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|Studio Magazine( June 2004)|
|Article||English translation from the original french "Studio" interview:Big thanks to Charlotte!
Up close and too personal
As the third Harry Potter movie comes out (in which he portrays the prisoner of Azkaban), he starts shooting the new Batman. Two opportunities to catch up with this singular actor and sensitive director. Interviews and photos by Jack English.
IS IT BECAUSE HE STARTED by portraying Sid Vicious, leader of the Sex Pistols, that he seems to have perfected the role of bad guys? Nevertheless, Gary Oldman manages to avoid the caricature and give depth to his crazy characters. He transforms them into tormented souls; human beings who carry le complexity, pain and sometimes darkness of the whole of mankind. Now part pf the cast of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he has just started shooting Batman Begins. Two blockbuster movies made by young, singular and gifted directors: Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan. The actor, who himself directed the angry and sensitive Nil By Mouth, in 1997, has a particular fondness for real directors, who have a large visual sense and a certain vision of cinema from Stephen Frears to Luc Besson to Coppola. He willingly stays away from the media, but has nevertheless agreed to answer the questions that one of his friends, photographer Jack English, asked him for us.
Tell me about your encounter with Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Gary Oldman I really enjoyed his movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien. He is an outstanding director, who's got his very own style and vision. Even if it was the third instalment of Harry Potter, it had to remain an Alfonso Cuaron movie. It was not just a sequel. That's, of course, what I liked about it. My first encounter with him was similar to that with Francis Ford Coppola, back when he offered me Dracula. Dracula was a character who had never thrilled me, until I met Francis. In a way, the same thing happened when Alfonso asked me to play Sirius Black, this wizard escaped from prison and wanted for murder, whom Harry saves with a wave of his wand. I have seen the movie once it was finished, I really like it, and I loved working with Alfonso which is very important when you work with a director for four of five months!
Do you think that the same thing will happen with Batman Begins, which you have just started shooting?
Yes, I think so. First of all, because I'm in great company: Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Secondly, because
the director, Christopher Nolan, who worked on Memento and Insomnia, is, just like Alfonso, a director who's got a very personal vision of things. Directors like them make those big projects seem very exciting. In Batman Begins [in which Christian Bale plays Batman], I play lieutenant and future police chief James Gordon. I have three sons: Alfie, Gulliver and Charlie. How many fathers do you know that can take their children see them in a movie with Batman?
Let's take a big step back in time Which play, in which you performed, has brought you pleasure as well as remained a good performance?
I remember a play, called The Country Wife, at the Manchester's Royal Exchange, a very long time ago . It's a play that dates back the Restoration, from which Warren Beatty vaguely inspired himself for Shampoo. I was playing the lead character, Horner, and Nick Hytner was directing. Not everybody enjoyed my performance. Most of the time, he is portrayed as a good, impertinent and cheerful guy, who makes eyes at the public. I portrayed him as someone a lot darker, and even addicted to sex! Reactions were not unanimous, but that's what got me excellent reviews. I still remember the one in the Times: No other actor before has imposed this role the ay Gary Oldman has! Irving Warden [famous critic of the time, feared and respected] said that. That was so huge for me. Albert Finney and Laurence Harvey had played that role, and Warden was saying that I had imposed it!
Did you have the feeling, at that time, that all the work done at university [he studied at Rose Bruford College] was finally bearing fruit?
I don't know. Maybe I did. I had worked very hard: I didn't go out, I didn't hang about with my friends in bars, I didn't fuck around; I did my homework, my essays
Do you think the fact that you were not accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art stimulated you, in a way?
Definitely. I had sent hundreds of admission forms to various schools. To get an audition for the Royal Academy and not be accepted, was, at the time, a huge disappointment for me.
What kind of memories do you have from the time you spent at the Royal Court Theatre?
Some nights, I had the feeling that I was holding the audience in my hand. You could have heard a pin drop. I did some great work there. I also enjoyed a few successes. Saved, Rat in the Skull, Serious Money I did stay there for a while. I was at home. And I was directed by Max Strafford-Clark, who's a wonderful actor.
After so many successes to do with theatre, was it hard to move on to cinema?
It was actually an accident! I had gone for an audition, but I knew I wasn't their first choice maybe the fourth of fifth. Anyway, I got the part. And the first one led to the second one. I did Sid and Nancy [by Alex Cox, in which he plays Sid Vicious, leader of the Sex Pistols] and then Prick Up You Ears [by Stephen Frears, in which he plays the playwright Joe Orton]. Those two movies did quite well in the US; Americans liked them. After that, I was in State of Grace [by Phil Joanou, with Sean Penn], which was certainly one of my best performances. And then I carried on: Henry & June by Philip Kaufman, JFK by Oliver Stone [in which he played Lee Harvey Oswald]. In the US, people used to think I was American. It was a great thing for a British actor to make himself known over there. It hadn't happened since Vivien Leigh.
That's when you moved to New York
Yes. The cinema industry was in America, not in England. Moreover, my marriage was broken, I had met Uma [Thurman whom he would marry in 1990 and divorce two years later]. I loved the energy in New York. You get out of your building to walk on the street and it's as if the curtain was going up!
You were far away from New Cross [the London area where he was born on Marc
h 21st, 1958]
You can say that! (He laughs)
What was the last performance in cinema that brought you pleasure?
Manipulations [by Rod Lurie, with Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges and Christian Slater, never been released in France]. It was a good role, in a good thriller, very well written.
One of the last times we talked, it seems as though you weren't really excited about being an actor anymore
That may be because I'm getting older! Being an actor is a good way to earn a living. And to meet fabulous people. It's great to live very comfortably. I've been lucky, I've had a lot of fun with great roles, but it is true that if I were extremely rich, I would stop and I would go to play football on a beach in the Caribbean with my children
You used to be a good football player, right?
Yes. There's nothing better than running with a ball and scoring a goal. It's the most exhilarating feeling in the world! When I was at school, I was a good player. So good in fact that many people told my mother that I should become a professional. I was born near the Millwall stadium [a London team], but I've always been a Manchester United fan. I love George Best [star of the club in the 70s]. I've even recently bought one of his shirts on the internet!
Has the excitment you had when you were a young actor gone?
The prospect of learning is so much bigger when you're young Of course, energy and enthusiasm are not the same anymore. Back then, there was no reason to turn anything down. Everything I had to discover was before me. When you've done this for twenty years, it's not the same anymore. When I thought about moving on to directing, I thought, I don't know how to write, I don't know how to direct, so I'm going to do it! It was difficult, but it was a real challenge. It was very exciting. I should have done it earlier!
Would you say that Coppola is the best director with whom you have worked?
For my income, sure! (He laughs) Coppola is the best living American director.
But, we all remember that shooting Dracula was difficult
That's because we were both so involved, and that we didn't always have the same point of view. By the way, his daughter, Sofia, has done a great movie; it's my favourite one of the year, and even all the years! Lost in Translation is a masterpiece. Her father can be proud.
And what did you retain from your performance as Mason Verger in Hannibal, by Ridley Scott?
I loved working with Ridley, and I loved the character. People used to say to me, You disappear behind the make-up, you're in a wheelchair and you can't move at all; it must have been so frustrating. No, it wasn't. It was even certainly the most liberating thing I've ever done. I've never been freer and more relaxed on a set.
How do you explain that?
Because I was completely hidden! It was like being dressed up for Halloween. You feel a lot less inhibited behind a mask. For me, it's the ultimate experience for an actor. When you're hidden, you don't have to look like Gary Oldman.
In the book by Thomas Harris, Mason Verger is a really crazy man. You seem to like this kind of characters.
Yes. Because I'm interested in the people and their imperfections.
So what did you bring to Drexl, in True Romance?
The character already existed in the script, which was very well written. Tarantino [who wrote the script, directed by Tony Scott in 1993, see Studio no.80] is unequalled when it comes to bringing dialogs and action together. I just had my say about what the character looked like, that's all.
You have just found yourself with Tony Scott again, to shoot a BMW advert. Did you like it?
A lot! First of all, because it brought me a lot of money and a X5! (He laughs) Also, because Tony filmed that advert down my street in Los Angeles. I play this man in a wheelchair with a gun a kind of mix between Mason Verger and Nosferatu! And James Brown was involved too, and I had always dreamed of meeting him.
And how did you meet Luc Besson?
I was going out, at the time, with a former fiancee of his, and she organised a dinner with him one night. After that, I read the script for Leon and I loved it.
What are those pills that Stanfield, your character in Leon, keeps swallowing?
They're whatever you want them to be! That was my idea.
What is, according to you, the best Luc Besson film?
Le dernier combat. He did that when he was 19 [he was actually 24], with no money. It's a masterpiece.
According to the legend, he signed the contract to produce and distribute Nil By Mouth (1) [written and directed by Gary Oldman in 1997] on a serviette. Is that true?
So how did you tackle this new project of writing a movie?
In a way, it took me a long time to write Nil By Mouth. I first wrote it down in notebooks, and it became a script when I typed it on my computer. Nowadays, I write once the children are in bed. But I've reached a point where I tell myself that I've got to see this activity like real work, almost like a job. I've got to isolate myself and fully concentrate on it.
I have the feeling that you have fought with writing, since Nil By Mouth.
Actually, for that movie there were thirty years of gestation and six weeks of writing. Since then, my life has changed, I have to take my children into account, I have to look after them. It's hard to find the energy to write, to put it down in black and white, to draw things from within and recreate them. Since Nil By Mouth, I've written a shirt film, called Day Room, which is a prolongation of the hospital scene from my feature-length one. One of my friends is trying to shoot it, with my mother. And I finished the script for Joe Buck
Which you started shooting and gave up.
What else have you written, recently?
I've started a story that takes place in Glasgow, of a guy who's in love with his older brother's girlfriend. It started off well, and then I lost faith. I thought, I'm once again writing something very dark, with no star. How am I going to find the money to do it? What the fuck am I doing once again? And I gave up.
You didn't have that feeling when you wrote Nil By Mouth?
No, because I was innocent; I didn't know what would happen then. And the world has changed a lot since 1997. And that's not talking about the market! I shot a few scenes of Joe Buck, which I've shown to people. It's good, sexy. I've showed it to people in Los Angeles but I'll never make that movie.
Because I don't want to be in it, and it's the stars that allow the movies to exist. I don't think I'd be able to make Nil By Mouth nowadays; Ray Winstone was not what we call bankable back then. There has been a seismic shock in the industry, when Nil By Mouth was made, about financing movies. Two years ago, had I had Russell Crowe to be in Joe Buck, I would have been told, Great! It would have been perfect. Nowadays, I'd be told, Wonderful, but who will play the girl? When, precisely I think it should be someone unknown, or at least not very famous. New faces; new people. And that's why I've had so much trouble even doing the casting for Joe Buck.
You have even tried, at one time, to be in it
Yes. I had found a team of people who had agreed to work for almost nothing for ten days. I shot it in my house, and I was even
sometimes working the camera. In order to find enough money to continue, I agreed to take the leading part, and then I understood I didn't want to be in front of the camera. I couldn't see myself at all in that character. I had the feeling I was wasting the time of all the people who had been working with me. And I lost my enthusiasm
Do you think it will ever come back?
Tell us more about it. It was a movie about a man addicted to sex
It's too easy to say that about him, even if it partly is the subject. Part of the tragedy, in that story, comes from the fact that this man, who's just turned 50, is obsessed with a young girl. He makes her promises that he cannot keep, because he knows that their relationship can't lead them anywhere. At the same time, he's married to a remarkable woman. In a way, everything he wishes for, he has it under his very nose. But when he's with the girl, he thinks about his wife, and when he's with his wife, he thinks about the girl. His wife catches him cheating, she forgives him, he swears that he won't do it again, but he does it all over again and again
How does it end?
Lies and dishonesty destroy everything. It becomes unbearable for him. But he can't help going deeper and deeper One final time, he tries to go back to his wife, but she doesn't want him anymore. Cut. We see him again in a therapy group for people addicted o sex. He speaks and replies to someone who's just been talking, With all due respect for your story, I don't jerk off ten times a day, I don't watch hardcore videos on the internet, I don't feel excited by pornography. I honestly don't think I should be here. I listen to all your stories, and I think that I'm just a fucking normal guy. And maybe I am indeed normal.
Did you want to disturb the audience, with such an ending?
I dont want to give the audience a way out. If I'd made him an alcoholic or a junkie, they would have accepted him more easily.
What do you think about pornography?
In a way, porno movies are some of the biggest works in the world. You watch one, and it's just like a masterpiece, exactly like a John Ford, Hitcock or Kubrick movie. It's a masterpiece until you come. After that, you only wish for one thing: to find the remote and watch a football match. I used to read porno books on planes, because I was scared, but nowadays, I'm not interested anymore.
What do you find sexy?
Talent. Talent is the sexiest thing in the world. The way Eric Clapton plays guitar, that's sexy. The way my fiancee walks through the room the way she holds her head, the way her ponytail swings that's sexy.
In 1994, you said that Nil By Mouth corresponded to the vision you had of the world. Do you still see it in the same way today?
No. I used to see the world that way at the time when I was writing the movie. But, as I get older, this tendency is getting easier to forget. I don't have to live there anymore [in London, where the action of that feature-length movie takes place], I can just go there. What really happens to people, you can't render it in cinema. There are some people who live in far worst conditions than the ones I've described in Nil By Mouth.
You have recently organised a screening in Los Angeles
Yes, I rented some material from Panovision, in L.A. The guy who runs the company is English, and he hadn't seen the movie. I had it screened in a very small room, for him and five or six of his mates. I hadn't seen Nil By Mouth for years, and it was, in fact, the first time that I really watched it and it brought me pleasure. That was exactly what I wanted, when I made that movie; a movie for mates. The awards, success, reviews, distribution in the US, it w
as all a bonus
Do you still like Cassavetes?
� I've always been a big fan. I remember that, when I saw Faces, I couldn't believe it. That movie grabs you and doesn't let you go, and Cassavetes breaks all the rules There are things you're supposed to do when you make a movie, and he doesn't! As if he didn't care. He goes straight to what he's looking for. I love it, but not everyone can do that. I've interviewed Gena Rowlands [who was married to Cassavetes for thirty five years] for Venice Magazine, and I asked her, If he had had the money, do you think that his movies would have been different? And she said, Oh no, it was what it was. You have to, sort of, cut the clothes to what you can afford. It was all in his head. Something dictated by circumstances. It's crazy what you can do in your living room, if you're a great scriptwriter, a great director and your wife is a great actress!
You told me that you would like to write the adaptation of Places to Look for a Mother, by Nicole Stansbury, which you have just read.
It's a very beautiful book. No one took the option, so I tried. It's the story of a family in which the mother is dysfunctional; and everything is seen through the eyes of a seven year-old girl. There are, in that story, many things that move me. I think it would make a wonderful movie. I hope it will be my next step as a director.
You dedicated Nil By Mouth to your father. Do you think he would have been offended by the movie?
I don't think so. I think that, if he were still alive, he'd be living with me, in California, and he'd swim in my swimming pool. I made him go onboard the Concorde, I bought him travels in first class. I think he would have been, on the contrary, proud of me. Dedicating the movie to him was a sign of affection. Just a salute to my old man!
(1) First and only one so far feature-length film directed by Gary Oldman, it tells the everyday life of a family living in London's suburbs, between unemployment, alcohol and psychodrama
Gary Oldman comes face to face with Harry Potter
Escaped from Azkaban prison, wizard Sirius Black is he the biggest danger that Harry Potter ever had to face? This question is the foundation of the third instalments of the adventures imagined by J.K. Rowling. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (released in France on June 2nd, June 4th in the US) should, just like the previous two, climb right at the top of the box office, which would allow Gary Oldman to enjoy his biggest success yet.
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