Words, in the new movie “Darkest Hour,” are weapons.
Set roughly during the same time period as “Dunkirk,” between May and June 1940, the World War II drama takes place not on the beaches of northern France, where hundreds of Allied soldiers were cornered by German troops, but in the backrooms of England's war cabinet. It is there that the newly installed prime minister, Winston Churchill (played by Gary Oldman), struggles with how to rally Parliament and the British people for the coming Battle of Britain.
Oldman, who underwent a remarkable metamorphosis to play the iconic politician, is a front-runner for a best actor Oscar nomination. While in Washington, D.C., recently for a preview screening of the new film, the 59-year-old British actor sat down with director Joe Wright, 45, to talk about the historical film's surprisingly contemporary resonance.
Q. Gary, you're known for playing characters with the gift of gab. How does this role continue that tradition?
Oldman: One of the themes of the film was to show Churchill as a writer. Nowadays, it is somewhat unusual for anyone to write their own speeches. The genesis of the project was that (screenwriter) Anthony (McCarten) had this book on his shelf for many years, and he went to it one day, and it was one of those anthologies of the greatest speeches in the English language. Three of them, he discovered, were by Churchill, written in the space of four weeks.
Q. Joe, how did Churchill harness the power of words?
Wright: He generally used Anglo-Saxon words. They're shorter, more muscular, not particularly flowery or intellectual. But they hold great intellectual weight. These extraordinary blunt and vital words are so much a part of the British psyche.
Q. You've spoken of film as a balance between dialogue and visuals. This movie shifts that balance markedly. Why?
Wright: I've made some films that were very much image-based: “Anna Karenina” and “Pan,” for instance. Here, I wanted to engage with the purest drama. It's interesting that both Chris Nolan and I seem to be interested in a return to a minimalist aesthetic. In a way, “Dunkirk” has no words in it, and ours has lots of them.
Q. The scene in which Churchill goes into the London Underground to assess the mood of the populace – it's cinematic, but it never happened, did it?
Wright: No. He famously would go and talk to Londoners and meet them at their houses, especially during and after the Blitz. He would get quite dewy-eyed and have a little cry with them. One of the main narrative arcs for me in the film is the connection between Winston and the public. At the start of the film, as we see him driving through London, he is completely disconnected. Over the course of the movie, he comes into an intense union with the public, to the point where he is then able to speak their hearts.
Q. Gary, much has been written about your physical and vocal transformation for this role. Did the prosthetic makeup and fat suit you had to wear help you to find the character, or were they a pain in the a--?
Oldman: They were far from a pain in the a--. First of all, you know what you're getting into. You have to surrender to shaving your head every morning. This was the year of surrendering to Winston. We had four weeks of rehearsal, on top of 50 days of shooting, which is unheard of. But before all of that happens, you work in isolation. I call it “kitchen acting.” The countertop in the kitchen is higher than the table, and I like to put the script on it, and I glance down, walk around the house, come back, make a cup of tea. What I'm looking for is a physical sensation. I'm trying to find (imitating Churchill's lisping voice and pouting lower lip) that sound in my mouth. When everything was put together and I looked in the mirror after many makeup tests and we felt that we'd got him, I suddenly realized that I didn't have to do so much with the lip, because the makeup was doing it for me.
Q. Gary, you initially didn't want this part. In fact, you had turned down another Churchill film before this one, until you learned that makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji was on board. Joe, how else did you woo Gary?
Wright: Part of the courtship was making sure that we both felt safe and trusted each other. A lot of directors don't really like actors.
Oldman: If a director comes in and says, “I saw dailies last night. It's good. It's going to be a cracker.” You float on air, but you have to have trust in them.
Wright: Most actors hate the feeling of being handled.
Q. Let's talk about the film's topicality. Joe, there was an interview with you with a headline that said “Winston Churchill of 'Darkest Hour' a rebuke to Trump.”
Wright: I don't think I used those words.
Q. You did not. You called the film a rebuke to “bigotry and hate and totalitarianism.” Do you believe that period films are less about the time in which they're set than the time in which they're made?
Wright: I think that's very true.
Q. How do “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” speak to our times?
Wright: I don't know, and I don't think it's my job to know. When I came on board this project in January 2016, the world was a very different place. It had zero topicality. Suddenly, the film had a kind of prescience.
Q. In that same interview, you said that this film asks “What does good leadership look like?”
Wright: That's a really important question.
Q. Isn't it also asking “What does good leadership sound like?” Isn't it about something intangible?
Oldman: That's called statesmanship.
Q. In the age of Twitter, is statesmanship a dying art form?
Oldman: Yes. We've gone from Greek oratory to the emoji.
Q. There's a great line in the film, where Churchill says, apropos of Hitler, “You can't reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.” Did he really say that?
Wright: I don't think he did. I'm telling tales, but there was a terrible script meeting where a studio executive brought in a little book of Churchill's greatest quotes, and said, “You've got to get this one in, and this one, and this one.” I got quite angry and said, “Listen, that's exactly the antithesis of what we're trying to do.” Soundbite-ism obscures our relationship to the character of Winston Churchill.
Q. Is “Darkest Hour” ultimately a war story, a political story or a personal story?
Wright: For me, everything else serves the personal. Yes, I find the history interesting – and, dare I say, educational – but what I really wanted to tell was a story about a character who doesn't fit in.
Q. Gary, your Churchill is a flawed hero. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) asks him, “How do you manage drinking during the day,” to which Churchill replies, “Practice.” What did you learn about this complex man?
Oldman: I'm still finding out things about him. His achievements over 50 years in politics are almost superhuman, but his bad habits raise the question: How drunk was he? If you have a bottle of wine at lunch, as I know from my old days, the afternoon is over, finished, done. I discovered that Winston Churchill is someone who hates, who loves, who's arrogant. He's all the things we are.
Q. Would you say that the film enlarges him, or reduces his stature as an icon?
Oldman: I think it's arguable that it does both. Joe actually puts him – that is, me – sitting on the toilet at one point. Does that make him less great, or just more human?