Interstellar: Characters and Actors

Christopher Nolan’s epic sci-fi Interstellar opens November 5.

Many readers have asked for detailed information about the various characters and the actors who play the.  I recomend that you read this essay AFTER watching the movie.

Matthew McConaughey

In “Interstellar,” Matthew McConaughey plays the central role of Cooper, a former test pilot and engineer in the tradition of the adrenaline-fueled flyboys who continually challenged their own limitations to carve our path into the stars. For Christopher Nolan, there was only one actor who could effortlessly convey that archetypal figure.  “He embodies everything we were looking for in casting Cooper—the spirit of adventure, a cowboy-like swagger, and the warmth of somebody who’s involved with his family first and foremost,” the director states.  “He has all of those intangible qualities present in the character, paired with his incredible professionalism and humor.  It was a wonderful experience to work with him on this film.”

McConaughey describes Cooper as “a dreamer and a man out of time. He’s not supposed to be a farmer.  He’s supposed to be out there—that’s where he lives.”  But in “Interstellar,” the world needs farmers, not pilots.  After a blight has decimated the food supply, civilization has turned back to the earth and clings to the only viable crop left—corn.  “Life has become about growing food and having clean water,” the actor continues.  “We don’t need any explorers; we don’t need any astronauts; we don’t need any bright ideas.  But Cooper is trying his best to live in this world, and to hold things together for his children.”

On a homestead surrounded by acres of corn, Cooper is raising his kids with the help of his father-in-law, Donald, played by John Lithgow. “This family has been on the farm for generations and Donald himself has seen the world go through extraordinary changes,” Lithgow says.  “The blight has made the world grow quieter, more provincial, and he sees a kind of serenity in that.  What I love about this story is that it unfolds against our darkest fears, but it has an optimistic soul.  It’s about human beings trying to figure out not only how to survive but how to prevail.”

Like his grandfather, Cooper’s teenage son Tom, played by Timothée Chalamet, loves the farm and helping his dad to keep it running. Chalamet recalls that on the day before shooting began, McConaughey helped set the stage for their onscreen relationship.  “Matthew asked me, ‘What do you know about combine greasing and the methods in which pesticides are sprayed over corn fields?’” Chalamet recalls.  “That night, I looked everything up to make sure I could answer all those questions the next day, but that experience with Matthew told me so much about Tom’s relationship with his dad.  Cooper wants to know he can rely on him to handle things, and Tom wants to prove to him that he can.”

Cooper’s daughter, Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, takes after her father in ways Tom never could. “Murph is obsessed with rockets and space, even though no one talks about those things anymore,” Foy says.  “She might have felt out of place in this world, but her dad encourages her to stay curious and that gives her the confidence to be brave.”

Emma Thomas reveals, “Cooper loves both of his children deeply, but shares a special bond with Murph over their shared passion for science and discovery. But, as with many parents and children, what binds them together can also pull them apart.”

Sealed off in an underground bunker, a small group of scientists and engineers is aiming higher than the dirt that no longer seems willing to sustain the human race and are gambling their lives on the prospect that somewhere in the universe lies a planet that might. The project was sparked by the mysterious appearance of a disturbance near Saturn—a wormhole that bores through a higher dimension of space and time to a galaxy that would take lifetimes to reach without it.  And to endure such a journey, the group has salvaged the best available technology from the ruins of the space program to build the mission’s three ships:  the Ranger shuttle, the Lander heavy-lift vehicle, and the Endurance mothership waiting in low Earth orbit.

The one thing the mission lacks is an experienced pilot. McConaughey offers, “Suddenly, the dream that Cooper’s been chasing all his life is knocking on his door.  And it’s not just the chance to be a pilot again but to lead the most important mission of all time.  The consequence of that opportunity, though, is having to leave his two kids behind, and what no one can tell him is how long he will be gone.”

“Even though they’re such young actors, I was blown away by the emotional layers Timothée and Mackenzie were able to bring to these performances,” Thomas praises. “The moment when Cooper has to say goodbye to Murph is heart-wrenching because she doesn’t believe him when he says he’s coming back, and Mackenzie just broke everyone’s heart.”

Michael Caine

But Cooper isn’t the only father who will be making a sacrifice. The mission is the brainchild of Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, whose daughter, Amelia, will be among its small crew.  “Brand’s burden is heavy because he is sending his own daughter out into the unknown.  That’s the point of it—no one knows what’s out there—and if anything goes wrong, it’s on him.”

Professor Brand represents Caine’s sixth role in a Nolan film, and perhaps the most emotionally complex. “Michael is one of the great movie stars of this generation,” Nolan attests.  “He brings a level of gravitas and charisma that’s second to none.  In the case of ‘Interstellar,’ it was very exciting to see him take this character to places I’ve never seen him go before as an actor.  At this stage in such a phenomenal career, that was an astonishing thing to experience.”

Anne Hathaway

Playing Dr. Amelia Brand is Anne Hathaway, reuniting with the director following their collaboration on “The Dark Knight Rises.” “Anne is an extraordinary talent who can really lose herself in a character,” Nolan observes.  “She has cerebral qualities and an interest in science, so it was natural to see her as Brand, a character who views the world through a scientific lens.  But, at the same time, Anne’s underlying warmth and the layered performance she brought to the role reveal this character to be a whole person beyond just being a scientist.”

Hathaway admits that she was “blown away” by the film’s evocation of space, but was primarily drawn in by the emotional journey the characters take. “The concepts behind this film can keep you awake at night, but the story is also a beautiful meditation on love,” she says.  “If you look at the human race from an evolutionary standpoint, you have to factor in love as a key part of the equation, and how this idea is woven into Brand’s experience of this mission felt very moving and truthful to me.  I think it’s a brave and extraordinary thing that Chris has done in weaving the persistence of love into the DNA of this big adventure in space.”

David Gyasi

David Gyasi, who plays Romilly, the astrophysicist on the team, agrees, noting, “My character lives and breathes science, but in many ways he doesn’t feel like a complete man. When you’ve done your work and written your equations to try to understand the universe, what else is left?  What was amazing to me was how this journey inspires in him a respect for the mystical side of things—for the intangible things that bind us together.”

Wes Bentley

The fourth member of the crew is Doyle, played by Wes Bentley. “Doyle trained to pilot the ship, but only on a simulator,” says Bentley.  “He’s primarily a scientist, so he’s relieved when Cooper takes the helm, which allows him to focus on his real work.  Nonetheless, beyond his scientific interest, he believes in the mission and took a leadership role fully aware of the risks.  But with that comes the burden of knowing that every decision he makes affects not only the lives of the crew, but the lives of everyone back on Earth.”

Plunging through the wormhole in the massive wheel of the Endurance are the fifth and sixth members of the crew—two surplus military machines named CASE and TARS—who’ve been designed to emulate their human counterparts. “A huge part of what they’d be programmed for would be esprit de corps,” says Jonathan Nolan.  “They’d be designed to boost morale among the ranks with a sense of humor or a burst of courage. There was something very poignant to me about the idea that we may have created this group of soldiers that embodied the best in us, and when they were no longer needed, broke them into pieces and recycled them into combine harvesters.  TARS and CASE are sort of the last of their kind.”

Both machines were performed on set by Bill Irwin via a sophisticated hydraulic puppeteering rig, though the actor’s voice is only heard onscreen as TARS, with Josh Stewart voicing CASE in the finished film. Irwin saw CASE as more circumspect than TARS, whose voice the actor found in his interaction with McConaughey’s Cooper.  “There’s some sparring, and Cooper says, ‘You sound like ex-military to me,’ which immediately told me how TARS sounds,” Irwin recalls.  “So, he developed into a kind grizzled mid-level officer with an ex-Marine’s sense of humor.”

Their interaction was a joy for McConaughey. “Bill brought so much humor and personality to TARS, and I found it very intriguing to make something personal and real out of their relationship,” he says.  “There are things about TARS that Cooper loves—he’s a smartass but he gets things done—and, in a way, he becomes Cooper’s best friend on the ship.”

Their target galaxy holds worlds that offer an excess of hope but no guarantees. “Our Earth is a very precious and unusual thing, and who knows if there are any others like it out there,” notes Thomas. “Obviously, with the scope of the universe, there could be other places that could sustain life, but no one knows if we could ever find one quite as perfect as this one. The possibility of finding nothing is one of the risks the people on this crew are facing.”

Another risk is time itself. “I’ve always been fascinated by time as a subjective experience,” Nolan states.  “But in the case of ‘Interstellar,’ time is an external force that is very much a part of the story, rather than a character’s perception of it.  It’s almost an antagonist to these characters, but not the only danger confronting them.  When you venture into a story about man against the elements, the possibilities for visualizing threats against them become much more exotic.”

Jessica Chastain, who plays Professor Brand’s protégée, adds that the growing desperation of those trying to survive on Earth only intensifies the urgency of her character’s quest to find a solution. “She is aware, perhaps more than anyone, of how precious time is.”

Working with Christopher Nolan for the first time, Chastain found a surprising atmosphere on his set. “This is the biggest movie I’ve ever done, but at times it felt like we were making an independent film,” she observes.  “Chris is fantastic at orchestrating a film on a grand scale, but he’s also fantastic on a human scale, and in the midst of this huge production, he managed to focus the whole of his attention on small moments with the actors.  He’s so smart and precise with his direction that just a couple of words from him could elevate our performances.”

Casey Affleck agrees, adding that the filmmaker immediately put him at ease. “Chris creates a very relaxed environment on his set, and I think it’s a tone that he and Emma bring to all their films,” he says.  “Whenever people make something look easy, it’s usually because they’re just incredibly good at what they’re doing.”

Kip Thorne also spent time with members of the cast to help them wrap their minds around the scientific concepts at play in the film. Notes Emma Thomas, “Kip is a great teacher and because he took so much time with our cast, they were able to do an incredible job of grounding the science in a relatable, human way, so that you’re carried along by the emotional arc of the movie.”

They also had the benefit of the real thing—U.S. astronaut Marsha Ivins—who visited the set during production. Thomas continues, “Marsha Ivins is a veteran astronaut, and has been up into space numerous times. She really is an inspiration and agreed to lend us her expertise.  Chris and I had the chance to consult with her and she spoke at length with the actors.  Her presence really was invaluable in helping us figure out the authenticity of a movie set in space.”