Gary Oldman on Playing Winston Churchill in ‘Darkest Hour’: “You have a responsibility to the family to the people, to the icon, and to the image”

Actor Gary Oldman

On one hand, acting great Gary Oldman is virtually unrecognizable as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. One the other, that’s par for the course for Oldman, who even went as far as being uncredited for his sinister role in 2001’s Hannibal. But Oldman may have undergone his greatest transformation in Darkest Hour. Playlist reports on Oldman’s appearance at the 92nd Street Y’s Reel Pieces when he spoke about how he got into character as the former Prime Minister.

Oldman reveals that one way in which he developed Oldman’s voice is by treating it like learning music. He explains:

“Churchill had a very distinctive cadence, more so when he spoke publicly. His range is a little lower and fuller than my own. I worked with a man, a singing teacher, and an opera singer, Michael Dean. We had a few sessions on the piano and we worked out the range of Churchill on the keyboard. With exercises and working with him and the recordings, you find what lower notes I needed to hit. Churchill would work until three or four in the morning and he wrote to his wife in 1924, he said ‘I like champagne at every meal and plenty of claret and soda, in between.’ You would hear these recordings and you could always tell if he had had a few brandies because you could hear it. That was challenging, getting that whiskey cigar sound. You are playing arguably the greatest Briton that ever lived for starters. But you are also playing an iconic character whose silhouette, the shape he makes, his face is very iconic. What we think we remember, he doesn’t really sound like that.”

In fact, Oldman reveals that putting work in like that to portray a real-life figure is a “responsibility” that he feels toward his work. He says, “It starts with the sound. You have a responsibility to the family to the people, to the icon, and to the image. With Sid [Vicious], I spoke with his mother and visited with her. We met some of Churchill’s family. With fictional characters, you start with a blank canvas and with Churchill, a lot of the picture is already filled in for you.”

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