Gary Oldman tells Robbie Collin how he prepared for the role of Churchill, right to his fingertips — without gaining weight.

Gary Oldman found the soul of Winston Churchill scratched into a chair. When he was preparing to play the former British Prime Minister in his new film, Darkest Hour, the 59-year-old actor took a private tour of the Cabinet War Rooms - the bunker 6m beneath the Treasury in Whitehall, from which World War II was partly prosecuted.

On reaching the Cabinet Room itself, the guide held up the velvet rope and ushered Oldman forward, to sit in Churchill's seat. As he gripped its armrests, Oldman felt a crosshatch of notches under his fingertips - divots dug by Churchill's own nails and signet ring into the varnished wood.

"There were deep scratches on the left, where he had been doing this," says Oldman, plucking nervously at the arm of his own chair in a London hotel the morning after Darkest Hour's UK premiere. "And on the right hand side were all the scratches where he'd tap his ring. And that behaviour is now a living thing in that piece of furniture. That tells you so much about the psychology of an individual. And I wouldn't have discovered it if I hadn't sat down."


Churchill is hardly the first part that Oldman has filled out to the tips of his fingers. Since his 1986 lead-role debut as the Sex Pistols' bassist, Sid Vicious, in Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy, the London-born actor has made his name with the kind of full-body performances that mix high-watt star power with a shape-shifter's agility and zip. But it's his most talked-about in some time, having attracted Best Actor nominations from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors' Guild and London Critics' Circle, and the expectation is that Bafta and Oscar nods will follow later this month.

His performance as a 65-year-old Churchill is built on eight months of fastidious groundwork - a rare luxury in the film business.

"I've been in productions where I met the director the night before going on set," he says. "You meet an actress that morning and she's playing your wife. You have to convey a 12-year marriage and you've only known her half an hour." But he was able to spend April to November of last year preparing for Darkest Hour, starting by learning the three pivotal speeches around which the film is built.

The events portrayed changed the world, but span less than a month. The film begins on the eve of Churchill's inaugural prime ministerial speech on May 13, 1940, in which he famously pledged his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" to the national cause. And it ends after the famous "We shall fight on the beaches" address, delivered three weeks and a day later, after the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk. The midpoint is his broadcast to the nation on May 19, now known as "Be Ye Men of Valour", given as the German army bulldozed through northern Europe, and a faction of Churchill's Cabinet pushed back against his resistance to a peace deal with Hitler.

Tapes of Churchill delivering all three speeches survive. But his original performances of the first and third are lost to history, as no recording equipment was allowed in the House of Commons at the time. The versions we know were made in 1949 by the Decca record company at Chartwell, Churchill's home in Kent, with the then-former PM propped up in bed, in front of a microphone.

Gary Oldman accepts the award for best actor in a motion picture drama for his role in
Gary Oldman accepts the award for best actor in a motion picture drama for his role in "The Darkest Hour," at the 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards. Photo / AP

Oldman took them as templates rather than one-true-renditions to be painstakingly mimicked. "I figured that he would not have spoken them like that in the House, in the heat of the moment, in front of 600 people," he says. "The delivery is dry and rather repetitive. I gave it a little pinch of Henry V." He took his cue from newsreel footage, in which he saw a man "so dynamic, so full of life and energy, marching ahead with this fixity of purpose [and] sparkle in his eye, that you almost felt that at any moment he could turn to the camera and wink", he says.

"And that was so removed from the stereotypical curmudgeon [people imagine he was] - the man born in a bad mood, dropping cigar ash on his waistcoat and shuffling around in his carpet slippers."

Yet even with the voice and spirit in place, one snag remained - and in terms of body mass, a big one. Wiry and vulpine, Oldman is not exactly possessed of a Churchillian physique. And he told Darkest Hour's director, Joe Wright, he wouldn't gain weight: "I'm nearly 60, and I'd spend the rest of my life losing it."

But Wright, whose 2007 film Atonement was also partly set during turbulent 1940, was unperturbed. After seeing the Oscar-nominated old-age makeup in the gross-out comedy Bad Grandpa, the director was convinced his leading man could be turned into a physically convincing Churchill.

For his part, Oldman coaxed Japanese prosthetics expert Kazuhiro Tsuji out of retirement - the two had worked together on an audition for Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake that came to naught. Together with Wright, they created a full-face Churchill mask, which the director picturesquely describes as making Oldman look like he "had a dead chicken on his head". From that starting point, Tsuji pared away the artifice until he hit what Wright calls "the sweet spot" - where Oldman "looked enough like Churchill, but allowed access for the audience to engage with his performance". The generous silhouette came from a foam bodysuit, while the thinning, dusty silver hair was a wig pasted on to Oldman's clean-shaven head.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton in Darkest Hour. Photo / Jack English
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Lily James as Elizabeth Layton in Darkest Hour. Photo / Jack English

All told, Oldman spent more than 200 hours in the makeup chair during the shoot - a significant commitment, but, he says, well worth it. "It was the most free I've ever been in front of a camera. Because I was hidden. If you've ever been to a fancy-dress or Hallowe'en party and worn a mask, you become less inhibited."

Oldman asked Wright if he could test the finished look by arriving in costume and prosthetics for the first full read-through. Wright agreed, and amusedly describes the rest of the cast stiffening in their seats as this British icon ambled into the room.

Why can Churchill still hold that kind of power over a room - or indeed a nation? For Wright, the answer is simple: "He's one of the first politicians to really understand branding. He became the figurehead, the symbol of British tenacity and the so-called 'Bulldog' breed."

Oldman would like another crack at Churchill, perhaps in a film set at the Yalta Conference of 1945, with Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill carving up the world.

"I'm still reading about him and will continue to read about him until my last breath, I think," he says.

There's so much else he gleaned that he wants to put to use, not least a moment during a Conservative Party conference speech in 1953 when the 79-year-old statesman paused for a sip of water - as opposed to something stronger - and quipped, "I don't often do that."

"He brings the house down," Oldman says. "They know he drinks, and he plays it up, like Dean Martin. It was only a few seconds, but you just think, 'There he is. There's the man."'