Oldman won his first ever Golden Globe for his portrayal of the statesman in Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman and Joe Wright on how they shone a light on Winston Churchill
When Gary Oldman accepted his Golden Globe for Best Actor on Sunday for his titanic performance in Joe Wright’s new film Darkest Hour, he signed off by explaining just why he’s so proud of the film. “It illustrates that words and actions can change the world – and boy, oh boy, does it need some changing [now].” There can be no better way to describe a film about Winston Churchill, the British prime minister who governed the country during the Second World War – or its resonance today.
Set in May 1940, as Churchill came to power and was forced to immediately mastermind the rescue of 340,000 British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk in France, Darkest Hour is a remarkable character study of a man who simply refused to bow. Through his speeches in Parliament and his forceful nature in private, his resistance against Adolf Hitler – when even others in his cabinet were looking to broker a peace pact with the Nazi regime – forms the film’s backbone.
For Wright, who previously touched on the Dunkirk evacuations in his 2007 film Atonement, it was just how close the British got to sublimating to the Nazis that drew him to make Darkest Hour. “It was an angle of the story that I didn’t know about,” he says. “I found it utterly fascinating and thrilling. I wasn’t aware how close we came to making a peace deal. I wasn’t aware that Churchill really considered it. So that was a story that I wanted to share.”
Likewise, Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays Churchill’s rock-of-a-wife Clementine, calls the “fight to defend Britain” extraordinary. “We were that close to giving in and fascism seemed better than communism at the time and [it was considered] much better to go with Hitler. People were like, ‘No, no, we do not want another war’, which is understandable – nobody wants another war. What a decision. Week one of your premiership you get faced with this problem.”
Oldman, who spent months researching his role, was equally impressed by Churchill’s resilience. “For someone to come in and have his entire army cornered [at Dunkirk] with the possibility of it being whacked out…you’ve got the possibility of an invasion from Germany, you’ve also still got to deal with domestic policy, and you’ve got a resistance in your own cabinet. Just the mental energy and the stamina that would take… it’s quite something.”
Darkest Hour’s impressive international cast includes Downton Abbey star Lily James as Churchill’s plucky secretary Elizabeth and the Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One) as King George VI, Britain’s monarch during the war years, who has already been captured on film by an Oscar-winning Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. But its Oldman’s performance that dominates, just as you might expect for a film about the larger-than-life Churchill.
Adding another to the litany of real-life figures on Oldman’s CV, it’s every bit as immersive as his portrayals of punk Sid Vicious (in Sid and Nancy) and Joe Orton (in Prick Up Your Ears) in his early years. He spent four hours a day with Japanese make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji – who, famed for his work on Looper and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, came out of retirement to turn Oldman from a svelte 59-year-old into the stout politician.
Such was the remarkable nature of Oldman’s physical transformation that even an expert who came to lecture the cast on Churchill was fooled. “There was a board up full of pictures of Gary, à la Churchill, dressed in his costume,” recalls Scott Thomas. “And he went, ‘These are extraordinary, where did you find these? I haven’t seen these before.’ It’s not Winston Churchill. It’s Gary Oldman. He was amazed. It’s so extraordinary, the resemblance.”
Now tipped to win the Oscar for Best Actor, Oldman’s performance is not just about slapping on a fat suit and prosthetics. “He creates the same august presence,” says Scott Thomas.
But ask Oldman how he does it, and he simply shrugs. “It’s a hard one really to articulate because you’re looking for a feeling and a sensation… you’ve got to take what you read and take what you see and you have to metabolise it. That’s the thing. You take that and throw it into the words, and you translate it.” He cites one tiny moment, when Churchill is giving a speech and drinks some water after something catches in his throat.
“He sips a glass of water, puts it down, and there’s a little sparkle in his eye and he’s got this slight grin on his face, because he knows the audience he’s playing to. He takes a sip of water, puts it down and says, ‘Well, I don’t often do that!’ Meaning, he doesn’t often take a drink of water. And little things like that [help build a performance].”
Churchill was a notoriously heavy drinker. He enjoyed champagne at lunch and continued imbibing for the rest of the day – which doubtless accounts for his water remark. “Maybe he drank to get himself to neutral, to normalise himself,” suggests Wright. He was also a heavy smoker, and Oldman got nicotine poisoning from all the expensive cigars he puffed away on during the shoot. But it was all in a day’s work for the British actor, who evidently relished the task.
With this in mind, Wright clearly has no wish to sully the air through talk of Oldman’s long-overdue Oscar (his only other nomination was for his last leading role, as the agent George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
“I think for Gary and I both, the process of making the film is what really makes us happy,” he says. “That’s where we get our delight. He has an amazing imagination. And the broader, the bigger the architecture, the more his imagination is free to expand.”
While Oldman had to follow the likes of Robert Hardy, Richard Burton and Albert Finney – just three of the memorable actors who played the character – Wright also had his challenges with Churchill. “I wanted to reclaim him, take him down from the plinth and examine the man. I think it’s very dangerous to canonise our leaders. We need to address them as human beings and then we can learn from them.” He wants audiences to take a “human appreciation” of the politician, and says, “I think it’s important.”
Oldman concurs, noting how there were two sides to Churchill – the garrulous public persona with his booming orations (famously telling Parliament in his first speech, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”) and the private self.
“When you get a glimpse of him just speaking in his normal voice, he’s a different animal,” says Oldman, who notes there was something affected in the way Churchill presented himself in public, with his clothes and his famous Homburg hat.
Unearthing the real Churchill beyond this iconic image became the task at hand. For Wright, there were huge swaths of research to plough through, including letters his subject wrote to Clementine. “I learnt that he was deeply flawed and made many mistakes,” he says. “And yet perhaps because of – or in spite of – he overcame those failures to achieve possibly the greatest service to Britain and free democracy that any leader has shown. And I find that fascinating.”
Darkest Hour opens in cinemas on Thursday