Christopher Nolan often gets mischaracterized as a filmmaker who doesn’t understand emotion, which feels like an inaccurate representation of his talents and ambitions as a filmmaker. Not only has Nolan written some truly fantastic characters, but he’s also frequently worked with some of the industry’s best and brightest stars. He’s even directed an Oscar-winning performance with Heath Ledger’s iconic turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
Like any great director, Nolan has his favorite actors that tend to pop up in many of his films. Fans of the director’s work will easily recognize the top ten best Christopher Nolan acting collaborators.
10 Ken Watanabe
The great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe generally gets to be the MVP supporting character in whichever project he is in, and the same is true of both of his collaborations with Nolan.
Watanabe first stole the screen in 2005’s Batman Begins as the man initially thought to be Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of the League of Shadows who is responsible for training Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to be a warrior and instrument of justice. Watanabe also worked with Nolan again as the mysterious investor who sets off the central heist in Inception.
9 Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway had the unenviable task of playing Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises three decades after Michelle Pfeiffer had made the role so iconic in Tim Burton’s 1992 classic Batman Returns. Hathaway managed to silence the doubters with a domineering, surprisingly humorous performance that served as one of the best female characters that Nolan has ever written.
Nolan’s affinity for Hathaway’s talents is evident thanks to the emotional role she played as Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) fellow astronaut in Interstellar. She is able to put into words Nolan’s understanding of love.
8 Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comic sharp and pure force of charisma adds a dash of humor to Inception, a film where it is very easy to get lost in complex worldbuilding. Not only does Gordon-Levitt’s personality make the exposition more compelling, but his comedic interactions with Tom Hardy add a touch of humor to the action-heavy opening of the film.
Gordon-Levitt worked again on Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises as Batman’s newest ally Detective John Blake, a character deserving of his own spinoff franchise. Whether or not he is in fact Robin is a matter for debate.
7 Marion Cotillard
While the reputation that Nolan has for overusing the “dead wife” cliche has unfortunately become more and more true over time, Marion Cotillard’s performance as Mal in Inception isn’t quite the standard tragic femme fatale. The version of Mal that is present for a majority of Inception is a creation of Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) imagination that he has willed into existence in order to cope with her passing. It’s a haunting, and genuinely menacing performance.
Cotillard brought a similar sense of danger with her performance as Talia Al Ghul, the true mastermind behind the League of Shadows, in The Dark Knight Rises.
6 Gary Oldman
The great Gary Oldman may be best known for playing over-the-top villains, but he added a surprising softness to the character of Commissioner James Gordon in The Dark Knight trilogy. While previous versions of the character were more straightforward and serious, Oldman turned Batman’s closest ally into a paternal figure who helps a young Bruce cope with his parents’ death in Batman Begins.
While Oldman has played a lot of villains, nothing he’s done has been quite as chilling as the pro-nuclear speech he delivers as President Harry Truman in Nolan’s latest masterwork, Oppenheimer.
5 Kenneth Branagh
It says a lot about Nolan’s unique abilities as a director that he doesn’t just work with great actors; he’s also the type of director that fellow filmmakers want to work with. Sir Kenneth Branagh is an Oscar-winning director in his own right, but he’s managed to step outside the directorial chair for three collaborations with Nolan thus far.
While Branagh never fails to bring authenticity to his historical characters, as he does in both Dunkirk and Oppenheimer, his ludicrously over-the-top villain performance in Tenet is simply a delight to behold.
4 Christian Bale
Christian Bale is the definitive Batman for a certain generation, and his performance is arguably more emotionally fleshed out than George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Adam West, or even the great Michael Keaton ever got.
Nolan and Bale helped depict a complete arc to the story of Gotham’s silent protector; they showed his origins in Batman Begins, his greatest failures in The Dark Knight, and the end of his legacy in The Dark Knight Rises. Bale also worked opposite Hugh Jackman as dueling magicians in one of Nolan’s most underrated films, The Prestige.
3 Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy’s performance as Eames in Inception is virtually unlike the roles he’s best known for; instead of hiding behind a facemask and making a weird voice, Hardy managed to add some comedic riffs with his performance.
Of course, Nolan did end up making Hardy put on the facemask once more for his performances as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and a World War II pilot in Dunkirk. Neither role gets enough credit; Bane has a surprisingly tragic backstory that is well-explored, and there’s a tragedy to Hardy’s Dunkirk performance that is evident in the closing shot.
2 Cillian Murphy
Nolan deserves a fair amount of credit for simply discovering Cillian Murphy; while he was known for British films like the Palme d’Or winner The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Murphy was introduced to a much broader international audience thanks to his role as Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins. His magnetic personality instantly proved to be an asset that Nolan wanted to use again.
Murphy subsequently appeared in Inception and Dunkirk, as well as popping up for cameos in both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Cillian Murphy’s incredible performance as the titular scientist in Oppenheimer could very well lead to the first Academy Award nomination of his career.
1 Michael Caine
Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and Tenet; at this point, it’s actually strange to see a Nolan movie where Michael Caine isn’t in it. Seriously, how did Nolan not manage to fit him in as some sort of iconic historical figure in Oppenheimer?
Caine has brought a sense of softness, paternal love, and sincerity to all of his work with Nolan. While all of their collaborations have been fruitful, it’s perhaps his performance as the butler Alfred in Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy that best represents the warmth he can add to Nolan’s generally cold films.
NEXT: Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked According to Rotten Tomatoes