TWO days after receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman took to the stage in front of a sold-out audience at Curzon’s glorious Mayfair cinema.
Having just witnessed the actor deliver a relentless and electric two-hour masterclass as Britain’s greatest ever Prime Minister, it was quite a picture for those in attendance to see Oldman looking slim and relaxed – more art critic than British Bulldog.
It is no surprise that the conversation quickly turned to talk of the 59-year-old actor’s remarkable transformation. A makeover that, as Oldman pointed out, would not have been possible without the expert work of special effects and make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji – whom Oldman dragged out of retirement for one last film project.
Tsuji (Hell Boy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and many others) worked closely with Oldman to configure the detailed prosthetics before passing the baton on to the steady hands of David Malinowski (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).
From then on, Malinowski was tasked with the arduous job of assembling Tsuji’s effects on Oldman’s face ahead of each day’s filming. This meant 2.30am starts and more than four hours of methodical application and concentration.
As well as precious time, Oldman had to sacrifice his hair for the process, facing an over-exuberant razor (which he dreaded), shortly followed by a slab of cold glue.
Despite this, Oldman managed to find joy in this drawn-out process. He thanked partner Gisele Schmidt – and Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show – for keeping him entertained. In true British spirit, he found humour in what could have been a rather punishing experience.
Once the make-up was finished, Oldman donned a fat suit as the final touch. Did Churchill’s hefty frame weigh down Oldman’s ability to perform? Certainly not. The actor said Churchill’s skin was ‘comfortable’, comparing it to wearing a ‘cross your heart’ bra – he forgot he was even wearing it.
Underneath the layers of make-up and prosthetics, Oldman had the equally taxing task of getting into the mind of Churchill. A demand made all the more daunting given his status as one of Britain’s most lauded figures – and the list of 800-something books written about him. Not to mention the other 50 books Churchill churned out himself.
Oldman read a selection of recommended books, but said it was in watching past footage that he started to build a picture of ‘the Churchill’ he wanted to portray.
He explained: ‘What really struck me was the energy and the dynamism of the character.’ He continued: ‘We see him as this grumpy guy sort of shuffling around. But what I saw on the footage was someone who was skipping around and marching around – and was very cherubic. He looked like a big pink baby.
‘And he had this wonderful sparkle in his eye. He looked like a boy who had nicked a few sweets from the tuck shop and was going to share them with his mate behind the bike shed at lunch time. I mean, he’s got this naughty schoolboy thing about him.’
A visit to Churchill’s War Rooms was also high on Oldman’s list. In particular an opportunity to sit in Churchill’s chair where Oldman, channelling Smiley in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, extracted meaning from the divots and scratches on the arms of the chair. ‘His behaviour lives in that chair. You get a sense of his anxiety,’ Oldman said.
Oldman’s insight into his journey to become Churchill made for a fascinating evening at the Curzon Mayfair. It provided a glimpse into the hard and long preparation behind a mammoth performance. One worthy of a mammoth figure in British politics.
No wonder the film world is abuzz with the view that Oldman’s hard work and make-up room patience will be rewarded with a 13inch golden statuette next month. I for one hope so.