Masterclass: I AM Gary Oldman
Icon of the screen and stage: Gary Oldman sat down with his long-time friend and collaborator, producer Douglas Urbanski; best known for producing The Social Network (2010) and Academy award-winning film The Darkest Hour (2017), for a Masterclass 'Rendez-vous' event held at the 71st Festival de Cannes.
This rare interview was conducted live to a packed audience, eager to discover the stories and wisdom-earned by the veteran actor, writer, and director, who has worked with some of the best directors in the industry, including; Christopher Nolan, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Frears, Joe Wright, Luc Besson, Alfonso Cuarón, and delivered the most memorable screen performances in cinema history.
DU: Gary and I have been working together for nearly 30 years now.
I have to tell you, I say it in front of him, I don’t say it to you personally very often, I don’t. I’ve worked with a lot of famous actors, writers, and directors. I don't think I’ve ever—I know I haven’t talked to anyone—who each and every conversation we have—I never talk to someone who is as interested in artistic excellence, and whose taste is unfailing in that regard, as Gary.
So, that said, how’s your jet lag?
GO: Kicking, kicking in nicely.
DU: We’ve a lot of questions to ask you today. A lot of unanswered questions.
Okay, you’re Gary Oldman. We’ve seen the reel. You’re sitting at home relaxing. You’re channel-surfing and you find a Gary Oldman movie. Do you stop and watch it?
GO: It depends. More often than not, I will move it on. Yeah, I think it’s something to do with…it’s not that you’re necessarily embarrassed by earlier work. You know, some of it—I don’t care for. I like other things better than others. But, I think it’s because it’s old work.
It’s, you know—if you were a painter and you were just in a new way of expressing yourself, and then you go back and look at the earlier work. There may be a trajectory, they’re influences and a development in the work—but, I just sort of see it as stuff that I did a long time ago. And we’re moving on.
I’m asked sometimes, "What is my favourite? Do I have a favourite performance?" And my answer is always: "The next film." You know what I’m going to do next…
DU: Alright, there must have been, at some point, a light-bulb moment when you say to yourself, "I want to do that thing called Acting".
GO: I remember it. I remember it very vividly. I was, I think I was around 14 or 15. And there was a preview for a film that was going to show later that evening. And it was a British movie. It’s called: The Raging Moon. I haven't seen it for years. It was directed by Brian Forbes and it had Malcolm McDowell in the lead.
And I saw this preview and there was something about Malcolm in this movie. There was a sort of wonderful vulnerability about him. He’s got those beautiful, sort of, big blue eyes; like saucers, and there was also a menace to him, as well. I think, I later realised that that is the cocktail; why you like certain actors over others. There’s a sort of...there’s a menace and a vulnerability—both things.
I saw this preview and I remember saying to my mother, "We have to watch this. This film is coming on at 10.30 tonight and it looks amazing." And it was like the lights in the room grew brighter. It was like, I think how alcoholics call it, 'a spiritual awakening'.
DU: And, you’re how old when this is happening?
GO: I was 15. No, I’d not been in a play; in school or anything. I’d always had party pieces, where I would sort of mimic and impersonate. But, there was no school play. Now it’s all…you get to go out to the theatre and it’s interactive. Back then, it was just opening a Shakespeare book in a classroom and reading out loud; not really having any idea of what you were reading.
So, it never really grabbed me, until I saw the preview and said [clicks fingers], "I want to do that for a living."
DU: So, you’re 15. You’re not living a great, big, affluent lifestyle.
DU: And you don’t go to the theatre, probably. And there’s no actors in your family; no movie people, no theatre people in your family. What do you do at 15, to get from there to the next step?
GO: I think I asked around. Someone said, "What you really need to do is to go to drama school." And for drama school, you would need two pieces. If you were to audition, you would need a modern and a classic piece. I went to the Yellow pages, found The Greenwich Young People's Theatre, and took myself off down there. And the artistic director happened to be in that day. I read a couple of things; I cold-read a few things. And he said to me, "Oh, you might have something" and he sort of took me under his wing and coached me for drama school.
But, I was always someone who was very self-motivated. When I left school, I was wondering what I wanted to do. I got the back of an album cover and found an address at the back of—I think it was an Elton John record, and I wrote off (to them) and became a tea boy. I became like an office runner. And I’ve done many, many, many other things. I’ve done all sorts of work before.
DU: That’s between 15 and drama school?
GO: Yeah, but even when I was like eight-years-old, I had a paper round. More like that type of thing. I wanted to save up for those albums that were coming out. Now, I’m really going back to, you know, I had a record player…
So, yeah, I’d have to save up money, you know. Then, I would see David Bowie’s Hunky Dory in the window and I’d think, "I’ve got two more weeks. I can save enough money. I’ve got two more weeks; then I can buy their album." So, I was always, sort of, as a kid—industrious. And sometimes, not always under the law, too.
DU: You’re thinking about this and were you even, at that time, vaguely aware of the difference between theatre acting and film acting?
GO: No, I just loved the movies.
DU: So, you would set your eyes on a drama school, or two or three, yes?
GO: I set my sights on the Royal Academy and I auditioned for them, and they said, "Think about something else to do for a living," and they said, "Do you have anything to fall back on?" And you go, "Well, I’m 15…I used to be astronaut. I suppose I could always go back to that, or surfing." No. So, then…
DU: So, were you completely dejected?
GO: I was devastated because all my heroes had gone, all the people that I looked up to; Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates, Tom Courtney…The list of these great actors goes on. And they’d all gone to RADA.
DU: So, now, Oldman was not going to go.
GO: So, I wasn’t going to…I didn't end up going.
DU: Did you have a second choice?
GO: Yeah, it was Rose Bruford and I got in.
DU: Were they a known, good acting school?
GO: They are better now. They are more known now, then they were, yeah.
DU: You audition for them. You get in. And now, you’re going to be taught something about this thing called Acting. What do they teach? Was it like a conservatory where you had to take a whole bunch of different related things?
GO: Yeah, it was three years. It was phonetics. It was movement. It was mime. It was improvisation. It was theatre history. It was fencing, stage fighting…I mean the whole (thing). Yeah, it was pretty intense.
DU: And did the sum total of that add up to discipline?
GO: What it gives you, yes. It gives you a discipline. You gotta be somewhere. You gotta be there on time.
So, it does give you…I just drank, I just drank it in. And I needed work, because when I got there, you see, I used to talk like that [changes accent] because I’m from South London. So, I had to do a lot of, sort of, voice work. And you know, sometimes, because of who you are and what you’re given—you have to work twice as hard.
DU: As you’re doing all this stuff, are you ever wondering what on earth this fencing or this or that, have to do with the fact that "I want to act"?
GO: I think, initially, yeah. Now, I’ve used it since…just the way you approach a character; the physicality of the character. I mean, I apply all those things now. I don't consciously think about them. But, it’s like anything. I mean, it was an incredibly steep learning curve.
DU: We’ve talked about this over the years. My theory is that one of the things they vanquished at these places, is lazy-brain. You’re either going to get rid of lazy-brain to apply yourself to all these disciplines, or you’re not.
GO: Yeah. I mean, I was the first person in my year to get an Equity card; to actually work as a professional actor. And it wasn’t because I was special or… it was really—I applied myself and I did the work. So, I wrote the letters.
DU: So, you knew you had to go out and get an agent?
GO: Yeah, I mean, I had my headshot taken, I wrote the letters, I did all of that—ahead of everyone else—when they were all sort of jerking off at the pub. Yeah. So, there’s a lot of drinking, there’s a lot of drug taking.
DU: So, there’s no internet. No such thing as a reel. You’re sending this stuff blindly in the mail to these strangers, these agents…
GO: …and there’s no classes in film.
DU: There’s no film acting.
GO: No. Radio, theatre, and radio.
DU: You send this stuff out blindly. What happens? Do you hear back from anybody? Does someone call you in?
GO: Yeah, my first audition was for the Old Vic. Yeah, a few places. And then, I secured a six-month season with the theatre company in York. That was the first job I had. Yeah, and that in itself is invaluable because you would do a two and a half weekly rep. So, you…
DU: That means what?
GO: Well, you would start the season, you would work, you would rehearse for two and a half weeks on a play. That second—that other half—you would tech and open. And, on the Monday morning, you would start rehearsal on the next play. So, while you were performing at night, you would be rehearsing during the day. So, you would do whatever: five, six, seven, eight plays, over a season.
DU: It’s a discipline.
DU: You’re acting along on the stage, you’re up at York, and does London eventually call?
GO: Well, it was a dream to get to London. But, not for a while. No. I was in the Provinces. Did a stretch at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre.
DU: And, I’m guessing you’re playing in a wide variety of types of plays.
GO: Oh, it was huge!
DU: From Restoration to Orton, to…
GO: Yeah, I mean, that first season was Thark, a Ben Travers play, then we did Cabaret, then we did Privates on Parade, then we did a new play, then we did Romeo and Juliet. We ended, I think, the season with a pantomime.
DU: So, Shakespeare, musical, pantomime.
GO: Yeah. And all of those things that you were taught at drama school then; they came into play. Because Romeo and Juliet—you’re fencing. Cabaret—you’re singing, you’re dancing. So, all of those disciplines.
DU: Do you go up from York up to Glasgow?
DU: Glasgow Citizens. And, they’re doing similar stuff?
GO: Very, very eclectic, strange work, that they do up there. But, it was great. It was the place, if you wanted to be an actor, at the time, in the Provinces; Glasgow was the place that you wanted to be. It was doing superior work. It was regarded as one of the best theatres in Europe, at the time. 1980, I’m talking (of).
DU: At this time, you’re living one step above a starving actor. You’re living frugally because I don’t think these jobs pay very well.
DU: You go to Glasgow to where next, the Royal Court?
GO: No, not directly. But, what happened was, I was always a fan of the work at the Royal Court. Particularly—the work of Max Stafford-Clark, who was then, the artistic director. And again, being resourceful; I was cast in a play in the Provinces. I wrote to Max, and said, "I really love your work. I would be very honoured if you would come and see mine." And he did, and he cast me.
DU: He’s doing new plays mostly down at the Royal Court, yes?
GO: It was very much the home of new writing. And the number of great playwrights that had passed through its doors—is extraordinary.
DU: So, all that time in the theatre, you’d probably work with 10-12 more directors, every genre of writing imaginable; Modern, Elizabethan etc. You have an agent at this point?
DU: No agent?
GO: No, I’m getting the work just from writing.
DU: You go to the Royal Court. Does an agent land then?
GO: I had one at the time, yes. By the time I got to the Royal Court, I had an agent. You know…for what good it did.
DU: You’re acting at the Royal Court. And at some point, you’re going to get your first film role. Would that be, Meantime?
GO: No, I turn a bunch of stuff down, through just being young and naive. I just turned a whole bunch of stuff down and I remember my agent said to me they wanted me to do…do you remember a remake; The Bounty, Tony Hopkins, Mel Gibson? And, yeah, they wanted me to be one of those guys on the ship. And I had the opportunity of going into Rep in the Provinces to do a play. And I much preferred the play over the film, because the writing was better. So, I said "I don’t want to do the film."
The more I said "no", the more they came back. And, with money. They came back with money.
DU: Has this been a useful trick for much of your career?
GO: And anyway, I didn’t want to do this film, and they went crazy. My agent said to me, he said, "Listen, you’ve never done a film before—you’re insane!" and I said, "Yeah, but what am I really going to get at the end of it? I’m going to have a suntan and probably a little flat in London, you know? But, it ain’t Joe Orton." So, anyway, he threatened not to represent me anymore, if I didn’t do the film.
DU: Another old trick.
GO: [laughs] Another old trick. Anyways, so I said: "I’ll get another agent." So anyway, I did the play; I didn't do the movie. So, it was a while, before I went into film. The first thing I did on film was Remembrance, which was, it was sort of in the first couple of weeks; the very, very beginnings of Channel 4. Yeah, when that was a new thing. And then, I did Sid and Nancy.
DU: Well, Alan Clarke is…
GO: Alan Clarke was after Sid.
DU: Sid and Nancy. You turned it down, at first, I assume. Knowing you, as I do.
GO: Yeah, I realise now—I’ve done it with everything. So, I think it’s part of my process. I have to turn it down first.
DU: If I was a stranger and I came up to you and said, "I really love you most of all in Sid and Nancy," I know that you’re very polite to people about that, but it’s not your most favourite moment, is it?
GO: No. I just don’t think I’m very good in it.
DU: You get in front of a camera. You’ve been acting in all these plays. Now, what is different?
GO: You know what…nothing. I would say, you know, the thing about; oh, you’re projecting, and you’re trying to sort of reach the audience in the back row and all of that, and then you have to tone it down for film…I mean, I think, you just…if you’ve got a modicum of talent and common sense; that is the thing you work out. If your face is this big on screen, you know, you’re not going to make, sort of, Buster Keaton faces, you know what I mean?
DU: Do you think it’s easier to transition from being a theatre actor to a screen actor, then it is from being a purely screen actor who does their first play?
GO: Yeah, I would think so. I mean, I didn’t do it that way round. But I think it’s incredibly courageous of people. I tell you who’s doing more and more theatre—an actor, Christian Slater—who started as a young, young actor in movies. I can’t imagine that.
DU: Christian always wanted to be a stage actor, did you know that?
GO: I’m sure. But, he’s doing that more and more and I think that’s an incredible thing. I can’t imagine doing it, having not had the training that I had. And was trained specifically for the stage.
The movies—it was a dream. I mean, the movies were for other people: Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman—you know, those people—they did movies. It was never in my plan. It just happened.
DU: You don't want to play Sid Vicious. Obviously, a moment comes where you say, "Yes, I will play it." You’re handed a script of Sid Vicious.
GO: 35,000 pounds they paid me for Sid Vicious.
DU: Those days are long gone! I’m happy to report.
GO: But, at the time, working for 80 pounds a week, before tax. So, when you’re sort of taking home, you know, you’re trying to make ends-meat on 33 quid, working at the Royal Court, and then, someone comes along and says, "here’s 35,000 pounds". You kind of go, "Oh, I could get the kitchen done!" [laughs]
DU: Okay, you’re handed the script for Sid Vicious and you’re confronted with playing this guy. What on earth do you think you’re going to do?
GO: Well, it had bypassed me; the whole punk movement. I was a sort of a James Brown, Motown guy. I loved all that sort of funk; Bowie. So, when that happened—the punk movement—I just thought it was a lot of noise and I was not interested in it. And so, I was very concerned about who would see Sid and Nancy. Like, who cares about this love story? There was obviously an audience for it.
DU: What did you do?
GO: I just rolled up my sleeves; studied the way I’ve the way I’ve always done it. You know—you watch endless footage, you listen to the records, you hear the music—you immerse yourself in the world. I lost a ton of weight and made myself very ill. I lost too much weight. But, you know, then it grabs you. Then it takes a hold of you.
DU: Do you eventually, after you’re doing Sid Vicious, get to play in the West End of London?
GO: Well, what I tried to do in the old days—we’re talking a long time ago now—what I would like to do, was always; I’d do a film and a play, and a film and play. And that’s sort of how it used to sort of roll, as it were. But, you could in those days. That was the thing. You could commit.
Now, films are falling apart (in) a week. You’re attached to something and it’s all systems go, and then, a week before production they pulled the plug, and all the money is fallen out, or the money comes together very, very quickly. So, instead of having a prep time, you’ve often called me, and I say, "When does it start?" And they want you to play whatever it is, and they go, "Well, they’re going in two weeks."
DU: Yeah, I sometimes call him, and I’m like, "What are you doing next Tuesday?"
GO: Yeah, [laughs] Back then, if I said to you, "I’m going to start a movie on the 29th of October," you’d start that movie on the 29th of October. There were no reshoots. You never went back; there was no money. You shot the movie for five weeks or six weeks. It was done; you were done with it. And then, you could either go on holiday or do a play—a play that you had already committed to doing.
And this is without the agent and the shenanigans, that, you know; the likes of what we sort of dance around. This was a simpler time when you could just say, "Well, I’m going to do a play next year. But, if we could get a film that comes in…" None of this sort of like, "Oh, they’ve pushed it. It’s not starting now, until another month." None of that stuff.
DU: One of my favourite films of yours is Prick up your Ears, where you play Joe Orton. Are you acting in a play in the West End at that minute and you get a call from Stephen Frears?
GO: Yeah, I think I was in a play at that time. I was at the RSC. Yeah.
DU: What happens? Frears calls. You audition?
GO: Well, I am surprised that Stephen called me for Prick up your Ears because I had said "no" to My Beautiful Laundrette. I remember saying to him: "I just don’t find it very convincing. I grew up in South London and people are not like that, and they don’t talk like that," and he said, "What did you think of the script?" and I went, "Hmm…" [shrugs].
So, anyway, I think another actor did it in the end.
DU: I don’t know who...
GO: Oh…come on, Dougie [laughs]. Anyway, so, I thought when he called me for Prick up my Ears, I thought, "That’s very nice of him," sort of, after turning him down and telling him that his script wasn’t very good.
DU: Did he want you for Orton, to play Joe? Because there was a resemblance? Or why?
GO: He wanted to give Joe…he would always say to me, "I want him…it’s got to have a bit of 'street'”. That’s how he would direct you. You would do a take, and then, he would cut, and he would say, "That’s very good, but, do another one; just give a bit more 'street'. Give it a bit more…you know…" No, yeah, he wanted me for the role. It was fantastically written.
DU: Were you shooting during the day and then acting on the stage at night during that time?
GO: Yeah, I was also, actually, decorating. I was painting and putting up wallpaper in the flat I lived in. So, I would get up at 5:00 or 4:35. I would paint, hang wallpaper, then my car would come, then I would go and do Joe Orton. And then, at five o’clock, the car would come and take me to the Barbican, and then, I would do the play.
But, I was in five plays, in Rep. So, I was doing Joe Orton. But, I had five plays in my head, at the time. I mean, I look back on it now, and, you know, I have to have a nap! I mean, I have to have a nap in the afternoon or else I’m murder [laughs]. But, those days where you could do all of that, and I’m getting up to work on my flat, is madness now.
DU: So, we have the moment the light-bulb goes off and says, "I want to do that thing: Acting." Is the second light-bulb going off saying, "Hey, I’m pretty good at this. I know my way around this?"
GO: I’d convince myself for many, many years, that I couldn’t write and then, you know, you tell yourself, and I’m sure many of you here…We say, "Well, I dunno…I can’t. There’s people who do that. I can’t do that."
You can’t do something having not even tried it. So, I would say for years, "No, I can’t do that," having never tried it. But, then, I did. I had the story and wanted to direct it, and just wanted to direct a feature. The story I was telling was longer than a 10-minute short.
So, I’ve always just sort of jumped at things, hoping that, you know…
And, at the end of the day, Nil by Mouth—it was an experiment. I’m sure you’ve got a question about it. [DU: Many…] So, yeah, along the way, a few people said to me, "You know, this acting thing: you’ve maybe got something or you might be quite good at this."
DU: One of them was Francis Ford Coppola. Count Dracula comes in. What is it, first off, that grabs you? Is it the director? Is it a script?
GO: Well, I turned it down of course, first—because I thought, "Dracula?" It wasn’t on my bucket list. And then, it was Coppola, and then I thought, "Oh that’s interesting," because you know he is arguably one of the greatest American directors. I mean, he had been, you know—a hero of mine. So, I thought, "Oh, Francis doing Dracula. That would be…" If it had been Ken Russell or someone like that, I would have (said) "Nah, not interested". But, Coppola, I thought, "Oh, he might be able to do something interesting with this." So, I auditioned. I went to Napa and auditioned for him.
DU: And the script: did you respond to things in the script that said, "Yeah, I’d like to do that"?
GO: Not necessarily to Winona Ryder. But, you know, you read a line like that, and then again, with the way I work; I heard the voice before I could physically do the voice.
DU: You’ve got Gary’s voice and heard Dracula?
GO: Yeah, the voice that was coming off the page to me; was one that I couldn’t physically or technically do at the time. But, I could hear it in my mind's ear—in my head. And then, I auditioned. I got the role, and then I worked with an opera singer.
DU: Was that for stamina, to do it every day?
GO: No, I literally wanted to lower my voice an octave, and it’s doable. It’s an organ. It’s a thing that you can…you work on it. It’s a muscle. Like exercise. So, you know, I wanted that depth, that sound in the voice. And, over time, you know, you work; you go to the piano and work half a tone, and then another half a tone down. And before you know it, you've got, you know; it’s just exercises where you in-tone the text, you whisper the text, you sing the text.
I did the same with Churchill. I went to the piano, worked out the range of Churchill on the piano, and then, I’d always been, like I said, just…resourceful. It’s, you know, I want to sound…I want a deeper voice. What do you do? Well, I guess you work with someone who works with voices, you know…and just kind of work it out.
GO: That’s correct.
DU: Did you like it when you saw it?
GO: I thought it was pretty good, yeah.
DU: Yeah, I sat by you. But, I never asked you that question. It’s November of ‘92. In ‘93, you come here and you’re on the jury here (Cannes Film Festival). And that same year, you meet Luc Besson and he has this idea for a movie, that becomes known as Leon The Professional.
GO: Going back quickly to your thing about, you know, seeing Dracula for the first time or what I think of it. The only movie I’ve ever seen, that I’m in, where I pinch myself and went, "Holy shit! I'm in the film," is JFK. [DU: Oh, I love that one] And I…when I first sat down… [DU: And that was pre-Dracula?] Yes, that was pre-Dracula.
When I first sat down in that screening room, when Oliver said, "I’ve got it: it’s ready," I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was such a powerful film; so well made. And I just had to pinch myself and go, "God, I’m in this." You know—it was great.
DU: You’re not just in it. This is the weird thing. I’ll tell people you’re in it and people will have forgotten you’re in it. And my theory is because you’re in almost every frame of it, you are so much like Lee Harvey Oswald; that they forget they are watching an actor as Lee Harvey Oswald. So, Oliver Stone has you playing this, he sends you off to do some research…
GO: Yeah, it was, again, in those days, he gave me plane tickets, some per diem, and a few contact numbers, and he said, "Take yourself off to New Orleans and Dallas and find out who Oswald was." So, you became—not only because it was very little on the page in his script—you become an investigator, you become like a detective. Yeah, it was a wonderful gift. Great experience. And that he trusted you to go and do the research.
DU: Gary Oldman becomes like a history expert. I had the privilege of going to Dallas with him and he walked me through like an expert; all the Oswald stuff in the square. If you want to know anything about Churchill, he knows more about Churchill than most of the scholars we’ve talked with, at this point. You’ve accumulated all this knowledge.
GO: Here’s the incredible thing. You know, yes, it’s a job; it’s an acting gig. But, I’ve actually been up at that window, with that rifle; in that window where Oswald supposedly shot John F. Kennedy. I’ve recently seen a documentary and my feeling about it has really changed over the years.
I was really on the page with Oliver, which you had to be, really. I mean, you couldn’t be in Oliver’s movie, and then say, you know, "I think he did it" [laughs]. But, what an experience to be asked to shoe in all of those places.
And here’s the other thing about Oliver: we shot at the Book Depository. We shot in the house of the landlady where Oswald boarded. We shot in the police station. Not only did we shoot in the Dallas police station where they—in that waiting area, that carpark, you know, where they bring Oswald out, where Ruby shoots him—but, the wall had been changed over the years and they got a drill and they 'Jenga-ed' all the bricks out and took it right back to the original facing of the building; the original configuration.
We had Dallas, we had Dealey Plaza—at our disposal—for like three weeks. And we would be going off somewhere, doing a scene, and the sun would come out and the shadows were correct for the shoot. He would say: "Okay everybody, get the car ready," and all the cars were parked in Dealey Plaza. "Get everyone in costume (five-hundred people), we’re changing the day. We’re now moving here and we’re going in; to pick-up what we need to pick-up in Dealey Plaza."
I mean, now, that would be Toronto now or Bulgaria. The fact that you’re shooting at the Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, in New Orleans, and on these locations, is extraordinary, and it doesn’t; it rarely, rarely, rarely happens now.
DU: This is pre-tax incentives.
GO: This was pre-tax incentives, yeah. But, to have access to the city in that way was extraordinary—and we had two scripts. There’s the script that, obviously, the mayor and the government had read, that was…you know…Well, we were guests. [laughs] They would kick us. Oliver was so paranoid and so he gave them one script to read, which was Oswald did it [wink] and then our script, which was obviously the government cover-up conspiracy.
I threw you…didn’t I?
DU: No, you didn’t. I’m a professional. Can we go to ‘93 now? Luc Busson on the jury…
GO: ’93: Oh God, I hope you brought sandwiches and more water…you can’t take it, you see. The young don’t have the stamina. Go on.
DU: …and you played Beethoven.
GO: I played Beethoven, yes.
DU: You may remember this. It becomes our number one fan-letter movie, for about eight or nine years. We get fan mail about this movie. Anne Rice becomes a fan; she writes a letter. You obviously can’t see any news-footage of Beethoven; you can’t hear his voice or anything like that. You had an interesting way into this particular character.
GO: Well, I do play the piano. I’m not great. But, I played the piano, well enough. And so, it was Bernard Roses idea, where he wanted to shoot the hands and coming up to the face and coming down from the face, down to the hands and didn't want to cut to a double. And so, there were like five or six pieces that he wanted me to learn, and I just chained my leg to a Steinway for about six or seven weeks. And I found that that was really the answer and the key to it. That was the way into the character—through the music.
DU: You play these real-life characters like Churchill, Orton, Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald. Then, you play characters that are based on fictional well-known characters like Jim Gordon or Sirius Black; fictional characters, meaning that there’s a lot of information that exists about them, there’s a lot of information that exists about real-life. And then, you play characters that are wholly original, that you have to create from whole cloth. What’s the difference between these three?
GO: Well, you see, with something that you’re anchored to…I think, first of all, if they’ve got family; if that person is no longer with us, but, they have family who are still around, like the Churchill’s, for instance, and certainly with Oswald. I mean, that was the one thing; meeting Marina Oswald and the daughter, you know, it’s wonderful.
You get access in this job. You get, sort of, behind-the-velvet-ropes access to all sorts of wonderful, wonderful things. You get to meet some extraordinary people. But, I feel that you have some responsibility to the memory of the person, and what you do, and what choices you make as an actor will affect the people who are still around; who are still living.
And, as you can imagine, I mean, the Churchill family—they revere their ancestor. And so, I feel you do have some responsibility to that; to the memory of those people. And also, you’ve got access to footage and the way they sound. You know, that thing of, what I was talking about with Dracula… and hearing that voice; that’s with a fictional character, that’s normally where I will start. Nine times out of ten—I will start there, I start hearing a sound.
DU: Then, you get a character like Jim Gordon. You can research about him, you can learn what he’s about. But then, what does he actually do in the movie?
GO: Well, he gets there…he gets to a situation, often late. Batman’s already there. So, there’s not a lot of detecting Jim does. He does try… but, [laughs] Batman seems to always beat him to the punch. You know, when I get there and there’s this guy in a cape, and I just say, "So, what have we got here?" [laughs] and he says, "Get this to forensics!" There’s obviously a huge fan base.
DU: Rolling Stones said of that character that you made virtue exciting. How do you do that?
GO: I don’t know. I think that’s the best review I’ve ever had. Really. "He makes virtue look exciting" - I’ll take that, thanks very much. Again, you hear a sound, you work on the physicality. Most of the time, you’re doing all of this—what I call (in your kitchen or your bedroom) 'Kitchen acting'. You very rarely get rehearsal.
How many here are actors or filmmakers? There must be quite a lot. I mean, you know—you get to a set and it’s [clicks fingers]—you’ve got to burn from the first bar. It’s rock and roll [clicks fingers]. You've got to go, you've got to have done your homework, and you’ve got to have been ready. I had seven years with Chris Nolan, over the three Batmans.
And I think he gave me one note in the seven years, and it was a fantastic—a really, really good note. We did a scene and he said: "Okay. Cut. Let’s go again," and he came up to me and he said, "There’s just a little more at stake. Okay, let’s go again." There’s more at stake: that’s a fantastic note.
I was divorced, a single dad, and I had the custody of these boys. I had these two little kids and I did not want to be one of these…I made a decision that I was going to be home with the kids, rather than be travelling around the world. There was a seismic shift in the industry and everything was sort of happening in Australia, and in Hungary, and Bulgaria, and all of these places. More and more, movies were not being made, at that time, in America or in LA. Certainly not in LA. And it meant me travelling a great deal.
When the Batman thing happened, in that first Batman Begins; Chris was very, very user-friendly in that respect. He was a father. He understood my situation. And in that first film, I did twenty-seven round trips from LA to London, because we shot most of the movie, the first one, in England. Some location work in Chicago, but, mainly in England. And, I would fly in for one scene, for one day, fly back for three days, come in for two days, fly back for a weekend, then fly back to do a half week’s work…go back...come again.
I remember once: I flew in, I walked out of a car, walked into a building, and that was it. "Cut, thank you very much," and the next morning, I was on the plane back to LA. But, Chris was very cool with it. He just said, shooting on film of course, "Listen, if there’s anything wrong with the dailies, I’ll call you," and I said, "You know where I’ll be; I’ll be on my cell phone in my car at 11 am, on the way to the airport, and I’ll turn the car around and come back if there’s a problem." So, he was very undisturbed and he was very easy to work with, in that way.
My first day of shooting: he cast me as Jim. I think he had one other conversation with me on the telephone, and he said, "You know, see you when it starts." I flew into London. The next day, we were shooting and it was a night shoot. I had to get out of the car, look at some thugs who had been beaten and tied up. I had a couple of lines. [DU: Like, what were the lines?] I really, honestly, can’t remember the lines. But, it was a short line to a cop…and I walked off. It was a simple scene.
And so, we got there on the set. And he said, "You wanna just walk one through? Let’s just do a rehearsal." I said "okay". So, I got out of the car, did the scene, and he came up to me and he said, "Is that how you’re playing it?" and I said, "Oh yeah," you know, I thought, "That’s kind of what I’ve been working on," and he went "Ahh. Do you wanna do one?" I said, "Yeah, sure."
And so, we did a take and he said "cut" and he came up to me and said, "Umm…That’s very good. You know, do you want to go again?" He said, "I think we got it, but do you want to go again?" and I said, "Well, I’ve come all this way, you know, why not?" And we did two takes on that first day. And that was: "Now you've made the decision. Now that’s how you’re playing Gordon."
And then, the other note that he gave me was, "There’s a bit more at stake." So, you’re left very much to your (devices). I learned that very, very quickly—the first time I did a film—that, less the Darkest Hour—we had rehearsal. But that’s very, very rare…very. I worked with Mike Leigh many years ago. That was six-months rehearsal building a character. But really, across the board; you’d go, you hit [click finger] the mark, and go.
DU: How do you handle the situation that you feel the director has the wrong take on a scene or character?
GO: That’s a tough one. Yeah, I mean, you know, you’re not there to be combative. I think you’re there like a waiter; you’re at service. You come in and you come up with ideas. And you offer ideas up, and if they accept them or like them…
I’ll give you an example. You would say to Alan Clarke, "You know, I have an idea," and he would say "Fooken love it, fooken love it. ‘aven't heard it yet. But, I love it." [laugh] You know, "Great! an idea. What is it?" And there were occasions where you would give him the idea and he would say to the crew, "Ok, forget what we are doing, we are going to do it like this," and he would literally scrap what he had been working on.
And other times, he would say, "It’s a good idea, but I need this, this, and this…" And I think, as an actor, you come in with your imagination, and you service—and it’s not all about you. That’s what I think. There are some actors that behave a certain way on set, that to me is just; it’s just unforgivable because it's a whole army of people. It’s a whole team of people. It's not just about you and your character. It's about the other people. It's about the lighting. It's about all sorts of things. You know what I mean?
DU: I have one more question before we just briefly talk about you as a writer and director because time is fleeting. Have you ever shot something that you thought wouldn’t work, and then been surprised when you’ve seen the result on the screen, and you’ve seen that it does work?
GO: I have occasionally, very rarely though.
DU: And the opposite: that you shot something you thought would work and…
GO: Yeah. There’s an alchemy that happens sometimes. But really, you know, if you’ve got your instincts, your intuition is working—what is in your eye, that you’re seeing—there’s no miracle that’s going to make it better once it’s projected if it’s not working. It’s rare.
I mean, talking of Chris: that’s someone who, you know, you might look at a scene, and it looks, it feels a little, maybe, conventional. But, you really…that’s the feeling you have. See, you don’t see Chris Nolan doing it. He’s there in his overcoat and sips his tea. And it’s like…one of those things where you go, "Really, and what’s he…?"
He stands there and he goes, "Yeah, pull the um…yeah okay. Put the camera here and then we will…Yeah, that’s nice, actually. And, we will see that…and then…" Because he is terribly sort of—quite polite. And he goes, "Okay, should we go for one? Action." And he doesn't look at a monitor. He looks at you. So, he doesn't see it. He trusts his operator, completely. So, he doesn’t even see it. He doesn't wear headphones.
And I often wonder, "How the fuck did he hear that?" We’re doing like a scene, like a long scene on radio mics, and Chris is watching and he doesn't have headphones on. He must have super-hearing, that’s for sure. I know he’s talented. But, he must have super-hearing. But anyway, he would just sort of say, "Cut. That was great. Moving on." And we would think, "What? What did we just do?" And then, you would see it projected and you would think: "That clever bastard."
DU: 21 years ago, you came here with your film Nil by Mouth. You won a prize for Best Actress. You opened the main competition, upstairs.
You had had this burning thing of wanting to direct for a while. I don’t know that you thought of yourself as a writer going in. You had won the British Academy Award as a screenwriter and you’ve been writing ever since.
In my knowledge of you, and I don’t even know how many people here know this; Gary’s hobby for relaxation is wet-plate photography, which is an intricate thing. He's probably one of eight people on the whole planet, or six, who knows how to do this. I find that you’re very visually-oriented. When you talk about film, you’re interested in when it’s celluloid or digital.
Does this help motivate the idea that you want to direct? Or is it because you like talking to actors? Or is it because you like a good story? What part of you drives that? You’re certainly a good screenwriter. Which part of that makes you see it?
GO: So, I love actors. I love the crew. I’ve always liked the crew. And I’ve always been fascinated by what that guy does when he turns that knob, that focus puller, or what that guy is doing with the lights. So, the whole mechanics of it. It has always, sort of...fascinated me. So, really, to be on a set, and particularly, to be directing on a set—it’s a great joy.
That’s the most extraordinary thing about film. It uses all the arts—you’ve got music, you’ve got designers, you’ve got costume makers, you’ve got makeup people....You know, it really embraces all those skills. I’m very privileged and very lucky to do what we do. I remind myself of that all the time, when I stand on a set.
DU: Do you find that because you’re a good actor, and because you like acting and you understand acting; that this feeds into the part of you that likes to direct, that likes to see the visual of it, the texture of it?
GO: Well, I think the learning, you know, at some point, it’s like—I’ve just turned 60 and I’ve been doing this acting larchey for 40-something years. And, you know, the curve eases off. When you’re a young actor, all of that is very steep. But, it does level out, at some point. And there are occasional challenges, at my age, like Churchill, where, okay, this is the real deal. It’s gonna take every ounce of my…every molecule of my being to work on this, and to pull this off. But, the curve eases off.
And so, you look for other stimulus. You’ve got to work. You’ve got to send the kids to college. You know, you’ve got to be practical; you’ve got to live in the real world. So, you’ve got bills to pay, you gotta keep the lights on, you’ve got to put food on the table, you’ve gotta send the kids to college—you’ve got all of these, sort of, responsibilities. And, certainly, you can’t always sit around and wait for that really great role to come along, because, as we’ve discovered, you do a Beethoven and how many years go by?
DU: You went from Beethoven to Airforce One.
GO: Yeah. But then, there’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then, there’s five or six years…
DU: Did you initially turn down George Smiley?
GO: I did, didn't I? It’s my process, I told you. But then, you’ve got five or six years before a Churchill. You’ve gotta work and it’s not always going to be that. You're not always going to be hittin’ home runs…you know?
DU: Gary, this year, your movie where you play Churchill came out. You won every single acting prize that there is to be won.
DU: Do you think you’re any good as Churchill?
GO: Well, they obviously do [in Churchill accent].
DU: You were surprised when you saw it the first time, weren't you?
GO: Yeah, I think it was good work...yeah. There’s a few, there’s a few that you look at, and there are even moments. Maybe, it’s not even the whole thing, sometimes. There’s some great… there are good things in JFK. There’s a film I did with Sean Penn a long time ago called State of Grace, which I, which, there’s some good work in there. You know…there’s bits and bobs.
DU: And George Smiley.
GO: Yeah. Not every scene. But, there’s a few I hit that are good. I’m very hard to…I’m terrible. I’m really terrible. I’m a harsh critic.
AQ: Hello Gary, my name is Gee. Thank you for being here, for your time. I’m a great fan of your work. I’m an actor, an up-and-coming actor and filmmaker. You spoke about the “kitchen acting”. I’m very curious to know: after you left university if you’ve worked and maybe still do work with a coach? Apart from a voice coach and for something in particular.
GO: No, I don't work with an acting coach. No, never had one. I think, coming from Britain; we don’t have them. Really. I mean, maybe they exist there. But, I don’t know. I’ve never known a British actor whose works with a coach.
DU: Can I throw something in there? I’ve watched your process very closely. Gary’s process resembles a true Stanislavski process where you do script interpretation; you read out and you don’t read in.
GO: Let me ask you a question: where do you live? LA?
GO: You live in New York. You’ll live in LA, at some point. Okay. Did you go to Julliard or school or anything like that?
AQ: I go to a Conservatoire.
GO: Right. You see, here’s the thing. This is the thing about LA…is that, there’s no conservatory really. I mean, they’ve got the Lee Strasberg. But, there’s no real…there’s no real drama school—the kind that I went to, which is really, you know, 24/7 for three years—where you go and you do this whole array of stuff: text interpretation, and voice work, phonetics. The whole kind of thing.
What you get in LA…I guess, you have to have classes, unless you are working—lucky to be working, constantly. There is no acting school there. And so, you have to have…
DU: In a way, you need a flight simulator, almost.
GO: You have to have a coach. And it’s that odd thing of; the doing of it. You’re learning it as you’re doing it.
AQ: I have to quote a Russian activist. He said about empathy, "If we all would be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the other; there would be no need for laws or rules." So, according to that quote and what I’ve heard you mention about George Smiley; that you had these panic attacks and anxiety like this character, in that particular story. What is your process of finding nuances in your acting?
GO: I think you're referring to…was it an interview that you read, that said I had got anxiety before doing George Smiley? Yeah, I felt very much in the shadow of Alec Guinness. This was a very beloved character and he was the face of Smiley; the definitive face of Smiley, for many, many years. And still is, regardless of my efforts—probably still is—to many people. But, for a generation, he had personified this very famous character for this book and it had won accolades.
So…I built this monster in my head—it was like a dragon I had to slay—that the great Alec Guinness had an enormous success with this role, and that I was taking it on, and it could only lead to failure. And for some reason, it got to a point where it nearly gave me bloody a nervous breakdown. I was so caught, caught up in my head with the fear of this.
DU: Is there another element of that: you’re not playing a guy in a disguise, with an eye and a tooth and a scar. Now, you’ve got Gary and he’s going to be naked.
GO: Yeah, I felt very, very naked with it. Very exposed. And it was just a monster that I had built up. I did get to the set and I did the first scene. Once I had opened my mouth and started doing it—again, no rehearsal—once I had done the first scene and they had said "Action" and "Cut" I had then realised, "Oh, I know where I am," I thought, "Oh, I know where I am. That’s a cable. That’s a camera. I’m on a set and I’m acting. Oh, it’s familiar now."
DU: You asked me not to come in for the first shot; to stay in the trailer. You came down back to the trailer after the first shot, and said, "It’s all fine, come back."
GO: I remember a director, Hal Ashby, told me a story once. When he was doing The Last Detail and he took Jack, Jack Nicholson, to the dailies—to the rushes, to screen the scene. And afterwards, when the lights came up, Nicholson turned to Hal Ashby and said, "Well, I was great. How was the scene?"
You know, I think it would be a sad day to really be able to sit there and watch yourself and say go: "Wow, I’m fantastic in this." I think you’re always, you know, you’re always questioning and pushing yourself, and having doubt and insecurity is a good thing. But, it can’t immobilise you. It can’t paralyse you. And I had let it, almost, get to the point before Tinker Tailor; where it, yeah, it was going to crush me. And then, of course, I hear from other actors, that have been through the same thing.
AQ: Hello, my name is Jim Bay from South Korea. And as a fan, there’s one thing I wanted to ask, which was not discussed in this 'Rendez-vous'. Since we are in France, you worked with a famous French director Luc Besson and you worked in Fifth Element and Leon. As a fan, I just wanted to ask you: how was it?
GO: Luc is…he’s funny. He comes to the set and it’s like play-time. I learnt a lot of things from Luc because I’d watch him work. He is very inventive. I remember he wanted to do a shot, like a Luna crane kind-of-thing; floating down one of the avenues in New York, for Leon. So, he got an aluminium ladder, from a hardware store, and he cut the rungs out (the middle), so he could wear it—with straps.
And he had a monitor and he had a small camera at the end of the ladder. And, at the back, it was counter-weighted, and he had, like, flaps—like on an aeroplane—for the wind resistance. He held this ladder and he stood and strapped himself in, and strapped himself onto a car, or a truck, in New York, and he literally was; floating this camera down the avenue. And it literally, I mean, you know, aluminium ladder, the crane is so enormous, these things—they have an arm that extends—you’re basically locked into where you’ve set it because you need a truck to bring this thing in. This was like a Luna crane, that could move and travel.
So, he would hold this thing and he could float it up to a window. And there was one time, where he just took an apple box and he put the camera on an apple box. And it was on a table like this, and he just slid it like a little track, on just a table. And I watched all of these things, and in fact—I’ve shot a music video where we needed to get the camera—a little track of a shot, coming through a door.
And what I did was, I just said to the cameraman, "Put the camera on an apple box," and I put a ferny-pad down on a wooden floor, and I just had him pull the rug. And this thing—the camera moved and it looked like it was a dolly track. And people do look at you, "What, do you mean stick it on a thing and do this?" And you're like, "Trust me, I’ve seen it done. You know those great big multi-million-dollar movies that you like so much? Luc Besson? Well, that scene was shot on an apple box on a bit of—you know…" [audience claps] You know, it was great.
Special thanks to the Festival de Cannes and Canal Plus, for hosting the Masterclass and to award-winning actor Alexandra Nell, for generously assisting I AM FILM with the first draft of the transcript.
About the artist
Actor, Writer and Director
Gary Oldman is a English screen and stage actor. One of the most celebrated thespians of his generation, with a diverse career encompassing theatre, film and television, he is known for his roles as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986), Drexl in True Romance (1993), George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (2017), among many others. For much of his career, he was best-known for playing over-the-top antagonists, such as terrorist Egor Korshunov in the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One (1997), though he has reached a new audience with heroic roles in the Harry Potter and Dark Knight franchises. He is also a filmmaker, musician, and author.
Gary Leonard Oldman was born on March 21, 1958 in New Cross, London, England, to Kathleen (Cheriton), a homemaker, and Leonard Bertram Oldman, a welder. He won a scholarship to Britain's Rose Bruford Drama College, in Sidcup, Kent, where he received a B.A. in theatre arts in 1979. He subsequently studied with the Greenwich Young People's Theatre and went on to appear in a number of plays throughout the early '80s, including The Pope's Wedding, for which he received Time Out's Fringe Award for Best Newcomer of 1985-1986 and the British Theatre Association's Drama Magazine Award as Best Actor for 1985. Before fame, he was employed as a worker in assembly lines, and as a porter in an operating theatre. He also got jobs selling shoes and beheading pigs while supporting his early acting career.
His film debut was Remembrance (1982), though his most-memorable early role came when he played Sex Pistol Sid Vicious in the biopic Sid and Nancy (1986) picking up the Evening Standard Film Award as Best Newcomer. He then received a Best Actor nomination from BAFTA for his portrayal of '60s playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987).
In the 1990s, Oldman brought to life a series of iconic real-world and fictional villains including Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991), the title character in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Drexl Spivey in True Romance (1993), Stansfield in Léon: The Professional (1994), Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element (1997) and Ivan Korshunov in Air Force One (1997). That decade also saw Oldman portraying Ludwig van Beethoven in biopic Immortal Beloved (1994).
Oldman played the coveted role of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), giving him a key part in one of the highest-grossing franchises ever. He reprised that role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007). Oldman also took on the iconic role of Detective James Gordon in writer-director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005), a role he played again in The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Oldman co-starred with Jim Carrey in the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol in which Oldman played three roles. He had a starring role in David Goyer's supernatural thriller The Unborn, released in 2009. In 2010, Oldman co-starred with Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli. He also played a lead role in Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood. Oldman voiced the role of villain Lord Shen and was nominated for an Annie Award for his performance in Kung Fu Panda 2.
In 2011, Oldman portrayed master spy George Smiley in the adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and the role scored Oldman his first Academy Award nomination. In 2014, he played one of the lead humans in the science fiction action film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). Also in 2014, Oldman starred alongside Joel Kinnaman, Abbie Cornish, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson in the remake of RoboCop (2014), as Norton, the scientist who creates RoboCop. Also that year, Oldman starred in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the leads alongside Jason Clarke and Keri Russell.
Aside from acting, Oldman tried his hand at writing and directing for Nil by Mouth (1997). The movie opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, and won Kathy Burke a Best Actress prize at the festival.
In 2018 he won an Oscar for best actor for his work in Darkest Hour.