When Cillian Murphy was cast by Christopher Nolan as Batman villain Scarecrow in 2005’s Batman Begins, he joined a long line of venerated actors who had played antagonists to the caped crusader in the Batman movies. Stepping into the shoes of the likes of Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, and more can’t have been easy for the relatively unknown actor at the time.
Christopher Nolan sought Murphy out based on a still image he saw in a newspaper of zombie movie 28 Days Later, which hadn’t even been released at the time. He was immediately drawn to the now-iconic image of Murphy wearing hospital scrubs, clutching a plastic carrier bag, with a half-shaved head and the Houses of Parliament/Big Ben in the background.
In a joint interview with Murphy, Nolan told Entertainment Weekly; “I remember I was up in San Francisco writing Batman Begins and there was something in the San Francisco Chronicle about 28 Days Later. I saw a picture of you [Murphy] with your shaved head and your crazy eyes — no offense. I remember being struck by your presence, literally from that one photograph, and then started to look into who you were, and what you’d done, and got very excited about the idea of meeting you, and having you screen test for Batman.”
Murphy was initially considered to become a Batman actor, but both he and Nolan knew he was more suited to the villain role, as Nolan says; “When we had our first conversation, I think both of us knew that you weren’t going to wind up playing Batman. But I really wanted to get on set with you, I wanted to get you on film. We did those screen tests very elaborately, on 35mm, with a little set. There was just an electric atmosphere in the crew when you started to perform.”
“We did two scenes – there was a Bruce Wayne scene and a Batman scene – and I made sure that executives came down and watched what you were doing on set. Everybody was so excited by watching you perform that when I then said to them, ‘Okay, Christian Bale is Batman, but what about Cillian to play Scarecrow?’ there was no dissent.”
“All the previous Batman villains had been played by huge movie stars: Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, that kind of thing. That was a big leap for them and it really was purely on the basis of that test. So that’s how you got to play Scarecrow.” Let’s not forget that Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Danny DeVito, and Tommy Lee Jones were also in the Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton movies.
Nolan broke the rule of hiring big stars for his villain roles, and instead populated the Dark Knight trilogy with interesting character actors such as Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hardy. With Oppenheimer (starring Cillian Murphy) coming up, check out our guide to the best Christopher Nolan movies.