One of the most esteemed actors of his generation, it’s truly a blunder for the Academy that until this year Gary Oldman had never even been nominated for an Oscar. During his 30-year career he’s shown extraordinary range, playing real-life figures like Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ludwig van Beethoven, literary icons like Rosencrantz, Dracula, Sirius Black, Lt. Jim Gordon and George Smiley and indelible cinematic creations like Drexl Spivey, Stansfield and Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. He’s appeared in supporting parts and leading roles, indies and blockbuster franchises, he’s even stepped behind the camera to write and direct 1997’s “Nil By Mouth,” and has been kicking around a project for over a decade about a sex addict which he still hopes to get off the ground. It really seems as though there is not anything Oldman isn’t capable of.
Thankfully the Academy has finally caught up and nominated him for Best Actor for his restrained, moving performance in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the acclaimed adaptation of novelist John le Carré’s spy thriller. Last week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York hosted Oldman for a career-spanning conversation where he discussed his beginnings as a stage actor, working with directors like Mike Leigh, Francis Ford Coppola, Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuarón and how all of his characters, for better or worse, are “stuck with him.”
Oldman says in the late '70s there was no training for film and his only options were the theater or radio, so he decided the stage was a more obvious choice. He acted alongside Mark Rylance, Rupert Everett and Robbie Coltrane in theater troupes before eventually gaining roles in film and television and hasn’t stopped working since. For the first decade of his career as an actor he would alternate between plays and films, with the two overlapping frequently. “When I was in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ [a 1987 Stephen Frears film about British playwright Joe Orton], I was in five plays. So I would arrive on the set at 8 o’clock [in the morning] and I would shoot [my part as] Joe Orton and at 5 [p.m.] the car would get me and I would go to the theater. And I had five plays in my head. I don’t know how I [did that]. That would terrify me now. I don’t know how I managed to do that. But I had quite really a successful career [in the theater].” Though it’s been several decades since he’s appeared on stage, Oldman hopes to return to it someday and says he “flirts with it” all the time.
One of his first onscreen roles was working with British director Mike Leigh in a 1984 on a made-for-TV film called “Meantime” that co-starred Tim Roth and Alfred Molina.
“Mike Leigh has carved a very unique way of working." Oldman said. "He’s the only person who works like that. It is six months rehearsal. He sort of has a theme and he knows where the movie will be set. But there’s no story. There are no characters. But [the film emerges] through a series of improvisations. First you work on your own character before you meet other [actors] and indeed there are other characters [you may not meet at all]. There are actors in that film that I didn’t meet the entire six months of working because my character wouldn’t know them. So we never interacted. It’s an extraordinary way of working.” Though he loved the unique experience of working with the acclaimed filmmaker, Oldman does take issue with his onscreen credit. “It used to be ‘Devised and Directed by Mike Leigh.’ When I worked with him it was ‘Devised and Directed’ which I think is a better description of it. He’s since taken the title of writer. ‘Written and Directed.’ And there is some truth in that but if you take a movie like ‘Naked,’ I think [lead actor] David Thewlis wrote that role.”
Having played so many roles based on real people, Oldman discussed the pros and cons of having something to draw on and said that playing a real life figures both “a blessing and a curse.” “There’s invariably a lot of source material that you can draw on. And with Sid [Vicious], there’s a lot of footage that one can watch. But you are confined, somewhat. [Whereas] with a fictional role you can sort of let your imagination fly in a different way.” Without having the benefit (or burden) of research, Oldman says he always starts by finding the voice of the character. There was a period in the '90s where Gary Oldman was nearly unrecognizable each time he was onscreen. From Dracula to Drexl Spivey, he had a different accent in nearly every role and each was completely unimpeachable.
“It’s the sound for me, [figuring out] the way a character sounds. There’s no set method, I don’t have a particular way of [working]. Sometimes I use music, sometimes I use photographs, pictures, paintings [though] mostly music. To me, acting is not intellectual. It’s a sensation, it’s a feeling. And music gives you that, it’s like pornography, it’s immediate. And it works in a different frequency. And I find that for me it’s a great way of working and it’s very inspirational," Oldman explained. "And it can create an ambiance and a mood. Music changes the molecules in the air. It’s a supreme art form. So I tend to work with music and I want to know how the character sounds. That’s really where I start. I was looking for a voice for [George] Smiley. And I was lucky enough to have access to ['Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' author] John le Carré and then when I met him it all worked for me. And I sort of, I stole John’s voice, really. You start of really with an impersonation and the more I work on it the further you get away from that and you own it. It becomes its own thing. With Smiley, the physicality I got from the book [and as a resource], it’s like the le Carré cookbook. The recipe, the ingredients, it’s all there. And if you follow it carefully, you’ll cook a good Smiley.”
For his role in “Hannibal” as the grotesque Mason Verger, he took inspiration from the author. “I met ['Silence of the Lambs' and 'Hannibal' author] Thomas Harris for five minutes and I got the voice for [my character in] 'Hannibal,' for Mason Verger. And I met him and [imitates the character] this is how he spoke and that’s the character. There it is. You find things sometimes when you’re not looking for it. And it can be an accident.” For “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” where he speaks with a deep baritone he worked with an opera singer to achieve the desired effect. “I heard the voice for Dracula [in my head] but couldn’t physically do it. So I worked with an opera singer for 2 ½, 3 months to lower my voice. Funny, sometimes you hear something but you can’t do it, you can’t achieve it but I remember reading the script and I heard that sound.”
“I don’t seek out roles. I get offered to play things, people call," Oldman said. "You don’t get offered every script and for a while there I was typecast. I did those two roles for Luc Besson, the comic caricatures in 'Leon: The Professional' and 'The Fifth Element' and then everything that came in was a villain and you know, you’ve got to work.” This villainous run of roles included Ivan Korshunov in "Air Force One" and Spider Smith in "Lost In Space." One of his earlier performances as a famous antagonist was as the title character in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” though he was initially attracted to it for it’s more romantic aspects. “I wanted to do the film because I thought the line, ‘I’ve crossed oceans of time to find you,’ that’s what made me want to do the movie. I read that line, I thought, ‘I’ve got to say that to someone.’ That’s really why I wanted to do the movie, I had no desire above that. I never thought [before that], ‘Well, I hope I get to play Dracula.’ It wasn’t an ambition of mine. My life would have been fine without it. But to love someone that much to be able to say a line like that [was what made me take the role].”
The rehearsal period on the film was unusual on such a large production but all part of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s unique way of working. “Four weeks rehearsal up in Napa [Valley], what we call 'Camp Coppola.' He cooked a lot of dinners and we drank a lot of his wine and we read the book out loud, which was tough. We improved and rehearsed.” Oldman also said that the experience shooting the film was memorable even as the long hours and heavy makeup began to wear him down. “[During filming] there were two units running next to one another. There was the main unit and there was the second unit which his son was directing, Roman. Which meant I never had a rest, I never had a day off. It was a six month shoot and I worked 150 hours in the old man makeup alone. That’s a lot of glue on your face. But you surrender to it, you have to find a peace with it. You know what you’re getting into if you’re playing Hamlet or you’re doing Dracula you’ve got to go with the flow. You can’t let it get to you.”
Though he’s managed to find a sympathetic side to many “evil” characters, Oldman has drawn the line when it comes to portraying real life horror. “I was asked to play Charles Manson. It was too much karma around that. Out of respect for the sister that’s still living and [Roman] Polanski [who’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate was murdered by Manson’s cult]. But you play a villain or you play a bad guy, you’ve got to find something that’s likable. I mean, look at ‘The Sopranos.’ Why do we keep watching and rooting for Tony Soprano? He’s a bastard.”
When asked what he wants a director to do, Oldman answered bluntly, “Leave me alone,” before following up to say, “The good ones do. They nudge you but I think good directing is knowing when not to say something. When you can see something going and you can see something cooking and you let it happen. But they all have their own way of working. You have someone like Peter Medak, I did a movie with him called ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ and he talks like this [imitates soft Hungarian accent], ‘Gary, I love your face.’ And you go from that to Tony Scott who, when he gets one [take] that he likes it’s like, [shouts] ‘BINGO! FIRST ONE! PRINT!’ Oliver [Stone]'s a bully, a talented bully.”
For his latest film, “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” he worked with Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let The Right One In”) who had a brisk but calm way of working. “And then Tomas [Alfredson], who did ‘Tinker Tailor,’ you’re looking at two takes. He didn’t really like doing more than [two], you’d get a third take if you’re lucky. It was a big film and it was an indie, we had to really move through it [quickly]. When Tomas really likes a take he does this thing [taps on his knees and claps] and after take two I would hear that and go, ‘Oh fuck, we’re moving on.’ ”
Having recently completed filming on his third film with Christopher Nolan, Oldman also seemed in awe of the unflappable filmmaker. “And Chris Nolan is very quiet. It’s amazing, you meet Chris on day ten and he’s standing there looking fresh faced and he’s got his cup of tea. And you come back 190 days later and he still looks just like he did when you met him on day two. It’s amazing stamina that he has. Very sure, very fast and very quiet. And he’ll give you a great note, he’ll come up to you and say, ‘That was good, let’s do another take. [pauses] There’s a little bit more at stake.’ ” Oldman joked, “You mean like Gotham? Or the world?”
“I wish I had known then what I know now,” Oldman said. The actor admitted he was as in the dark about his character Sirius Black’s true intentions as much as the readers. “As each book came out you learned more and more about the character and I think it may have influenced me. If I had known where he was going and who this guy was, I think I may have played him differently. Kinda interesting.” As far as getting any hints from author J.K. Rowling, he said that he never saw her and she mostly “stays away” from production.
He also noted that working on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was a Potter reunion of sorts as most of the cast (and entire British film industry) had at one point or another been involved with the mega-franchise. “But it’s funny working on ‘Tinker Tailor’ because it’s really six degrees of ‘Harry Potter.’ Most of us have worked on those [films]. I think Colin Firth and Mark Strong are the only two [who weren't involved]. My friend Ciarán Hinds, wonderful Irish actor, got into the last one as Dumbledore’s brother. All of us have been in them!”
Most critics will cite the third film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” as the turning point for the series and Oldman agreed that he was partial to that installment. “Going back each time, the crew, the makeup people were there for the ten, twelve years. And it was like reuniting with one’s family. It was a fantastic experience. And my first one [‘Prisoner of Azkaban’], and not just because I’m in it, I think Alfonso Cuarón’s one is the best. He’s an artist. There are those people that make movies and those people that make films. There are filmmakers and moviemakers and they are very different animals. And I think Tomas is another one, you just know when you’re working with an artist. And there is something about Alfonso and the whole atmosphere of the ‘Prisoner of Azkaban.’ So I feel very lucky that was my first one and it was with him.”
Oldman asked the audience, “Have you seen the trailer?” to an ecstatic room full of “YES!” replies. He paused before adding, “It looks really good. I haven’t seen the movie but Nolan’s so clever. So I’m looking forward to it. I get to see it [soon]. But it’s all a very secretive thing. The initial reading of the script is all under lock and key. There’s no ending to it, some of the actors don’t get pages. It’s all kept very secretive. But I understand the paranoia with spoilers and the script getting out. But I will get to see it put together soon like I’m a movie audience. I get to just see it through, the whole thing for the first time. They’re always very exciting the screenings of the Batman movies.” The actor also confirmed this will be the end of the series for Nolan and his team. “No, this is it for Chris Nolan. I was standing on the set here in New York. This is the new Gotham now, we shot Chicago out. And we were standing on a rooftop over here and I said, ‘Wow this is it.’ And [Nolan] said facetiously, ‘Yeah. [pause] Unless you want to whore your ass out for a load of money for ‘Batman 4.’ ”
“I was very fearful that comparisons would be made.” Oldman said. “Because you can’t tamper with the formula just for the sake of doing it. You can’t mess with the molecules. There is a DNA there [in the source material] and we are going to arrive at some of the same things because you’re playing the same role and it doesn’t have the license that ‘Hamlet’ has. You can be 19 and play Hamlet, you can be 35, you can be insane, you can be sane, you can be angry, you can be youthful, you can be tall, short, all of these things. It’s a much broader canvas to interpret. There are rules, it’s in the piece. And that was a little scary for me because Smiley is so particular. It filled me with great fear because you could really take a fall and [have people saying], ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ It’s all that stuff, it’s all in your head. So I sat with it for a month and eventually said yes.”
“A week before we started shooting I called the director and said, ‘Maybe I’m not your man.’ I don’t know why, maybe it was something to do with the part or because Guinness had such huge success with it that you knew you were going to be measured," he continued. "I mean you’re going to be measured. If you do ‘King Lear’ or ‘Hamlet’ or Willy Loman [in ‘Death of a Salesman’], you are going to be measured against all the great Hamlet’s and Willy Loman’s that came before you but they live in the memory of the people that were there [for those stage performances]. What is it? A couple thousand people, if ticket sales are good. With something like ‘Tinker Tailor,’ it’s a holy cow. It just is. And so we were all a little nervous. I think Tomas [Alfredson, the director,] was nervous to take it on, I think Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, the writers, were a little scared to take it on. But it’s good, a bit of fear keeps you on your toes.”
“The character is stuck with you. The character is stuck with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Daniel Day-Lewis. You learn that though. It’s not something you know instantly when you first start out.” Many actors will speak of having trouble shaking a character after they’ve finished a role but Oldman described having the opposite problem while filming two very different roles back-to-back. “I was doing a movie, ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ and we shot the very end of the film, in fact [it] was the actual end of the shoot, which is very rare. We were shooting out in the desert and the next morning I was going straight to the set of ‘True Romance,’ so I wrapped in the desert the Sunday night, drove to L.A. And the Monday morning I went to play Drexl [the colorful pimp in ‘True Romance’], with my wig and my eye and my teeth. [All of which director] Tony Scott had not seen. So I just turned up on the set in my play clothes and said, ‘Is it okay?’ and he liked it. But the end of ‘Romeo Is Bleeding’ I set out of the diner and the very last shot is me walking from the diner to the gas pump. And if you look closely I’ve already got the swagger of Drexl. I’m already sort of, morphing, doing the other guy. I didn’t even notice it until my girlfriend at the time, who’s in the movie, said ‘You know, I would do another take if I were you. You’re walking like a Drexl.’ ”