Why David Krumholtz Got ‘Scared for His Job’ on the ‘Oppenheimer’ Set

Why David Krumholtz Got ‘Scared for His Job’ on the ‘Oppenheimer’ Set

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David Krumholtz tries not to make too many acting choices in advance. “You just need to find a chemistry with your scene partner and let the scene live in the moment,” says Krumholtz, who plays Izzy Rabi, the one physicist to challenge the title character’s goals and ideas in Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer.”

That chemistry came easily with Cillian Murphy, Krumholtz says, but still the shooting process in the early days were rough enough that he got “scared” for his job.

Krumholtz describes himself as a journeyman actor, and that trip took him to Broadway at age 14 (in “Conversations With My Father”) and then back again after a 30-year gap (in Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” for which he earned a Drama League Award nomination); at 15 he was in “Addams Family Values” but he became best-known for Bernard, the sardonic elf in “The Santa Clause.” He had small roles in movies ranging from “Ray” to “Superbad” and played a mathematical genius on TV in “Numb3rs” for five years and in recent years he’d graduated to prestige cable programming on “The Deuce,” “The Plot Against America” and “White House Plumbers.”

Having only seen a couple of pages before auditioning for “Oppenheimer,” Krumholtz thought Rabi was a tiny part. After he got over his surprise at landing the role, “my shock at how substantial the role was palpable,” he recalls. “The idea that this amazing filmmaker believed that I could do something special was validating, but then I had to live up to it so I was slightly intimidated … which only increased once I got to the set.”

His first day of shooting was Rabi’s first meeting with Oppenheimer on a train ride. Krumholtz felt prepared, having read the book on which the film was based in addition to studying the script. But there was “a divide between what Chris wanted me to play and what I did.”

Nolan forgoes a video village and a large monitor for a small handheld one, so when he started critiquing Krumholtz’s initial attempts and asking for something different, Krumholtz says, “I’m not going to lie, I kept thinking, ‘How can you see what I’m doing on this tiny monitor? My knee-jerk reaction to his direction — that I did not express out loud — was, ‘That’s what I just did.’ I knew that’s not the smartest argument to have with a great director.”

Ultimately, Krumholtz realized he was hiding some of Rabi, “not a conscious choice,” and Nolan wanted him more immediately accessible. When Krumholtz finally delivered, Nolan said to him, “‘That was 14 takes,’ implying that he only really does three to five,” Krumholtz says, adding, “that’s when I got scared.”

In his next scene, Rabi was supposed to push back at Oppenheimer. “I yelled a bit and got loud, and Chris, who is sarcastic and funny, said, ‘That’s a bit Michael Lerner,’ meaning I was too brash and he wanted a humbler man.”

When that scene was done, Nolan gave him modest praise, saying simply, “Nine takes is better than 14.”
As a “kid from Queens,” Krumholtz says he’s used to that kind of banter. “It only made me adore him more.”

The two men discussed the character and Krumholtz started shapeshifting to better serve Nolan’s vision. “I didn’t bristle at that and I trusted him implicitly and my lack of covetousness of my own choices helped that happen,” he says. “I desperately try not to have any kind of ego when I’m acting — not to say I’m ego-free in life, but I just find that humbling myself is the most effective way to get a great performance out of myself. This wouldn’t have worked if I walked in saying, ‘This is the way it has to be done, or this won’t make sense.’ It’s always my number one priority to satisfy the writing and what the director wants. That’s what I try to live up to.”

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