Gary Oldman

Actor Gary Oldman plays vampires and sadists, suicidal punks and assorted fiends and weirdos. But don't call him crazy.


Richard Covington
July 9, 1997 7:08PM (UTC)

FOR SADISTIC COPS, tormented geniuses and shakespeare-quoting villains
with attitude, no one beats Gary Oldman. This summer alone, the 39-year-old British actor is playing the fiendish Zorg in "The Fifth Element," a madman who hijacks the presidential plane in "Air Force One" and the sardonically evil Dr. Smith in the movie adaptation of the campy '60s sci-fi TV series "Lost in Space," currently being filmed at Shepperton Studios near London.

The canny Oldman has let himself be type-cast for the money. The wages of villainy helped finance his directorial debut, "Nil by Mouth," a stark autobiographical indictment of family violence in working-class south London that was a controversial hit at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The film opens this fall in the U.S.

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Divorced from Uma Thurman and separated from former girlfriend Isabella Rossellini, Oldman still smarts from his lurid press as a womanizer and Hollywood hell-raiser. A recovered alcoholic who once put away two bottles of vodka a day, Oldman met his current wife, American model Donya Fiorentino, in a rehabilitation center. The couple now splits time between a house in the Hollywood hills and a flat in London.

Oldman started his career at London's experimental Royal Court Theatre and first grabbed cinematic attention as punk rocker Sid Vicious. Since then, the mercurial actor has put his stamp on a wildly mixed bag of roles, from gay playwright Joe Orton to Beethoven, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, painter Julian Schnabel and the Rev. Dimmesdale, who sins with Demi Moore in "The Scarlet Letter."

Interviewed during a break in shooting "Lost in Space," Oldman, sporting a buzz-cut and sparse goatee that made him look like a brown-haired Van Gogh, was a study in restraint and dry wit. But when certain buttons were pushed -- "fucking Merchant-Ivory movies," the rage in families, press gossip about "crazy Oldman," method acting hocus-pocus -- his eyes burned platinum. Although he says that the fire has gone out of his passion to act, it appears that the volcano is only smoldering.

Why were you attracted to the role of Dr. Smith?

I thought it would be nice to do something my kid Alfie could watch.

How old is your boy?

Eight and a half. I've played many weird, sick and twisted characters so it's nice to play a weird, sick and twisted character my kid can see.

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NOT LIKE "Murder in the First?"

No, I don't think he's quite ready for that. I find "Star Wars" quite violent, to be honest with you. It's been interesting watching it with him this second time around. I can see how the first one worked. I thought he was very clever with it, using the Force. What is it? Is it spirituality? Is it God? I felt it outlived its sell-by date with the second and third in the series. My son loved all three. But I started to get irritated by that plastic, rubbery-looking puppet Yoda. I'm not the best audience for that because I'm not a great science-fiction fan. I just never got off on space ships and space costumes, things like that.

My big love was the Beatles. I was more into music. The first film I ever saw at the cinema was "A Hard Day's Night." My sister took me.

Did you want to be a rock star?

I think so. If one could have a wish, or an alternative life, I would've liked to have been John Lennon. I was more into the music and where that put me in my head, in my imagination, in my fantasy, as opposed to getting off on someone else's.

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Did you ever play music?

Not as a child. It never came up, the idea of playing music. I had a guitar when I was 6 or 7, a plastic guitar with the Beatles' faces on it. It would be a collector's item now. It would fetch a hefty sum, I imagine. Actually playing music was something I came to later. I found one of those Liberace records in the attic somewhere, Liberace plays classics. I get obsessions, so I kind of got obsessed with it. I got obsessed with classical music, I got obsessed with Chopin, with playing the piano.

When was that?

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When I was 13. That was my project. I suddenly switched from contemporary music to classical music. Then I bought every book imaginable about Chopin. I sometimes feel that I would do things and I was in a way acting them, more than actually doing them, like I was acting playing the piano. I suddenly got obsessive about boxing and Muhammad Ali around the time he was fighting Joe Frazier. I went off and did boxing. I looked incredibly good in the gym.

Were you a good boxer?

No. I was terrible. But you would look at me in the gym and say, "The kid's a natural." I had all the moves down, hitting the punch bag, shadowboxing, skipping. I could play a boxer, but I wasn't a boxer. It was just my obsession at the time. Oh, I'll try this now. I want to be a boxer. I want to be a classical pianist. I want to be a soccer player. Now I can be them all.

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You played Sid Vicious and Beethoven. Do you want to play any more musicians?

No, two musicians in one career is maybe enough.

Did you feel comfortable playing those roles?

Yeah. At the time the Vicious thing was a real break for me as an actor.

Why?

At the time, I thought God knows where acting could have possibly led. Who would've known where acting would've taken me. "Sid and Nancy" was the first big screen film I did. I wasn't in a position where I could pick and choose and turn things down. So I was gigging, I was jobbing. It led to something else and that led to something else. It was a long time ago now, all of that, a lot of water under the bridge.

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You spoke of obsessions, do you still have obsessions in your work?

The obsessions have gone. I don't like acting so much any more.

Why is that?

The fire is gone.

What happened?

Dunno. Don't know.

Fire meaning anger?

Just the fire to want to act. I taught a class of students years ago. You'd say: What do you want to do? What do you want to be? You'd hear: I want to be a good actor. Wanting to be a good actor is not good enough. You must want to be a great actor. You just have to have that. It's not something you can wear like a coat. It's in you. It's like a furnace. And I don't have that anymore. I don't have, not the ambition within the career, but the ambition within the work.

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Where did that fire come from? Is it something you want to get back?

I think it comes from your early influences, what shaped you where you grew up. Truffaut said of Charlie Chaplin, there is much explosiveness in misery.

Has the misery been worked out, the explosiveness in your own motivations?

Yeah. In your formative years, there's a whole bunch of shit that shapes you, all the baggage we all carry forward with us from back there. Growing up in a particular neighborhood, growing up in a working-class family, not having much money, all of those things fire you and can give you an edge, can give you an anger. I don't want to go see a fucking Merchant-Ivory movie with a few people walking around in linen suits getting a little bit pissed off with one another. It has nothing to do with me. You know what I mean? I just go, So what? That's a nice frock [points to a poster of the film of "Sense and Sensibility"]. Another fucking novel, one of those books. What is it about? It ain't got ... When you go to a cinema, you should come out like having a rocket up your ass.

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"Sense and Sensibility" doesn't do it?

It don't do it for me, no. Also, watching people with money having a good time is not good drama. You ever notice that? In a movie, you watch people having a really good time, they're getting drunk, they're getting high and they've got money. Where's the drama? This is not interesting.

What does it take for you to generate that drama, to have that rocket up your ass?

Go see my movie. What I like, which brings us back to "Lost in Space," is that the war, the rage within families fascinates me. That's what I'm interested in when I go to the cinema. That can be "Macbeth," a dysfunctional family. That's what stimulates me. It reminds me of being human. Stella Adler said that life corrodes and erodes the spirit. On a journey of however many years on this planet, we have the inevitable loss of our parents, we have divorce, death, cancer, all these things that chip away at the spirit. And she said art reminds us that we have one.

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Why did you decide to make "Nil by Mouth"?

Because it was in me. It was almost like the solution that I'd been looking for to a problem.

Was it solved in the making of the film?

Yeah.

Was it completely autobiographical?

Not completely.

What I mean is was the source of that rage within families that you talked about, was that reflected in "Nil by Mouth"?

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Oh yeah, absolutely. It's an emotional well I've been drawing on through all the work.

Through all your films?

Yeah. It's what a writer of music will draw on. You hear it in Beethoven. You see it in Pinter. You see it in the Sistine Chapel. It's what shapes us and makes us who we are and how we experience the world. "Lost in Space" is about this rage. Look at them. The guy never spends any time with his son. It's the kernel of everything, who we are, how we feel.

My son Alfie doesn't like loud noise, OK? He's almost phobic about it. With sirens, he'll get to the point where he'll scream, like hysteria. I took him into a drum shop and a friend started playing the drums. Alfie was beside himself with the noise. But when he was playing the drums, making the noise, he was fine. And that's about control. It's about wanting to control the noise.

Is that the way you are?

Yeah. That's why I want to be an actor, I guess. I saw other actors doing it and I said I want to do that. But I want to do it better.

But you don't walk around like a sort of bomb ready to detonate?

No, no, no. There's somewhat of a misconception about me in the world, in the press, bullshit stuff.

Well, let's fix that. What's the perception in the press?

I always read "madman" or "genius," "volatile," "angry," "crazy," "mad" Oldman. People just associate me with the people I play. I have an absolute facility for it. I can turn it on and turn it off in my sleep. Acting is not difficult for me. There's no hardship in it for me.

There's no identification with the roles you play?

Well, you live with them, but you cannot become them. Any actor who says he can become a character and gets totally lost in the role is full of shit. Because you would have to be clinically diagnosed as a schizophrenic. You can't get lost in the moment.

You have to keep a sense of perspective?

I think so. Absolutely. What do you do when you're on stage and you're in a comedy and you deliver a funny line? Do you carry on speaking and walk all over your laugh? No, you wait, you wait, you wait and then you carry on. You look like you're totally in the play, in the moment, but you have a sense of perspective. But you draw on your past. If you have a scene with a big emotion, whether it's hysteria or laughter or tears, then you draw on stuff, memories, experiences. If that's method acting, fine. That's how I've always instinctively acted. The big emotion we all have is called families.

When you finished "Nil by Mouth," did you figure that the emotion that drove you to make the film didn't exist anymore, that you had exorcised certain demons of your past?

I don't think the well is dry.

When you said that you had lost the fire to act, was that due to making "Nil by Mouth"?

I think acting can get boring. Not to sound ungrateful because I've had a very nice lifestyle and a very interesting life as an actor. It's been a great gift. You can get bored and say: You know, I've been doing this for 20 years and maybe it's just time to do something else.

Also I have bundles of creative energy. Acting is just a third of my creative energy. You get associated with something you do and people expect you to keep doing that thing. What do you mean you want to write? Why? You're an actor, aren't you? You do this. I've always found the downtime an occupational hazard. On a movie of this scale, there's a lot of downtime between shots. It's an opera, a military campaign and you're one small cog in the piece. There's downtime at the work and there's downtime in between jobs.

What would you rather do?

One of the things I liked about directing was that it demanded so much of my energy and attention. You don't stop thinking. It uses the whole canvas. You're working with the actors, the cameraman, the painter of light, the author, with images, music. It's all-encompassing.

I thought a very beautiful way of putting it was Roberto Rossellini talking about the movie he made in India. He said it was like a word that had been on the tip of his tongue for years. And that he found it. It was "Europe 51," it was "Stromboli," it was "Paysan," "Open City." And now the words were this. Making "Nil by Mouth" was exactly like that. I was searching for it and there it was.

Since you're not directing "Lost in Space," does it seem like a step back to be only a part of the puzzle?

No, because you know that going in. You have to surrender to the process -- otherwise you would drive yourself mad. You would become one of those people who continually moan. Acting also helps me financially. Without the acting, I couldn't have made "Nil by Mouth."

How did that come about, to get Luc Besson to produce it?

He's just a friend. I was about to begin the thing with the cap in my hand, the tour for funds. It was over lunch and he just said, "Oh, I'll do it."

Was this before you had signed on for "The Fifth Element?"

Yeah, and then he phoned and said would you be in "The Fifth Element," and I said yeah, sure. One good turn deserves another.

How was it shooting "The Fifth Element?"

Much the same as this really, a lot of waiting around.

Boring interviews?

No, they're not so bad. I've just done 150 in Cannes, at least, but not about "Lost in Space."

What is it like working with [director] Stephen Hopkins and William Hurt?

Not to sound boring and clichéd ... You never hear in these things: Oh God, he's a real shit, just doesn't know what he's doing. William's boring, the director's a mess and I just can't wait to get off this piece of shit. Next question. You never hear that, do you?

Being a man immune to bullshit, I thought you would tell me the straight story.

No really, I'm very happy with the way it's going. The film is a lot darker than I thought it would be.

How do you mean? In the way it looks or psychologically?

No, visually. I guess I came in with a preconception. One finds it very hard to shake away the image of papier maché rocks and cheesy series. This keeps the spirit of the series and yet Hopkins has moved a long way from it. I think it will still keep the fans of the TV series happy.

It's not campy?

No. I don't know who would want to watch that for two hours.

Does it bother you to be in a film that is bound to have all this merchandising tied into it, with dolls of all the actors and the space creatures?

It's very much in people's minds that with a film like this, it's inevitable. This could become a franchise, like "Superman" and "Batman." I was in a store with Alfie the other day. They've covered everything with "Star Wars." There's practically nothing left that hasn't been "Star-Warred."

It won't be a problem for you if this movie becomes like that? Will it detract from the acting?

No, because Akiva [producer and writer Akiva Goldsman] has written an intelligent script. It's not just a shoot-'em-up, let's cram in all the special effects we can and razzle dazzle 'em with laser guns. There's a good story here. It's a film about the family and an absentee father, the relationship between husband and wife. Obviously, we're put on a planet and there are aliens. You have to put that family in danger, just to keep the audience watching.

What's your role?

I'm the outsider who becomes a surrogate father. Maybe the real father becomes a better father. It's not just one broad brush stroke of villainy.

Do you get tired of playing villains?

Yes.

What would you like to play?

I'd like to do a comedy.

Have you done any?

Well, I did "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." It's comic, but a bit intellectual. I'd like to do something more slapstick and physical, sillier than that. Maybe doing something with Jim Carrey would be fun.

In that style or with him?

With him and in that style. That might reignite the fire.

Do you see yourself playing comic roles convincingly?

Yeah. I do, but it's people out there. Maybe they don't. If you look at "Dracula," you can see I can play comedy. It's the lack of imagination from the people handing out the parts.

Have you found that difficult to deal with in shaping your career?

Not initially. I've worked with Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh, Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Clarke. It's been a very varied, eclectic kind of menu, my career. More recently, I've been type-cast. I've let myself be type-cast.

Why?

There's more money in it.

More money so that you could turn to directing?

Yeah. "Nil By Mouth" was two years of my life. To take yourself off the market for two years and work on a film was financially devastating.

How much did it cost to make?

About $4.25 million.

But you were acting at the same time?

No. I took a break from the editing to go and do "Fifth Element" and then I came back to "Nil by Mouth." Then I mixed it. When I was mixing it, I also did "Air Force One."

What is that about?

It's about a man who takes over the presidential plane.

You're the one who takes it over and Harrison Ford is the president?

Yeah. There you go.

And you're a demon again, up to your old tricks?

Up to my old tricks, yeah.

How was it working with Harrison Ford?

It was good. Wolfgang Petersen is a funny guy.

Why do you say that?

Because he knows exactly what he's doing. He knows the genre and he doesn't pretend it's anything else -- "Hey guys, we're making great art." He very much loves his wife so he likes to be home on weekends. He likes to be home and have dinner. We'd come in and start shooting at 9 and finish at 6. I've never worked with anyone so relaxed on a set. He has a wonderful sense of humor and doesn't take himself or it too seriously. So it was quite the joy to work with him. Stephen's also quite relaxed.

How does he work with you on your performance?

Stephen steps in now and again. Good directing is knowing when not to say anything. Stephen will give you the odd direction on where to take a scene, give a bit of weight to an intention or a particular line.

He doesn't go back and forth with you over how to play a scene?

No. It's a hard role being a director. You have to work with different egos and give them what they need. William asks a lot of questions.

How about you?

If I have a problem or I'm not clear about something, I'll raise my hand and say I'm a bit confused or help me with this.

When I say a good director knows when not to say anything, what I mean is you just have to let actors open up their shoulders a little and give them room. You obviously have the whole picture in your head. You've worked on it maybe six months in prep. You have all these ideas and you have to allow an actor to be able to come up with a better idea than you. If you're not seeing it immediately, as the director, you're not meeting equally.

What do you mean?

When I first meet with a director, he's had six months meeting with designers, thinking out the story. He's way ahead of me. What you have to remember as the director is that you have to give the actor room to find his performance before you step in and say do it like this. Within there somewhere, there may be a better idea than yours.

If the director imposes his ideas, the actor's own ideas don't have a chance to come out?

Yeah, you kill it.

Can you think of examples?

I can't really. I'm not talking about huge, monumental changes. I'm talking about a nuance that someone will have in a reading in which they can suddenly show you what a scene is about. You go: Omigod, so that's how you're reading the line. You think the scene's about this. That's interesting. I hadn't thought of it like that.

What will you be working on next as a director?

I don't know.

Do you find it easy to work in Hollywood? Does it make any difference working in England or the U.S.?

When I'm in the system, I'm in the system. I don't necessarily have to be in movies that I would go and see. I work. I'm not precious about it.

But with the films you want to direct?

I'm not likening myself to him, but [director John] Cassavetes was in some bad movies and I'm sure he thought, one more of these and I can go make "Faces" or something.

I'm committed. If I say I'm going to do a film, I won't walk through it. I'll be a mensch. I won't take just any old piece of shit. I'm not out there doing "The Rock IV." It's my bread and butter.

But your real ambition is to be a director?

I'm bubbling around a few ideas in my head. You hear actors talking about directing as a natural extension of acting. But I don't see it that way. I have no desire to sort of throw a camera around. When I do it again, I will do it hopefully from the same spring. It's an emotional commitment, two years of your life. Just to kind of job it would be so destroying. I can't imagine sitting in an editing suite looking at the images coming back at you that you don't really care about. There'd be no point to that.

If someone wanted you to direct a movie about rich people having fun?

I don't think I'd do it, no.


Richard Covington

Richard Covington covers cultural subjects and the arts from Paris.

MORE FROM Richard Covington

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