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

The film covers six weeks of Churchill's life, with war against Germany looming and Britain unprepared for combat.

"My job was made a little easier because I wasn't playing a whole life, just that critical time, which made the load a little lighter," Oldman said.

He took pains to ensure that his memory of Churchill wasn't "contaminated by other people's performance of Churchill. You know, sometimes you watch these things and see someone who was born in a bad mood, a curmudgeon, a grumpy man puttering around with a cigar."

He sought out a Churchill scholar to cull out some reading material from the plethora that's available "because it's so voluminous you would need another lifetime to read it. I watched a great deal of newsreel footage and listened to the recordings to put him together. It was a year of surrendering to Winston.

"What I was amazed to discover was that he was a dynamic character who had this spark, this fire. He was energized. That was a revelation to me. It was the beginning of thinking, 'Yeah, I could play this guy.' If he wasn't an actor, he certainly had a sense of theater. When you're in the House of Parliament and you're in front of 600 people, and you have that wonderful sense of oratory, you're going to deliver your speeches with passion and emphasis."


A similar spirit of ardor emerges in scenes Oldman shares with Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill's doting wife, Clementine. It's an unusual character note for Oldman. Rarely cast in romantic films (he killed his lover in "Sid & Nancy," was killed by his lover in "Prick Up Your Ears" and repeatedly sucked feminine necks as Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula"), Oldman finally had a chance to display committed, if comically bickering, adult affection.

"She says at one point, 'Are we very old?' And I say, 'Yes, I think you are.' Which was in fact an ad-lib I threw in at rehearsal one afternoon. We tried to make it as lovely and playful as possible."


When work on the movie started, "Brexit and Trump had not happened," he said. Although "we didn't set out to make a topical film," he feels its portrait of political gamesmanship at a time of crisis is relevant to today's world.

"When will the lesson be learned?" Oldman bellows in the film in a voice resonantly deepened by whiskey and cigars. "How many more dictators must be wooed, appeased -- good God, given immense privileges -- before we learn? You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!"

"It's about leadership. About statesmanship," Oldman said. "I think we're always looking for it, searching for it, universally in every generation."

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