Film

Interview: Gary Oldman Transforms into Churchill for Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman has been a fearsome force of acting for roughly 35 years, making his earliest mark in film with 1986’s Sid and Nancy, followed the next year by his equally gripping performance as the late playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.

Since then, Oldman has given us one great (often high-voltage) performance after another in such films as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Dracula, True Romance, Immortal Beloved, Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, Lost In Space, Hannibal, and in two huge franchises—as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

In more recent years, he’s done some of his finest work in such movies as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (for which he received his sole Oscar nomination), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and his latest release, Darkest Hour, in which he plays Winston Churchill in his earliest days as the British Prime Minister. In those first few days, Churchill had to decide whether his country would enter into war with Nazi Germany or attempt to negotiate some sort of peace treaty with Hitler, as many members of the British government, the public, and even King George VI (played by Ben Mendelsohn) believed they should.

Yes, that’s Gary Oldman in there somewhere. Image courtesy of Focus Features

The role will likely net Oldman his second Oscar nomination, and depending on who you ask, he might even be the frontrunner. Like he has so often in the past, Oldman not only loses himself in the performance, but he is so perfectly disguised by makeup effects that it’s almost impossible to spot him as anything but Winston Churchill.

Oldman was in Chicago not long ago, and we talked about the patience it takes to be an actor in the makeup chair, the overlapping timelines of Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and the possibility of him returning to the director’s chair for the first time in 20 years. Please enjoy…

I noticed a name in the credits that really threw me. The gentleman who designed your makeup specifically is someone I thought retired about five years ago; the last thing I remember him doing was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s makeup in Looper.

Kazuhiro Tsuji. I pulled him out of retirement. I believed that if we were going to go down this road, it was the roadblock, you know? It was not so much the psychological or whether one could do it, but it was this thing of [Churchill is] so iconic—the look and everything—and I believed that there was only one guy that could do it. We may have looked elsewhere and tested some looks, but it was somewhat contingent for me on Kazuhiro. And all the stars lined up, because he at first thought it wasn’t possible. He was very honest and said, “I really don’t know if I can pull this off.” But he lived locally, so he was only a 20-minute drive away, and I could go to his studio, and eventually we pulled him in. I said, “Do a head cast, do a sculpt, see if you feel you can do it.” And here we are. We got him.

I’m glad you were able to pull it out. He’s an absolute artist.

Yeah. It’s always nice to obviously have such appreciation for someone’s work, pull them out of retirement, give them an Oscar, then you can go back [laughs].

Great idea. Does he not have one? 

I don’t know if he has one.

[He has been nominated twice, but never won.]

You’re obviously someone who has worked with makeup before. Heavy amounts of it, at times; you’re not afraid to completely obscure your face. Tell me about the journey you take every morning to get into the character by just looking at your face.

Well for this one, I feel like one of those characters from the old days of Hollywood, like Karloff, because now the advances in it—from Dracula to Hannibal—have been enormous. Back then, it was foam rubber and glass scleral [contact] lenses—really nasty stuff. Even the stuff they had to do to remove it is now archaic. Obviously with technology, it’s come a long ways. This one, the makeup was so delicate that it required total concentration of focus. You couldn’t answer your phone or fidget. You had to come in, and we had a great makeup team. We had Lucy Sibbick and David Malinowski, who are the ones who applied and painted it every day once Kazuhiro had handed it off to them. So it’s a Zen place; it’s quiet.

It also was one of those jobs where you couldn’t really be glancing at the scene while you’re being made up. I knew this like a play. I knew every word in the script before I even got there, so I didn’t have to think about it. So that was just a very quiet, focused place as you see him come together. I’d arrive very early, sometimes 2-2:30am, rather weary and needing of coffee, but after three hours 10 minutes, the voice started to settle in, then you see him in the mirror, then you’re ready for your day. I put myself in a mental place. With this kind of make-up, I’ve heard stories of actors who are kicking and screaming in the makeup chair, and they can’t bare it. You surrender to the process because you know what it is. You say, “Okay, this is the next three months of my life.” Really, I enjoyed it.

I’m guessing you were probably the first person to come in every day, so it’s entirely feasible, and probably likely, that there were people on this movie who never saw Gary; they only saw Winston.

Well, Joe [Wright, director] never saw me, really. I would come in and be ready and dressed for rehearsal. There was one day he saw me as Gary, and that was Christmas Day. He cooked for us, and my wife and I went for Christmas lunch. That was the only time he’d see me as Gary in three months. It sort of helped.

I’ve heard that there are certain iconic characters, both real and fictional, that when an actor plays them, they have a tendency to get lost in the part. Jesus is one of those characters where you hear the actor sometimes has a hard time extracting himself, but I’m also imagining certain Shakespeare characters might be like that, perhaps even Dracula. I have to imagine, especially for a British actor, that Churchill would be one.

Well, I feel that in a way he’s sort of like a Falstaff, isn’t he? Or a Lear. It wasn’t so much the shaking of him, it was the living with him while I was doing it, while I was working on him. My stairs and my landing at home have a very, very slight echo to it, so I would sometimes practice or record the speeches in the hallway, and the bedroom is off that, so my kid would come out and he’d wonder what it was and he’d open up the door and go, “Oh, it’s dad doing his Churchill.” You’re always doing the voice. You’re living with it for a long time. I think I lived with it for so long that really by the time it ended, it was nice to be done. But you miss them sometimes. The make-up and the robust figure; my wife to this day says, “Oh, I kind of miss him.” A lot of people on the set—because as we said, they didn’t really see me as Gary, they saw me as Churchill—they were very, very charmed by him.

The physicality of him is something you have to get right as well, because everybody knows what he looks like.

They think they do. Here’s the thing: I went to a lot of the footage, and you have this idea of Churchill, and you think, “Now, am I really thinking about Churchill, or am I contaminated by Robert Hardy? Albert Finney?” So when I went back to him, often he’s portrayed…it’s that thing of like, he was all in a bad mood, a curmudgeon. I saw a man who was running around, had great energy, skipping around, had a very cherubic aura, was cheeky, naughty, like a naughty school boy. He had a sparkle in his eye, and that was the hook for me. I felt like I had not seen him played with that dynamic. And then when you watch some of the Pathé footage of him, then you get a real sense of who he was and why he achieved.

I’ve heard versions of both, that he could be mean and loud, or he was very thoughtful, sweet, and caring, and I have a feeling the truth was somewhere in between. I guess that’s what you’re searching for.

Exactly. Partly what appealed to me about the project was it wasn’t a biopic, it wasn’t about aging and going over the years of his life, that it was only five or six weeks in 1940, and I’m sure the pressure of that can make someone occasionally a bit grumpy. I liken him to…you hear the same stories about Kubrick, and I think it’s part of that genius, where someone is so committed to something that if you don’t come with the same commitment and enthusiasm as they do and you don’t match them, they don’t truck with it. It’s like you’ve got to be in this with me, full on, 100 percent. He demanded a level of commitment and perfectionism from people, but in the research and in the reading about it and various memoirs of people, certainly Elizabeth Nell, who was his secretary for a long time, they do at the end of the day speak of him lovingly and truly what a great man he was.

It’s wonderful this coming out so close to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. This covers almost the exact same time period, but we’re seeing it from…

…the smoky room [laughs]. They really do work well together. Of course, there was no way of knowing. Someone asked me the other day “Why the interest in Churchill all of a sudden?” And you can have theories about leadership, but we’ve always been looking for leadership, always, with any generation. Why? We didn’t know that Dunkirk was going ahead when we started, and then we heard rumors that Chris Nolan was doing a Dunkirk movie. Then you say “Is Churchill in it?” Then there’s “The Crown,” [the Netflix series in which John Lithgow plays Churchill], then the Brian Cox movie [Churchill]. It wasn’t planned, but they really compliment one another, don’t they?

They do. They pretty much end at the same place too. Did I hear you’re finally going to direct something again?

Yeah, I’ve tried to get things off the ground over the years, unsuccessfully, and this one may happen. But now we don’t even know about that. So until it’s official, I’m not allowed to confirm.

Nil By Mouth really hit me hard when I saw it the first time. So I wondered if that was just one thing you needed to get out of your system, or if it was something you wanted to pursue.

It was something that I thought…actually, to be very honest with you, when I made Nil By Mouth, I thought, “Oh, at last I can give up acting and just do this for a living.” It didn’t work out that way [laughs].

Maybe next time. Thank you so much, it was great to see you again.

Thank you.

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