Arts & Entertainment

Gary Oldman Discusses Challenges of Playing Winston Churchill

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“Darkest Hour” is the latest film to take on the daunting story of Winston Churchill, one of the most towering figures in British history. To fill such large shoes, director Joe Wright (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement”) turned to one of Hollywood’s most reliable and respected actors, Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight,” “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”), for the role.

While “Darkest Hour” focuses on a time frame of just five weeks, they prove to be perhaps the most intense, stressful and historically critical weeks of Churchill’s reign as prime minister. From 1940 to 1941, Nazi forces plowed through Europe, seeming unstoppable. Upon cornering British forces at Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler offered Churchill a deal of surrender, and Churchill’s handling of this situation acts as the film’s narrative.

“Darkest Hour” brings a fierce and fearless Churchill to life, and Oldman’s powerful performance as the “British Bulldog” is front and center. The PHOENIX sat down with Oldman to talk about the film, Churchill and his legacy.

In preparing for the formidable role, Oldman knew he had to find the core of who Churchill was rather than impersonating the pop culture figure he has become.

“We all have an idea of who Churchill was,” Oldman said, “but that could be contaminated by other actors playing him. Are we remembering Churchill … or Albert Finney?”

Oldman chose to ignore the performances of Finney in “The Gathering Storm” (2002) and numerous other actors as Churchill. To develop his own portrayal of Churchill, he said he turned to historical documents. He worked with a personal scholar to help him sift through countless materials on the prime minister.

“I went straight to the source material. I had a scholar who directed me to the essential readings,” Oldman said. “I didn’t know until I read the story how close [Britain] came to doing a deal with Hitler. If it hadn’t been for Churchill, the world would be a very different place.”

Growing up in Britain, Oldman said he was repeatedly taught about Churchill’s accomplishments and historical stature. It wasn’t until delving deeper into his research, however, that he discovered just how impressive the man truly was.

“He wrote over a million words, painted 544 paintings, occupied almost every major political position that there was, flopped [parties] twice, led [Britain] through arguably the greatest war … [and] wrote his own speeches,” Oldman said. “How [does one] have the time to do it all? It’s a tall order [for an actor]. You’re being asked to step into the shoes of arguably the greatest Brit who ever lived.”

Despite the challenge, Oldman knew he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He saw Churchill as a role equivalent of William Shakespeare’s best characters, such as Falstaff or King Lear.

“[He’s] such a sort of Everest. You don’t get to [play Churchill] every week,” Oldman said. “It comes across once in a lifetime. So that was scary and exciting and the same time … It was a real privilege to ‘have a go’ at him.”

Jack EnglishGary Oldman (pictured) is almost unrecognizable in his role as Winston Churchill. Jack English

When filming began, Oldman said his average day on set was 18 hours, between applying heavy makeup and prosthetics, shooting his scenes and removing his weighty costume. From his point of view, it’s simply part of the job.

“You have to surrender to the process,” Oldman said. “You have to say, ‘this is the next year and a half of my life.’”

Oldman’s long hours on set allowed him to deliver one of the best performances of his storied career. Utterly unrecognizable under thick prosthetics, Oldman disappears into Churchill in a transformation reminiscent of the great Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood,” “Gangs of New York”) in 2012’s “Lincoln.” Day-Lewis, however, didn’t need quite as much makeup as Oldman.

“I carried over half my bodyweight in prosthetics,” Oldman said. “But I thought, ‘If [Churchill] at 65 could take on Hitler … then I can sit in a makeup chair for a couple hours.’”

Although Oldman said he could barely recognize himself in the mirror, his heavy costume helped him embody the prime minister he wanted to bring to life.

“When [I had] the face and the whole [costume] in front of [me in the mirror], I realized there were things I needed to do less. I was overcompensating,” Oldman said. “[Churchill’s] physique and silhouette is so iconic, that to look in the mirror and see it helps … There’s a sense of freedom and confidence that comes from being so hidden.”

Oldman is the engine that makes “Darkest Hour” run. While the film as a whole is simply good, Oldman is great. He embodies everything about Churchill, from his physical quirks and unique voice to his fearless leadership, acute stubbornness and rarely seen insecurities.

As with “Lincoln,” “Darkest Hour” will make audiences feel as if they spent two hours with one of history’s greatest leaders, following his every troubled thought and demanding decision. Through sheer talent and riveting execution, Oldman elevates “Darkest Hour,” making it worthy of his electric performance.

“Darkest Hour” hits theaters in Chicago Dec. 8.

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