MSE in Oscar-winning blockbuster "Oppenheimer"

MSE alumnus Ben Derby, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, had an unforgettable experience as an extra in the critically acclaimed film.
MSE in Oscar-winning blockbuster "Oppenheimer"

MSE alum Ben Derby (PHD '20) in an "Oppenheimer" scene filmed in Los Alamos.

At the Academy Awards ceremony on March 10, the megahit Oppenheimer, which followed nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the first atomic bomb, took home seven Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture.

If they had given an Oscar for “Best MSE Extra,” the winner would have been our own Ben Derby (PHD ’20), who spent five days in 2022 working as a background actor in the film. 

In January of 2022, Derby answered a casting call for extras to participate in a movie that was being filmed in Los Alamos. His “audition” consisted of dressing in a 1940s khaki army uniform, having his picture taken, and waiting for a phone call telling him he was hired.

Ben Derby (right) on the "Oppenheimer" set.

The affirmative call came in February 2022 and shooting began a couple months later, in April. His first day on set started at 3:30 a.m. at Ghost Ranch (Abiqui, NM)where they spent more than 15 hours shooting in director Christopher Nolan’s fictional Los Alamos. He then spent three days shooting in Los Alamos in buildings and structures that still exist today from the original Manhattan Project. His final day of shooting was in Belen, where “the bomb” was filmed exploding during a night scene. In total, Derby said he spent five days – and about 50 hours – on set. 

Oppenheimer featured several A-list actors, including Cillian Murphy (J. Robert Oppenheimer), Robert Downey, Jr. (Lewis Strauss), Emily Blunt (Kitty Oppenheimer), and Matt Damon (Lt. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, Jr.) – each of whom garnered multiple award nominations for their compelling performances. While Derby said that an “invisible wall” existed between the extras and the big stars, he was able to interact with Murphy, Damon and Blunt, as well as actors Rami Malek, Josh Peck, and Kenneth Branaugh while on set.

“It was quite the experience seeing and getting to be with [the actors] in their element,” Derby said. “I can confirm that Matt Damon is somewhat of a ‘goofball,’ constantly making jokes on set.”

While Derby bemoaned the less glamorous side of filmmaking, namely, spending many tedious hours on set, often with nothing to do, in the end, being part of an Academy Award-winning film was undeniably 'extra' special.

“To see, interact, and even shake the hands of the biggest stars in Hollywood will be something I will share with my kids and grandkids someday,” Derby said. “Plus, how often do you get to make a movie about the town you live in and the institution that you work for? Especially it being an Oscar-winning Christopher Nolan movie! 

To learn about movie making through this process was amazing, and it continues to influence how I present my science as a compelling story to this day,” he continued. “While I cannot say I would ever do it again, as early wake-up calls and the long hours were tough to bear, it will be a memory I’ll never forget.”