indie charmer Cillian Murphy and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe (the film also co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page). “It’s an incredible privilege to have guys like that on your side,” Nolan says. “Ken is an iconic and charismatic movie star who projects so much intensity. In a different way, Cillian also has an unbelievable sense of charisma. He has these eyes that gaze right through you and tell the audience so much about the character he’s trying to portray. He’s very under-appreciated, and any time I can get him up on stage I’m delighted to do it.”
Watanabe, 50, sits inside a bright photo studio in Los Angeles, dressed in a pink oxford shirt and matching cotton scarf. “Imagine the way you feel when you wake up from a bad dream,” he says. “That was where Chris started this project. He had a nightmare and woke up to some really complex feelings.” Murphy, 34, who shares many of his scenes with Watanabe, agrees. “That tends to be a theme in Chris’ films: how the mind can weaken you,” he says. “I find that a fascinating study.”
Hailing from far-flung continents and nearly two decades apart in age, Murphy and Watanabe initially read as an unlikely pair. But on closer inspection, the two men share common threads: both have solid footing in Hollywood but have settled close to their native lands; both revere Nolan; both possess an alluring blend of feminine and masculine energies; both are handsome, well-dressed, earnest and, at least on this afternoon in early May, prone to trampoline fights and deep bouts of blushing.
You’ve both chosen to live outside of Hollywood. In what ways do you think that decision has impacted your careers? CILLIAN MURPHY: Hollywood is the engine of the machine. European and Japanese industries are strong, but in terms of global reach, nothing can touch that place. For Chris, it makes complete sense to live in Hollywood. For me, though, while I love coming here—the weather, the sushi—since I’m European, I think I’d find it difficult to live here permanently. KEN WATANABE: I always wonder where would be best to live, for my wife and our kids. I want to work in Japan, and I also want commercial films in Hollywood. It’s a difficult balance. CM: It’s not impossible, though, because the world has shrunk so much. Twenty or 30 years ago, it would have been harder. Ken, your profile in Japan is so huge, and you’re so valuable to the Japanese film industry. Not all of the films in Hollywood are so good. A lot of studio films are tosh, but a lot of independent films are tosh, too.
Cillian, you’ve twice dressed in drag for a film: in Breakfast on Pluto and, more recently, in Peacock. What drew you to those roles? CM: In Peacock, I played this guy with a dissociative identity disorder who believes that he is his own wife. Even though I did have to wear dresses in both films, that role was more about playing two characters for me.
How do you find an authentic place from which to play women, so that it doesn’t become campy? CM: I love playing a woman. It’s the ultimate challenge. They are far more complex and better than men at most things, to be honest. The secret is learning how to be feminine instead of effeminate. KW: I couldn’t have imagined you playing so sensitive or so crazy before the shooting of Inception.
What can you tell us about Inception? CM: This film has the structure of a heist movie, although not quite that conventional, of course. It’s an existential heist. Chris plays with shifting narratives, like he did in Memento. This one’s equally complex. I don’t know how it was for you, Ken, but when I first got the script, it was a hard read because it’s so visual. I’d never read anything like it in my life. KW: It was so confusing. I couldn’t understand it the first time.
What do you do in that situation, when you read a script and have no idea what’s going on? CM: I trust Chris. He came up with this idea when he was 16 or something. He’s one of the greatest living directors—I think he’s proven that. So I knew this was material he’d be able to manifest in scale and emotion. KW: I had just wrapped a film in Africa and was on my way back to Japan when I got a call from Chris. He asked me to come to L.A., which is a 16 1/2-hour flight from Dubai. I met with him and he asked, “Are you a skier?” Coincidentally, I was born in snow country, and my father is a ski instructor. He explained the synopsis. His projects are really big so I needed to prepare a lot and also train in English. I wasn’t confident I had enough time before we started shooting, but I thought, This is the first time I’ve been asked to work with the same Hollywood director twice. I need to do this.
Now that you’ve seen the film— CM: We’re supposed to keep it a secret! The anticipation is refreshing. People are so impatient. But Chris is very old-fashioned in a lot of ways: in the way he makes films, his take on promotion and technology. KW: There wasn’t even a green screen when we were shooting so we were always surprised on set. Every day, we were like, wow. He wants to make the experience as realistic as possible for his actors. He built a regular set and then requested a rotating one to simulate zero gravity.
You’ve both worked with Nolan before in Batman Begins. How would you begin to describe his vision? KW: I have no idea. I just want to cut open his brain and see what’s inside. CM: Batman Begins was my first time doing a studio film. The level of calm and confidence he exudes is amazing. He is never arrogant, but he is in complete control. I have never seen him flustered. It’s very reassuring as a performer when you’re in that environment. It affords you a lot of freedom. He allows the scene to grow organically between two actors and then, very subtly, adjusts the minutiae and massages it. KW: He says, Cillian, that you are the best actor of your generation. CM: [Embarrassed] I’d say he feels the same about you.
With whom did you two work most closely? CM: Ken and I got to do a lot of cool stuff together. KW: I shot one scene on top of a mountain. It was freezing cold! CM: We did some crazy stunts. I was so proud of mine.
What did you get to do? CM: You’ll see.
Photography by René Dupont. Styling by Brett Bailey