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.
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.
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.
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.