When David Bowie Became Nikola Tesla: Watch His Electric Performance in The Prestige (2006)

Only two major actors have played inven­tor Niko­la Tes­la in pop cul­ture: one is John C. Reil­ly and the oth­er is David Bowie. As much as I love this episode of Drunk His­to­ry, let’s talk about the Star­man him­self, who Christo­pher Nolan cast as Tes­la in his 2006 film The Pres­tige.

By 2005, Bowie was in seclu­sion. As elu­ci­dat­ed in the recent BBC doc, The Last Five Years, the singer was recu­per­at­ing from a heart attack on his Real­i­ty tour, a tour that would turn out to be his last.

Nolan begged Bowie to take the role:

Tes­la was this oth­er-world­ly, ahead-of-his-time fig­ure, and at some point it occurred to me he was the orig­i­nal Man Who Fell to Earth. As some­one who was the biggest Bowie fan in the world, once I made that con­nec­tion, he seemed to be the only actor capa­ble of play­ing the part…It took me a while to con­vince him, though—he turned down the part the first time. It was the only time I can ever remem­ber try­ing again with an actor who passed on me.

Bowie relent­ed and above you can see his best moment in the film (or *the* best moment in the film)–where Tes­la enters through a show­er of elec­tric­i­ty to greet Robert (Hugh Jack­man) and Alley (Andy Serkis). It’s a rock star entrance, for sure.

Nolan con­tin­ues:

The expe­ri­ence of hav­ing him on set was won­der­ful. Daunt­ing, at first. He had a lev­el of charis­ma beyond what you nor­mal­ly expe­ri­ence, and every­one real­ly respond­ed to it. I’ve nev­er seen a crew respond to any movie star that way, no mat­ter how big. But he was very gra­cious and under­stood the effect he had on peo­ple. Every­one has fond mem­o­ries of get­ting to spend time with him or speak to him for a lit­tle bit. I only worked with him briefly—four or five days—but I did man­age to sneak a cou­ple moments to chat with him, which are very trea­sured mem­o­ries of mine. Nor­mal­ly when you meet stars, no mat­ter how star­ry they are, when you see them as peo­ple, some of that mys­tique goes away. But not with David Bowie. I came away from the expe­ri­ence being able to say I was still his biggest fan, and a fan who had the very mirac­u­lous oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with him for a moment. I loved the fact that after hav­ing worked with him, I had just the same fas­ci­na­tion with his tal­ent and his charis­ma. I thought that was quite mag­i­cal.

Despite a very brief role in a film called August and an appear­ance around the same year on Ricky Ger­vais’ Extras, this would be Bowie’s last major film role, and real­ly his last filmed appear­ance until 2013, when he shot pro­mos for The Next Day.

A look at the YouTube com­ments sug­gest that many view­ers watched The Pres­tige and had no idea who was play­ing Tes­la. And that might have just tick­led the man, play­ing a magi­cian in recluse high up in the moun­tains, more in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the invis­i­ble gods than the mor­tals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch David Bowie Star in His First Film Role, a Short Hor­ror Flick Called The Image (1967)

Ricky Ger­vais Cre­ates Out­landish Com­e­dy with David Bowie

David Bowie Sings in a Won­der­ful M.C. Esch­er-Inspired Set in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

Niko­la Tesla’s Pre­dic­tions for the 21st Cen­tu­ry: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wire­less, The Demise of Cof­fee, The Rule of Eugen­ics (1926/35)

The Peri­od­ic Table of David Bowie: A Visu­al­iza­tion of the Sem­i­nal Artist’s Influ­ence and Influ­ences

The David Bowie Book Club Gets Launched by His Son: Read One of Bowie’s 100 Favorite Books Every Month

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

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