How to play Churchill: Keep calm, carry on and spend hours in the makeup chair
Let’s be clear: That aged, portly man with a bulbous nose, drooping jowls and a hairline in full retreat you see onscreen throughout “Darkest Hour” is, indeed, Gary Oldman. Yes, really; even though he’s unrecognizable.
For Oldman, who rocketed to fame playing young hellions (the Sex Pistols’ crass punk bassist in 1986’s “Sid Nancy” and outrageous English playwright Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears” the following year), the role represents a sea change. In director Joe Wright’s wartime biopic, he portrays the most recognized, revered and important Englishman of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, in a performance already generating considerable Oscar buzz.
In a recent phone call he discussed the technical challenges that required him to spend 200 hours in the makeup chair, and his work to capture the great man’s inner substance for the film, which opens Friday.
While playing Churchill offered an important character and a great acting challenge, when he was first approached about the role, Oldman laughed out loud and said, “Please don’t ever bring this role to me again.”
He explained: “Really the biggest roadblock was the physicality. If someone had said ‘We’re making a film about [Churchill’s ailing political foe Neville] Chamberlain,’ I would say OK, I could drop 10 pounds or whatever.”
But Churchill was different because “not only are you playing probably the greatest Briton who ever lived — who has been played by many great actors before you — above and beyond that, he was a great promoter. He knew what he was doing, self-branding with those funny Victorian clothes and his Homburg hat and scarf,” a formal costume that gave Churchill the look of a Dickensian character.
“It’s that silhouette. It’s so iconic. How do I do that? How do I get there?”
There were practical issues to consider, too. “I’m 59, nearly 60. I knew I was not going to put on 50 pounds. I would have easily been able to put on 50 pounds, but I would never have taken it off. I just didn’t want to mess with my metabolism.”
To avoid threatening his health, he recruited special-effects makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji out of his five-year retirement. His Oscar-nominated work on challenging films including “Planet of the Apes” (2001), “Hellboy” (2004) and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008) convinced Oldman “he’s the man.”
Narrow focus helped
The film covers six weeks of Churchill’s life, with war against Germany looming and Britain unprepared for combat.
“My job was made a little easier because I wasn’t playing a whole life, just that critical time, which made the load a little lighter,” Oldman said.
He took pains to ensure that his memory of Churchill wasn’t “contaminated by other people’s performance of Churchill. You know, sometimes you watch these things and see someone who was born in a bad mood, a curmudgeon, a grumpy man puttering around with a cigar.”
He sought out a Churchill scholar to cull out some reading material from the plethora that’s available “because it’s so voluminous you would need another lifetime to read it. I watched a great deal of newsreel footage and listened to the recordings to put him together. It was a year of surrendering to Winston.
“What I was amazed to discover was that he was a dynamic character who had this spark, this fire. He was energized. That was a revelation to me. It was the beginning of thinking, ‘Yeah, I could play this guy.’ If he wasn’t an actor, he certainly had a sense of theater. When you’re in the House of Parliament and you’re in front of 600 people, and you have that wonderful sense of oratory, you’re going to deliver your speeches with passion and emphasis.”
Showing his soft side
A similar spirit of ardor emerges in scenes Oldman shares with Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s doting wife, Clementine. It’s an unusual character note for Oldman. Rarely cast in romantic films (he killed his lover in “Sid Nancy,” was killed by his lover in “Prick Up Your Ears” and repeatedly sucked feminine necks as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”), Oldman finally had a chance to display committed, if comically bickering, adult affection.
“She says at one point, ‘Are we very old?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I think you are.’ Which was in fact an ad-lib I threw in at rehearsal one afternoon. We tried to make it as lovely and playful as possible.”
When work on the movie started, “Brexit and Trump had not happened,” he said. Although “we didn’t set out to make a topical film,” he feels its portrait of political gamesmanship at a time of crisis is relevant to today’s world.
“When will the lesson be learned?” Oldman bellows in the film in a voice resonantly deepened by whiskey and cigars. “How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased — good God, given immense privileges — before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”
“It’s about leadership. About statesmanship,” Oldman said. “I think we’re always looking for it, searching for it, universally in every generation.”
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186