Why Gary Oldman was a natural pick for Winston Churchill

by Russell Baillie / 12 January, 2018

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Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill.

Kiwi writer Anthony McCarten says Gary Oldman was his top pick to play Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

The last time the Listener spoke to Anthony McCarten, he was midway through the awards season for his acclaimed 2014 film The Theory of Everything.

That was his Stephen Hawking movie, the one that left the writer-producer with a couple of Baftas, two Oscar nominations and an inbox crowded with offers.

This time when we call, it’s the morning after the British premiere of his movie about, well, a British premier.

Darkest Hour is McCarten’s tilt at Winston Churchill. Like Theory, it was a self-generated project he had nurtured for the best part of a decade and which he took from page to screen.

Yes, it had played well in London’s Leicester Square the previous night. “It went gangbusters,” he says, admitting to some morning-after fuzziness.

That local opening-night audience, which included at least one Churchill great-grandson, was probably always going to like it. But that’s not just because the film gives good fight-them-on-the-beaches nostalgia or acts as a home-front companion piece to Dunkirk.

“I think its themes are relevant to Britain right now and it is in some ways a love letter to Britain – and to Britons.”

Anthony McCarten. Photo/Getty Images

The film stars an unrecognisable Gary Oldman as the wartime statesman. It’s quite a performance. One that even if it doesn’t win him (or his make-up artist) an Academy Award, will get him anointed: best screen Churchill ever.

After Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal as Hawking, it seems McCarten has developed a speciality – scripts that help turn actors into real people.

It’s all part of what he calls “a frenzy of portraiture” that he’s continuing with scripts in development for movies about John Lennon and Yoko Ono, popes Benedict and Francis, and Catherine the Great. He also did the last rewrite of the screenplay for the troubled movie on the band Queen.

“It’s a fairly mixed bunch,” quips the guy from New Plymouth whose overnight success in the movie business has been a long time coming. McCarten started out as a playwright (he co-wrote the international stage hit Ladies’ Night) and novelist, as well as directing two of his own modest New Zealand movies before heading to Britain, where he has based himself for the past two decades.

Like most of his generation, McCarten’s regard for Churchill has trickled down from his parents’ generation. His father served in North Africa and Italy during World War II.

He thinks that as a colonial, his approach to the great-man story might have a degree of detachment from the British mythology, if not the actuality.

“You have to get it right when it’s historically based, but especially with someone like Churchill, especially in Britain, it is sacred ground.”

Still, there are scenes in which McCarten employs some artistic licence. One has Churchill polling ordinary citizens having chosen, for the first time in his aristocratic life, to travel on the London Tube.

Yes it’s apocryphal. “But I needed a scene with Churchill out among the people, which is something he did all the time.”

Churchill’s involvement in the disaster of Gallipoli in the previous world war gets a mention, but no, this wasn’t a deliberate nod to home, says McCarten. Churchill’s seemingly unlikely elevation to prime minister was always going to come with reference to his past failures.

“I certainly didn’t need to find a place to shoehorn it in.”

With his script getting the backing of British production company Working Title, which is co-headed by New Zealand-born Tim Bevan and which had made Theory, the next stage was to find their leading man and someone to direct him.

Joe Wright, whose stylish period fare has included Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina and the WWII-set Atonement, signed up as director.

Oldman was always at the top of McCarten’s list. His previous roles as British icons have included playwright Joe Orton and Sex Pistol Sid Vicious. Churchill might seem quite a leap, but to McCarten, that was the point.

“I wanted whoever we cast to be someone you wouldn’t think could play Churchill so you get a completely fresh take on the guy. That was kind of the whole idea of the film, that he is such an icon and mythical figure. I wanted to show this three-dimensional man.”

Darkest Hour opened in cinemas on January 11.

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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