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Familiar Faces: The Chris Nolan Players

by Nathaniel R

Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" cast has a lot of first timers, including all of its leads. So will John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, or Elizabeth Debicki come back for more?

Normally we wouldn't do one of these "familiar faces" for a director known for sequels since they automatically give you repeated thespians. Repeat appearances in the work of a franchise director don't necessarily indicate affection or a favorite performative color on their palette. They're only a sure sign of  contractual / narrative obligation. Elsewhere in Christopher Nolan's filmography, though, we see that he is a true creature of habit when it comes to actors so chances are he would have worked with some of the franchise players again even if it weren't mandatory. 

With Tenet now reasonably priced for rental more people will be seeing it. Let's look at the faces that have most frequently populated Nolan's ambitious and often very financially successful endeavors...


THE NOLAN PLAYERS (Quantitatively Speaking)

7 films

Michael Caine (all 3 Batmans plus The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar, and Tenet)
This two time supporting actor Oscar winner is unquestionably the director's favorite. He's done more Off-Batman films than Batman films for the auteur, usually in the same type of wise mentor/father figure and/or confidante role (though not in Tenet where he is... well, who is anyone playing in Tenet really?) When Nolan was a teenager in London in the 80s maybe he was really into Michael Caine movies? The actor was everywhere in those years starring in critically acclaimed dramas (Mona Lisa and Hannah and Her Sisters), paycheck grabs (Jaws: The Revenge), fun comedies (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and British telefilms (Jekyll & Hyde, Jack the Ripper).

5+ Films

Russ Fega is a bit part actor in five of the films (Memento, The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar) but he multitasked on The Prestige ("man in hotel"), and Memento ("waiter") doing location management on both. He's pictured above in Memento and The Dark Knight Rises.

5 films

Cillian Murphy - (all 3 Batmans, Inception, Dunkirk)
We missed him in Tenet truth be told. Was he already booked? He looks so good in suits so we demand to understand his absence. We like it when directors bring regular faces back, especially faces as memorable as Murphy's. Unlike Caine, who gets stuck doing exposition in the pictures, Murphy tends to get actually fun or dramatic material -- daddy issues, maniacal villany, shellshock -- so we're hoping he returns in the next Nolan flick. 

4 films

Christian Bale -  (all 3 Batmans, The Prestige
He's only had leading roles in Nolan pictures but since the bulk of them were contractually obligated sequels who knows if either of them would like a fifth collaboration?

John Nolan (Following, Batman Begins, TDKR, Dunkirk...)
He's a Wayne Enterprises Board member in the Batman trilogy. In real life he's Nolan's uncle. He also works with his other nephew (Jonathan Nolan) most notably on the TV series Person of Interest.

3+ films

Jeremy Theobald (Following, The Dark Knight, Tenet + short films)
Nolan's first leading man (Following) has bit parts in two later films including Tenet -- you can see him in the restaurant scene -- and before the features he starred in Nolan's short films as well. 

3 films

Tom Hardy (Inception, TDKR, Dunkirk)
A pretty impressive number considering that there's no franchise repeat. Sadly Nolan mostly covered up Hardy's beautiful face in two of the three pictures. How about a leading role next time? 

Gary Oldman & Morgan Freeman (all 3 Batmans) 
The Oscar winners played Commissioner Gordon and Lucius Fox in the Batman trilogy.

Tom Nolan (Batman Begins, Dunkirk, and Tenet)
According to Nolan fansites this is the director's cousin and the son of John Nolan. (WEIRD NOTE: IMDb equates all three of these credits with a Canadian actor of the same name. But they're obviously not the same person or that would make British actor John Nolan a father at just 10 years of age to a Canadian child star of the 1950s. So somewhere on the internet this information got confused. Wikipedia has no listing for either version of a Tom Nolan.) 

Miranda Nolan (Dunkirk, Dark Knight, Inception)
She plays a nurse, a maid, and a flight attendant in those pictures. She's the director's cousin.

2 films

Kenneth Branagh (Dunkirk, Tenet) He's played prominent good guy and the big bad guy in these last two pictures so perhaps this is the beginning of a rich partnership?
Mark Boone Jr (Memento, Batman Begins) He's a suspicious character in both.
Marion Cotillard (Inception, TDKR) She plays a femme fatale in both.
Jack Cutmore-Scott (Dunkirk, Tenet) He graduated from no character name in Dunkirk to supporting in Tenet. Will a third collaboration happen?
William Devane (TDKR, Interstellar)
David Gyasi (TDKR, Interstellar) He graduated from no character name in The Dark Knight Rises to supporting in Interstellar. Will a third collaboration happen?
Anne Hathaway (TDKR, Interstellar) Terrific in both of her Nolan pictures which is an accomplishment when you consider how weak Nolan's filmography is in terms of female roles. Even Elizabeth Debicki (of all people) couldn't really pop!
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, TDKR
Colin McFarlane (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight)
Liam Neeson (Batman Begins, TDKR)
Lucy Russell (Following, Batman Begins)
Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins, Inception

1+ films
Nicky Katt  He's in Insomnia, plus uncredited in The Dark Knight

Emma Thomas  She appears onscreen in Following, plus does behind the scenes work on all of the movies and has been Oscar-nominated twice as producer (Inception / Dunkirk). She's also Mrs. Christopher Nolan and hopefully has a good therapist since 5 of her husband's 11 pictures involve the protagonist having a dead wife or dead girlfriend. 


PLEASE NOTE: These articles are about actors but directors, by and large, are more prone to having the creative crew repeat from film to film than the onscreen talent and Nolan is no exception. Some of his regulars include but are not limited to casting director John Papsidera (9 films), production designer Nathan Crowley (8 films), editor Lee Smith (7 films), and cinematographer Wally Pfister (7 films).

Who would you like Nolan to work with again once he licks his wounds from Warner Bros 'canary in coal mine' release treatment for Tenet? Isn't it a bit odd that he never reteamed with any of the stars of his breakout picture Memento (Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie Anne Moss)?

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Reader Comments (12)

Great list, but you left off U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises). He's the guy in the party at Bruce Wayne's apartment who memorably stands up to the Joker:

"We're not intimidated by thugs!"
"You know, you remind me of my father."

He's a huge Batman fan who also appeared in Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

I wonder if Nolan will ever make a movie where he puts Caine as the lead.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I'd love him to work with the Memento quintet (you mentioned three, but also Harriet Harris and Stephen Tobolowsky) again.

Or you know, just more women.

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

He does have a particular taste in actors, I sometimes try and predict the next actors he’ll try and loop into his films. Here are actors that I think give off Nolan Vibes and could end up in his films:

- Nicholas Hoult
- Anthony Hopkins
- Richard E. Grant
- Emily Blunt
- Jeffrey Wright
- Jake Gyllenhaal

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan

Anne Hathaway didn't make a Batman movie?

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterPrajhan

Prajhan -- yes, she played Catwoman in TDKR

January 16, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel, yes. Sorry. I have problems with abbreviations, initials, acronyms and things like (LOTR, GOT, etc). I couldn't read TDKR at first like The Dark Knight Rises. I'm a caveman.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterPrajhan

Hmmm... can I through in there that I was completely taken by surprise HOW little verve and leading man charisma Washington & Pattinson had for me in Tenet !! They did not interest me at the slightest ... as characters and actors ... which was one of my biggest problem with the movie. Yes please for Debicki ... even though she felt a bit wasted ... the only performance that stuck was hammy Branagh (and I actually enjoyed it)

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered Commentermartin

Martin, yes for everything you said.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterRafaello

Don't forget Larry Holden: Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Cillian Murphy should be a superstar.

January 17, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

Brevity - Note that Senator Patrick Leahy also had a voice part in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Sorry to be pedantic, but it predates his other Bat-roles.

January 18, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

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