It can be daunting to take on the role of one of history’s most famous historical figures—particularly when you don’t especially look like the very famous face. Such was the dilemma for Gary Oldman, who nearly turned down the role of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour for that very reason. “I don’t have any resemblance to Winston Churchill. When they first came to me that was my reaction; I just thought, “Winston Churchill? Don’t be ridiculous.” So I turned it down.” Luckily, Oldman gave it a second thought, and the rest is history—and as of this morning, Oscar-nominated, with the actor up for Best Actor at the TK Academy Awards.
Have you always been interested in Winston Churchill, or was this a new development?
Let’s say I’ve had a flirtation with Winston Churchill over the years. There’s always been a book of his famous quotes on my bookshelf growing up in London. I was born in 1958, so, growing as a young boy in the early ’60s, the shadow of Winston, as it were, was very present. He was the man that won the war. My appreciation for him has quadrupled. To read everything all the biographies—and indeed, he wrote 50 books himself—I mean, it would take another lifetime. But my curiosity and my fascination with Churchill will continue long, long after this film is out.
How did your involvement with the film come to be?
It’s an odd one. I don’t have any resemblance to Winston Churchill. When they first came to me that was my reaction; I just thought, “Winston Churchill? Don’t be ridiculous.” So I turned it down. I said, “I’m really not interested.” You’re asked to play this icon and arguably the greatest Brit that ever lived, and I look nothing like him. So it was a very quick,”No. Thank you, but no thanks.” Then it came back and washed up on my shore again, and I gave it more serious consideration. The physical was always gonna be the elephant in the room, so to speak. That was always gonna be a roadblock up ahead. But both [producer] Douglas Sabansky and Gisele, my wife, said, “Look, you’re gonna stand in Parliament and say these great words —what have you got to lose?” And I thought, “You know what, you’re right. I’m perhaps looking a gift horse in the mouth.” So I said yes and stepped out onto the wire, and I’m glad I did.
And you are in almost every frame of the movie, which is incredible.
I am in almost every scene of the film. One of the big challenges was stamina. My makeup and padding and clothing, the whole thing from soup to nuts was about four hours. So I would come in early to get ready, and then the crew would arrive and the other actors would arrive, and we would rehearse and start shooting.
Beyond just the makeup and padding, you really transformed into him.
It would be a very challenging role to play without all the makeup, yeah, but I was amazed at the joy of playing the man. I don’t know where I got it from. But I couldn’t wait, really, to get to the set and, and play, and just be him.
Do you miss playing him?
Yes, it was sad to stop being him. I used to love that sort of [three] hours into makeup when you look into the mirror, and you start to see the spirit or the essence of the man looking back at you. That was my Zen state in the makeup chair. I would sit there and begin to get a little grumble in my voice. Then he would arrive.
Was there anything in particular that helped you key into this character?
There’s a lot of reading material, but here’s the thing that really struck me: I went back to the news footage of Winston, and he has been represented as this sort of curmudgeon, grumpy sort of man born in a bad mood, with his whisky and his cigar, and he’s sort of shuffling around. And the Churchill that I saw on the news footage was someone with great vitality. He was marching ahead of everyone, and skipping around; he did look, indeed, like a baby. He had this sort of round cherubic face, and a grin, and a sparkle in his eye. He was dynamic and on a mission. Seeing that was a key that unlocked the door.
What is your most memorable birthday celebration that you’ve had?
I’m not a super birthday person. I’m now 59; I will be 60 in March. I’m happy to have a little party, I’m happy to have a small dinner to celebrate my 60th birthday. And then, beyond that, I don’t wanna know what date it is. I have no interest in being 61, 62, 63; I could not care less. Maybe the most memorable will be my last celebration, which will be in March.
What was your first “I’ve made it” moment?
I think it was back in 1979, when I first walked the stage, and at the end of the week, they gave me a pay packet. It wasn’t very much; I think it was about £13.50 or something. I couldn’t believe that I was doing something that I loved, and they were paying me for it. It’s hard to top that.
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