When Gary Oldman was first offered the part of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, he thought about turning it down. “You’re asked to play who many would consider the greatest Brit who ever lived, an iconic British figure with all the ghosts of the other people who have played him,” said Oldman, who by that time had already said no to playing Churchill in another project. “I didn’t consciously set out to be a different Churchill; indeed, in the beginning, I thought, I don’t know what I could bring to it.”
Ultimately, a few things convinced Oldman to overcome his trepidations: He wanted to work with director Joe Wright, and he was heartened that the script by Anthony McCarten was not a cradle-to-grave biopic but a chronicling of five difficult weeks as Churchill assumed the role of prime minister and anguished about what to do about the British soldiers stranded at Dunkirk during World War II. Still, it wasn’t going to be an easy transformation, and Oldman knew it. “I had to slay those dragons early on,” he told Vulture recently. “I had, in the homework of prepping to play him, to surrender over almost a year of my life to it.” Here are the four keys that finally helped Oldman to crack Churchill and deliver one of of the most acclaimed performances of his career.
For the first two months of preparation, Oldman voraciously consumed any book or article he could find on Churchill. “My appreciation for him has risen, and I’m continuing to read about him and it doesn’t end with this film,” he said. “I was in touch with a Churchill scholar and he guided me to a couple of the places to read, and then there was the Martin Gilbert book, [Churchill: A Life], which is sort of a bible. It’s so voluminous that you’d need a lifetime to read his books and the books on him, but I knew that I would try to read as many as I could before production started.”
Those books and especially old newsreel footage helped Oldman zero in on Churchill’s sense of fun, which helped the actor shake off the cobwebs of history. “I saw someone who really had vitality and energy,” said Oldman. “He was skipping around like a dynamo! What struck me was that he really did look like a baby, with his cherubic face and his naughty schoolboy grin like he’d stolen candy or something. There was a real twinkle in his eye. He was enjoying life and, as stressful as it must have been, enjoying the responsibility.” That’s an attitude Oldman sought to adopt not only as Churchill, but as the actor leading the big production.
It was important for Oldman to get Churchill’s cadences and rhythms right, though he didn’t want to do a flat-out impersonation. Instead, Oldman looked for the psychology behind why Churchill spoke the way he did, especially in his best-known public speeches. “In a way, it’s a little misleading because his public oratory was very different than when he was in private,” said Oldman. “He had recorded his famous speeches [for posterity] after they were actually delivered — the BBC would come to him and he was probably sitting in bed, is my guess. So there’s that as an historical record of him, but I don’t think that’s the way he would speak in his house.”
Oldman used those recorded speeches as a reference point to work backwards from. “He’s saying ‘victory at all costs, blood toil tears and sweat, we will never surrender’ … I mean, it’s Henry V, isn’t it? It’s ‘Once more unto the breach.’” To think of Churchill as a fellow performer made it easier for Oldman to imagine the difference between him at home and the prime minister commanding a room. “The way he dressed, he was obviously a self-promoter — he knew about branding before branding was a thing!” said Oldman. “So having a sense of the theater in him, I just made that leap and thought, ‘This is how he would play it to the room.’”
It all would have been for naught if the lithe Oldman couldn’t be convincingly transformed into the famously jowly Churchill. For that task, Oldman sought out master makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji, whom he called “one of the only people on the planet who could pull it off.” The Kyoto-born Tsuji, who had worked on Men in Black, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes, had to be convinced to take the job — he’d tried to turn his back on Hollywood to become a visual artist — but Oldman saw no other way forward. “I didn’t want to gain 60 pounds and mess with my heart and my liver,” he said. “Me doing this was partly contingent on getting Kazuhiro.”
Once Tsuji signed on, he worked with Wright and Oldman to craft a remarkable Churchill look that uses prosthetics and makeup but never feels artificial. In part, that’s because Tsuji refrained from covering up the actor’s eyes, forehead, and mouth, knowing how much Oldman could convey as an actor with those subtle instruments. It helped, too, that Tsuji was not willing to settle for merely good enough. “He is very direct, and I think that’s partly because of the language,” said Oldman. “If you say, ‘Will this work?’ he doesn’t say, ‘Well …’ He says, ‘No. That’s no good.’ And you go, ‘Okay.’ He’s very no-nonsense, but I find Kazu utterly adorable and charming.”
His performance was coming together, but there was still one more small thing that helped Oldman crack Churchill’s code. As the production got underway, the Darkest Hour team was allowed behind-the-velvet-rope tours of all the places Churchill lived and worked as prime minister, and one of those visits took the actor to Churchill’s war room. “I recommend it, if you find yourself in London,” he said. “In the actual war room, there’s an old high-back wooden chair with these arms on it, and it’s the chair in which Churchill sat throughout the war. On the left-hand arm of the chair, there are these divots and scratches from his nails. And on the right-hand arm, there are scratches from his ring!”
Oldman was allowed to sit in the chair, and those little details made everything fall into place. “It is a mental state and a physicality engraved into the chair,” he said. “It’s this history that is now part of the furniture. He was listening to those meetings, his mind was working, and he was scratching and tapping idly.” It was the last human touch Oldman needed, and once he got there, his fears about the production finally fell away and he let himself disappear into Churchill. “I loved coming in every day, I did,” he told me. “I really had great fun.”