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Legendary actor Gary Oldman has been one of the most laureled performers of the season for his work as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.” As of Tuesday, he’s an Oscar nominee for just the second time in his storied career, and he remains frontrunner to win the award in March after scooping up a slew of critics prizes as well as the Screen Actors Guild trophy last weekend. In many ways it is the role of a lifetime, and if indeed Oldman graces the stage as winner of this year’s best-actor Oscar, there will no doubt be plenty who will view it as a long time coming for an artist who has dazzled with his commitment and grace for decades.
Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.
“You have a man who lived to 90,” Oldman says of Churchill. “It’s estimated that he smoked 165,000 cigars in his lifetime. He fought in four wars. He wrote 50 books. He wrote more words than Shakespeare and Dickens put together. He painted something like 600 paintings. He had 16 exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the Nobel Prize for literature. The list goes on and on and on. And he was the man who stood up to the Nazi tyranny. This remarkable giant brain that he had — I’ve developed a great appreciation for him. I mean, he was a genius.”
The role called for an extensive makeup application process every day to get into the physical space of Churchill. That’s something Oldman has been quite accustomed to throughout his career with roles in films like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “True Romance” and “The Fifth Element,” to name a few. But he has taken a break from that as of late.
“The last time I was in that kind of makeup, I think, was for ‘Hannibal,'” he recalls. “That was a whole thing with contact lenses and they had a device that held my eyelids open so I couldn’t blink. It was a crazy process and I swore after that that I would never do it again. But when this came up, it was a necessity. It was the only way to go. And ‘Hannibal’ was eight days, but with Winston, you’re looking at 50 in that makeup. It’s a lot to go through, but of course when you’re working with that kind of material, it really is like a synthetic skin. It’s not cumbersome or restrictive in any way.”
When you’re an industry veteran enjoying the kind of love and attention Oldman is receiving this year, there can be a tendency to look back at one’s catalogue and career. But Oldman says he’s reticent to do so because, in his estimation, all of that is “old work.” He feels compelled to keep pushing forward rather than pause and ponder his accomplishments.
“Someone once asked me, ‘What’s your favorite role?’ And I always say next week, the next one,” Oldman says. “If you get too complacent and self-satisfied with it — I think wanting to work and make it better and get better, that’s what keeps you going. I had a conversation with Denzel Washington, who is at the moment in rehearsal for ‘The Iceman Cometh.’ He’s playing Theodore Hickman, so a mammoth, titanic thing. It’s a giant role. But he doesn’t have to put himself through that. He can make a living from screen acting. But he said, ‘I need to do it. I need to feed the actor in me.'”
Nevertheless, Oldman does indulge a glance back at a few key roles that were particular challenges, movies like “State of Grace,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and the installments “Dark Knight” trilogy in particular.
For more, including thoughts on working in the performance-capture realm on Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol,” as well as an anecdote about how he ended up in a Guns N’ Roses music video, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.
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|Gary Oldman photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety