Gary Oldman's deep dive into the world of Winston Churchill led him to the Churchill War Rooms in London.
Oldman, who gives the performance of his career in the new Churchill movie Darkest Hour, was allowed to sit in the chair that the British Prime Minister occupied during World War II. The veteran actor was looking for clues, and he found them: The chair's left arm bears deep divots from when Churchill dug in his fingernails. The right arm is covered in scratches from Churchill's ring.
"His behavior and mental state is there physically in the chair," Oldman says over the telephone. "That was something that really struck me, just how stressful that time must have been. In our telling of it, not only is he up against Adolf Hitler, but he's also up against his own Cabinet."
Darkest Hour, opening Dec. 8, isn't a life-in-full biopic. That would take several hours to even scratch the surface in a meaningful way. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), the film follows Churchill's rocky ascension to become prime minister in 1940, and his battle to convince Conservative members of Parliament that appeasing Hitler was not an option. Many in England, still licking their wounds from the carnage of World War I, were not eager to engage in a World War II. Churchill saw the grave danger posed by Germany and rallied the country.
Growing up as a working class lad in South East London, Oldman learned of Churchill's legend early in life. "He was the man who had won the war," Oldman says in a quiet, measured tone. "He was the savior. He delivered us from tyranny. He was a national treasure. He was unequivocally a hero. When I was growing up, he was flawless."
Not to his political rivals, or to anyone who got crossways with him. He could growl and thunder with the best. He drank whiskey with breakfast. He knew he was the smartest person in the room, and he'd let you know about it. Oldman, who has somehow been nominated for only one Oscar (for 2012's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), digs into the deep Shakespearean crevices in Churchill's personality, his swagger and his insecurity. "I don't want you to be disliked," explains his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), as his appointment approaches. "More than I already am?" he responds. Like the similarly prosthetic-jowled Woody Harrelson in LBJ, Oldman's Churchill wants to be loved as well as feared.
Oldman, 59, is hardly the first actor to give Churchill a whirl. His predecessors include such giants as Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Michael Gambon and Brendan Gleeson. As Anthony Lane recently wrote in The New Yorker, "If you are an actor of some eminence, naturally blessed with a mien like a full moon, it seems inevitable that, once you have attained the requisite age and girth, you will be asked to play Winston Churchill. Your obligation to do so lies somewhere between a contractual clause and a rite of passage, not unlike marrying Elizabeth Taylor in the nineteen-fifties."
Oldman saw the potential for anxiety of influence. "He has been portrayed by so many actors over the years that I wasn't sure if I was remembering Churchill or if my memory of him was influenced or contaminated by the other people that played him," he says. So he stuck mostly to books, focusing especially on Martin Gilbert's multi-volume biography, and watched a lot of newsreel footage.
"I found a man who was youthful and dynamic and sort of cheeky and cherubic and had a naughty twinkle in his eye," Oldman says. "No disrespect, but sometimes I think he's been portrayed like he was a man that was born in a bad mood — this sort of curmudgeon with a cigar and a drink in his hand."
With Oldman it's all about the work, not the awards. But it says here he's primed to win his first Oscar for Darkest Hour. It's a towering performance, in a big role, by an actor who has paid some dues. It might just be time for Oldman to flash his own two-fingered salute for victory.