Gary Oldman on His ‘The Darkest Hour’ Performance and His Acting Heroes

Oldman spoke about playing Churchill and avoiding doing impressions as an actor.

Actor Gary Oldman

It’s hard to believe that in a career filled with great performances, Gary Oldman has only been nominated for an Oscar once. There is a good chance that will change — Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour is considered one of the most profound acting performances of the year. Oldman sat for an interview with his friend musician Jack White for Interview magazine and spoke about playing Churchill, avoiding impression as an actor, and why he considers Robert Redford‘s performance in All the President’s Men as one of the all-time greatest film performances.

Oldman points out that acting is normally an immersive experience, and it is even more so when the part is a well-known real-life individual like Churchill. He explains, “I think it was my way out, a sort of avenue of escape. The fun of it was getting away from myself and stepping into the characteristics and the behavior of someone else. It stems from that thing of not necessarily being that comfortable in your own skin. But the challenge of playing someone like Winston Churchill is that there’s more footage of him than you might believe, and there’s certainly enough to read about.”

On the other hand, Oldman understands that getting too immersed in a role can veer an actor into being a mere impressionist. He explains, “I have a relatively good ear and can do a few impressions of people. I don’t study them, but I think what happens with an impressionist is that they’re looking at one particular source.” He continues, “Impressionists have to paint with a very broad stroke because you’ve got to see it within a couple of seconds. You go, ‘That’s a really funny Robert De Niro.’ As an actor, though, you look at different aspects of a character. I try to completely surround myself with the assignment. It’s like being in a big cloud and then some of it rains through—for instance, looking at not only Churchill’s way of walking and mannerisms and the way he sounds, but also looking into the psychology.”

Curiously, Oldman considers a wide range of actors as his heroes. He reveals, “I look at my heroes’ work: Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, and certainly character actors like Alec Guinness, who I admired enormously. But my taste is very wide. I love Cary Grant. I love the absolute simplicity of Gary Cooper. I also look at Newman and McQueen and even Redford. I mean, if you watch Redford in All the President’s Men [1976], it’s one of the greatest screen performances.”

To explain why he considers Redford’ performance in All the President’s Men such a great performance, he speaks at length about performing with one’s eyes and compares it to his role in The Darkest Hour. He says:

It’s in the eyes. He’s not traveling away from himself vocally or physically, or doing all the pyrotechnics. There’s something about the psychology. I will always say this to students of acting—we talk about phone acting… There’s an example in Darkest Hour when I’m on the phone with Roosevelt. Often you’re not speaking to the other actor; someone is reading the lines in the room or you’re not even getting any of the feed. There are people who are very good at it and people who are not good at it. In All the President’s Men, there is one take of Redford switching phones, talking to different people; it’s about six or seven minutes long. Very, very slow push in on Redford. And I would say to students, “You want to see phone acting? That is the Michelangelo of phone acting.”

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