Longtime Wyoming Photographer Gets Some Screen Time In Oscar-Nominated ‘Oppenheimer’

Garth Dowling spent four decades as a photojournalist in Jackson, Wyoming, but got some time in front of the camera in the 13-time Oscar-nominated film “Oppenheimer.” He played the role of 'Scientist A31' and can be seen many times in the movie.

Jake Nichols

March 02, 20249 min read

Brooke Sawyer, left, and Garth Dowling in a close-up shot during the auditorium scene in the blockbuster movie "Oppenheimer." Dowling spent four decades as a photojournalist in Jackson before moving and becoming an extra in the movie.
Brooke Sawyer, left, and Garth Dowling in a close-up shot during the auditorium scene in the blockbuster movie "Oppenheimer." Dowling spent four decades as a photojournalist in Jackson before moving and becoming an extra in the movie. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Longtime Jackson resident Garth Dowling has spent his four-decade career behind the viewfinder as a photojournalist. Recently, the 59-year-old had an opportunity to see how the other half make their living; those in front of the camera.

Dowling’s stint as a background actor in the award-winning blockbuster “Oppenheimer” earned him some prominent time on the silver screen. He also came away with a newfound appreciation for movie stars like Cillian Murphy and Matt Damon, as well as experiencing firsthand the masterful directing of the legendary Christopher Nolan.

“It was a terrific experience, an amazing opportunity. Over the course of more than a month, I had about 12 days on set and was involved in several scenes,” Dowling told Cowboy State Daily. “I have been on film and television sets before photographing for various publications, but to be actually involved was priceless.”

Lights, Camera, Action

Seen the movie yet? It’s likely you probably never noticed Dowling’s portrayal of Scientist A31. Some of his best friends missed him even after knowing he was in a few scenes.

He looks different, for one, clean-shaven for the first time since he was capable of sporting whiskers. He said he cried while buzzing off the goatee. And his clothing for the period piece? Decidedly un-Dowling-like. The Scotsman can be found at his day job in the Albuquerque REI usually sporting a kilt.

“My wardrobe was what I would call ‘early poop emoji,’” Dowling said. “Look for me in a cream shirt, brown tie and brown serge slacks pulled up almost to my armpits in 1940s style.”

Dowling can be spotted sitting directly behind J. Robert Oppenheimer (played by Murphy) in the auditorium scene in Los Alamos after the dropping of the bomb. The bespectacled Dowling gapes in admiration at Oppenheimer and claps wildly at one point.

The scene was meticulously shot over and over one night and most of the next morning.

“Nolan is known for not using a lot of CGI, so I got to watch everything that happens in this scene, including the complex lighting. Nothing was added later. It was cool to actually see these things play out,” Dowling said.

What Dowling also saw from a literal front row seat was Irish sensation Murphy submerge himself into character.

“Cillian and Chris were talking with the cinematographer [Hoyte Van Hoytema] right there 3 feet in front of me,” Dowling said. “I could see Cillian get himself ready, getting inside himself, and then make these subtle differences with each take. Seeing the acting process at that level gave me a new appreciation for the profession.”

Off-camera, the former Wyomingite’s interaction with Murphy and Damon was limited. On the advice of other, more seasoned extras, Dowling kept a low profile until called upon.

“Let’s be honest, we are basically voice-activated scenery,” Dowling admitted. “You are told on set to not interact with the star actors. And I could see why. It’s not a class thing. They are working, and they are working really hard.”

Garth Dowling shares this before-and-after look before he was allowed to tell anyone why he had to shave.
Garth Dowling shares this before-and-after look before he was allowed to tell anyone why he had to shave. (Courtesy Photo)

Casting Call

So just how does one end up in a 13-time Oscar-nominated epic biopic film?

“I answered an ad in the paper,” Dowling said.

“I had just moved to the thriving metropolis of Corrales, New Mexico, from Jackson. I was still unpacking after three or four months, anyway, and putting off applying for jobs online. Dreading it.”

Dowling spotted a classifieds listing in the Albuquerque Journal for casting extras in “Oppenheimer.” He spent two hours talking himself out of it then another two hours taking his own head shot, registering with a talent agent and finding something to wear that looked like it came from the Atomic Age.

He drove to the casting call. It was “barely organized chaos,” Dowling said. “Stand in this line, wait in that line, get your picture taken again.”

“Some people were there on a lark. Some were taking it way too seriously,” Dowling observed. “I was home by noon and thinking if that’s all that ever came of it, it would be OK for the experience.”

A few days later someone called and asked if he could be available for a wardrobe fitting in Albuquerque the next day. That was Feb. 10, 2022.

It was like that for weeks — on again, off again, the hurry-up-and-wait nature of motion picture production — but Dowling said he stuck with it basically because he had nothing else going on at the time. Making himself available through the attrition and last-minute notices was the reason he ended up being used more and more during the filming.

“For a lowly background actor, I actually had a fair amount of screen time. Definitely visible in three scenes, two of which are kind of ‘in your face,’ and a bunch of others where I can pick out which blob is me knowing when and where to look,” Dowling said.

Early on in the shooting, a production assistant would almost never pick Dowling for a scene. But by the time the auditorium scene rolled around, the fledgling actor’s big break came.

“For the auditorium scene, initially I was in the way back,” Dowling said. “The assistant director’s PA was literally picking people out to sit up front. I think they were looking for color more than anything.”

Background Actor Moves To Foreground

Nerdy Scientist A31 ended up seated next to a young brunette named Brooke Sawyer who has family in the Albuquerque area. Dowling said he wished he was able to take pictures while on set to document the things he saw.

“To see the girls, for instance, come to set in their hoodies and baggy jeans, and then emerge from wardrobe dressed to the nines, with eyelashes and bouffant hairdos — the transformation was pretty cool,” he said.

Other things Dowling observed on the set of Oppenheimer was great grub (“steaks, shrimp, anything you wanted,” he said) and more than a few laughs with another well-known actor: Matthew Modine.

“In between takes he was great at entertaining us extras,” Dowling said. “He would be right in the middle of cracking jokes and the director would yell, ‘action,’ and we would have to leave our tents with a straight, serious face.”

Some days were slower than others.

“I was really questioning my life choices on those days,” Dowling said. “Let’s just say I am pretty confident I can reload an IMAX camera at this point having seen it done so often.”

Toward the end of the Los Alamos shooting, though, Dowling found himself increasingly involved in the action.

“In talking to other people who do background acting a lot, I learned [Nolan] is special to work for. We were encouraged to engage with the actors to a greater degree than other directors would probably allow,” Dowling said. “At one point, I remember Christopher saying, ‘I need more. I will tell you when you are too loud.’

“In another scene, I am first to shake Oppie’s hand as he exits the Jeep following the Trinity test. He moves through the crowd and we were careful not to crush the guy,” Dowling recalled. “Finally, Nolan takes Cillian aside and then Cillian turns to us background actors and says, ‘Listen, you won't hurt me. Come right at me, it will be great. It’s not a problem. Have fun with it.’”

  • Garth Dowling sits behind Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer."
    Garth Dowling sits behind Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer." (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • A still from the movie "Oppenheimer" used on a "60 Minutes" segment, featuring Brooke Sawyer, left, and Garth Dowling.
    A still from the movie "Oppenheimer" used on a "60 Minutes" segment, featuring Brooke Sawyer, left, and Garth Dowling. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Shooting the auditorium scene in "Oppenheimer."
    Shooting the auditorium scene in "Oppenheimer." (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Director Christopher Nolan on the set of "Oppenheimer."
    Director Christopher Nolan on the set of "Oppenheimer." (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

New Career?

While Dowling insists his small role in “Oppenheimer” had nothing to do with acting chops, he does have some experience on stage.

A little bit of community theatre in Brookings, Oregon, prior to his move to Jackson planted an acting bug. Once in Jackson, Dowling covered the Kiwanis Follies for the Jackson Hole News. The spoof was a hot ticket back in the day as it lambasted local politicians and other luminaries.

Dowling eventually was talked into becoming a member of Kiwanis, “purely to be in the Follies,” he says, and performed and wrote for the annual revue.

Kiwanis President Dave Auge remembers well Dowling’s time behind the footlights.

“I know he loves the stage and there isn’t much he won't do for the sake of acting,” Auge said with a chuckle. “He’s a definite natural. Got into every character he ever did. Garth rises to the top without a doubt, and good for him he made it.”

After his scenes wrapped back in April 2022, Dowling could not disclose to anyone about the movie until it released in July of last year. Once it did, friends and family began hitting up his Facebook page with congratulations.

“Believe it or not, I’ve seen the movie only once in a semi-IMAX theatre here in Albuquerque,” Dowling said. “It was a kick in the pants to see how those scenes came out. I was particularly wowed by Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, though none of that was shot in New Mexico.”

He also caught the recent “60 Minutes” episode with Scott Pelly’s interview of Cillian Murphy.

“I had photographed Pelly in New York for a Boy Scouts article. It was neat to see him sitting with Cillian and talking about the movie,” Dowling added.

“Also, when we were done filming and before ‘Oppenheimer’ came out, I went back and rewatched ‘Dunkirk.’ Having seen how Christopher Nolan works, I could almost hear him giving direction in some of those scenes,” Dowling said.

Dowling has since returned to civilian life. He did not get to keep any of his wardrobe, by the way, though he said he did fancy the shoes.

The professional photographer is more comfortable directing subjects from behind his own camera. He enjoys countless splendid sunsets in the Land of Enchantment and waits for the phone to ring again.

“Funny enough, I just got a casting call text a couple weeks ago. Hmm, we’ll see where that goes,” he said, protectively stroking a goatee that became a one-month casualty on the last shoot.

Jake Nichols can be reached at: Jake@CowboyStateDaily.com

Jake Nichols can be reached at jake@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Jake Nichols

Features Reporter