Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) was a rare summer blockbuster that managed to feel intensely personal at the same time. Actor Dileep Rao remembers the first time he watched it. "I was blown away by how much information came at you and built this world, which was then was off like a shot," he says. Ten years later, the film still makes him smile.
Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Cobb, a seasoned thief who breaks into his targets' subconscious to steal information. After he's framed for his wife's murder, wealthy businessman Saito (Ken Wantanabe) offers him the chance to return home and be with his children again. In return, Cobb must break into the mind of Saito's competitor (Cillian Murphy), and convince him to break up his company. To pull off the job, Cobb assembles an A-team, hiring a point man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architect (Ellen Page) and a forger (Tom Hardy). In Mombassa, he finds Yusuf (Rao), the only chemist capable of formulating a compound stable enough to create a dream within a dream within a dream.
Rao, who previously starred in Avatar (2009) and Drag Me To Hell (2009), spends most of Inception in a high-stakes car chase around a rain-soaked Los Angeles. It's a memory he's happy to reminisce about, but since his management isn't around to set up a Zoom meeting — "it's tough with Covid etc," he says — he suggests that I send him my questions over Twitter's direct messages. A week later, he responds with his memories of shooting the film, why he thinks it endures even today and what he makes of that ending:
When was the last time you watched Inception? How do you look back on it after all this time?
I saw it a year or so ago. It still makes me smile and think.
To me, the film is about so many things — guilt and catharsis and grief and the power of imagination. Is there one specific thing about it that stands out to you?
I think it's about seeing the world anew, in a different frame.
Do you remember when you first heard about the project?
It was in the trades and rumor mill that Christopher Nolan was making a new film. I asked to read and after some time, it turned out I was put into the mix. I read a few times and Chris and (producer) Emma (Thomas) cast me. Once I got the part, he told me everything I needed and then wanted to hear what I thought.
I remember reading that co-producer Jordan Goldberg said Yusuf was a tough role to cast — they needed an actor who wouldn't play him merely as a drug dealer. How did you navigate this character?
I saw him as a scientist who was tired of being restrained by the rules. That he was bright and capable but also not cavalier about the dangers of traveling into one's own or others' minds.
Being on the set of Inception must be like being part of an acting and directorial masterclass. What was that like?
Chris' sets are packed with expertise and artistic collaboration. I think he wants you to be excellent and you can trust him. Someone like Leonardo DiCaprio just does masterful things all the time. He raises your game. Same with most of that cast, so experienced and gifted.
You've got one of the hardest tasks in the movie — driving a van full of sleeping passengers in the pouring rain. How long did it take to shoot those scenes and what are your memories of that time?
It's a lot of afternoons with those actors and without. I remember how much those tiny pieces all built a great sequence.
One of the few moments of levity in the film is the van flipping and you going, 'Did you see that?' Was that scripted?
In the script it just says, "Yusuf reacts." So I came up with something. I was relieved and gratified that Chris liked what I did.
Now's as a good time as any to reignite the debate over that ending. How do you interpret it?
I think it's reality and the top falls. You can hear it.
Ten years on, Inception is so beloved and still this massive pop culture touchstone. Did you know while shooting it that it was going to be this special? What do you attribute its longevity to?
I think we knew we were working with Chris on something original. You have to believe that you can reach the audience in a special place. I think people love it because it's unlike anything else and it has shading and ambiguity in it.