Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
In 1998, I interviewed British actor Gary Oldman, fresh from his directorial debut, the grim, harrowing Nil By Mouth. Yet his newest acting role was the camp cartoon villian Dr Zachary Smith in the remake of kids ’60′ TV series Lost In Space. Will the real Gary Oldman please stands up?
My original feature for Neon magazine follows…
“I was talking with an actress at a dinner party the other week,” says Gary Oldman, reaching for a cigarette. “She hadn’t worked in a long time. She was quite hot, but her career kind of faded out, and she went another way with her life, We were talking about acting, and I said to her, ‘Really, you’re not missing much’.”
“Certainly,” he continues, “mainstream cinema is, all said and done, an artistic endeavour,” he kicks off again. “Movies can’t be influenced by computers and video games. It just can’t continue to go the way it’s going. It’s a despair. It’s full of stereotypes, and icons, and all the myth, and all that stuff it’s preoccupied with. I dont recognise myself in those films. I sit there in the audience, and I go ‘I don’t recognise these people. Their live-in-their-perfect-fucking-house-in-the-perfect-fucking-marriage-with-their-fucking-kids’. Life comes and whacks you around the head. It fucking belts you around the head. I wanna shake those filmmakers. I wanna kick them around the fucking room when I see that shit.”
In light of his directorial debut – last month’s grim, harrowing Nil By Mouth – the traumatising, semi-autobiographical tale of alcoholism, domestic violence and family ties in South London, these words seem perfectly suited to an artist who has tired of playing cartoon villain stereotypes in bad American movies. up. You might even get the impression that he has put the strange bi-level haircuts and absurd European accents behind him in a bid – ml;ike Sean Penn – to atone for past cinematic atrocities.
In which case, think again. Gary Oldman’s new film is called Lost In Space. It is a Hollywood film, with a big budget and lots of special effects. Oldman plays D Zachary Smith, the camp bad guy. With a sibilant, cut-glass British accent. What, exactly, is the man once called Britain’s most exciting actor since Sir Laurence Oliver up to?
SITTING IN HIS HOTEL SUITE, BURNING his way through an everpresent pack of Marlboros, Gary Oldman paints a contemplative figure. Dressed soberly in a bespoke dark grey suit, he speaks softly and slowly, considering every question, eager to please. As long as the interview mentality isn’t tabloid, he’ll give as honest an answer as possible.
“Do you know that in an American magazine, it said I was a lunatic?” he snorts. “My mother reads that. I think stories like that upset your family. They say that I’m an East End drop out. I don’t come from the fucking East End, and I have a B.A. honours degree in theatre history.”
Going by Nil By Mouth, his family clearly matter to him. Oldman cast his elder sister Maureen Bass in the role of grand-matriach Janet, gave his nephew Gerry Bass a small part and got his mother to do the voiceover in a pub scene singsong. But Oldman’s life has moved as far away from his roots as it’s possible to get. A working class boy made good isn’t that unique but consider the parts he’s played.
He made his mark in the late ’80s by playing punk rock icon Sid Vicious in Sid And Nancy and anarchic gay playright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, which sent clear signals to Los Angeles that he meant business. Once in Hollywood, he advanced beyond playing the yuppie lawyer role in 1990′s lacklustre Criminal Law to hit a streak of roles that gave him room aplenty to perfect the dark, erratic sociopath – a trigger-happy psychopath in State Of Grace (for which reviews rated him above Sean Penn and Ed Harris), presidential killer Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, the lead role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the wannabe-Rasta pimp-dealer in True Romance, the crooked cop in Romeo Is Bleeding, the corrupt drugs agency boss in The Professional and the lead role in the Beethoven bio-pic Immortal Beloved. Meaty roles all but no Oscar nominations followed. Then came The Fifth Element, Air Force One and Lost In Space, all ‘fun’ roles that gave Oldman the chance, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s view of Katherine Hepburn, to run the gamut of emotions from A to B.
“I always get to play the bad guy because I guess there’s a perception out there about me that I’m difficult and mad and crazy,” Oldman quietly fumes, in acknowledgement of the tabloid attention to his own alcoholism and numerous ‘famous’ relationships, primarily with Uma Thurman (his second wife), Isabella Rossellini – their brief engagement ended when Oldman checked into rehab – and his current wife, Texan ex-model and Wham! man Andrew Ridgeley’s ex-girlfriend Donya Fiorentino, who Oldman met in rehab. But he’s having nothing of this supposedly enforced reputation. “As people like Luc Besson and Bruce Willis will tell you,” he says, “I’m a pussycat.”
Oldman’s Lost In Space co-star Heather Graham confirms much the same thing. “I know he plays these maniacs, but Gary is the most fun, laid-back, easy-going guy,” she claims. “I recently watched Sid And Nancy and he’s so sweet in that, he was so good. He was like a lost boy and I think that’s how he really is. He can be kind of wild, I’m sure, but I didn’t see that side of him. I would be interested in seeing him do softer stuff.”
But the soft stuff, Oldman claims, has just never come his way. “I guess I started to get into a bit of a rut with typecasting,” he shrugs. “I started to not take myself seriously, or my career, just because I was becoming a commodity. I’ve gotten tired of me, so I can imagine what it’s like for you guys with something like The Fifth Element! I’m a terrible ham. I mean, I do push the envelope a bit, don’t I? Even I go, ‘The Gary Oldman School of Over-Acting!’ Quite honestly, I sometimes look at the finished result and think ‘Oh, I didn’t realise I was doing that. But if some of the pleasure has gone out of acting, that’s also partly to do with the lack of imagination on behalf of people offering me parts. You’re still at the mercy of the scripts that come through your door. They don’t go ‘When Harry Met Sally? Get Gary Oldman’. No romantic comedies get sent to me. They go ‘Charles Manson? Gary Oldman!’”
Lost In Space director Stephen Hopkins, who bonded with Oldman over their shared dingy South London upbringing and alcoholic father, puts the actor’s predicament into perspective. “What happened to Gary is what happened to a lot of great British actors,” Hopkins opines. “The Hollywood system realised how important the villain is in the films they make, and seized on the great, important British actors, such as Basil Rathbone, Malcolm McDowell and Alan Rickman. If a brilliant character actor like Gary, in the end, finds it difficult to make a great living out here, from time to time, you make those choices. It can pay you tremendous amounts of money, and it can be fun. It’s just that it’s the larger-than-life films that people remember him for. In Immortal Beloved, he played a larger than life character, played the piano beautifully, and took it to great extremes, but those kind of films aren’t box office hits so he doesn’t get recognised.”
Hopkins’s experience of working with Oldman, he aintains, shows what a well-rounded, layered actor he really is. “He’s an incredible mimic for one. In the ‘Spider’ Smith incarnation he turns into at the end of Lost In Space, he’s up on stilts but he’s doing his lines in the style of Richard Burton, Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins. He has an amazing way of switching in and out of character. He can turn it on or off – he doesn’t carry his character around at all. On that sort of set, waiting around for hours waiting to do one of those shots, everyone’s really tense, make up for hours, with wires attached to you, and working around computer images that aren’t actually there, getting a shot is really hard work. And you can be shooting for 120 days.”
But why put yourself through that kind of ordeal? After all Oldman’s experiences, couldn’t he simply counteract those pressures by spurning those kind of roles?
“But if I play two expensive villains, then I can make Nil By Mouth,” Oldman quickly counters. “It’s the kind of situation where you start to chase your own tail. You become successful, your price goes up in the market, you start to earn more money, and though I don’t have a publicist and bodyguards and entourage, there are people who earn their living from the Gary Oldman industry, and you have a certain lifestyle, and then you have to maintain it. To take a year off, or nearly 18 months from acting, to make Nil By Mouth, with nearly two and a half million dollars of my own money, which I had to put in to get the film made…these are my bread and butter roles. I’ll do an Air Force One to pay the debt back.”
Hopkins confirms that Oldman was his first choice for the silly-billy English buffoon Zachary Smith – “we didn’t have $20 million actors in mind because we wanted to keep the money for screen, and the one fun juicy role was Doctor Smith, and I instantly thought of Gary” – and that Oldman agreed (after turning it down because his wife was pregnant) when he realised the state of his finances. Oldman maintains that Lost In Space wasn’t a purely fiscal decision: “I was obviously a little wary of the role but I could sense it was going to be a cracker,” he argues. “And I had a fantastic time on the film. It looks terrific, there’s great dialogue, there was some fantastic stuff to do in it, and my kid Alfie, who’s nine, can watch it with me.”
He’ll happily justify his decisions until he is blue in the face. The Fifth Element was a favour to his friend Luc Besson, who directed him in The Professional and who helped raise the foreign finance for Nil By Mouth. Romeo’s Bleeding, “I didn’t see that particularly as selling out,” he stresses. State of Grace “had some of my best work and it never got noticed. And Dracula, that’s Francis Ford Fucking Coppola, pal!” When he read the Tarantino script for True Romance, “I laughed my leg off. I loved the whole cocktail of it. I thought it would lubricate my tool. But it hardly made me into a leading man.”
Of course, Oldman had the chance to play a real, three-dimensional villain, namely Ray, the monstrous paterfamilias in Nil By Mouth based on Oldman’s own alcoholic father, a part he gave to Ray Winstone instead.
“I don’t know if I’d want to play Ray,” he quickly counters. ‘It’s painful, and exhausting doing that shit. I dont mean that in a method-acting ‘I become the character’ kind of way – no-one becomes the character, and anyone who says they do is talking a load of old fanny. I have been drawing on that well of Nil By Mouth and channelling it through various characters, the exterior, the facility of it, for ages. In Dracula, it’s the rubber face and the big wig but it’s not Dracula crying, it’s Gary, and you have to somehow go to a place to conjure it up. I used to use my father, but I think I’ve worn him out. Anyway, I sometimes feel that I’ve played every emotion there is to play, and I’ve got a little tired of it.”
“There’s this movie that I wanted to do for so long, a David Mamet script called Edmund. It’s dark, self-destructive spiral of a role, that spiral of New York, on the streets. The movie starts with the guy walking out on his wife, and having a breakdown. He ends up in a cell, sucking a black man’s cock, and finds peace. That’s dark. It’s fantastically written, but nobody would give us a nickel to do it. Agents would run and hide when they saw me coming, because they’d say ‘we have this big movie’ and I’d go ‘yeah, but what about Edmund?’. Seven years later, I eventually get the call from Mamet, saying ‘I hear you like Edmund, do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘no, not now, not today. I don’t want to climb that mountain.”
OLDMAN KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE AT THE BASE of that particular mountain, from the days when he was a mere toddler. He was born on the council estates in Deptford, one of South London’s choicest armpits. His father, Leonard, was an ex-merchant seaman and joiner who drank like a fish (“my mum used to call the pub ‘The Magnet’ because he couldn’t walk past it without going in”) and then abandoned his wife and three kids when Gary was seven. The only boy and the youngest by thirteen years, without paternal guidance and companionship Gary admits that he retreated into a world of toys and fantasising. “I was always off in another world, as a kid. So it seemed like a natural extension of all that to be an actor. I used to do party pieces as a kid, and I was a big show-off.”
Oldman took the blows of being told by teachers that he was dumb, and he left school without a single qualification. He worked at KG Sports in Peckham, and enjoying the odd caper into petty crime. Seeing Malcolm McDowell in two ‘Angry Young Men’ Brit-films, Lindsay Anderson’s anti-establishment allegory If and Bryan Forbes’ paraplegic drama The Raging Moon, showed Oldman a way out, and into acting. “I identified totally with the anti-hero in If, who rages against the system. I was so angry about how bad my education was that I wanted to turn a machine gun on the headmaster and sit on the roof like McDowell and just kill people. And that’s why I still like to play these outsiders, these people who are always very screwed up.”
He tried his hand with the Greenwich Young People’s Theatre, then experienced more rejection when RADA turned him down. But he was accepted by the Rose Bruford School of Speech and Drama, largely because of his audition piece, taken from Joe Orton’s establishment-baiting play Entertaining Mr. Sloane. “I wasn’t conscious of wanting to get out,” he ponders. “Deep down inside, it was just that there’s much more to life than this, and whatever it takes, I was gonna tear myself away from it. So I guess acting was a way of getting out, and escaping it.”
He has only returned to that place with Nil By Mouth, as a way of settling emotional debts. “It’s alove letter to my dad,” says Oldman, baldly. “He died when he was 62 and we were never reconciled. I barely knew him. Despite what he did, I missed him all my life. I drank over that for twenty five years. I felt that it was time to put some closure on it all, and have some forgiveness.”
Talking through the experience of making his film, Oldman only gets visibly heated when the tabloid angle raises its contentious head. Oldman already had a grudge against those British critics who, he reckons, held a grudge against him for “committing the ultimate sin. I went to America and was successful, like ‘who do you think you are?’” When The Sun printed ‘DRUNKEN DAD TRIED TO DROWN MY MUM’ after Nil By Mouth debuted in Cannes, Oldman hit the roof, claiming that the story had got twisted, that his dad never beat up his mum, and that the wife-beater in Nil By Mouth was a composite of his real dad, an old schoolmate and an ex-brother-in-law. The tabloids have been having a field day where Oldman is concerned for a few years now, since it became public that the sins of the father have been visited on the son, and that Oldman had succumbed to the booze himself.
Oldman is handy with the psychoanalysis. For him, peer-group pressure and an isolated child’s need to belong opened the door to drinking; the added confidence he gained through alcohol saw him through the actor’s rollercoaster lifestyle of highs and lows, auditions and parties, of airport lounges and hotel rooms, on-set exhilaration and boredom, and not forgetting all the increasing public expectations.
“When I started to drink,” he remembers, “it was like Dorothy going into Technicolour. Look in bars. See how things go in the evening. Under the pressure from alcohol, everyone is trying to play his character in real life. Once you drink a few glasses, you feel stronger, greater. You have an opinion on everything. For me, everything was easier because I was popular. I was in the movie business.”
Oldman’s focus had originally shifted to Hollywood when the movie roles on offer in the UK “were about two a year, and Daniel Day Lewis and Tim Rioth were getting those,” he reckons. Drawing on his working class background for numerous working class roles in British films, Oldman had excelled, but in Tinseltown, he was forced to draw on other reserves. The pressure mounted, and Oldman cracked. “As an actor, you’re always messing around with your emotions,” he offers as a form of justification. “You can cry in front of 500 people, or scream, or rape someone, and it releases things in you. But it makes me anxious and neurotic, and hell to live with.”
He says he was never a violent drunk: “I’d get very melancholic instead. I did that terribly well. I could be incredibly self-destructive.” But his week-long binges saw off his first marriage to actress Lesley Manville (it lasted two years) and a second to Uma Thurman, which lasted twelve months (imagine, the absolutely fabulous Thurman is waiting for you at home, an you’re out boozing with your mates for a week. Oldman must have been ill). Two bottles of vodka a day, and he was still able to stand up. Until the next day. “I remember crawling to the bathroom like an 85-year old man. I’d have to drink three vodkas before I could keep one down. I kept thinking ‘something’s not right here’.”
He sought help “because of a sense of my own mortality. And because of my tongue. I used to wake up and it would be a vile green colour. And I grew sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
But not before Oldman had wrapped his car around a Sunset Boulevard lamppost, sans driving license, after a night out with fellow actor Kiefer Sutherland. The tabloids, naturally, had a field day. Hence the ‘lunatic’ jibe that so incensed him. “You know, there is not one paparazzi picture of me coming out of a nightclub, or having an argument with someone! he snorts. “It doesn’t exist! OK, I got nicked once, for drunken driving, but that’s one night! In LA, in the history of that town, I dont know one actor who hasn’t been nicked for drunken driving. I’ve never lived it down – ‘wild man partier’ – I’m an isolationist! I hate parties, clubs and pubs.”
IN ORDER TO MAKE NIL BY MOUTH, OLDMAN SAYS he had to be sober.
First, to distance himself from the past in order to exorcise it, and also to be physically able to cope with directing a film. His 1995 sojourn in a drying-out clinic in Virginia produced the will to finally trounce his habits, but the stakes have been changed in the process. Three years on, Oldman, the new director in town, is the first to cast doubt on the future of Oldman, the established actor.
He’s obviously got what it takes for superlative performances and dedication to the task, as he proved when he played Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. Already an accomplished pianist, Oldman accepted the challenge by “chaining myself to the piano for about four hours a day to practise,” and then only facing the camera when he had fully investigated what it was like to be profoundly deaf. But if the flesh may be willing, but the spirit is clearly weak. “If I won the lottery, I would never step in front of a camera again,” is his candid response. “That’s how I feel at the moment, anyway. Acting is how I earn my living. I don’t have the fire in my belly any more to do it.
“It’s not that I don’t like acting, but its not enough for me any more to come in and basically hit the marks, and say the lines. And supposedly work with wonderful people – which is crap. You get a little sick of being the one there with the better idea.” With that, Oldman lets out a large laugh.
Oldman isn’t planning to retire yet. he gets fired up when he talks about being offered a role in a Woody Allen project (he won’t say which), “a call I’ve been waiting for for ten years,” but that his schedule wouldn’t allow him to accept. The same schedule meant he could only take a cameo in Terence Mallick’s much-anticipated WWII drama The Thin Red Line, as a army colonel. A price to pay, then, for following the villains-for-pay route.
But if Oldman’s acting career has reached a crossroads, then Stephen Hopkins reckons that Nil By Mouth suggests an enormous potential for film-making. “Great actors are often great directors because they understand what works and what doesn’t. He’ll make a great director because he’ll be so specific, which is what really good fim making is all about, and can get lost in film-making.”
What’s next? Oldman confirms that he has started two short scripts related to Nil By Mouth, under the joint name of Roast Beef. One features the collective husbands down the pub on a Sunday lunchtime, talking up a storm but saying very little, the other spotlighting the wives at home, cooking the Sunday roast, “talking common sense.” Even if his own actions haven’t supported his feelings, he’s clearly on the women’s side, and you feel that his future lies in more considered films. Yet the latest news is that Oldman is planning to direct a film about New York cops in the ’60s and ’70s, along the lines of Dog Day Afternoon. In other words, a film on alien turf, the polar opposite to the in situ world of Nil By Mouth. Is it to stretch himself? To ingratiate himself with the Hollywood power brokers? Who can say?
One thing is for certain, says Stephen Hopkins. “I don’t think you’ll find Gary doing any more villains. At least for a while.”
“You’re not gonna get the Raging Bull, the Sid And Nancy roles often,” he offers by way of a conclusion. “I mean, those roles come along once every ten or fifteen years, If youre lucky, you’ll get maybe two or three of them in a career. And not everyone’s gonna have a relationship like De Niro does with Scorcese. It’s just unique. So you’ve got to pay the mortgage. But I’m phasing out the villain thing. I’ve had three offers to do that recently, and I’m`not going to do it anymore.” He pauses. A drag on the fag and a sly smile. “But only if I’m desperate.”