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He trained for a career in British theatre, but Gary Oldman has since appeared in some of Hollywood’s top-grossing film franchises and played some of history’s most famous men. Here, the Oscar winner opens up about learning his craft and the value of insecurity. “It would be a sad day to really be able to sit there and watch yourself and go, ‘Wow, I’m fantastic in this.’ You should always be questioning and pushing yourself, and having doubt and insecurity is a good thing, but it can’t immobilise you.” By Andy Hazel.

Gary Oldman on fame and his most famous roles

CrowdSpark / Alamy Stock Photo
Credit: Gary Oldman

For all the sprawl of Cannes’ influence in the film world, the festival itself is almost entirely packed into a single building on the Riviera foreshore – the Palais des Festivals. It’s a hive of anxiety, lucky chances and missed opportunities. In the basement, American faith-based films muscle for space alongside offerings from the Palestine Film Institute at the Marché du Film. On the roof, in exclusive lounges, producers whose names appear early in credits mingle with their financiers.

Somewhere above the Theatre Claude Debussy though, in the small Buñuel room, sits Gary Oldman. More than 20 years on from the Cannes success of his directorial debut, Nil by Mouth, and after a turn on the festival jury, Oldman has the air of a man on holiday in the south of France, not an actor or director with something to prove.

Douglas Urbanski – Oldman’s manager, producer and confidant – is by his side, a position he seemingly only vacates to guest host right-wing radio talk shows. Urbanski is known as one of Hollywood’s leading right-wing conservatives, with outspoken claims on global cooling and the failures of Barack Obama. Oldman, despite damning “the hypocrisy of political correctness” in an interview with Playboy, seems far more enigmatic in person.

By any measure, his is a successful career. Cumulatively, films in which Oldman has starred – including Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Harry Potter franchise – have grossed more than $11 billion, making him one of the most profitable actors ever. For his performance as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Oldman won every major award he possibly could. But here at Cannes, amid this celebration of the auteur director, and hours after another walk along the festival’s red carpet, it seems difficult for the actor to consider success in these terms.

“Well, obviously they think it’s good,” he says, his voice still with that edge of south-east London. “I think it was good work, yeah. There are a few films that you look at and think that. And sometimes it’s just moments, it’s not even the whole thing. There are good things in JFK, a film I did with Sean Penn called State of Grace, there’s bits and bobs.”

More important, it seems, is the idea of honing the craft of acting. Oldman, who refers to himself with a distancing “you” throughout the interview, sees his 60-odd films and countless theatrical productions as creating a trajectory of learning, and of earning respect. Two factors were closely tied to respect from the beginning – hard work and money.

“I just turned 60, and I’ve been doing this acting malarky for forty-something years. When you’re a young actor, the learning curve is very steep. There are occasionally challenges at my age, like Churchill, where you think, ‘Okay, this is the real deal. It’s going to take every molecule of my being to pull this off.’ But,” he pauses, adjusting the black-rimmed glasses on his nose, “overall, the curve eases off, so you look for other stimulus.”

So far, 2018’s stimuli include work for video games and, most recently, providing the voice of a sentient house in the Netflix film Tau. Unlike notable contemporaries, Oldman retains a near pathological need to remain busy.

“You’ve got to work, you’ve got to send the kids to college, you’ve got to be practical,” he says. “You can’t just sit around and wait for that really great role to come along, because, as I’ve discovered, you do Beethoven [in 1994’s Immortal Beloved], and how many years go by until you get a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Then there’s five or six years before a Churchill. You’ve got to work, and you’re not always going to be hitting home runs.”

Born and raised in south-east London, Oldman’s work ethic was clear long before he became an actor. From a job at British Home Stores, to an abattoir, to a factory and as a hospital porter, a chance viewing of Malcolm McDowell’s performance in the 1971 film The Raging Moon triggered an obsession with acting. This led to studying first at the Greenwich & Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, then the Rose Bruford Training College of Speech and Drama.

“I trained specifically for the stage,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “The movies was a dream. The movies were for other people: Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, those people. They did movies. It was never in my plan, it just happened.”

Stage and screen acting are known for drawing on a different set of skills, but Oldman says the transition can be done “by anyone with a modicum of talent and common sense. If you come from a sincere place, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the theatre or on film.”

“Do you remember a remake of The Bounty?” he asks. “Tony Hopkins, Mel Gibson. They wanted me to be one of those guys on the ship. I also had the opportunity to go into rep [repertory theatre], to the provinces to do a play, and I much preferred the play over the film because the writing was better. I said, ‘I don’t want to do the film.’ My agent thought I was insane. And the more I said no, the more they came back with more money.

“I use this trick all the time,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re looking for advice for your acting career: Say no first. You’ve got to have a conversation going.”

But when Oldman finally accepted a major role, it wasn’t because of the writing.

“At the time I was working for £80 a week, before tax,” he says. “When you’re trying to make ends meet on 33 quid a week working at the Royal Court Theatre, and someone comes along and says, ‘Here’s £35,000 to play Sid Vicious’, you kind of go, ‘Ooh, I could get the kitchen done,’ ” he says, laughing. “I don’t think I’m very good in that film.”

That film, Sid and Nancy (1986), was followed by an equally lauded performance as playwright Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears. Together, they demonstrated Oldman’s technique of disappearing into his characters. “There is no point of similarity between the two performances,” wrote critic Roger Ebert. “Like a few gifted actors, he is able to reinvent himself for every role.”

Casual cinema-goers have probably seen Gary Oldman more often than they realise, and it’s not just because of a chameleonic ability. Oldman puts this down to his depth of research, and the methods he employs to find and express sincerity.

Throughout his career, Oldman has played fictive creations, real-life characters and established literary figures. Each, he says, brings its own challenges.

“If that person is no longer with us but they have family who are still around, like the Churchills for instance, and certainly with Oswald, that’s a huge asset. Making JFK, meeting Marina Oswald and their daughter was a wonderful thing. You get incredible access in this job and meet extraordinary people, but I feel you have some responsibility to the memory of the person. What you do and what choices you make as an actor affects the people who are still living. As you can imagine, the Churchill family revere their ancestor, and in his case, you’ve got access to footage and the way he sounded.”

Oldman’s approach to Darkest Hour and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula are indicative of this work. “Nine times out of 10, I will read a script, and I’ll start hearing a sound. With Churchill, I went to the piano and I worked out the range of Churchill’s voice and then started working on it,” he says, measuring out a piano keyboard with his forefingers. “I wanted that depth, that sound in the voice. It was the same when I played Dracula. I remember being given the script and reading the line, ‘I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you.’ And I thought, ‘It’s worth doing the movie just to say that line.’ I mean, who wouldn’t want to say that to someone? Not necessarily to Winona Ryder, but you know,” he shrugs.

“The voice coming off the page to me was one I couldn’t physically or technically do at the time, but I could hear it in my head. For Dracula, I literally wanted to lower my voice an octave. So, I worked with an opera singer and did exercises where I intoned the text, whispered the text, sang the text, and gradually lowered my voice half a tone, then another half a tone down until I had it.”

Bram Stoker’s Dracula took Oldman from critical acclaim to global success, leading to a series of high-profile roles playing villains. It also led to Oldman relocating from London to Los Angeles, taking him out of the theatre scene that had been his home for 13 years.

“Up until then, what I tried to do was a film and a play, a film and a play, a film and a play. Back then, if I said to you, ‘I’m going to start a movie on the 29th of October’, you’d start that movie on the 29th of October. You shot the movie for five or six weeks – no reshoots – and it was done. And then you could either go on holiday or do a play – a play you had already committed to doing. That was the thing, you could commit… You could say, ‘Well, I’m going to do a play next year, but if we can get a film that comes in before then…’ None of this, ‘Oh they’ve pushed it, it’s not starting now for another month.’ ”

One example of what Oldman is capable of, given the chance to properly prepare and research, is also the film people frequently forget he stars in. “The only movie I’ve ever seen where I’ve pinched myself and thought, ‘Holy shit I’m in this film’, is JFK. When I first sat down in that screening room with [director] Oliver [Stone] I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was such a powerful film, and so well made.”

For his role as Lee Harvey Oswald, Oldman was granted time and opportunities that seem generous by modern standards of filmmaking.

“There was very little on the page, in his script, so Oliver gave me plane tickets, some per diem, and a few contact numbers, and he said, ‘Take yourself off to New Orleans and Dallas and find out who Oswald was.’ So you become an investigator, you become a detective. He trusted me to go and do the research, which was a wonderful gift. Yes, it’s an acting gig, but I’ve actually been up at that window with a rifle where Oswald supposedly shot John F. Kennedy. We shot [the film]at the Book Depository, we shot in the house of the landlady where Oswald boarded, we cankered back the wall at the car park where they bring Oswald out where Ruby shoots him, took it right back to the original facade of the building. That would be filmed in Toronto now, or Bulgaria for tax concessions.”

Away from work, Oldman’s road has been far from easy. A prolonged bout of alcoholism and messy divorces from actors Lesley Manville and Uma Thurman and photographer Donya Fiorentino were well publicised. Throughout awards season, Fiorentino’s allegations of domestic abuse resurfaced. Oldman won sole custody of their two sons several years after the alleged incident, which has been denied by both Oldman and their son Gulliver. Raising his sons is the reason he gives for turning down leading roles from the early 2000s until recently. The film that put his name back above the title, and one he is rumoured to be working on a sequel for, is Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

“When I was doing George Smiley I felt very much in the shadow of Alec Guinness,” Oldman says. “This is a very beloved character and he was the definitive face of Smiley, and still is, regardless of my efforts. I built this monster in my head. It was like a dragon I had to slay. I felt very naked with it, very exposed. And it got to a point where it nearly gave me a bloody nervous breakdown, I was so caught up with the fear that it could only lead to failure. So I got to the set – again, no rehearsal – and once I had done the first scene and they’d said ‘action’ and ‘cut’, I realised, I know where I am. That’s a cable, that’s a camera, I’m on a set and I’m acting. It’s familiar now,” he says.

“I think insecurity is a good thing. You have to move forward, you can’t sit there, satisfied. I remember a director called Hal Ashby told me a story once when he was doing The Last Detail and he took Jack Nicholson to the dailies, to screen the scenes they’d shot. And when the lights came up, Nicholson turned to Hal Ashby and said, ‘Well, I was great, how was the scene?’ ”

Oldman shakes his head. “It would be a sad day to really be able to sit there and watch yourself and go, ‘Wow, I’m fantastic in this.’ You should always be questioning and pushing yourself, and having doubt and insecurity is a good thing, but it can’t immobilise you. It can’t paralyse you. I had let it almost get to that point before Tinker Tailor, where it was going to crush me. And then, of course, I hear from other actors that have been through the same thing.”

With a glance to Urbanski, Oldman relaxes. He nods, smiles and exits, disappearing into the warren of corridors, theatres and private rooms of the Palais des Festivals.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "This Oldman". Subscribe here.

Andy Hazel
is a Melbourne-based writer. He is The Saturday Paper's editorial assistant.