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Gary Oldman on His Path From Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill

On Dec. 10, when Gary Oldman accepts the Variety prize at the British Independent Film Awards for focusing the international spotlight on the U.K., his three-decade career will be bookended by two British icons: Sid Vicious and Winston Churchill. Now that’s range — though to Oldman, the punk figurehead and the prime minister share an emotional link.

“They’re anti-establishment in their very own peculiar way,” says Oldman. “They’re outsiders.” He can relate. Oldman grew up in a crumbling Victorian house on a poor block of South London that suffered the worst rocket attack of the Blitz, when 168 people were killed in a Woolworth’s. The war that Churchill persuades Parliament to fight in “Darkest Hour” had been over for 15 years, but young Oldman still played in the bombed shells of houses that no one could afford to fix.

Oldman didn’t have an indoor toilet until he was 13. Growing up, he assumed he’d become a postman or truck driver, though he always had a flair for the arts. At 5, he smeared his face with greasepaint and fashioned a paper mache cape to play Dracula. He stole his mother’s plastic belt, glued empty cigarette packs to it, and colored it yellow so he could pretend to be Batman. To persuade mom for piano lessons, he fashioned a paper keyboard and practiced on the silent keys.

One night, Oldman saw Malcolm McDowell’s wheelchair-bound romance “The Raging Moon” on television and was struck with the incurable ache to become a professional actor. When he auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that year, he’d never seen a play, let alone read a Shakespeare monologue. He was 16 and he’d never even eaten in a restaurant. The academy told him he should consider another career.

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As Churchill would say: “Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

“I call it, ‘I test positive for the theater disease,’” laughs Oldman. He auditioned next for the Young People’s Theatre and this time he got in. When he wasn’t rehearsing, he washed floors, sold shoes, worked on assembly lines, lugged equipment in a surgical room, and sliced the ears off pigs in a slaughterhouse.

Even acting could be gruesome. After nine years of upward struggle, he got his first big on-camera role as a skinhead on the Channel 4 TV movie “Meantime,” directed by Mike Leigh. His co-star Tim Roth threw a milk bottle at the ceiling, and it shattered on Oldman’s head. They raced to the hospital where Oldman, aware that he looked like a bloody thug, pleaded, “Tell ’em I’m an actor!”

Three years later, Oldman snatched his first leading film role in “Sid & Nancy” and moved to Hollywood. Still, he insists, “I’ve always had a very strong connection to England and I what guess you could call my Britishness — I certainly haven’t lost my accent.”

True, and he’s picked up a dozen others including Jamaican, Russian, Transylvanian, tough gangster, weak gangster, Southern redneck, intergalactic redneck, and more shades of all-American and provincially English than ordinary ears can distinguish.

What then, does he make of the quip in “Darkest Hour” when Churchill’s nemesis calls the British Bulldog, “an actor in love with the sound of his own voice”?

“I hope not to be put into that!” says Oldman. Churchill, he stresses, was a flip-flopper disliked by his own party. As for the line’s collateral insult to actors, Oldman is polite. “No names, but I’ve worked with just a few along the way.”

Oldman once described his career by his follicles. “When you’re in movies, your hair is never your own,” he said in the mid-’90s, when he’d just gone from Romanian bouffant to dreadlocks to Beethoven’s frosted curls. In “Darkest Hour,” he’s nearly bald and completely hidden behind cheeks and chins. Says Oldman, “It’s very strange not to recognize yourself onscreen.”

Today, he describes his career in more sweeping language. “When you’re in movies, your life isn’t your own,” says Oldman. When he talks about preparing to play Churchill, he uses words like “kidnap” and “surrender.” Yet, he can’t stop chasing that next role. He’d especially like to do a comedy — a proper one, not just a drama or thriller with comedic touches. “Maybe one day before I hang up my boots,” he says. “Just being able to do the job is a wonderful thing. And then if people want to give you prizes at the end of it, my gosh.”

Two years ago, Oldman was delighted to present an award: a Walk of Fame star to his hero, McDowell. “It was wonderful to see him and say very publicly what his influence had been on me,” says Oldman with palpable pleasure. Does he know that the 16-year-old Michael Fassbender was inspired by him?

“Has he said that?” exclaims Oldman. “Oh that’s very kind of him! We’re all links in a chain.”

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