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GARY OLDMAN - BODY OF WORK

0418garyoldmanfeature

GARY OLDMAN - BODY OF WORK

On March 4, Gary Oldman brought home the Oscar for Best Actor. And the star doesn't mince his feelings on the accolade. "I am fucking delighted," he cries. “No complaints from me."

It seems criminal this may only be a first Academy Award win for the 60-year-old actor. Gary Oldman made his mark playing extreme and often deranged characters and was, for many years, one of Hollywood's most celebrated villains. There was no-one better at giving depth to drooling psychos (The Fifth Element, True Romance) twisted cops (Leon: The Professional, Romeo is Bleeding) or manic artists (Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Years). But in the 1990s, the man whose very persona reflected the tough south London areas where he was raised, decided the time was right for a change, both professionally and personally. He gave up drinking, redefined himself as a skilled character actor, and found a measure of inner calm that had long eluded him.

And now, two decades on, it remains. Except now, there is a renaissance in the air, and at the dining tables of Oscar judges. Rightly so, no one could ever have imagined that Oldman would one day deliver his greatest performance as Winston Churchill, one the most important figures in British history. Sid Vicious as Winnie? Unthinkable. But in Darkest Hour, director Joe Wright’s account of Churchill’s leadership, a riveting account of Churchill’s momentous defense against German forces in WWII, Gary is brilliant in his unrecognizable performance that has critics calling it the greatest depiction of the greatest of British leaders.

Oldman’s outlook on life may have changed over the years, but his philosophy is the same: to acquaint audiences with new ideas and different perceptions. In this case, it was usually grumpy, cigar-chomping caricature of Churchill that was to be reimagined.

Looking very distinguished and chic in a dark suit and black-rimmed glasses, his hair and goatee flecked with gray, Oldman is in high spirits. Turning 60 this past March, the former renegade actor and bad boy of British cinema has scored the greatest triumph of his lauded career. He was touted to win the Oscar as far back as September when Darkest Hour first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and ever since it seems as if he’s been on a well-earned victory tour in support of the film.

Today he’s full of humility, while his accent and appearance offer a curious blend of a comfortable, luxurious life that was constructed on the gritty, ruthless, unforgiving concrete of 1960s south-east London.

Ironically, Oldman almost balked at the prospect of playing Churchill, a man who will forever be inscribed in the popular imagination as a fabled orator, statesman, and politician. Deliberating over the role – and not just because of the grueling four-hour makeup and costume process that was undertaken for 48 consecutive days— Oldman had to reach into reserves of courage not plumbed for several decades.

Certainly, Oldman ranks at the top of his profession in terms of his chameleonic capacity to utterly transform and otherwise immerse himself into a wide range of screen selves. Once he decided to distance himself from his rogue’s gallery of renegades and evildoers (perhaps most notably his sniveling Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK), the working-class actor has succeeded in rebranding himself over the course of the last two decades by playing good guys.

Younger audiences are far more aware of Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy, the fugitive Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, and, most recently, as master spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Last August he married his fifth wife, Gisele Schmidt, an art curator, and at this point in his life, he appears to be eager to fully exploit this renaissance period in which he finds himself. Sitting opposite Gary there is a brutal honesty in his eyes. You can sense an inner calm as well as a burning desire for artistic accomplishment. And yet, through all that, small fragments of insecurities remain.

In 2018, he intends to direct his second film. It’s been over two decades since his debut project the turbulent 1997 family drama Nil by Mouth, a semi-autobiographical account of Oldman’s working-class upbringing and life with a brutal, alcoholic father.

Born in New Cross, his father Leonard was a former sailor who worked as a welder. His mother Kathleen, who ran a boarding house for youngsters coming through the ranks at Millwall Football Club, supported the aspiring actor and sister Laila Morse – best known for her portrayal of Mo Harris in “EastEnders” – until he got his first job, in a sports shop, at the age of 16.

“London changes so quickly, and it was a very different place for me growing up there,” he says. “In a way, it’s lost a lot of that raw edge that it had, particularly around where I grew up. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, but the transformation has been incredible, and we will never go back to that version of the city,” Oldman says.

For Oldman, Hatcham Park Road in SE14 remains, as does the Five Bells pub where his father used to drink. Whether Leonard’s departure from the family set-up, back when Oldman was seven, influenced the future actor’s attitude towards characters and hierarchy is unclear, though he admits to being more comfortable easing into traditional leading man roles. His current profile is that of an elder statesman as opposed to his former status as a renegade actor who inspired many in his wake, Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, and Michael Fassbender included.

When asked to comment on the legacy he has left for a rising generation of actors, Oldman has been characteristically modest about his influential standing as a latter-day Brando or Dean.

“I don’t really look at old work,” Oldman said. “Occasionally there’s a role you played, you didn’t really give it much of a second thought, and then someone says it meant something to them. I saw you in that, and that’s when I wanted to become an actor! I’m always flattered and mystified,” Oldman says.

“With the roles that are more emotionally physical, they might be great characters and great scenes to play, but I would always have a cloud over my day. You get to the set; you do makeup, then you’re in the trailer waiting for that knock on the door: They’re ready for you on set, and you get there and hope that the reserves are full - whether you need rage or tears or whatever it is,” Oldman says.

STRIPLV: Becoming Winston Churchill, how would you describe that journey?

OLDMAN: A joy, and a torture. Equal measure [laughs]. I mean, no, the process was an arduous journey to get into him, finding all those moving pieces and putting him together but when you did, what a joy. What a pure joy! But it’s a joy to me with every role I’ve played; I like to call them my strange friends [laughs]. There’s a climatic resonance after long preparation and a fraught, challenging odyssey you suddenly find yourself standing in front of the mirror, seeing the character looking back at you. And to see Winston looking at me, not just within the magic of cosmetic trickery or posturing, to locate the spirit and breathe life into that and see it with your two eyes is really extraordinary.

STRIPLV: Did you go full method?

OLDMAN: I don’t go fully to the other side, but I feel like it was Winston Churchill channeling me. Ben Mendelsohn said it’s like there’s this membrane of Winston there all the time. And my wife said to me, which I loved, “I go to sleep with Winston Churchill, and I wake up with Gary.”

STRIPLV: When was the moment where you felt like you truly got him?

OLDMAN: Somewhere along the way, I can’t quite pinpoint when during the year of preparing myself, but I found Winston. I found his cherubic musicality, somewhere through the research, the transformation, I saw beyond the curmudgeon shuffling round in his slippers, pulling on his pipe, born in a bad mood. I watched footage of him for a year, longer, and I found the childlike light within. I found the sparkle and the twinkle in the eye.  The 60-year old man who skipped around like a 20-year-old, a man more than half his age. Skipping around. It’s far from known. Once I found that energy, it never felt like I was trying. A lot of the shooting of the film, I honestly can’t remember, because it became so unconsciously natural to me and freeing. It’s when I could feel him close by, in my blood and DNA.

STRIPLV: To turn into Winston, how long would that take each day?

OLDMAN: Three hours and 15 minutes, give or take. And then to get into costume, you were looking at four hours in total. And this was 48 consecutive days! Forty-eight consecutive days, getting up at 1:30 a.m. to be ready for the rest of the cast and crew by 6 a.m. Whom I’ll add, never saw me as Gary throughout the entire shoot, just as Winston.

STRIPLV: How was that?

OLDMAN: Well when we were done by the end of the day, these were 10, 12 hour days, they’d all be done and go home. And I have to stay for an hour behind getting it all taken off. So realistically, it was probably an 18 hour day altogether for two months, and I got a little worried whether I could keep this going because it required a lot of stamina.

STRIPLV: What were you wearing to create Winston’s bulk and did you try to put the weight on first?

OLDMAN: It was basically a fat suit. (Laughs) There’s not really any other way of describing it, other than a fat suit. And I’ll tell you why I wore a fat suit and didn’t go all De Niro Raging Bull; I’m 60 years old. I’m too old, and not able to pile on 70 pounds or whatever it would take to present Churchill as he was, with the neck and the jowls, it’s not good for your health. Out it whatever way you want, it’s for the realistic intention of the performance. I’m not putting my health at risk. (Laughs) You’re at the age where your liver, your kidneys are vulnerable; they can’t undergo severe stress like that. But Kazuhiro Tsuji was my savior.  We’d known each other for 20 odd years when I was supposed to do Planet of the Apes for Tim Burton, but that didn’t happen. But I worked with Kazu on that; I had an ape head made up, I was going to be an ape and his work with me, with Men in Black, with The Nutty Professor; he was the only one who could help me do this. The problem was, he was retired. So it took a lot of flattery and compliments and more flattery and a lot of begging and pleading— lots of pleading— and he eventually came round.

STRIPLV: Did you feel like this job and all the makeup et cetera was more than you could chew?

OLDMAN: I will tell you honestly, I loved it. I loved every minute. I was gripped by the process, seeing Winston born on my form, it was breath-taking. An hour into the process, I could see glimpses of him staring at me. And I’m going to say, and it may make no sense to an outside observer, but with the fat suit, with the padding, the make-up, the prosthetics, I’ve never felt freer in a character. Isn’t that weird? I find immersing yourself in that guise, very liberating.

STRIPLV: Why?

OLDMAN: It’s like listening to yourself on a tape recorder; no one likes to hear that. I don’t like to see myself, I’m very used to that, and it pleases me no end to not recognize that form, to not know who I’m looking at. To not know that’s me. It’s a hard one to explain, but I gave my best attempt. Probably all part of why I got into acting in the first place, that love in the theater of transforming into another person. It’s marvelous. I’ve always enjoyed being another character instead of being myself.

STRIPLV: Why’s that?

OLDMAN: I’ve always had an issue with how my appearance, how I look, my presence. A lot of actors feel the same; it’s why many of us do what we do.

STRIPLV: Is there a reason why?

OLDMAN: Nothing in particular, perhaps it’s a remnant of playground teasing. Just an uncomfortableness.

STRIPLV: Did you ever think, why did I accept this job?

OLDMAN: I think that was the big fat pink elephant in the room. How was I going to pull this off? Aside from the mountain of portraying one of the most important figures in British history, arguably the greatest mythologized, who’s ever lived, how was I going to achieve this? I wanted to say no. I mulled over it, a lot of pensive soul searching. Once that seed was planted, I had to say yes. This was once in a lifetime; I would never get a chance like this again. I listened to some of his speeches, over and over, learning the gravitas of his timbre. And then I recorded myself on my iPhone giving it a try. There was something there. Something worked. And it was really my wife Gisele who said to me, this was the clincher. “Are you really going to give up this opportunity to say those words? You’ll always regret it.”

STRIPLV: It’s difficult to imagine Gary Oldman scared.

OLDMAN: Lately, I think fear has become the central core of my own process in accepting any work and perennial concern that I won’t be able to do it. What can I say? I’m an actor who’s overwhelmingly insecure. (Laughs)

STRIPLV: Why is that?

OLDMAN: On the whole, I’m incredibly blessed, very fortuitously in my line of work and I will never say other. But with the ups, big ups like this movie, this moment, there has been work that I had to do for just the check because I was raising my boys by myself, I was a single dad. I had to be there for them. I couldn’t be leaving for months at a time to shoot in Romania or South Africa, so I had to say no. I was a dad who needed to be a present dad. So that’s what I did, I took jobs that meant I could be at home for the school run, to be there to pay the mortgage. Maybe not my finest moments but I had responsibility over anything else.

STRIPLV: So, do you have regrets over certain movie roles?

OLDMAN: Absolutely no regrets. Never. What’s the point in regrets? It’s a waste of time.

 

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