Gary Oldman on 'Darkest Hour:' Churchill and nicotine poisoning

Tuesday, 05 December 2017, 12:14:57 AM. Playing Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour' came with a special bonus for Gary Oldman: Nicotine poisoning. Find out why.

Gary Oldman’s roles run the gamut.

He’s played Sid Vicious and Winston Churchill — that’s pretty much the gamut of British life. He’s also played Commissioner Gordon in the “Dark Knight” films, played Dracula, played Lee Harvey Oswald, been eaten by Hannibal Lecter and gotten an Academy Award nomination for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” among many other roles. He even guest-starred on “Friends.”

The guy gets around.

Oldman talked recently about playing Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” Joe Wright’s new film that depicts the prime minister coming to power just as Hitler is cutting a swath through Europe, and about to destroy the British army.

Try to imagine what he says here with a pretty thick accent, with a lilting voice that goes up higher than you’re used to in his film roles.

And maybe don’t offer him a cigar.

Question: You’re getting great marks for this film. Could you tell you were onto something good?

Answer: Yeah, yeah. There’s so much of it that is beyond your reach, out of your control. Yeah, you can hopefully be doing the best you can do at the time in the given circumstances, and it really depends what the vision of the director is, how he puts it together, what takes he uses, how he cuts it, the rhythm. Within the performance you can engineer it to a point. I’ve been in things where I thought the end result would have been better than it ended up. So you never really know. With this one, I at least knew that Joe Wright, we had a good story to tell.

Gary Oldman (left) and director Joe Wright attend the

Gary Oldman (left) and director Joe Wright attend the premiere of "Darkest Hour" on Nov. 15, 2017, in New York. (Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: So many actors have played Churchill, and he’s a larger-than-life figure. Was there any hesitation about taking him on?

A: Well, in the taking on of a part like this, he is arguably the greatest Briton who ever lived. Many people believe that. And he is such an iconic figure, not only in what he achieved and he wrote, but also in the way he looked, and as you say, there are many great people who have walked in those shoes. So yeah, there’s dragons that you have to slay before you commit to it.

In some respects I’ve been there before. Because when we did “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” I was asked to take on George Smiley — forever the image of George Smiley is the wonderful Sir Alec Guinness. That was another one. You were walking on very dangerous ground (laughs). But in that, in saying yes to it, you don’t want to be influenced by those other actors, so all of that really got pushed to one side and I just focused on my Churchill, my interpretation of the man. As I read about him and I watched some of this old newsreel footage, I realized this was not a man who was a tired, drunken 65-year-old, but a 65-year-old who was dynamic and had energy and had a real lust for life and a sparkle in his eye.

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in

Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in "Darkest Hour." (Photo: Working Title Films)

Q: That was a surprising thing about the portrayal — the physicality of it. He’s always running up stairs, it seems.

A: Yeah. If you ever catch a bit of footage of him out there on the streets, or in Africa and places where he visited, and went to the front and visited the troops, you’ll see him and he’s skipping around and marching out ahead of everyone. He really just cut through space with such a purpose. That was a departure, I felt, from the sort of rather old, tired, shuffling guy as he’s sometimes been portrayed.

Q: His energy seemed to say, “I’m busy and I don’t have time to fool around.”

A: Yes. And I think the reputation he had of being a hard taskmaster was the fact that he was committed to defeating Hitler 100 percent. And he expected the commitment from you to be 110 percent, and if it wasn’t he got very, very short-tempered with you. In part he could be a real crybaby and a real softie. But he could tear you a new one if you weren’t up to snuff. You had to be committed to this as much as he was. He was a man on a mission.

Q: He was a great writer, and it’s fun to see how that process works — him thinking and speaking and his secretary writing it all down.

A: That’s how he did it, and indeed many of the books (he wrote) he would dictate. Then they would go type it all up, then he would look at it and rewrite. Then he would dictate more. He would do it like that.

He's a chameleon: Gary Oldman plays Sid Vicious in

He's a chameleon: Gary Oldman plays Sid Vicious in 1986's "Sid and Nancy." Chloe Webb co-stars. (Photo: Initial Pictures)

Q: He was a busy man.

A: It’s amazing that he ever had the time, if you think of not only was he writing his own speeches, not only was he fighting, trying to save Western Civilization, but he then had to deal with all the domestic policy, as well. It’s very interesting to see documents from the period during the war, like domestic documents where he was dealing with running a country and fighting Hitler at the same time. And as we see from the film early on, not only was he up against Hitler, he was up against his own cabinet.

Q: Yes, he appointed enemies because he knew he needed them, somewhat like Lincoln.

A: Absolutely. I think that’s why, even early on, we see (Secretary of War) Anthony Eden asking him who he wants in the war cabinet. He doesn’t go for yes-men. He puts the opposition at the table with him (laughs). He doesn’t wanted to be yessed. He wants debate. Even though with Hitler, he got Hitler’s number very early on and understood what he represented. That’s certainly a mission he never wavered from.

Q: You don’t see that kind of political compromise anymore.

A: It was a different time. I don’t know, they were all physically so much further away. It all seems to be much closer today. They didn’t then have the firepower they have now. I can’t imagine what it’s like sitting behind that big desk in this world today. I mean, who would want these jobs? These men put themselves there. If you’re the prime minister during 1940, or even today, if you’re the president, I mean my god, every morning they wake you up and they say, “We’ve got some bad news for you.” And an hour goes by and they say, “We’ve got even more bad news.” And then after lunch it’s even more bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like.

Gary Oldman plays a British intelligence officer in

Gary Oldman plays a British intelligence officer in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (2011). (Photo: Jack English)

Q: He says up front he may not last long in the job, and it seems almost freeing.

A: Yeah, but he voiced this from the early ’30s. That was one of the advantages he had. He had been researching his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, writing this biography, and just happened to go to Germany to visit the battle sites for his research. He happened to be in Munich in 1932 and saw a lot of this going down first-hand, and came back to Parliament as a backbencher and raised a red flag on this. At the time he was dismissed as a kind of warmonger and a scare-monger. Another war was inconceivable. That’s why there was very little recourse. There was no preparation. We have a very small army. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had not taken Winston’s words to heart and re-armed, and suddenly we were met with this overpowering force, which was Nazi Germany.

Q: This may seem like an odd question, but anyone who sees the film will wonder: How many cigars did you smoke?

A: I don’t know how many in number. I know that I smoked probably around $18,000 worth of cigars.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill "is arguably the greatest Briton who ever lived," Gary Oldman says. (Photo: Frazer Harrison, Getty Images)

Q: Does that mean you smoked a whole lot of cheap ones, or fewer nice ones?

A: Oh no, they were all good ones, you see — that’s why the number is so high. They were $50-$60 a shot.

Q: Wow.

A: Only the best for Winston.

Q: One of the perks of the role, I guess.

A: Well, and a curse. I suffered from nicotine poisoning.

Q: That sounds pretty awful.

A: It was not pleasant, no.

Q: What happens?

A: I’ll tell you what happens. You get a very, very bad stomach, and then at Christmas when everybody’s eating their turkey, you go off and have a colonoscopy (laughs).

Q: You’ve played such eclectic characters. How do you decide what you’re going to do?

A: I think one is still very much at the mercy of what the industry is making. You’re at the mercy of the imagination of the directors that are casting you, how they see you. Having been on the other side, and having to go through that process of casting, often it’s not about not liking the actor or their talent. You’re looking for a very specific type, or you’re looking to cast a family, so you need a husband and brother-in-law and a sister. You’re looking for something very, very specific. A lot of the things I have done I have not chased, and they have come in across the desk. It’s the same with Winston. He chased me. Winston chased me, yeah.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.

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