Actor Gives Insight into Portraying Alum in Oppenheimer

When screen actor Susan Elizabeth Shaw landed the role of an actual historical figure in Oppenheimer, an odds-on favorite to win numerous Academy Awards, she decided to learn all she could about her character, Laurie Schwab Zabin ’46.

A still of Susan Elizabeth Shaw and Robert Downey Jr. from Oppenheimer.
Susan Elizabeth Shaw plays the future daughter-in-law of Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr., in Oppenheimer, a film that has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards. Photo: Universal Pictures

While the film portrays the lives of J. Robert Oppenheimer and others whose work impacted millions of lives, Shaw said she learned that Zabin’s career as a pioneer in advocacy for women’s reproductive rights beginning in the 1950s may have been equally significant. “I threw myself into learning about Laurie’s life, and I learned she credited Vassar with being the spark that emboldened her,” Shaw said. “Laurie was a humanitarian who wanted to help people all over the world.”

Laurie Schwab Zabin ’46 won the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) Distinguished Achievement Award in 2008 for her lifetime of advocacy for women’s reproductive rights. Photo: Tim Redel

Zabin, who died in 2020, was instrumental in establishing both the Guttmacher Institute, a leading national policy and research organization dedicated to reproductive health rights and access, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Of course, all of this would come after the moment of Zabin’s life depicted in Oppenheimer. At that point, she was a recent Vassar grad engaged to Lewis Strauss Jr., son of Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis Strauss (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who was embroiled in a professional feud with Oppenheimer (played by Cillian Murphy) over the direction of U.S. atomic energy policy.

In the scene, Zabin is at a birthday party in 1948 and is excited to learn she’ll be meeting Oppenheimer, who had just been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year for overseeing the development of the atomic bomb, ending World War II. But because Oppenheimer is feuding with her future father-in-law, Zabin is rudely snubbed when they are introduced.

Shaw said she played the scene as Zabin must have felt being a devastated and embarrassed future member of the Strauss family. “I lived in the moment,” she said. “I was horrified, and my face turned beet red and I was at a loss as to how to respond to Oppenheimer’s rudeness,” she said. “I looked to my future father-in-law (Downey) and my fiancé (played by actor Ross Buran), but they did nothing. Here was Robert Oppenheimer, a man I admired—my heart was soaring to meet him—and to be treated this way was soul-crushing.”

A 2008 recipient of the Alumnae/i Association of Vassar College (AAVC) Distinguished Achievement Award, Zabin shifted her career path from English literature (she wrote her Vassar senior thesis on poet Dylan Thomas) to the social sciences, earning a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. As a member of the faculty, Zabin conducted groundbreaking research on the nation’s woeful lack of response to teenage pregnancies. She served on the national board of Planned Parenthood, and in 1998 she oversaw the establishment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health.

Shaw said she found what she said was her “favorite Laurie Schwab Zabin quote” in an article in Vassar Quarterly: “What made me passionate was seeing the power of family planning in giving women control over their lives, a power which, once exercised in one dimension of life, can then reach into others.”

Learning about Zabin’s accomplishments long after she had been humiliated at that birthday party in 1948, Shaw said, gave her the keys to portraying her in that scene in the film. “By understanding the world in which she lived, and Laurie’s behavior in response to it, I get a very clear sense of identity, and that’s the jumping-off point, her relationship to the world and the people in her life,” Shaw explained. “I showed up on the set already alive in her world. What a beautiful place to be.”

March 4, 2024
Women’s History