'Darkest Hour' Star Gary Oldman Reveals How He Transformed Into Winston Churchill

Courtesy of Jack English/Focus Features

The Oscar nominee, who will be honored at the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild Awards on Feb. 24 along with Kazuhiro Tsuji, explains how he was rendered unrecognizable in his portrayal of the former British prime minister.

Two years ago, retired makeup wiz Kazuhiro Tsuji got an email from Gary Oldman, who was considering playing Winston Churchill. "He explained Darkest Hour and that if I'm available to do it, he will do this [movie], but if not, he won't."

Tsuji accepted, and both now are on their way to the Oscars. "The main thing with this kind of makeup is you don't want to see any kind of seams," says Oldman. "People that were on set and the other actors around me couldn't tell I was wearing makeup, even if you were standing an inch from my face. I would say that Kazu delivered way beyond and above anything that I could've imagined."

The hair and makeup process took about three hours and 20 minutes each day. Plus, "Kazu's team made a bodysuit, which I climbed into and was tied into rather like an old Victorian corset. The whole process was just under four hours. My concern at the very beginning was stamina, only because you're working and coming in four hours before the crew and the other actors. The days were maybe 18-hour, 20-hour days, 48 days consecutively."

Oldman also praised Tsuji's fellow nominees, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick, who "worked more hours than anyone else on the film. Lucy and Dave are very patient and they have a great sense of humor. That makes wearing the makeup and putting it on so much easier and pleasurable."

Tsuji's process began with researching Churchill. "I gathered up many pictures and also watched documentaries. And we started to do research about what he looked like and who he was. Of course, I knew some, but I wanted to go in deeper," Tsuji says. "And I studied Churchill's face and Gary's, and I started to sculpt Churchill's face on Gary's life cast."

The resulting makeup application was extensive. "[Oldman] had a nose tip and a chin, and a pair of cheeks and a big neckpiece, including a shoulder. And he had plastic that fit behind his ear to change his ear shape," Tsuji says. "And we shaved his head. And we made a wig, constructed [of several elements including] English lace, which is really fine lace. And he had a body suit to change his body shape."

This was challenging as "they don't look each other at all. So I had to see what would be the most effective makeup to put on Gary without making it look too much like a mask — to make him look like Churchill, but still [be able to] act through the makeup. The basic technique is what's used in the past, but how to execute it was quite different, because we made a lot of improvements in the material to make it really soft, so he could move easier.

“I knew there would be a lot of close-ups," Tsuji adds. "And we had to see natural movement of the neck, especially when he was giving a speech.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.