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A History of the Cast of ‘Tenet’ Trying to Explain ‘Tenet’

It’s not a time-travel movie, OK?

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Whether you’re still reeling from Dunkirk’s majesty like Quentin Tarantino, or finally ridding the taste of Inception from your mouth, there’s no arguing that Christopher Nolan’s films are events. Beyond that, though, they’re always a little confusing. Dunkirk featured three parallel narratives working on different clocks. The Prestige pulled off a magic trick that may or may not have been aided by David Bowie. And Inception, well, Inception was just one long mindfuck.

Nolan’s newest effort, Tenet, has seemed like a worthy entrant into the “Wait, What?” Hall of Fame since its first trailer was released in December. The stakes? Trying to prevent World War III. The gimmick? Time travel, I think? Or I guess “inversion,” as they called it. Boats move both forward and backward in space. So do bullets. Robert Pattinson’s hair stays perfect at all times. It’s confusing.

Despite months of buildup, Tenet still hasn’t been released. (Or maybe it’s been out for weeks? I’m as lost as you are.) First, it was slated for theaters on July 17, or 7/17, because of palindromes (“tenet,” if you haven’t noticed, is also one). Then the pandemic pushed the release date back two weeks to July 31. Then, it was moved to August 12. And this Monday, the film was removed from Warner Bros. schedule entirely. The studio said it expects to announce a new date “imminently,” but that could mean anything—the one thing that Nolan films and the pandemic have in common is a loose grasp on the concept of time.

“We will share a new 2020 release date imminently for Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s wholly original and mind-blowing feature,” Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich said in a statement. Mind-blowing is an important choice of words. We, of course, have no way of knowing how mesmeric Tenet is until we see it. The only people who can confirm or even begin to explain the film’s premise—outside of those lucky enough to see an early cut—are the people who made it. Or so you would think. As Elizabeth Debicki’s character says in the film’s trailer, “Don’t try to understand it.”

Armed with indefinite time before the film is released, we’ve tried to understand the plot of Tenet, through the eyes of those who made it. We’ve been only sort of successful.

Christopher Nolan (via Entertainment Weekly): I’ve been working on this iteration of the script for about six or seven years.

Robert Pattinson (via Esquire): It’s an incredibly complicated movie, like all of Chris’s movies.

Emma Thomas (via EW): I know people think we’re secretive, and we’re generally not. On this one there’s a little bit more … All will become clear!

Pattinson (via EW): [Tenet is] kind of a unicorn of a movie anyway … hopefully it will be a ridiculously overwhelming experience.

Kenneth Branagh (via EW): It’s an espionage piece that’s dealing with a global threat to the world.

Nolan: We’re jumping off from the point of view of an espionage film, but we’re going to a number of different places.

Branagh: A nuclear holocaust is not the greatest disaster that could befall the human race. Tenet discusses an even worse possibility.

Nolan: There’s no question, it’s the most ambitious film we’ve made.

John David Washington (on Fortnite): Really, it’s interesting, because there are just little nuggets of information and just breadcrumbs of information about the movie that I’m surprised [Nolan] was willing to reveal. And I love that he did.

Pattinson (via EW): Every single element of this movie is like, is this actually happening?

From the beginning, Nolan was slow to reveal the film’s premise, even to his stars. The actors recalled meetings with the director in early 2019 that just brushed around the plot, and they only learned what their role entailed after earning the job.

Pattinson (via EW): I don’t know about [the rest of the cast] but I wasn’t even told it was a movie. It was like, “Do you want to do a meeting with Christopher Nolan?” … There was no mention of it anywhere.

Washington (via EW): We talked about everything except the project.

Elizabeth Debicki (via EW): I went into a small room and read the script by myself. … That’s quite unusual.

Pattinson (via EW): We talked for three hours about nothing, really. Then, he finally said in the last two minutes, “So, I’ve been writing this thing … ”

Debicki: I got to suddenly experience the machinations of Chris Nolan’s mind, which was fascinating.

Washington (via EW): It was really a nice meeting, and when I found out I got the part, then I read the script.

Michael Caine (via The Hindu): All I had was one day’s work and he gave me my pages … I haven’t heard anything since.

Nolan: We think [Pattinson’s character] may be called Neil. You never really quite know what’s going on with these identities.

Clémence Poésy (via Version Femina): Unfortunately, I can say absolutely nothing, neither about my character nor the adventures of this thriller.

Nolan: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is indeed in the film.

Nolan: He’s also completely unrecognizable.

Things didn’t seem to get much clearer once the actors began filming, either. Pattinson had questions for Washington, who had questions for Nolan, who, as far as Washington has let on, was there to explain the ins and outs of the script. The fact remains, however, that even those making the film found it confusing.

Washington (on Fortnite): Every day I had questions for [Nolan], but he was very gracious, and he answered them very calmly and patiently.

Pattinson (via Esquire): I mean, you have to watch [the scenes] when they’re completely finished and edited three or four times to understand what the true meaning is.

Nolan: We’re dealing in a world of espionage, we’re dealing in a world of hidden identities. [John David] is playing an operative who is known by the term “Protagonist.” Tenet is the name of the organization into which the Protagonist gets inducted.

Washington (on Fortnite): It was important that the actors could track the story correctly so we could tell it the best way we could, and he was very patient with us.

Pattinson (via Esquire): On the last day, I asked [Washington] a question about what was happening in a scene, and it was just so profoundly the wrong take on the character. And it was like, “Have you been thinking this the entire time?”

Nolan: There are all kinds of things that happen in terms of where the story goes as the film develops and where it winds up in the later stages that we don’t want to spoil for people.

Pattinson (via Esquire): There’s definitely a bond in the end in kind of hiding the fact that maybe neither one of us knew exactly what was going on. But then I thought, “Ah, but John David actually did know. He had to know what was going on.”

The one thing each actor interviewed (and the trailer itself) has been clear on: Tenet is not about time travel. Don’t you, even for a second, mistake it for time travel. Because it’s not. It’s not time travel. It’s inversion, which is, again, NOT time travel. Got it?

Nolan: This film is not a time-travel film.

Pattinson (via GQ): He’s not a time traveler. There’s actually no time traveling. That’s, like, the one thing I’m approved to say.

Nolan: It deals with time and the different ways in which time can function. Not to get into a physics lesson, but inversion is this idea of material that has had its entropy inverted, so it’s running backwards through time, relative to us.

Pattinson (via Esquire): I mean, there were months at a time where I’m like, “Am I . . . I actually, honestly, have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening.”

Martin Donovan (in the movie Tenet): All I have for you is a word: Tenet.