Gary Oldman had been in a couple of movies and had done some British TV work before he landed his first starring role in the 1986 biopic “Sid and Nancy.” But it was that ferocious portrayal of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious that really got him noticed, that set him on the road of landing, then nailing, the parts of bad guys in countless films. He was Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK,” Dracula in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Dr. Smith in “Lost in Space,” Zorg in “The Fifth Element” and, most recently, Dreyfus in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Oldman has also shown heroic qualities in a couple of franchise roles: Commissioner Gordon in the “Dark Knight” series, and Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” films. He’s portrayed wildly varied characters, but we’ve always seen Gary Oldman up there doing the parts. Until now. In “Darkest Hour,” he plays Winston Churchill, during the time when he was just named the British Prime Minister. He’s fattened up, he’s been made to look older than his actual age of 59, he walks and talks differently. If you weren’t informed that Gary Oldman was playing Churchill, you could very well sit through the whole film and not know he was in it. Oldman spoke about taking on the iconic role at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: It must have been a daunting task to play Churchill. Who or what convinced you to do it?
A: The script, the history, the man. I guess there’s a mild fascination that I had with him. But it was just the opportunity to play this iconic character. Roles do come in, they come across the desk; I’m not someone who’s out there searching or craving to play a particular role or character. Initially, I was very wary of doing it just because not only is he so famous and iconic, but there’s also been a great many actors that have played him before me. When you’ve got people like Richard Burton and Albert Finney, they’re big shoes to step into.
Q: Did you go back to revisit what those actors did when playing him?
A: No, I didn’t watch them. I remember watching Robert Hardy’s performance when it was on TV many years ago (Hardy actually played Churchill numerous times), but I didn’t want to be contaminated or influenced by other people’s performances. We’ve all got an idea of who Churchill was, and a lot of that comes from people that have played him, not necessarily the actual man. So, watching newsreels and Pathé footage was paramount. To hear him and to see him, for me, was the way in. That, and the reading of history, was how I sort of started to build the man.
Q: Was acting through all of that prosthetic makeup a big challenge for you?
A: For me to be able to do it, I needed to see Winston looking back at me when I looked in a mirror. Of course, you can’t completely lose the actor. We found that we went too far, so then we came back and eliminated some of the (prosthetic) pieces. And we had the prosthetics specialist Kazuhiro Tsuji, who is quite talented. He was in the movie business for a long time, but now he’s a fine artist. We managed to lure him out of retirement just to do this. And I think we achieved a balance between Winston and Gary.
Q: But was it difficult to act?
A: Here’s a man who’s 65 years old, and he takes on Adolf Hitler. So, for me to sit there in three hours of makeup, it could be a lot worse, couldn’t it? (laughs)
“Darkest Hour” opens on Dec. 8
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.