V for victory? Gary Oldman spurs Oscar talk with his 'refreshing' Winston Churchill
'Darkest Hour' explores the true story of Winston Churchill becoming Britain's prime minister during World War II.
WASHINGTON — On the set of the World War II drama Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman spent four hours every morning being transformed into Winston Churchill, long before his co-stars would show up for their first spot of tea.
“The cast never saw me as Gary,” explains Oldman, who is visiting the National Churchill Library & Center at George Washington University a day after the movie's D.C. screening. “They only ever met Winston, which was kind of interesting. It changed their perception to how they would behave around me.”
Oldman, 59, is receiving critical acclaim — and a whole lot of Oscar talk — for his performance in Darkest Hour (in theaters Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, goes nationwide Dec. 22) as the British prime minister forced to deal with a growing Nazi threat, party betrayal and worried countrymen in his first month in office in 1940.
“He was more than just a politician,” the London-born Oldman says of Churchill. “He’s our Lincoln.”
The idea of playing one of his country’s most famous statesmen had been floated by him before, he recalls, “and I always sort of said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ ”
Working with Darkest Hour director Joe Wright and not having to play Churchill’s whole life intrigued Oldman. But the physical aspect was still the biggest roadblock.
“You’re playing a man who certainly had a great sense of self-marketing and branding: the silhouette, the homburg hat, the cigar,” Oldman says. “That whole (look) is so iconic that I had to go and meet it, and there was no way I was going to put on 50 or 60 pounds. At my age, I just don’t want to mess with my metabolism.”
The fact that he didn’t look like Churchill worked in his favor, Wright says. “Gary has an intensity, kinetic energy and vitality to him that I thought would be appropriate.” (For the record, Wright reports Oldman never went full Churchill on set: “It was more this strange cherubic actor who no one had ever met but was really rather brilliant.”)
Oldman acknowledges that he “seduced” makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji (Men in Black) out of retirement; the actor is a big fan of Tsuji's work and Oldman approached him personally. Tsuji designed the fake jowls and hairpieces, and the actor also wore a foam body suit for authentic girth and posture. Watching himself in it is unlike anything else he’s done in his 35-year film career.
“I don’t see me. It’s refreshing,” Oldman says. “I’m somewhat hypercritical about the performances. With absolutely no disrespect to anyone, most of it I just burn and do it again.
“It was nice to have the opportunity to really disappear.”
The happy ending Oldman wants? “(Tsuji) can get an Oscar and then he can go back” into retirement, he says, laughing. But it’s Oldman who has the most momentum going into awards season as an early favorite to win best actor.
“Of all the acting races this year, he’s the one who’s furthest out in front by himself,” says Dave Karger, special correspondent for IMDb. “As of now, he seems pretty untouchable.”
Oldman, whose lone Oscar nomination was for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, doesn’t think an Academy Award is “necessarily the yardstick to be measured by,” but does allow Darkest Hour is a strong performance.
“I feel really privileged to have had a stab at playing him, and I’ve got out of it what I wanted to get out of it," Oldman says. "I loved being Winnie. He's a great character.”
The weather's getting chilly, and that means it's the perfect time to see what's playing on the silver screen. While these flicks aren't holiday-themed, they're certainly worth watching this season.