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Acting like Gary Oldman

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Out on a decrepit dock in Brooklyn on a very hot summer’s day, people are partying in Gary Oldman’s trailer. They’re eating his food, playing his tapes, talking about him behind his back. Oldman, meanwhile, unaware of all the gaiety, is being garroted with a piano wire in the front seat of a car a few hundred yards away, his long legs banging up against the dashboard, his feet doing a dance of violent death on the horn. When director Peter Medak finally yells, ”Cut!” (this madness is part of his upcoming film, Romeo Is Bleeding, about a double-crossing cop who falls for a mob moll), Oldman trips out of the car, clutching at his eyes, which have been blinded by glycerin used to simulate sweat, and holding his throat where a red gash has appeared like a gruesome smile under his chin.

”Can this cause permanent damage?” Oldman asks the dialect coach (there to help the actor turn his London accent to Brooklynese), who is sitting on a piling nearby. ”Do you think this can really hurt me?” Oldman is holding an Evian-soaked Kleenex to his eyes and gingerly feeling his tortured neck.

”Yes,” says the coach, obviously weary of issuing warnings to someone who doesn’t heed them. ”I do.”

Oldman says, ”Oh,” and climbs back into the car — careful not to bang the foot made up to look like one or two toes have been recently removed by an ax — for another take.

Most people don’t know this 34-year-old, London-born actor who’s killing himself to entertain them. They wouldn’t recognize him as Sid Vicious from Sid and Nancy or Joe Orton from Prick Up Your Ears or Lee Harvey Oswald from Oliver Stone’s JFK or Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola’s new Bram Stoker’s Dracula, because, like Jell-O into hot water, Oldman dissolves completely into the characters he plays. The irony here is that the real Oldman has enough personality of his own to start the next big bang: A new universe would form, filled with fathomless black holes of berserk possibility.

Back in Oldman’s trailer, the crew members have temporarily cleared out and we are attempting to begin an interview. But first he excuses himself, steps to the bathroom door, and peeks in. ”Oh! It’s The National Enquirer!” he says. He steps inside. Suddenly muffled shouts come through the door: ”No! I am not an alcoholic! NO! I AM NOT A HOMOSEXUAL! NO! I DO NOT KNOW DREW BARRYMORE!!”

Oldman comes out smiling, pleased to have entertained me. He can’t seem to help it. He spins everything — bathrooms, matchbook covers, an interviewer’s questions — into something interesting, something you want to carry home in your pocket and look at later. Asked about the section of London where he grew up, he says, slowly and thoughtfully, ”It’s the land where men can’t tell women that they love them.” Then he shows me, his manner turning subtly coarse: ”’Do you love me?”’ he asks the invisible person beside him, whose part he then takes as he says, testily, ”’Course I do — I married you, didn’t I?”’

Oldman’s own father left home when his son was 7, leaving the boy and his two grown sisters with their mom. They didn’t have much of anything, so when Oldman wanted to learn to play the piano, he made a keyboard out of paper and stuck it to the kitchen table. ”That really is the saddest thing I can think of,” he says now, forming chords with his fingers on the table in front of him. At 17, Oldman made a phone call to a nearby children’s theater. The next week, Roger Williams, the theater’s artistic director, gave him something from Shakespeare to read, and after listening to his impromptu recitation, took under his wing the young man from the land where men can’t tell women they love them and changed his life forever.

”Having not had a dad,” Oldman says, ”this relationship kind of…happened. And it was like someone pulling up this blind” — he points to the window, out of which we see the Manhattan skyline blurred by torrential rain — ”and saying, ‘Look at all that out there.”’

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