The champagne was flowing at BAFTA earlier on this week as a celebration of the brilliant Gary Oldman in the form of A Life in Pictures talk happened. The chameleon of cinema looked suave in a stylish grey suit and sported a moustache, which we have come to associate with his character Commissioner Gordon from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, as he discussed the variety of characters he has played and his incredible career so far.
We were treated to a little reminder of the breadth of the actor’s achievements with clips including Oldman playing punk bassist Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986) and the unrecognisable Lecter victim Mason Verger in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) director Tomas Alfredson, who was also present, describes him as the “swiss army knife of actors” and it is this versatility and range of Oldman’s acting that is truly astounding.
The beginnings of Oldman’s career can perhaps be seen in the telling story that as a child he was in a competition at Butlins Holiday Camp where he dressed up as Dracula, Oldman would later play Dracula professionally in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), but unfortunately he didn’t win anything at the competition that time. Later on Oldman won a scholarship to Rose Bruford Drama College and began to get roles in plays. As to his influences Oldman stated that he “always loved Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness and liked the dressing up aspect of acting”. He gained lead roles early on and surprisingly turned down Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette (1985) but got to work with Frears two years later in Prick Up Your Ears (1987). At the same time as shooting the film he was still doing plays as well in the evenings but Oldman’s talent was recognised with a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor for the film.
Oldman’s first big Hollywood roles came in the form of playing Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and the title role in Coppola’s Dracula. On Stone Oldman said “he is a masterful filmmaker but he can just be a bit of a bully sometimes” and in order to become the character of Oswald he had to put a portrait of the man together and was sent off to research the real man. Of his experience filming Dracula he said it was “quite a process to get the part, an extraordinary experience, and four weeks of rehearsal“. Oldman spent over 100 hours in the make-up chair in total being transformed into the old man Dracula and thinks extremely highly of the director stating that Coppola is “arguably one of the greatest living American directors and if you want a master class in film making look no further than The Godfather Part II (1974)”.
One of Gary Oldman’s stand-out performances is in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) where he plays Drexl Spivey, a white Rastafarian pimp who believes he is black. Oldman is almost unrecognisable in the role and exclaimed “I love the toys!” when talking about the wig, eyeball and teeth he got to play around with in order to develop the character of Drexl. Apparently in the very last scene of Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), filmed while he was preparing for the role of Drexl, he already had the Drexl lilt going on. Oldman also got a kid to read the script and changed the script accordingly to make it more authentic and listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap music to prepare for the distinctive role.
Oldman is renowned for playing villains and it is the unpredictability of these villains that he so greatly portrays. On how he goes about creating a character Oldman said “a character is a composite of things and you take these pieces and they’re all a way of creating the character”. For his latest incarnation as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oldman revealed that the director Tomas Alfredson sent him a 1940s black and white image of Graham Greene that he used to pick the coat and the look of his Smiley. The actor also recalled how they had John Le Carre (the author of TTSS) as a resource and he observed his mannerisms and there is some La Carre in the voice, but only some as “John Le Carre has a voice like music and a slight lisp that would be too much for two hours”. Oldman also informed us that “there is a musicality to Smiley” but also “I think there is a sadism and a cruelty and a meanness to Smiley that is in the book and Alec (Guinness) chose not to use” explaining how his Smiley is different to that of Guinness’.
Not only is Oldman an incredible actor but he is also a skilled director and encouraged an exceptional performance from Ray Winstone in his directorial debut, the harrowing Nil By Mouth (1997). Oldman refers to this as an “emotional well” and stated that “it took six weeks but 30 years in development”. However the film is perhaps not as autobiographical as some may believe and Oldman confided that “it’s a love story, an unusual one. When it first came out people wanted it to be more about me than it really was and it didn’t matter if I would say to them it’s semi-autobiographical but these characters are sort of, this Ray is a composite of this person and that person and a guy I knew at school, and imagination, I made him up, I made that character up and people wanted it to be really about me more than it was and it didn’t matter what I told them”.
Oldman also said that he observed other directors before directing and decided that “directors can be pretty nasty and manipulative and Oliver Stone can really wind you up and I thought if I directed I would never be like that” but in contrast he said that “every morning on set Tomas Alfredson shakes your hand and says welcome to work”. When asked if he will direct again Oldman replied that he will do but life and circumstances get in the way and he hopes to in the next couple of years. The actor not only draws on personal experiences for directing but also for acting and confessed that “when you see Dracula crying that is Gary crying”.
The last ten years of his career he reflects on very fondly as lots of fantasy and dressing up with Harry Potter, Oldman played Sirius Black in four of the Potter films, and the work with Chris Nolan, the Batman films. Oldman revealed “I had a great time working with Colin” (Firth, in TTSS) and that he is planning to work with him again, something a bit cheeky in which he is sworn to secrecy but he disclosed it would be a remake of a classic, though not that well-known, from the 1960s with two actors although he said he won’t be directing it.
Once the talk had drawn to a close the questions were opened up to the audience and Oldman revealed that in relation to Leon (1994) “the question I’m asked is ‘what’s in the tablet?’ I really still don’t know to this day I guess it’s anything you want it to be, it was a tic tac” and that the role of Zorg was “me singing for my supper because Luc (Besson director of The Fifth Element 1997) had come in and partly financed Nil By Mouth… but of course I owed him one and so he got me in as Zorg, sight unseen, I had not read the script. The call came and we knew the call would come, the call always comes. He said ‘Gary owes me’. Douglas called me and said ‘the Frenchman’s called’ and I said ‘so he wants me to be in Fifth Element?’ ‘You got it.’”
Gary Oldman is one of the most talented British actors around and his vast body of work confirms his ability to transform and metamorphose. The talk was thoroughly enjoyable and hugely insightful and Gary Oldman was charismatic and interacted with the audience throughout. This evening confirmed for everybody what a fascinating man he is and also what a genuinely nice guy he is too. I look forward to watching Oldman again and again in both old and new roles.