The Many Lives of Gary Oldman
|The Many Lives of Gary Oldman|
|Article||Onscreen he's played villains and punks; offscreen he's lived hard and fast. Now, Gary Oldman has faced down his demons--both in his personal life and in his powerful directorial debut, Nil By Mouth. By David A. Keeps. Photographed by Wayne Maser
"When I was a kid, if you gave me a couple sheets of paper and some crayons, you wouldn't hear from me. I could do that for 10 hours straight. I was always drawing race cars and planes and rockets. And doing my own little bit of armchair Freudian analysis now, I realize I was always thinking of things that had speed and were going to take me somewhere."
In his 39 years, Gary Oldman has gone the distance. He escaped his harsh working-class roots through the theater and won critical acclaim and star billing for a rogues' gallery of characters, including punk rocker Sid Vicious, gay playwright Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dracula. Along with peers Daniel Day-Lewis and Tim Roth, he redefined the British angry young man as an international film icon. He has also survived years of personal turmoil, tempestuous relationships and tabloid headlines, coming out of his darkness to a happy Hollywood ending.
With Nil By Mouth, Oldman arrives as an auteur, having written the script, put up more than half of the $4.5 million budget, directed the film and commissioned a score by Eric Clapton. Set in the terminally depressed, brutally ugly pubs and housing projects of southeast London, Nil By Mouth is a wrenching drama of dysfunction, an unflinching look at mental, physical and chemical abuse. Much of the film was shot with telephoto lenses, shifting focus, cluttered framing and grainy color. "I wanted gray buildings and gray people," Oldman says. "Clapton described it as me throwing up.
"I took a risk. I put my money where my mouth was so I wouldn't have men in suits coming to the table saying, I Can't you make the ending more upbeat? Because if it felt like a movie to me, I would destroy." Cast with largely unknown British actors, Nil By Mouth offers a claustrophobic portrayal of four generations of put-upon women: a tough granny, a widowed mother with a junkie son and an abused daughter, and the daughter's frightened little girl. The principal male character, Ray (Ray Winstone), is a physical and emotional terrorist who beats his wife (Kathy Burke, named Best Actress at Cannes). "In any other movie, Ray would get his comeuppance," Oldman tells me. "But he's as much a victim in that marriage as she is. Underneath that violence there's someone who is insecure and loving and caring."
I meet Oldman at his new office, a walk-up above a ritzy storefront, just east of Beverly Hills. On the wall is an original poster for John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence. Besides Cassavetes, Oldman's a big fan of Pasolini, Rossellini and Altman. Oldman is slight, almost scrawny, dressed in a blue sweater and cream-colored jeans. His face registers fleeting emotions. At times he looks rough, vulnerable, mean and terribly sweet. In just the right light, at just the right angle, he has all the beauty of a young David Bowie. Lighting a cigarette, he perches on an upholstered chair, but not for long.
He stalks the room, talking about the reception his film has met in England: "They love me at the moment. I'm the prodigal son." It hasn't always been that way. He's been criticized for squandering his immense abilities playing designer villains in summer blockbusters such as The Fifth Element and Air Force One, movies "that don't in any way represent who I am or where I'm at," he insists. "The thing I find most
annoying about England and this great tradition of theater is the way they look at me and say, He's good, but he can't do the classics. But you don't look at DeNiro and go, Yes, fantastic in Raging Bull, but can he do Shakespeare?"
Besides, Oldman reckons, in his countrymen's eyes, he has committed the greatest sin: being a success in America. "I'd built up this whole thing about England, and I carried it around with me. But when I went back to make the film, I felt pretty comfortable. It slayed a big dragon in my head, a monster that I'd built up about England. I won't romanticize it. It wasn't cathartic; it wasn't some experience that was cleansing: I was making a fucking movie."
Nevertheless, there is a lot of autobiographical material in the film. There's a scene taken directly from his memories: " I remember my mother took dinner into the pub and my father said, What's this? And she said, You live here, you might as well eat here." And there is they key moment in which Ray, the violent alcoholic tyrant, breaks down and cries while remembering how his father never gave him "one kiss or one cuddle." The scene refers to the central trauma of Oldman's life: how his father left his mother and him for a younger woman when Gary was only seven, and eventually drank himself to death. During the closing credits of Nil By Mouth, there's a line that simply reads, "For My Father." Oldman cast his sister Laila Morse as the widowed mother, and at the end of the film, an actress lip-synchs to a recording of his own mother singing "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine."
Though Nil By Mouth is littered with violence and expletives, Oldman's mother thinks it's terrific. "My family's proud of me," Oldman says. "But for them the true test of my celebrity is who I'm in a movie with. If it's not Michael Caine or Sean Connery, then I'm not doing too good."
Gary Leonard Oldman [sic] was born March 21, 1958, in New Cross, a rough section of London. He was, he says, "an afterthought. One night my mother maybe just had one too many sherries. My uncle says that he saw me shortly after I was born and I stank of booze. Maybe he was standing too close to my daddy." Although it was a struggle to make ends meet after his father left, Gary, who reminded his family of the old man, was indulged.
Young Gary wanted to be an astronaut, but first realized the power of performing when he did impressions of the Beatles at family gatherings. He had a crush on the actress Susan George and collected film soundtracks. He knew every word of Dustin Hoffman's performance as Lenny Bruce. (Oldman has a rapier wit and is a superb mimic. In our time together, he does Hoffman, assorted British snobs and a host of silly American accents.) He excelled at sports but was a poor, distracted student, leaving school at 16.
Eventually, after failing an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he studied theater at the lesser known Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama. He quickly advanced through the world of British theater, did teleplays and films, and began landing career-making roles. His breakthrough was Sid and Nancy. With typical obsessiveness, he lost 30 pounds to play Sid Vicious and wound up in the hospital. Onscreen and off, it was his willingness to tempt fate that would come to define Gary Oldman.
He was in rehab twice and is now clean and sober. "I believe AA is the greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century. It's a program of rigorous self-honesty, because, you see, you're only as sick as your secrets." In the beginning he drank socially. It was the thing to do in his harsh environment. "It was the passport to the world of men," he explains. It was also a theatrical tradition. ("Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, John Barrymore--it's all romanticizing booze.") Eventually, he'd have private benders, checking into hotels and drinking his way through the minibar. He developed a reputation. "The myth, the legend, whatever you
want to call it," he says. "And rightly or wrongly, I played up the image."
In 1991 he was arrested for drunk driving after a night out in L.A. with Kiefer Sutherland. The incident has become part of the Gary Oldman Story, which bugs him a bit and makes him despair for what the media has become, but he takes it with a grain of salt: "It was like a wake-up call. I could have killed somebody. So, I stopped driving." He laughs at the method to his madness. "I couldn't let it get in the way of my drinking."
It's been said that alcoholics are egomaniacs with low self-esteem, and for Oldman that was certainly part of it. "Looking back at the stuff I did, it was like walking in my father's shoes. Here's someone who hadn't really influenced me--we spoke on the phone a couple of times when I was a teenager--yet it was like I had a blueprint I was following. Then I'd get into therapy and realize I've just gotta stop this cycle."
A year ago, Oldman married his third wife, Donya Fiorentino, an American model he met at a dinner party. His first wife was a British actress named Lesley Mannville, with whom he had a son, Alfie, now nine. In 1990 he married Uma Thurman, then 20; they divorced less than two years later. He was engaged to, but never married, Isabella Rossellini. "I've been in relationships where I've rehearsed the breakup while actually participating in the relationship. In here," he says, fingering his skull, "I've played all the scenes."
Things are different now. His wife is also in recovery. "I'm learning that you can say something or do something and your partner can say, I don't like that, instead of running for divorce court." They had a son last year, Gulliver. "He's certainly living up to his name. He's a giant of a baby," Oldman says with pride. "And it's fitting that it's a boy. It's like I can put an emotional Band-Aid on someone. I can right some of the wrongs."
These days, Oldman spends as much time as he can at home. His mother recently moved to L.A. to be near him, and he's thinking about resuming a documentary on her that he began filming some years back. He listens to Sinatra, plays piano and paints a bit (he's done some casual things with Julian Schnabel). He recently finished playing Dr. Smith in the movie version of Lost In Space, which, he says, is "darker, not at all camp as you might expect." He may dust off a "Woody Allen-esque" script he wrote a while ago. "Nil By Mouth" mustn't become the golden chalice. But I'm finding it very hard to write something at the moment." Not to worry. He'll direct again. And even though he claims to be a bit bored with it, he'll keep acting, keep taking chances. In his office, just before I leave, I hear him and his manager discussing something that will keep him close to home and make a lot of people happy, something really out there. Coming to you soon: a Gary Oldman sitcom?
Harper's BAZAAR February 1998