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Gary Oldman: "Acting is an antidote to self hatred"

This much admired actor brings the same intensity to his craft as to his life. By Simon Evans

It is surely a testament to his versatility that Gary Oldman's cinema career is bookended by his portrayal of two very different British icons, Sid Vicious and Winston Churchill.

His role as Churchill in the recent film Darkest Hour has rightly earned him plaudits and multiple awards, and he won an Oscar for best actor at last month's award ceremony. Not bad for the son of a welder whose first job, after leaving school at 16, was to work in a Peckham sports shop.

He was born in 1958 in South London, and grew ip in a two-up two-down house situated behind New Cross Gate Station and close to a pub, the Five Bells. The pub is still there- and featured in Gary's 1997 film Nil By Mouth- but the houses are long gone. 

Gary's father knew the inside of the Five Bells all too well; an alcoholic, he walked out on his family when Gary was seven and his older sister (the EastEnders actress Laila Morse) was 19.

The abuse suffered by the family inspired, if that is the correct word, Nil By Mouth, which Gary both wrote and directed, and which featured his sister in a leading role.

He said at the time: "A lot of this film is my father. I had to leave a lot of things out of the film because hey were atoo horrendous. People wouldn't have believed it."

Then, as now, horizons were limited for the son of a single mother living on one of the less salubrious parts of the capital/ For a lad like Gary only pop music. football and acting seemed to offer any means of escape from a life destined to be spent scratching a living in menial jobs.

He left school at 16 with no academic qualifications but nursed ambitions to become an actor after seeing Malcolm McDowell in the 1971 film The Raging Moon. "Something about Malcolm just arrested me, and I connected, and I said, 'I wanna do that'."

For the time being a job on either side of the camera would do, but his careers adviser at school was less than encouraging.

"I told him I wanted to be a cameraman at the BBC... he looked at me like I had just landed from Mars.2

Gary's ultimate dream was to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where so many of his idols had learned their trade. But when Gary auditioned he was told to "find a new way of earning a living"- which is rather like he record producer who turned down The Beatles believing beat groups were going out of fashion.

RADA's loss was Rose Bruford Drama College's gain. Gary worked hard at the college, based in Sidcup, Krnt, and graduated n 1979. Almost mmediately he was being given theatre roles, the intensity of his acting, as well as his work ethic, grabbing the attention of directors, including Mile Leigh, who cast Gary as a skinhead in his TV film Meantime.

Stints with the prestigious Royal Court Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company cemented his reputation as a stage actor, and Gary admits he was rather snobby when offered film roles, including that of Sid Vicious in the 1986 Alex Cox movie Sid and Nancy.

"I wasn't really that interested in Sid Vicious and the punk movement," he recalled. "I'd never followed it. It wasn't something that interested me. I felt the script was banal and I was a little bit nose in in the air thinking 'well the theatre- so much more superior'and all of that."

He turned down the role twice, only accepting when he felt the money was right; and it turned out to be an astute move for, combined with his Bafta-nominated performance as Joe Orton, in Prick Up Your Ears, it opened the door to Hollywood.

The role of Orton had proved that. even at this early stage of his career, Oldman was not afraid to take risks; in an age of Aids hysteria the role of the promiscuous homosexual Orton was one that others might have baulked at; as was his role as a married bisexual in the film We Think Of You. And Gary was not afraid to burrow deep into his characters to find hidden truths, so much so in the case of Sid Vicious that he ended up being hospitalised after losing too much weight too quickly, the better to be able to play the rake thin punk.

Playing such extreme, tumultuous, character had its downsides, especially when it appeared to spill over into Gary's private life. 

In 1987 he had married the actress Lesley Manville, who coincidentally, will be joining him at this year's Oscar ceremony, having been nominated for her role in the film Phantom Thread. They had a son together, Alfie, but separated in 1989. The following year Gary married Uma Thurman, who he had met on the set of the him State if Grace, but they, too, were divorced after two years.

Then the drinking started. Celebrating his success in winning high-profile Hollywood roles, including that of Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone;s JFK, Gary started partying hard with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, ending up in a cell for drink driving after one particularly heavy-duty night ou.

He was said to be knocking back a couple of bottles of vodka a day, and admitted to making some pretty poor career decisions while, as he put it, in a state of "alcoholic-sort-of-fog grandiosity".

He tossed a coin to decide whether to appear in the aci-fi film Waterworld or sentimental romantic drama The Scarlet Letter. Neither were much cop, but The Scarlet Letter won, and, so delicate was Gary's condition at the time that he had to be fed his lines through an earpiece.

It was only when confronted by his co-star that Gary decided enough was enough. "Demi Moore said, 'You're very ill- you have to go away. I am very worried about you'."

He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and eventually cleaned up his act, speaking later of his drinking. "t's like a three-headed dragon, it attacks you spiritually, emotionally and physically. It likes to claim people. And I was just sick and tired. I knew that I was going to die, but there were things I still wanted to accomplish."

In 1986 his father had died of liver failure, at the age of 62, and Gary was afraid history might be repeating itself/

"I have alcoholism, so it's hereditary. I saw him briefly once or twice tin that period before he died so I have an image of him as someone old, who was dying. I don't like remembering that."

Writing and directing Nil By Mouth, by which time he was off the drink, was clearly an act of catharsis for Gary, and the same year that it was released, to universal acclaim, Gary married photographer Donya Fiorentino. They had two sons together but, again, the marriage was short-lived, the couple divorcing in 2001. After an especially bitter court battle Gary was granted sole custody of their children, Charlie and Gulliver.

"I woke up one day and was 43 years old and I was single dad and had these two kids. It wasn't exactly what I'd planned, but there it was in front if me. So I just made a decision to be at home more."

Gary signed up for high-profile roles that involved the minimum of work for the maximum return, including Jim Gordon in the rebooted Batman franchise and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films.

"they allowed me, certainly financially, to really be at home with the kids. You make a Harry Potter movie for sic weeks... and then you have maybe seven months at home. If one can do the smallest amount of work for the most possible money, that seems smart."

In 2008 he got married for a fourth time, to musician Alexandra Edenborough, but she filed for divorce in 2015. Last year he was married again, to art curator Gisele Schmidt.

The proposal came in unusual circumstances- Gary was dressed as Churchill in between takes for Darkest Hour. "We had talked about it and I just felt the urge. We were down in the war rooms, and I took her into the back room. And as Winston Churchill, I said, "Will you marry me?"

Gisele would later laugh that she went to bed with Winston Churchill but woke up with Gary Oldman. 

In 2011 Gary picked up his first Oscar nomination, for his role as George Smiley in the film version of John Le Carre;s novel, Tinker, Trailer, Soldier, Spy, the role made famous by Alec Guiness in the Seventies TV adaptation.

Now he stands on the verge of going one better. Despite adverse publicity around comments made in 2014, and the circumstances surrounding his custody battle with Donya Fiorentino, Gary has fought his way back to become one of the most highly-regarded actors in Hollywood. And it is obvious, from an interview given to promote Darkest Hour that, for him, acting is more than just a job.

"I see it as an antidote to self-hatred. I think it was my way out, a sort of avenue of escape.

"The fun of it is getting away from myself and stepping into the characteristics and the behaviour off someone else. it stems from not being that comfortable in your own skin."

He also gave a fascinating insight into his craft.

"Impressionists have to paint with a very broad stroke because you've got to see it within a couple of seconds. You go, 'That's a really funny Robert De Niro'. As an actor, though, you look at different aspects of a character. I try to completely surround myself with the assignent. It's like being in a big cloud and then some of it rains through- for instance, looking at not only Churchill's way of walking and mannerisms and the way he sounds, but also looking into the psychology.

"As an actor, you people-watch, you observe. And the more famous  you become, the sad thing is you lose the ability to do that. Instead of people-watching, you become the focus of attention."

What do you think of Gary Oldman? Want more celebrity interviews? 

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