How to play Churchill: Keep calm, carry on and spend hours in the makeup chair

Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Entertainment News

Let's be clear: That aged, portly man with a bulbous nose, drooping jowls and a hairline in full retreat you see onscreen throughout "Darkest Hour" is, indeed, Gary Oldman. Yes, really; even though he's unrecognizable.

For Oldman, who rocketed to fame playing young hellions (the Sex Pistols' crass punk bassist in 1986's "Sid & Nancy" and outrageous English playwright Joe Orton in "Prick Up Your Ears" the following year), the role represents a sea change. In director Joe Wright's wartime biopic, he portrays the most recognized, revered and important Englishman of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, in a performance already generating considerable Oscar buzz.

In a recent phone call he discussed the technical challenges that required him to spend 200 hours in the makeup chair, and his work to capture the great man's inner substance for the film.

While playing Churchill offered an important character and a great acting challenge, when he was first approached about the role, Oldman laughed out loud and said, "Please don't ever bring this role to me again."

He explained: "Really the biggest roadblock was the physicality. If someone had said 'We're making a film about 1/8Churchill's ailing political foe Neville3/8 Chamberlain,' I would say OK, I could drop 10 pounds or whatever."

But Churchill was different because "not only are you playing probably the greatest Briton who ever lived -- who has been played by many great actors before you -- above and beyond that, he was a great promoter. He knew what he was doing, self-branding with those funny Victorian clothes and his Homburg hat and scarf," a formal costume that gave Churchill the look of a Dickensian character.


"It's that silhouette. It's so iconic. How do I do that? How do I get there?"

There were practical issues to consider, too. "I'm 59, nearly 60. I knew I was not going to put on 50 pounds. I would have easily been able to put on 50 pounds, but I would never have taken it off. I just didn't want to mess with my metabolism."

To avoid threatening his health, he recruited special-effects makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji out of his five-year retirement. His Oscar-nominated work on challenging films including "Planet of the Apes" (2001), "Hellboy" (2004) and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008) convinced Oldman "he's the man."



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