I decided that I was going to play Winston Churchill when my wife Gisele told me: ‘Are you really going to give up this opportunity to say those words. You’ll always regret it’
A screen legend thanks to unforgettable performances in Dracula, Hannibal, The Fifth Element and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman finally won the shiny gold statue for his storming turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. And all it took was a believable fat suit and four hours of make-up per day. A small price to pay, surely?
Becoming Winston Churchill, how would you describe that journey?
A joy, and a torture. Equal measure. 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 a 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.
When was the moment where you felt like you truly ‘got him’?
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 twenty year old. A man more than half his age. Skipping around. Its’ far from known. And once I found that energy, it never felt like I was trying. A lot of the shooting, 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.
To turn into Winston, how long would that take each day?
Three hours and fifteen minutes. Give or take. And then to get into costume, looking at four hours in total. And this was 48 consecutive days. 48 consecutive days getting up at 1.30, 2am to be ready for the rest of the cast and crew by 6 am. Whom I’ll add, never saw me as Gary throughout the entire shoot, just as Winston.
What were you wearing to create Winston’s bulk and did you try to put the weight on first?
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 70lbs 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. 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 more free in a character. Isn’t that weird? I find immersing yourself in that guise, very liberating.
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 why I got into acting in the first place, that love in the theatre of transforming into another person, it’s marvelous. I’ve always enjoyed being another character instead of being myself.
Did you ever think, ‘why did I accept this job?’
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.’
It’s difficult to imagine Gary Oldman scared?
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).
Why is that?
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 have been work that I had to do for just the cheque, 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.
So you have regrets over certain movie roles?
Absolutely no regrets. Never. What’s the point in regrets? Waste of time.
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