The 92nd Street Y’s Reel Pieces series has consistently hit it out of the park with the high caliber of actors and directors that it hosts. However, a recent Thursday night in November which was dedicated to Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Oldman and director Joe Wright was something special. After a series of highlight clips from his awe-inspiring career and a preview screening of “Darkest Hour” where he transforms into Winston Churchill, Gary Oldman spoke at length about the film with the moderator, Annette Insdorf. They were joined onstage by the film’s exceedingly clever and sharp-witted director, Joe Wright. The evening, in its entirety, was a well-deserved acknowledgment of Oldman’s greatness.
Receiving rave reviews and early Oscar buzz, Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill is a perfect blend of gruff gravitas, lion’s heart, biting wit, and self-doubt. Director of acclaimed films such as “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “Hanna” and “Anna Karenina,” Wright’s “Darkest Hour” is a triumph. Telling the tale of one of, if not the most pivotal points in England’s history, the film captures the claustrophobic inner workings of the British government, the war room, and Churchill’s marriage. Ben Mendelsohn plays a subtle and intriguing version of King George VI, while Dame Kristin Scott Thomas is a powerhouse of internal strength and English resiliency as Clementine Churchill.
The long list of impressive actors who have already portrayed Winston Churchill include Brian Cox, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, and Albert Finney, so the first question posed to Oldman was whether he had any reservations about taking the role. Oldman responded, “I sort of said maybe but then I went immediately to the tape recorder and I thought, ‘Let me try him out.’ Even though I was hesitant it was already bubbling around.”
He continued, “Many people have played it before and very well and you wonder what you could bring that is new. Anthony [McCarten] had written a very good script and I admired Joe’s work so I felt in that regard I would be in very good hands. I watched some early newsreels of Churchill and what I realized was that he has been represented a lot in old age. So, you see this grumpy curmudgeon shuffling around in his monogram slippers and even in the wilderness years, in infirmity. What I was seeing on this footage was someone alive, dynamic, energized, marching ahead of everyone, skipping around with a twinkle in his eye.”
Notoriously bulbous in both feature and stature, Oldman admits that Churchill “looked like a baby with a very cherubic grin. That was the Churchill that is not in my head. I think I may have been influenced by Albert Finney or Robert Hardy so that discovery was exciting and then Joe and I spoke and we met and connected.”
Insdorf, a film scholar, referenced the memorable scene in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” with the long tracking shot of the evacuation of Dunkirk. The cosmic antennae have since coincidentally delivered several films released this year that deal with the battle of Dunkirk (i.e. “Their Finest,” “Dunkirk,” “Churchill”). Inquiring what made Wright do this film at this point in time, Wright struggled with which answer to give.
“It would be nice to order life into neat little sequences of cause and effect, but it doesn’t really work like that. It just kind of happened and then I look back on it and post-rationalize it and realize that this is what I needed to learn from that experience and what I need to learn from the experience was the importance of doubt and how doubt can be a force for good and without doubt there is no wisdom but all of that reveals itself as you are making the film,” he said.
The next response was more unadulterated candor. “I can give you other versions of that answer. I had just made this big Hollywood studio movie and it lost about one hundred million dollars, not something I recommend anyone should experience as the possibility is crushing, and I felt like I just wanted to do a drama in really small rooms,” he said. “I thought who would I pay money to see play Churchill and I thought Gary Oldman, but he was never going to do it. Who am I a little snot rag, so that is not going to happen. Then you meet Gary and you discover him to be the most gracious, generous actor….Also, I needed the money.”
With clips shown from “Sid and Nancy,” “Prick up Your Ears,” “The Professional, Dracula,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” those in attendance were reminded just how often the timber of Oldman’s voice changes from role to role.
“Churchill had a very distinctive cadence, more so when he spoke publicly. His range is a little lower and fuller than my own. I worked with a man, a singing teacher, and an opera singer, Michael Dean. We had a few sessions on the piano and we worked out the range of Churchill on the keyboard,” Oldman explained. “With exercises and working with him and the recordings, you find what lower notes I needed to hit. Churchill would work until three or four in the morning and he wrote to his wife in 1924, he said ‘I like champagne at every meal and plenty of claret and soda, in between.’ You would hear these recordings and you could always tell if he had had a few brandies because you could hear it. That was challenging, getting that whiskey cigar sound. You are playing arguably the greatest Briton that ever lived for starters. But you are also playing an iconic character whose silhouette, the shape he makes, his face is very iconic. What we think we remember, he doesn’t really sound like that.”
The conversation turned to the burden of playing real people versus fictional characters. Breaking down his process, Oldman replied, “It starts with the sound. You have a responsibility to the family to the people, to the icon, and to the image. With Sid [Vicious], I spoke with his mother and visited with her. We met some of Churchill’s family. With fictional characters, you start with a blank canvas and with Churchill, a lot of the picture is already filled in for you,” said Oldman thoughtfully.
Bad make-up or less than convincing prosthetics in a film where the actor must go through a complete metamorphosis such as this one, can be distracting if it misses the mark. The complete transformation of Oldman into Churchill in “Darkest Hour” is an amazing example of when it’s done right. “Make-up was the elephant in the room because I look how I look. It was inevitable I didn’t have time to go away and to get those jowls I would have had to gain about eighty pounds,” Oldman said. “I was not going to do that. [Robert] De Niro did it once definitively, thank you very much. So it was going to be makeup!”
“I knew [legendary makeup artist] Kazuhiro [Tsuji] and in my opinion, there was only one man in the world who could possibly pull this off. He’s retired from the movie industry, so I had to do a bit of seducing to have him come back. He is now a sculptor, he doesn’t go to the movies anymore. He didn’t like actors. We got him back and there was a real process of testing. There was what I call a ‘full Winston’ that didn’t quite work that looked odd, that I was totally lost. So, through a series of tests through adding and taking away, we found what we thought was enough spirit of Winston but yet you could see me,” he added.
There is no denying that Tsuji was successful, and Oldman agrees. “I think the makeup is actually a benchmark. It’s groundbreaking. Tsuji has a formula, a secret recipe like Colonel Saunders. It’s not cumbersome, heavy or in any way intrusive. I forgot I had it on sometimes,” Oldman said, adding: “It was the most relaxed and the most freeing, I have ever been in front of the camera.”
“Darkest Hour” opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 22nd.