When the producers of “Darkest Hour” approached Gary Oldman about playing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he told them, “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t look anything like him.”
“But for some reason,” Oldman says, “one of the producers at Working Title, Eric Fellner, God bless him, was like a dog with a bone … and I thought, well, what does he see that I can’t?”
So Oldman started researching the idea and “trying it out, as it were, like when you haven’t committed to buying the whole suit but you try the jacket on. And I slowly came around to the idea that it would certainly be a challenge and great fun to play.”
Oldman, a 59-year-old Briton who attracted Hollywood attention by playing punk rocker Sid Vicious in 1986’s “Sid and Nancy,” seems assured of an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the portly cigar-chomping World War II statesman. The film opens in Austin on Dec. 15.
Oldman says he had a year to work on the research, “and I just immersed myself in all things Churchill.” He was particularly attracted to the script, which focuses on “five or six crucial weeks” in 1940, when Adolf Hitler was consolidating power across continental Europe, with the fall of Belgium and France.
Churchill was named prime minister by a reluctant Parliament, and he faced big trouble almost immediately when nearly all of the Britain’s troops were trapped at Dunkirk.
What’s more, Neville Chamberlain and other British leaders wanted Britain to pursue peace talks with Hitler, something that Churchill resisted.
Churchill turned to his most powerful weapon — his ability to write. Oldman says the film tries to highlight Churchill’s speeches, which the actor believes “are some of the greatest in the English language.”
“There was a certain persistence and determination in him,” Oldman says. “He believed that the truth was incontrovertible, that ignorance might deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
And as the “Darkest Hour” shows, Oldman says, “I think there are real core values in what he’s saying, and that’s what the public at the time responded to. He was an indispensable man in history.”
Oldman felt like he was getting the voice right and was beginning to understand how to play Churchill, but he knew that he needed to feel the man physically. And that’s when Oldman and the producers reached out to Kazuhiro Tsuji, one of the best-known prosthetic and special-effects makeup artists in Hollywood.
Oldman first met Tsuji on the set of Tim Burton’s 2001 film “Planet of the Apes.” Even though Oldman didn’t end up having a role in the movie, he went in “for head casts” and knew of his work “and how extraordinary it was.”
Although Tsuji had left the movie business to focus on his sculpture, he agreed to take on the challenges of “Darkest Hour,” and he and Oldman spent many hours together each day of shooting.
For 48 consecutive days, Oldman would arrive on the set of “Darkest Hour” at 2:15 a.m. and go through more than three hours of makeup and costuming. “And then I would work a 10- to 12-hour day, and then I would have an hour to take off the makeup,” Oldman says. “Then I’d go home, have dinner, decompress, shower, and by the time I got my head on the pillow, it was about 18 hours.”
But Oldman isn’t bragging about working so hard — or complaining. “I kind of figured that if Sir Winston Churchill, at 65, could take on Adolf Hitler, then I could do this. Life could be a lot worse. … It’s a mindset to get you through the morning, the process of having it all put on, but I think it was worth it,” he says.
“The other advantage (of going through the makeup process) was that I was always ready and dressed by the time that (director) Joe (Wright) and the crew arrived for rehearsal,” Oldman says. “For three months, Joe and the other actors never saw me as Gary.”
The movie is multifaceted, with examinations of Churchill’s various relationships, both public and private. His relationship with his wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), was highly successful although not without disputes. We also get glimpses of Churchill’s rocky relationship with his reluctant war Cabinet, where peace talks with Hitler were repeatedly proposed. And there’s Churchill’s amusing relationship with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who is initially put off by Churchill’s alcohol-swilling ways.
But the biggest surprise, for most people, will be the way Churchill interacts with regular folks, especially the assistant — Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) — who takes dictation for all his speeches.
In a way, she represents the people of Britain. But screenwriter Anthony McCarten decided to make Churchill’s common touch even more explicit by having him take the Underground to Parliament on one of the leader’s most troubling days.
“Winston lived honestly and had a good relationship with the public, and they had a good relationship with him,” Oldman says. “So how do you show that, taking up the least amount of real estate? I feel that the Underground scene brought that out in four minutes in a very lyrical way … even though historically it’s a cheat.”
Oldman laughs a bit and says, “We don’t know for sure if he ever did that. There were times he went AWOL and they couldn’t find him. But I don’t know if he ever went to the Underground.”
Regardless, Oldman regards Churchill as a superman. “He fought in war. He wrote 50 books. He painted five hundred and forty-something pictures, with 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy. He won the Nobel Prize for literature. He fought political parties. He occupied almost every major position in politics. He had a bunch of children. He had a very successful marriage,” Oldman says. “He lived life to the fullest.”
Oldman is a bit reluctant to talk about what’s next: the events surrounding year-end awards. “They’re telling me that people have responded to the performance in a very positive way, and that’s terrific,” he says.
“I’ve made some great films in my career, and I’ve had some misfires,” he says. “But the response to this is even more special, because I feel so privileged to play Churchill. For an actor, he’s like a Falstaff or a King Lear. It’s Mount Everest. So the fact that it turned out OK and the people are liking it is great, and I’m thrilled.” Then he adds: “We’ll see if it’s got legs.”