Gary Oldman Eyes A Post-'Darkest Hour' Return to Churchill
The actor is adapting Churchill’s short story 'The Dream.'
Gary Oldman, the frontrunner for the best actor Oscar, is contemplating returning to his role as Winston Churchill, the character he played in Darkest Hour, for which he’s won almost every major acting award this season.
Speaking Feb. 14 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & TV, he said he was adapting a short story Churchill had written, and that it might bring him back to the stage for the first time in more than two decades. Oldman made his mark in the theater before beginning a three-decade film career with 1986’s Sid and Nancy.
The story, written in 1947, is called The Dream, and, said Oldman: “It’s [about] the ghost of his father, Randolph, who visits him in his studio at Chartwell [Churchill’s country residence]. It’s two people, not an expensive thing to do. It might be something I’ll try and get on its feet. I long to go back [to the stage]. It’ll be quite terrifying, I’m sure, after 20 years.”
Oldman also said there had been talk about making another Churchill-oriented film, this time centering on the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, with Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Neither project at the moment is beyond the idea stage.
“There could be [a sequel],” he said, “because at the end of the war, there’s the summit with Stalin and [Roosevelt]. Roosevelt’s a great character; he’s on his way out.
So maybe.” Still, he admitted, after shooting Darkest Hour and spending hours each day getting ready for the role, “I need a break from the makeup chair.”
A transcript of the interview, part of the ongoing Hollywood Masters interview series, follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: I don’t think the word chameleon has ever applied to an actor as much as my guest today. One of his directors compared him to a Swiss Army Knife. Did you like being compared to a Swiss Army Knife?
GARY OLDMAN: Well, you know what he means, don’t you?
GALLOWAY: I think he means that you have an arsenal of different tools. At what point in your life did you become aware of that?
OLDMAN: I don’t know. Peter Nichols wrote a pastiche called Privates on Parade. And it was a sort of entertainment troupe. And there was a scene in it, I was on sentry. Naked. And I had been told by my father that the way to cure prickly heat was to stand in the monsoon rain. So, I enter with a jungle hat, boots and a rifle and nothing else. And I would come in early. I could come in around 5 o’clock to the theater. And I would make up my knees where the socks ended, and the shorts, and where my watch was, my hands and arms would be browner than the rest of my body, where it’s constantly in the sun. And my neck would be more red, and the back of my neck would be more red because that’s exposed the whole time. So I would tan and then do a red nose, I had glasses. So when I took my glasses off I had sort of white marks here, around the eyes. And the other cast members used to tease me, because they would say “Oh, it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you know. Shouldn’t you be up in the dressing room already? Kind of getting made up?” But, I don’t know, instinctively or intuitively I’ve had that.
GALLOWAY: This was the production at the Piccadilly Theater in London?
OLDMAN: No. I was a student actually when I saw that one. But this was in rep, and in my first job. It was one of the shows that was in rep. But those kind of observations or details, I guess you know, if the fraying of jeans at the back, how a character would walk, and I would sometimes take my character’s shoes to a mender’s, to a shoe repairs, and have them file down the edges of the heel.
GALLOWAY: Does this much preparation go into every role you do?
OLDMAN: Yeah. I mean, it’s a collaborative thing, and you work with the costume designer and the director. In the case of True Romance, I was already working on a film and had no way of meeting Tony Scott. I met him once at the interview. And he said, “I cannot tell you what the story is.” He said, “I’m no good at that.” He said, “The character, he’s a white guy, thinks he’s black, and he’s a pimp.” And I said, “I’ll do it.” And we shook hands and I hadn’t even read the script. And then over the course of working on it, I had this idea about the dreadlocks and a scar, and teeth and all of that, and I would just write to Tony, “What about this? What about that?” And on the first day of shooting, that’s when he saw it all put together. So yeah, I’m thinking and I’m thinking about those details.
GALLOWAY: Who taught you some of this? You went to drama school in England — you got turned down by RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
OLDMAN: I did, unfortunately.
OLDMAN: I don’t know. Maybe my audition wasn’t very good, but I was hugely disappointed. Because all my acting heroes had passed through RADA: Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, you know — oddly enough, not Laurence Olivier.
OLDMAN: [He went to] Central. So it was a dream to attend that school where these great people had trained. And they said to me, “Do you have anything else to fall back on?” You’re 15, what are you going to fall back on?
GALLOWAY: Do you remember what your audition piece was?
OLDMAN: Yeah. It was Launce, Two Gentlemen of Verona. And I did a Joe Orton piece.
GALLOWAY: And then you played Orton.
OLDMAN: I did. I played Orton, and I was in a rep production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. I remember it was a difficult time because — are you familiar with Mutiny on the Bounty? Tony Hopkins? They wanted me for a part in that. And I didn’t want to do it.
OLDMAN: Because it wasn’t Joe Orton. And I thought I would rather go off and play Joe Orton for two weeks in rep,than be in a film. I said, “Well, I’m going to do it. I’m not going to go on this tropical island or whatever [where] I come back and I’ll have a sun tan and money to buy a flat. But it’s not Joe Orton.”
GALLOWAY: For two weeks? That sounds pretty good.
OLDMAN: I did the play instead.
GALLOWAY: Today, if they said you’ll have a sun tan and a flat, would you say yes?
OLDMAN: Today? Well, it’d have to be more than a flat. [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: No, a sun tan and a plane. That’s the way I just used to think, and my agent even threatened me at the time of not representing me anymore. He said, “You have never done a movie. Are you crazy?” And he said, “You know, it’ll be a great experience.” I said, “I’m sure it’ll be a great experience, but it won’t be the same experience as playing Sloane.” So then, you know, I’ve got to find another agent.
GALLOWAY: Did he fire you?
GALLOWAY: Because then you did Sid & Nancy and made a little money.
OLDMAN: Yes,. It was never the main objective. You know, when I looked to those people I talked about, you’ve got Alec Guinness and Albert Finney. And then when I was at college, there were other actors. Gene Hackman, who I admired enormously, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, and then a newer generation of people. To me, they were the people that did movies. They were the people in film. We never had any camera stuff when I was at college. No, it was radio. You trained for the stage and radio. You’d learn that technique of turning away from the microphone. [WITH UPPER-CLASS ACCENT:] “Ah, lovely to see you, vicar. Come on, Muriel.”
GALLOWAY: You never really said that on the radio, did you?
OLDMAN: I would have loved to. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Do you still love the theater?
OLDMAN: Oh, I love it, yeah. Actually, I’ve got a trip to New York. And we are going to catch a matinee of Farinelli and the King.
GALLOWAY: When did you last do theater?
OLDMAN: Twenty years ago.
GALLOWAY: So why, if you love it, have you not done it since then?
OLDMAN: I’ve just been... I’m preoccupied. [LAUGHTER] And I like learning things. My passion or my hobby is 19th century photography. And so that’s a whole learning curve. And that takes my attention away. You know, I read plays, I love going to the theater. I flirt with it all the time, going back. And I adapted something actually recently and I’m thinking about getting that on its feet.
GALLOWAY: What did you adapt?
OLDMAN: It’s a short story by Winston Churchill. Not really recognized in the canon, you know, in the big works.
GALLOWAY: You mean fiction? He wrote fiction?
OLDMAN: Yeah. It’s called The Dream.
GALLOWAY: And you might go back and do that on stage?
OLDMAN: Yeah. It’s the ghost of his father, Randolph, who visits him in his studio at Chartwell. It’s two people, not an expensive thing to do. They [the Churchill family] are happy, they’ve given their sort of, the family are who have embraced this film and the portrayal, and so they’ve sort of given their blessing to it. So it might be something I’ll try and get on its feet. I long to go back. It’ll be quite terrifying, I’m sure, after 20 years.
GALLOWAY: Your father left your home when you were seven, and then you made this incredible film. If you haven’t seen Nil by Mouth, it’s just incredible and very intense, with one of the great performances I’ve ever seen, from Ray Winstone. Did you ever see your father, when he left home?
OLDMAN: I saw him once. Thirteen years later. For 10 minutes. When you are a teenager, you get a bit of understanding of why that didn’t work. Why he left. But at seven, it’s heartbreaking.
GALLOWAY: What did your mother say when you said you wanted to be an actor?
OLDMAN: Well, my mother was, “That’s lovely, dear.” But it wasn’t something you did. You know? You either were a panel beater, or a criminal or something. It wasn’t something that you aspired to.
GALLOWAY: And you did have different jobs before you made it?
OLDMAN: I did lots of things.
GALLOWAY: I read that one of those was chopping the heads off pigs in an abattoir.
OLDMAN: I wasn’t quite chopping the heads off pigs, but —
GALLOWAY: OK, that’s good to know.
OLDMAN: It was like an assembly line,. And then I worked in a Schweppes bottle factory. Bottling. And I was on the boxes. So I would turn a box up, fold it and then stick it with a piece of tape, and move it along. I lasted one week. [LAUGHTER] Because of the noise. It’s not in the day of ear plugs and head phones. The noise was just too much. But the one I did enjoy: I worked in a hospital as a theater porter. And I enjoyed that enormously.
OLDMAN: It was such an education. They did plastic surgery, orthopedic. Thursdays was hysterectomies. And when I was on a night shift, you would get people that come in, car accidents and unfortunate people that would come in, and there was something about reassuring them and calming them. And then taking them in, and then they would be operated on and you would take them to a recovery area. And sit with them, wake them up, bring them around. There’s something rather lovely about the work. And something quite horrific about the doctors who you really are just a lump of meat once you are out. And people often wonder why they are going for an operation on their toe, and they wake up with a sore throat. It’s because they shove that thing down; you are just this lump of meat that they are working on. But I enjoyed the interaction with the people.
GALLOWAY: Did you take anything from those experiences and then use it in your acting?
OLDMAN: Maybe. Maybe. I passed that audition, because when you go up for a job like that, the question that you ask you is, “Do you mind the sight of blood?” And I said, “I don’t think so, but maybe. I haven’t seen enough of it.” [LAUGHTER] And so they walk you through, and they walk you into the operating theater, where surgery is happening. And I guess if you don’t faint, you get the job.
GALLOWAY: And you didn’t faint.
OLDMAN: I didn’t faint.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever?
OLDMAN: What an odd question.[LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: It is an odd question. I wanted to see how you’d answer it.
OLDMAN: Fainted? No, I don’t think I have.
GALLOWAY: When you started working in the theater, how did you prepare for roles? And who taught you the most useful approach for preparing for a character?
OLDMAN: Oh, well that would have to be my time at the Royal Court with Max Stafford-Clark.
GALLOWAY: We should maybe tell them what the Royal Court Theatre is. It was the London theater where a lot of avant-garde was done. Particularly the arrival of what was called the Angry Young Men of British theater.
OLDMAN: Kitchen-sink drama.
GALLOWAY: And what did you learn from him? He was the artistic director.
OLDMAN: Max would use an action for every line. And he would break the text down, every single line. Sometimes, just word by word. And you would use a transitive verb. So I’d be in a scene, and I’d read the dialogue out, and then he’d say, “So what are you doing with that first line?” And at first you can only think of a few things, because you say, “Gary entertains. I cajole.” “What are you doing with that line?” “I’m listening.” And so first you can maybe only think of five, but once that floodgate is open, what happens is the intention and the action that you have, whether it’s to flatter, whether it’s to amuse or entertain.
OLDMAN: You would go through these actions the entire script. And there were times in rehearsal where you are first, you are initially off-book. And I would get to a point where I would forget a line, and I would go, “Oh, I know it, it’s cajoles, I know the action. But [not the words].” So you remember the action and the thought of it, and it gives you a real understanding of what you literally want from a scene. We all want something in an exchange. You meet me in the green room, we’ve met before, but you want me to like you, so we’ve all got an intention. And so that, I use it sometimes. I still use it. And if you looked at my scripts from the Royal Court days, in every line in the margin are all the actions. And the other guy that taught me was Mike Leigh. I did an early work with Mike, Meantime. And that was a fascinating way of working.
GALLOWAY: You worked with him for something like six months just in rehearsals, right? Not even rehearsals. Was there a script in place?
GALLOWAY: Mike Leigh, do you all know his work? He wouldn’t say he wrote the script, he would say he devised it, because he would work with the actors and improvise and develop a script, before shooting it. But it was months and months of working with the actors.
OLDMAN: Does anyone you know the film Naked? [APPLAUSE] Secrets & Lies? Mike Leigh. And Topsy Turvy?
GALLOWAY: Oh, I love that.
OLDMAN: So what Mike does: you go through a series of interviews and then he puts a cast together. There are actors that you never see again, because your character wouldn’t know them. And you don’t cross each other, you don’t interact, you don’t talk about your character outside of the rehearsal room, because I would tell you things that you wouldn’t know. So he says, “I don’t want you gossiping outside of the rehearsal room.” And then we have one final day where we don’t talk about who we are, our characters, but we meet as actors in a room and then you lie on the floor, close your eyes, and Mike asks you about 500 questions. And you don’t answer, you just take them in, right? And he says, “Has your character ever eaten a Mr. Kipling’s fruitcake?”
OLDMAN: “What was the wallpaper that you remember when you were two years old? What was the smell in the house?” And you go through a whole history of this. And you think about them, and that’s your final session before you start filming. It’s an extraordinary process.
GALLOWAY: And you still go through that process with a character?
OLDMAN: I sometimes do, yeah. I’ve taken things from those directors.
GALLOWAY: I want you to walk us through how you prepared to play Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. And I know that you don’t particularly like the film. But it is a great performance without question. Here’s Gary Oldman playing the punk rocker Sid Vicious.
GALLOWAY: Do you still dislike it watching it?
GALLOWAY: Why? Just because it wasn’t a pleasant film to make?
OLDMAN: No, no. I think I suck in it. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: What’s interesting about this film is you made that role so convincing that I think people thought that’s who you were. And you didn’t even like punk rock. How do you go about preparing to play Sid Vicious?
OLDMAN: Well, I was a Bowie fan, Motown, James Brown, you know, so the whole punk thing was not, it just wasn’t my bag, as they would say. I guess I’m being pretty negative. I guess I just thought, Sid Vicious and punk, who cares? I could see that it was an opportunity. And so I jumped in. And once I was in, and once I’m committed to something, then I’m in it, full on. I don’t know what my issue is with it. It’s not Alex (Cox), it’s not the direction. You know, that was a young Roger Deakins there by the way.
GALLOWAY: Oh, that’s who you pointed to? The cinematographer.
OLDMAN: One of his first films, yeah, from Sid to Blade Runner.
GALLOWAY: You did some research.
OLDMAN: Tons, tons. In fact, that necklace that I’m wearing in the film was Sid’s. His mother loaned it to me, and the bracelet as well. The gestures in this... there’s footage of Sid doing this. And so those eye movements and gestures and things were as accurate as I could [make them]. I dove in. I studied it. And just did the work I normally do. But maybe a therapist could tell me what —
GALLOWAY: What you didn’t like? What’s interesting here is, this scene where you’re singing “My Way” has such a clear evolution. Did you deliberately plan that?
OLDMAN: It’s there in (the script). I think he does take out a pistol, it was a long time ago now. But I think he might take out a pistol and shoot someone, or shoot the audience.
GALLOWAY: How is film different from theater acting? Did you have to modify your technique in any way?
OLDMAN: Well, he is so bigger than life. Sid was a walking theater in himself. He was a heroin addict and I was not going to shoot up and do heroin, you know? I just wasn’t going to do that. I asked someone who was an ex-addict what the sensation was. And they said, “Imagine that your spine is wrapped in cotton wool.” And that was a great help. That was an enormous help, to imagine that, that one is just wrapped in this sort of cotton candy. But it became depressing for 15 weeks, 16 weeks, that we shot. And it got a little depressing, coming in every day and being in that sort of zombie state.
GALLOWAY: You went from working with British directors like that to working with some of the most important directors in the world. You did JFK with Oliver Stone, you worked with Francis Coppola on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What did they teach you? Working with Oliver on JFK, why did you take the role and how do you prepare to play Lee Harvey Oswald?
OLDMAN: I was very excited about getting the role and having the opportunity of working with Oliver. And then of course you go to the footage. They say he was from New Orleans; that’s up for grabs, I think. I just thought, OK, this guy is from that part of the world, and he’s going to sound like this, and I’m going to find a music, something that I can hook. And of course, he had the weirdest accent and the weirdest way of speaking. I thought it was just my luck that he had the strangest accent. And I even went to a voice coach, who [worked on] phonetics, and studied [accents], that’s what they did for a living. And they even said, “It’s very, very peculiar, the way he speaks.” You couldn’t quite pinpoint where he came from. So I knew that I had my work cut out. And you became a detective, an investigator. I went off to New Orleans and Dallas and met some of these rather — some people were very nice, some people were very shady —and tried to piece together a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald. I recently saw a documentary where they’ve opened up the whole shooting. And I must say that this fellow has convinced me now that he was the lone shooter.
GALLOWAY: Oh, so you changed your mind? I think when you did the film, you agreed with the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not assassinate Kennedy.
OLDMAN: Well, he was involved. But yeah, I don’t...
GALLOWAY: And now you believe that he was the only guy?
OLDMAN: I don’t know. You’re given access to things that civilians don’t get access to. You get behind the velvet rope tours. And I was up at the window with the rifle. You know, at Dealey Plaza.
GALLOWAY: The real life Dealey Plaza in Texas?
OLDMAN: Yeah, at the window. And you know, and you’ve got this rifle. It was not the first one they found. But they switched out somehow, and it was this thing called a Mannlicher-Carcano, which he ordered on a catalogue over the mail. And it had this bolt action. A cheap telescopic sight from a Woolworth’s. You know, this wasn’t some fancy sight. And the first thing I did was get the rifle up at the window, and pull the trigger, bolted the action, and then brought the sight back to my eye, and then I went, “No fucking way.” Because it was three shots in just under six seconds or something like that. [But] now it looks like it’s actually 11 seconds. Anyway, he’s come up with this theory. He kind of convinced me.
GALLOWAY: But you’re doing the shooting in the real life Dealey Plaza, holding the same kind of gun.
OLDMAN: Yeah, out the window.
GALLOWAY: Does that spook you?
OLDMAN: Oh, it was thrilling. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Oh, was it?
OLDMAN: It was thrilling because you’re playing Lee Harvey Oswald and you’re at the window. Overlooking Dealey Plaza. It’s much the same with Churchill: I got to sit in the chair in the war room where he sat, and when you can really touch and connect with history and anything that the character [touched]… We shot in the [house where] Oswald lived. When we did the shooting at the police station in Dallas, the whole façade, all that brick and everything that had been covered up, they took it all out, the art department, and put it back to exactly as it was when he was shot. And my reimagining or recreating Oswald being killed was on the spot where Oswald was shot, and indeed, I was handcuffed to the guy that he was handcuffed to on that day. I still pinch myself sometimes that I’ve been incredibly lucky, very privileged to have had these experiences. So it’s a little weird, it’s a bit spooky. But thrilling for an actor.
GALLOWAY: When you’re playing a real-life character, do you prepare differently than, say, when you’re in Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
OLDMAN: Ultimately, I don’t subscribe to one particular sort of approach. I’ve dipped in, I’ve read things, I’ve looked at Stanislavsky and I’ve looked at Stella Adler. I’ve looked at Uta Hagen and [Sandy] Meisner. And my favorite quote is Meisner’s. “Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That’s what acting is. When we did Dracula, we had rehearsals, and they were going off ballooning and horse riding and all the stuff for their their characters. And I said to Francis, “I’m 500 years old and I’m dead. What do I do?”
GALLOWAY: What did he say?
OLDMAN: Well, he scratched his head and said, “Yeah.” As SpongeBob says, “[NOISE]”. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: How much can you disagree with a Coppola or an Oliver Stone? How much can you say, “Well, I don’t want to play it this way?”
OLDMAN: You can disagree. I mean, you’ve got to be on the same page, obviously, as Oliver. And I heard some stories from people. We spoke with a guy who was a liaison officer at the Pentagon, called Colonel Fletcher Prouty, and he is basically the character that Donald Sutherland plays. And indeed, he was sent away, and the phones went down, and he told us the story that Gary Powers was not shot down. These are the stories that we were hearing!
GALLOWAY: Did you ever have a standoff with him? Or with Coppola?
OLDMAN: Oh yeah.
GALLOWAY: Over what?
OLDMAN: Oliver, you had to be on the same page as Oliver. Obviously, I couldn’t be in those scenes and rgue with him and say, “But I think Oswald did it.” [LAUGHTER] Oliver could be a bully, that’s, I’m sure people know that.
GALLOWAY: How do you deal with that?
OLDMAN: Well, I’m sensitive. How do you deal with it? On the day that Oswald was shot, I can’t remember how many takes we did of it. And it was based on not only the footage, but that very, very famous picture of him at the moment of getting hit. That’s what we were trying to create. And for some reason, he wasn’t happy with it. And, he would come up and say, “Come on, Gary, what’s the matter with you? You trying to sabotage my film?” [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: I’d go, “What do you want? What do you want?” “Get better, just do it better, man. Come on!” He would sometimes talk to you like that. And that doesn’t work for me. Directors that think that they can play mind games with you and get better performances, it’s —
GALLOWAY: So what did you say when he did that?
OLDMAN: I said, “I’m sorry, I’m trying, you know,” and did what I needed to do. But he’s very vain. So I knew that if I said to him, “Oliver, you all right? You’re looking a bit pale.” [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: Right? And then the next time I walked through, he had the doctor there.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGHS] That’s not true.
OLDMAN: Yeah, it’s true.
GALLOWAY: With Coppola, you rehearsed for weeks before playing Dracula. Do you like to rehearse for film?
OLDMAN: Love to rehearse. Yeah. And you don’t get it, you don’t get rehearsals on movies, you know. I’ve worked on films where I’ve spoken to the director over the phone and then got there on the day, and you meet and it’s not even a rehearsal. It’s a blocking.
GALLOWAY: Chris Nolan, does he rehearse?
OLDMAN: No, Chris doesn’t rehearse very much. No.
GALLOWAY: And how do you handle that?
OLDMAN: Well, you have to do the homework. The work, I guess the work that I used to do on my own, you know, with my brown knees and the sun tan, and the — you know, I do it in the kitchen.
GALLOWAY: Is that where you prepare? In your kitchen?
OLDMAN: Yeah, I do.
GALLOWAY: Do you have a nice kitchen? [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: Not particularly, no, but it’s something about the countertop that’s higher than the table, so I like to lay things out. And then I walk around the house and come back and then walk around. Yeah, you do the work. And I mean, this, I met Chris on the first day of The Dark Knight —
GALLOWAY: Oh you hadn’t met him before?
OLDMAN: Batman Begins. I had met him once and we chatted. And then I arrived. And it was a simple scene. And we did a walk through, a sort of rehearsal. And he said to me, “Hmm-hmm, hmm-hmm. That’s how you’re doing it?” And I went, “Yeah. Yeah, I thought I might.” Uh-huh, good all right, do you want to go for one?” And I had flown in from LA. I said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do one.” And we did one take. And he says, “Yeah, that’s good. Do you want another one?” And I said, “Well, I’ve come all this way, you know, it’d be nice to do two.” [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: And we did another one, and he went, “Terrific, I’ve got it, moving on.”
GALLOWAY: I want to take a look at what’s become kind of a famous movie ending of The Dark Knight.
OLDMAN: We filmed that sequence in that derelict building. It was the Battersea Power Station in...
GALLOWAY: In London?
OLDMAN: And where my father used to work.
GALLOWAY: Wow. So, how much does Nolan tell you, “This is how I’m going to cut it, this is how I’m going to use the music”?
OLDMAN: You don’t know. No. He’s obviously a wonderful technician and filmmaker. There’s no doubt about that. I think he is a wonderful actor’s director. Chris knows when not to say something, when something’s cooking and he can step back and let it do its thing. He gives I think great notes. You do a scene, Chris will come up and say, “That was very good, let’s do one more. There’s more at stake. Little more at stake.” And that is a translatable thing, that I understand. But how it’s put together, Chris keeps his cards very close to his chest. I didn’t see any of this until it was finished. But he’ll nudge you, and guide you, because he can see it, he’s got it in his head about how he’s going to put it together.
GALLOWAY: Do you model a character like that on a real-life person or not at all?
OLDMAN: It was a challenge, because Chris didn’t want me to have an accent. He wanted it, he didn’t want it to be Chicago, he didn’t want it to be New York, he didn’t... so that finding a sort of non-accent, a non-American accent was challenging. Not finding it, holding onto it. Because with accents, there’s melody. Not in all of them, but there’s highs and lows, there’s a musicality to an accent that can be your anchor. So if you’ve got a certain accent and you want to talk like this (changes accent) or whatever, it goes up, it goes, you know, whatever, whatever kind of southern thing you’re doing, you know what I mean? Or you go, an Irish New York, you’ve got something to hold onto. With this, he didn’t want any trace of that. So it wanted it to be sort of generic kind of. So that was hard. And physically, the character isn’t a huge stretch. So this particularly was very challenging. And all you have to make, you’ve got to make plot exposition character. The two hardest things I’ve done are this and Harry Potter.
GALLOWAY: Why Harry Potter?
OLDMAN: Again, you’ve got plot. And you’ve got to make it character. You’ve got to give it character. But you’ve got an 800-page book, and you’ve got two and a half hours to tell, well in those movies, you have two and a half hours.
GALLOWAY: I know you became pretty close with Daniel Radcliffe. Did you give him any advice about acting?
OLDMAN: No. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. I think that there’s things that you can learn... are there actors here? A bunch. What you see in Darkest Hour – there’s facility and talent and intuition and things that are at work there. But what you are really looking at is hard homework, hard work. And that is sitting at my kitchen table, pounding those lines in. You are playing someone whose brain is moving is that thing again, a running condition, that inner motor that Churchill had, dynamic, a brain, people not being able to catch up with him. You can’t be searching for those words, searching for the text. You’ve got to know it to a point. I knew when I got to rehearsal for Darkest Hour, I was off the book. Like a play. I knew it like a play. And then it’s in you. And it’s got to be in your blood stream. And that is homework. So there’s things — you can’t teach intuition, you can hone it, you can sharpen it, but you can’t give that to someone. There’s things that you can’t teach. But there are many things that you can. And I see this with my own kids, the younger generation. They want to find it all in five minutes. And the trick is to put the work in. It’s like a dancer: you’re not supposed to see the hard work.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever thought, I made a mistake taking on this role?
OLDMAN: Oh yeah. All the time. Yeah. Racked with insecurity. I turned down Churchill many times. And didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to go near it. And, ultimately, I think it was fear. And you’re walking in the shadow of [others]. The same with Smiley.
GALLOWAY: In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
OLDMAN: Alec Guinness was the face of Smiley and had made it so famous. A very beloved character.
GALLOWAY: When the original Tinker, Tailor was on British television, he made it one of his iconic roles. You tried to pull out of it just before you started shooting.
OLDMAN: Oh I told you that story, didn’t I? About me freaking out?
GALLOWAY: Yes, I think you did. [LAUGHTER] I don’t blame you. I mean, to take on a role that Alec Guinness played well is terrifying.
OLDMAN: Oh, very well, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at a clip of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
GALLOWAY: This is a movie that almost deliberately eschews drama and pyrotechnics. And so does your performance. Did you talk about that with the director?
OLDMAN: I wanted to give a nod, just a tip of my hat to Guinness, in the eye wear. Tomas [Alfredson] wanted me to wear metal-rimmed glasses. And I felt that the glasses are like the martini, the Aston Martin [in the James Bond films]. They are iconic. They have to be shaken not stirred. And I saw Smiley as a wise owl. And that’s why occasionally in the movie, once or twice, I turn my head but I don’t move by body, so I move my head like an owl. I sound like one of those actors now: what would your animal be? [LAUGHTER]
OLDMAN: I remember once lying there in a class, when I was in drama school, and we had to capture the essence of water. And there were all these people going, “Splash. Splash.” Like that. And the teacher came up to me and said, “Gary, what are you?” And I said, “I’m a stagnant pond.” [LAUGHTER] I thought I was clever, you know.
GALLOWAY: And that wasn’t even your RADA audition.
OLDMAN: So Smiley, so I convinced him. I sent him photo-shopped pictures of me with my hair gray and I said, “They’ve got to be these glasses. I want eyes like an owl.” And in the end, he came around. And I tried on 100 pairs.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow.
OLDMAN: It was literally putting glasses on: “No. Nope.” And then you put that one pair on and you go, “Got it. There it is.” And I approached him like a chess player, who is still and quiet. You watch a chess player and they’ll move. And then they start getting into it. And they’re very still, but you see this brain that’s computing. And that’s how I approached Smiley. On the first day of shooting with Tom Hardy — it was Tom’s first day, and he was thrown by my stillness. He had trouble. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: He had trouble what?
OLDMAN: He just had trouble acting.
GALLOWAY: Really, wow. Wow.
OLDMAN: He’d go, “I don’t quite…” I wasn’t really giving very much. He wasn’t prepared for me to be [like that]. He may have seen me in more frenetic roles.
GALLOWAY: When the camera stops rolling, do you keep the voice or do you go back to being yourself?
OLDMAN: Depends. With Smiley, I just used to sit on the set. I didn’t go back to the dressing room. And if they were moving the camera or taking a wall out or anything, I would just sit there very quiet. “I’m quite happy here.” And I would just sit and be in my own head,.
GALLOWAY: Where did the voice come from?
OLDMAN: Don’t know. Going back to Dracula, I remember reading it in the trailer when we were doing Oswald, so I was working with Oliver when I read the script in Dallas. And I heard the voice of Dracula before I could do it. So I could hear the voice but physically couldn’t do it. “I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you.”
GALLOWAY: I know you like that line a lot.
OLDMAN: I do like that line. And I heard the voice, and then went about working on it, and I hired an opera singer, and then worked and lowered my voice an octave. Because it’s a muscle, it’s just exercise. It’s rather like how you might think about running a marathon. And you do whatever it is, 25 miles and you think — heavens, I get out of breath walking to the store, how would I ever do that? And then you build up and you build up and it really is just, it’s muscles that you exercise.
GALLOWAY: Well, speaking about voices, there’s no voice that’s better known than Churchill’s. This is Churchill giving one of his most famous speeches.
GALLOWAY: How on earth do you play Churchill?
OLDMAN: [I started with the physicality, because I think one has an idea of, people have their own ideas of who he is, who he was, an image of him. And I think I was contaminated, my own thinking about him was influenced perhaps by other people that have played him, and he’s been played many, many times before by wonderful actors. And then going to the material, the source material and looking at some of the news footage, I’m not playing a life, a whole life, so I could (be) specific... I could hone it down to an area of his life. And what I discovered, the revelation to me was that he was energized, dynamic, cheeky, a twinkle in the eye, very cherubic. A powerhouse. And that was the key to unlock him for me. That he wasn’t this curmudgeon, grumpy man that had been born in a bad mood, that shuffled around you know. He was a dynamo. And so that was the start of finding that running condition of the motor, you know. I mean, he drank and he wasn’t... I mean, he admitted that he drank, but then he drank at a time when everybody drank.
GALLOWAY: Was he an alcoholic?
OLDMAN: I don’t think so. I don’t. It’s hard to say, but when you look at the list of achievements, I mean, he wrote more words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together. He wrote 50 books. He held every major, almost every major government job. He was commended in four wars, you know, he was journalist and a writer foremost before he was a politician. He painted 540 something paintings, had 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy, has the Nobel Prize for Literature. I mean, I don’t know many people that could do that, let alone drunks. I don’t know many alcoholics that could do that. And so it’s a hard one. He did drink a pint of Champagne a day.
OLDMAN: You know, as one does. [LAUGHTER] And he smoked 160,000 cigars in his lifetime.
OLDMAN: And lived to 90.
GALLOWAY: You had to smoke cigars while you were shooting.
OLDMAN: I did, yeah.
GALLOWAY: And I heard that you got nicotine poisoning.
OLDMAN: I did. I also got a colonoscopy [LAUGHTER] for my trouble. Yeah, it messed me up.
GALLOWAY: You chose not to put on the weight, though. Why?
OLDMAN: I’m too old. I’m nearly 60. And you’d have to gain, I don’t know, 50, 60 pounds to look like that. Probably even more. And I can’t mess with my heart and liver and kidneys. I mean, if I did put on the weight, I’d spend the rest of my life taking it off. And so it was dangerous. I think it’s a little different. I mean, I have great admiration for... well, the person who’s done it, De Niro in Raging Bull, I mean, come on, it’s just mind blowing. And you’ve got to admire the commitment to the work above everything, beyond how great he is, just the commitment to it. He’s 37. You know, maybe you can do it at 37, and I lost weight for Sid Vicious. But not...
GALLOWAY: And you were hospitalized for that, too.
OLDMAN: Yeah, I was, I went too far the other way. I wasn’t doing it under a doctor. So there was no way I was going to gain that weight.
GALLOWAY: Were there any scenes in this film that got cut that you wish they had included?
OLDMAN: A few. [But] Joe [Wright] really served me well. He’s done me proud in the film. In a rough cut we saw, he did cut away during “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them on the landing grounds,” and I called him up and I just said, “Joe, I know you have to cut away, but it’s like cutting away on ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ Don’t cut away from Hamlet when he’s doing “To be or not to be.” And he went, “Yeah, I get you, all right, all right.” They are some of the most famous lines in the English language.
GALLOWAY: You said when we spoke earlier that there might be a sequel. How real is that?
OLDMAN: I guess there could be, there could be. Because at the end of the war, there’s the summit with Stalin, and...
GALLOWAY: At Yalta.
OLDMAN: Yeah. And so that is another.
GALLOWAY: I’d love to see that.
OLDMAN: Yeah, you know, we might. And we’d get someone. Roosevelt’s a great character, he’s on his way out there isn’t he?
GALLOWAY: Yeah, and Stalin’s not a bad figure in history.
OLDMAN: Yeah, so maybe. But I need a break from the makeup chair.