Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s World War II drama “Darkest Hour,” and his transformation into the iconic British prime minister is so astounding that so far this season he’s the actor to beat for the Oscar. (But you can never count Daniel Day-Lewis out, whose new movie “Phantom Thread,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, comes out next month.)
Oldman attended a private screening of “Darkest Hour” recently for patrons of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and participated in a Q&A afterwards, where he discussed among other things, what it was like to be buried under layers of prosthetic makeup, and his own historical take on the famed British prime minister.
“Darkest Hour,” directed by Joe Wright and written by Anthony McCarten, focuses on late spring 1940 when Churchill rallied his government and the people to face imminent war with Germany. Said Oldman of one of the goals of the film, “We wanted to show the process of him writing his three famous speeches which he wrote over a period of four weeks, but also to show exactly how you can mobilize, how you can change, how you can change people’s mind with the word.” He added, “He wrote more words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together.”
As for his portrayal of the prime minister, who has become almost a W.C. Fields-like character as represented in movies and television dramas, Oldman said, “I wanted to avoid the cliches of the tired Chaplin figure with a cigar and a whiskey and three sheets to the wind. I wanted to show the Winston that I was reading about and was looking at in the newsreel footage was someone who was vital, energized, moving to a purpose, this man on a mission, marching ahead of every one… He was just like a dynamo and it was a somewhat of a revelation to me to see how he energized the people.”
There was also the emotional Churchill who cried easily. “He could cry over cats and dogs,” said the actor, and had an incredible rapport with the public as illustrated by a scene where Churchill rides the subway — an event that never happened — to gauge the public’s sentiment about appeasement with Germany during the early years of the War. “And then his appearance. he looked like a baby. He had a very sort of round cherubic face, always a bit of a grin on his lips, and that was the sort of the keys into the sensation of finding him,” said Oldman.
Oldman noted that Churchill was one of the first politicians to warn of the dangers of Hitler. He witnessed this when he was in Germany which he visited when he visited the Danubian battlefields for research on the First Duke of Marlborough, a relative whose biography he was writing.
“He happened to be in Munich in 1932 and saw and heard first hand what was going on in Germany. He stood up in parliament and said Hitler is killing the Jews and he’s going to come here and he’s going to kill you. It was almost clairvoyant of him.” Added Oldman, that at the time “pacifism was universal and everybody thought that World War I was the war to end wars and that there would never be another war because the toll it took on human life and financially followed by the Wall Street crash, they said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! You’re a warmonger, you’re a scaremonger.’ He made himself hugely unpopular but he was right.”
Oldman said that there there were things he was not prepared to do for the role. “I’m 59, 60 in March, and“I was not going to put on 60 pounds. I just felt it was too unhealthy to do that.” Usually when an actor is made up to look older the results are less than convincing or even ludicrous, but master prosthetic makeup and hair designer Kazuhiro Tsuji (2001 “Planet of the Apes”) has done such a terrific job the results are totally believable and should earn the makeup artist an Oscar nomination.
Applying the makeup took four hours but surprisingly the actor said it also had a liberating effect. “I’ve never been so relaxed, so free on set,” he said. He even wore the make up during rehearsals and because he came in so much earlier than any of the cast members they only saw him as the famed prime minister.
“The cast and Joe did not see me as Gary for three months and it was wonderful the way they reacted to me and the crew or the day players would react to me, so it was good. I liked being the prime minister.”
“Darkest Hour,” which co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s wife Clementine and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, opened today.