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Gary Oldman surrenders himself to Winston Churchill

Matt Koske

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Winston Churchill is a man who has not only been played by many, but written on by many too. The British Prime Minister was quite the busy man in his heyday, but it is the keen attention to detail during the month of May in 1940 that director Joe Wright (“Atonement” and “Pride and Prejudice”) focuses on that is projected loudly.

It’s Gary Oldman (“Dark Knight” trilogy, “Léon: The Professional” and a handful of “Harry Potter” films) that dares to portray one of the most influential figures in history books. But Oldman surrenders himself to this man so greatly large in his own voice (and body, as Oldman looks nothing like his normal self underneath 100 pounds of jowls).

Wright works closely with Anthony McCarten’s script, McCarten previously secured an Oscar nomination for “The Theory of Everything.” Churchill cherished his voice profoundly and McCarten never shies away from a daring speech or an abrupt shout from the 66-year-old cigar sucking Prime Minister.

Gary Oldman (right) and Kristin Scott Thomas in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.”
(Photo courtesy to Focus Features)

After Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) is no longer confidently fit for the role, the government overthrows him in search for an individual that can be heard in Parliament. It’s 1940, Hitler and his regiment are closing in, the beaches of Dunkirk have thousands upon thousands of stranded soldiers waiting for rescue and the clock is ticking. Welcome to your first days in office, Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The DePaulia sat down with Gary Oldman who embodies Churchill in “Darkest Hour” which opens in theaters on Nov. 22.

“He (Churchill) painted 544 paintings, had 16 exhibitions in the Royal Academy, occupied almost every political position that there was, flopped parties twice, lead us through arguably the greatest war, just remarkable achievements,” Oldman said. “How do you even have the time to do it all? You’re asking to step into the shoes of, not only a very iconic character that many actors played before you, but just the man himself.”

“Darkest Hour” very much portrays Churchill as the man he was. We first meet Churchill in his bed tucked away with his pajamas while lighting his signature cigar. A young typist (Lily James) examines the future Prime Minister as she tries to retrieve a quote from the bellowing man, which soon enough, frightens her to the point of leaving.

In favor of Oldman, the film only took place for a short period of time. This kind of biopic didn’t call for Oldman to show an aging Churchill. It was a set time frame that Oldman couldn’t help but appreciate. With countless books and films on Churchill and the 50 or so that he wrote himself, there’s no beginning or end to researching the man.

“We think we have an idea of who Churchill was and I think that could be contaminated by the fact that we remember other actors playing him,” Oldman said. “I avoided all of that and put that to one side. I went straight to the source material. There’s a ton of pathé footage of Churchill at the front with the soldiers giving various speeches. I would get lost in a vast sea of opinion and speculation on the man.”

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Oldman spent 200 hours in makeup to transform into the British Prime Minister. The film opens on Nov. 22.
(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Late this summer, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was a harrowing look at the military operation that took place in Dunkirk, France during World War II. These intersecting films complement each other so greatly that it couldn’t work better even if they were the same productions. While Churchill is discussing escape plans for his stranded soldiers, all that can be imagined is Hans Zimmer’s score and those horrifying airstrikes.

“Did you see “Dunkirk”? No one was planning it. It’s just the way that these things work out,” Oldman said. “You got the men in the smoky rooms, discussing all of the politics and trying to work the jigsaw puzzle out, and then you got the other film, “Dunkirk” which is very sparse in dialogue and shows what was going on. They could go together as a box set.”

Oldman, the 59-year-old actor, is known for his on-screen diversity. He’s acted in film, television and theater. It was the latter that accompanied him in the role; he, along with Wright, learned their own separate process, engraining it into their heads like a theater play. The tone is patient, but escalates only when it needs to. Everyone needed to be patient on set because Oldman had upwards of 200 hours of costume and makeup to transform him into Churchill.

“You have to say this is the next year and a half of my life. I had a really, really bad stomach partly due to dehydration from the costume, nicotine and the hours, really. I did get nicotine poisoning,” Oldman said.

Wright pulls together a great ensemble of actors, all extremely flexible. When there’s such a tightly confined story over a short period of time, it becomes a character piece. Whether it’s King George (Ben Mendelsohn) sharing a lunch with the Prime Minister or Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) trying to slow his roll, Churchill never lost his wit or ability to string together a strain of words that simply brought everyone together as one.

“I’m not complaining,” Oldman said. “I spent 48 days consecutively in the make up. By the end of it, I carried over half of my body weight in prosthetics. Joe (the director) didn’t even see me for 3 months as Gary. He always met me in the morning as Winston. My average day was about 18 hours. I did a trick on myself. If this man at 65 can take on Hitler, then I can sit in a makeup chair for hours. It was a big mountain to climb. I enjoyed every minute of it.”

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Gary Oldman surrenders himself to Winston Churchill