There are transformations and then there is Gary Oldman’s Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. The actor endured five hours in the makeup chair daily to transform into the rotund politician who rescued Britain from WWII. With the semi-retired makeup legend Kazuhiro Tsuji behind the making of the mask, Oldman worked intimately to disappear into the role. On set, nobody met Gary Oldman for months. And, he says, it gave him a new appreciation for the British politician who strove to bring an end to WWII.
When the news breaks that Joe Wright is doing a Churchill movie, and that he’s cast you as Churchill, it’s hard not to double-take. What was your first reaction?
I think my reaction was much the same as yours. Most of the work that I’ve done over the years, I’ve hardly ever chased. I’m at the mercy of the industry, and you’re beholden to the imaginations of the people that are casting the roles. A Churchill project came my way in 2014, and my reaction was, “Don’t be utterly ridiculous.” It was never in my consciousness, even. You could see yourself playing Lear, maybe, down the road. Lear can be different things to different people. But when you start with the robust silhouette of a man like Churchill, with the big jowls and the double chin, it’s hard to see that.
When the first one came by, I let it go. This piece was more interesting to me because it offered a chance to reconnect with Eric Fellner at Working Title, Joe was in the mix, and the script, I thought, took an interesting approach. To look at that 28-day period—that very specific moment in time. I wasn’t being asked to play a life; Churchill through many, many years. It honed it and laid the themes into clothes I could try on. I could see how it would work.
But the physical aspect was always going to be a challenge. I’m coming up to a milestone; I’m nearly 60. I would have had to put on about 80 pounds, which I couldn’t do. Makeup was the only answer.
So what next?
In my mind, Kazuhiro Tsuji was the only makeup artist who could pull it off. Even though Kazu had retired, I managed to seduce him out of retirement and get him on board. Then we did a series of tests to find out if it was even doable. You needed not only a makeup artist, but an artist as well as a makeup artist, and because of those huge, realistic sculptures Kazu does, he looks at bone structure and anatomy. But even he scratched his head at the start and said, “I’m not sure I can do this.” He wasn’t convinced. We did a head cast, and an early sculpt on that, and it was really promising.
It turned out Kazu’s studio was only half an hour away from my house, so I didn’t have to travel long distances to work with him. I could slip over there and see what he was up to. We went to a full Churchill look, because he had a scar on the top of his head running up from his eyebrow. We went for as much detail as we could. You ended up sort of losing me in the process, so we had to pull it back so that Gary and Winston would complement one another. It ended up as a hybrid between the two.
Once I knew it could work, my other real concern was stamina. You have the locomotion of the piece, and Churchill was in virtually every scene of the movie. The makeup would take four hours, and then I’d work a 12-hour day, followed by an hour at the end to take it off. So it was 18- or 20-hour waking days. Then, when you come in, you’re the motor. I think I must have a Guinness World Record, actually, because it was 48 consecutive days in the makeup.
Presumably, most people on set knew you solely as Churchill.
Yeah, Joe actually didn’t see me as Gary for three months. We were shooting at Ealing Studios, and they still have the same old dressing rooms, across the corridor from the stage. I would come out of the dressing room having already been through makeup, and there would be day players lining the corridor. You’d have office girls, girls from the typing pool, various guards and soldiers all lined up along the hall, waiting to be called to set, and walking past them was an interesting thing because all the soldiers would suddenly stand upright and come to attention. Ladies would curtsy. People would stare at me because the makeup was so good that you could literally stand an inch from me and you couldn’t tell I was wearing any. It was fascinating to people. It was really like being the Prime Minister for a few months.
Did their reaction give you a sense of how much pressure Churchill was under in this period?
Yes. Other things too. I’ll tell you a story. Because of the movie, we were allowed access to things; behind-velvet-ropes tours of Blenheim Palace and Chartwell. We went to the War Room, and the curator there let me sit in the actual war cabinet room, in the chair that Winston had sat in. He wasn’t there every day. It wasn’t like they spent the entire war in the War Room. But on the arm of this wooden chair, on the left-hand side, there were these huge divots that he had made with his fingernails. On the right arm, there were scratches from the family ring he wore. That, to me, was a big clue, because it is a state of mind that is now imprinted in the chair. We forget that his army was only 300,000 men, and that he was very likely to lose in Dunkirk, when Hitler’s army numbered some five million.
I think that he’s got the reputation as being a hard sort of taskmaster. But you can get a real sense of the man from the reading, and the material, and I went to the newsreel footage, specifically during this time. The revelation to me was a man who was vital and energized, and full of life. This is the Winston that I saw, and I know that he’s often been represented in an older Churchill, a depressed Churchill, an infirm Churchill. You forget what a dynamo the man was. The man I discovered, on the newsreel footage, was someone who was just marching ahead. A man on a mission.
As an actor, you pull things from all different areas, and you use what you can. I, at one point, likened him to Kubrick, who I am told could be an absolute teddy bear. A loyal man, and wonderful with his family, and with his kids, and all the rest of it. But when he was on a set, he wanted 100%. His life was in the making of the film, and he wanted you 100% with him. His commitment to it was full on, and if your commitment didn’t hit 100%, if you weren’t on the train with him, he could give you a tongue lashing. He could turn and be a demon. It was so helpful to me, because I just thought, “Yeah, here’s this guy who’s, as he says, blood, toil, tears, and sweat. I am in this to win, and you’ve got to be on board, and you’ve got to be with me.”
I think if you fell below that, if you didn’t meet him there 100%, you could get quite a tongue lashing. But then, you read that, within a few minutes, he would apologize. You’re dealing with someone who was very taciturn. I’m sure it was not just in the stress of the moment.
Did you wind up liking Churchill? Were you able to form an opinion on him?
Yeah, when I was playing him, I loved him. I would love going in every day, spending 12 hours in his company. My respect for him, in terms of his achievements, has grown. He’s risen in stock tenfold. People say, “Was he a drunk, or was he an alcoholic?” When you look at all the achievements over his lifetime, I don’t know many politicians who could do that, let alone alcoholics.
Have you ever read his eulogy to Chamberlain? It’s the most beautiful piece of writing. I know he had his moments with Chamberlain, and in the heat of the moment said some perhaps cruel things about Neville. But he gives him such credit and says, “This would have been Chamberlain’s legacy if Adolf Hitler hadn’t stolen it from him.” You get a real sense of the heart of the man when you read that. You don’t have to agree with everything he did, and everything he said. You have to look at it through the prism of time, and the world was just a very, very different place.
My reading of the man, and the discovery of the man, will continue. There’s got to be 1,000 books written about him. I’ve only waded through a few. So my curiosity will follow long after the film.