The long hard road for Gary Oldman -- The "Murder in the First" actor talks about suffering through rehab, tabloid gossip, and his plans for the future

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated February 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST
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He’s made his mark as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula and Beethoven. He was once married to Uma Thurman and is now engaged to Isabella Rossellini. But at 10 o’clock this Saturday morning, Gary Oldman, an actor who needs no more than a sneer to convey a world of disillusion, is looking like nothing so much as a chicken. He darts his head in the doorway, his spiked and gelled waxen hair sticking up like a cock’s comb, his surprisingly slender body making its way to the chair with a nervous determination. Although his gaunt face has filled out a bit in recent weeks, his body is still remarkably tiny: His black leather belt is cinched so tautly that his baggy black jeans fan out at the hips. He sits, lights a cigarette, stands up, takes his black windbreaker off; pulling at the collar of his blue buttoned-up shirt, he tries to settle in again. Oldman — who appears to shift with the mere toss of a wig from punk nihilist in Sid & Nancy to elegant vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula to embittered genius in Immortal Beloved — seems ill at ease playing himself.

It can’t be an easy job. He’s mentioned in the gossip pages for his involvement with his glamorous Beloved costar Rossellini, whom he met and fell in love with on the set. He’s caught in a swirl of attention for three current movies — not just Immortal Beloved but also Murder in the First, in which he portrays a sadistic warden to Kevin Bacon’s prisoner, and The Professional, in which he plays a pill-popping (and Beethoven-loving) DEA agent. He’s attempting to change his life: Released only about five weeks ago from rehab, where he was treated for alcoholism, the 36-year-old English actor is trying to redefine himself before the rest of the world has the chance.

In keeping with the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, Oldman isn’t talking about the course of his recovery, although he acknowledges his addiction. ”I think people are naive about just what chemical dependence is,” he says, ”about how destructive and powerful and overwhelming it is.” And he knows what the media can make of details. He’s had his fill of tabloid tales of his raucous behavior, including a drunken-driving incident with Kiefer Sutherland aboard in 1991, which landed Oldman in a Los Angeles jail for a night.

These days, Oldman is taking responsibility for his actions. ”There is a certain code of behavior,” he says. ”The bottom line is the Ten Commandments, right? Don’t cheat, don’t steal, love thy neighbor. We’re given this. I can’t talk about the psychology of a serial killer — I don’t know what’s inside their heads. But for most people, we’re not necessarily always responsible for our thoughts, but we’re accountable for our actions. Someone can go, ‘If that baby doesn’t stop crying, I’m going to go in and strangle the f—er.’ Now that would be a thought. Do you go strangle the baby or do you not? We’re given a code to live our lives by. We don’t always follow it, but it’s still there.”

Oldman’s personal problems may have fueled his acting, but apparently they’ve never interfered with his performance. People who have worked with him say he has always been a true professional. For some, like Rossellini, his presence was a major incentive to take a role. ”Gary was one of the prime reasons I accepted the part in Beloved. I’ve always been a fan.”

”What’s so great about Gary is, whatever he’s done in his life, he’s brought to good service,” says Tony Scott, who directed True Romance (1993), in which Oldman played a dreadlocked drug dealer. ”At times, it might have been perceived as being bad for him, but it’s always benefited him and his personality and his acting. The bad times make him better.”

First heralded for his performance opposite Chloe Webb in 1986’s Sid & Nancy and his ’87 turn as playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Oldman has slipped nimbly and regularly into the devil’s skin, playing an Irish mobster in State of Grace (1990) and Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991) before his breakout as Francis Coppola’s Count Dracula one year later.

”The best example of Gary is Sid & Nancy,” says Cary Elwes, who acted with Oldman in Dracula and considers him a mentor. ”The whole film you see a character who’s hit rock bottom, and when he comes out of a restaurant eating pizza and starts dancing with those little kids — that’s very much the essence of his person.”

Always an intense presence on screen, he has a reputation for disappearing into his roles. ”I love him deeply,” says Marc Rocco, director of Murder in the First, ”but sometimes Gary doesn’t understand the word cut. I had to run down to the dungeon and physically stop him (when he was) clubbing Bacon.” Oldman laughs when told Rocco’s story, smoke curling out between his thin lips. ”Any actor who tells you that they become the people they play — unless they’re clearly diagnosed as schizophrenic — is bulls—ting you,” he says curtly. Nevertheless, even Rossellini admits that Oldman’s work on the big screen had her fooled. ”The first time I met him, he was the opposite of what I expected because he always plays dark characters. But he was charming and fun and funny — and he made me a cup of tea.”

As Beethoven, Oldman must inhabit a cruel spirit who takes out his frustration at the loss of his hearing on those around him. ”I used to joke, ‘Can’t we just have him kicking a woman?”’ he says, waving off the romance of playing such a genius with a flash of his hand.

Playing famous people, he says, is ”a double-edged sword because in one sense you have a lot of material to work with, but in a strange kind of way that puts up a framework that you have to keep within. You can’t play Beethoven with pink hair, but to an extent, because no one has ever met him, who’s going to tell me that’s not Beethoven?”

Still, Oldman is a thorough researcher. Although an accomplished pianist, ”I chained myself to a Steinway for about four hours a day to prepare for the role,” he says. He also adopted a bowlegged strut from what he judged in pictures to be Beethoven’s wide stance. ”I think he has some sort of extreme muscle memory,” says Immortal director Bernard Rose. ”Once he’s done a scene and got it right, if you’re shooting coverage, he’ll do things that you thought were just completely spontaneous at exactly the same speed and energy as many times as you want.”

There’s more to Oldman’s control of his instrument. ”He has almost a unique ability to change his appearance,” Rose continues. ”And how he does it is quite mysterious. He’s actually a slightly built guy, but when you look at him in the film, he looks big and stocky — and he wasn’t padded or coated in latex — he just sort of does it. You can never see Gary.” Mel Gibson, who coproduced Immortal Beloved, agrees: ”I’ve often said he’s like Mr. Potato Head. He just kind of becomes something else.”

”I can never seem to have my own hair,” Oldman says. ”In Romeo Is Bleeding, I have longish hair. Then I do Murder in the First and (have) my hair cut. And then they want me to play Beethoven, and I have short hair, so I have to wear a wig. I don’t know how Dan Day-Lewis always seems to have his own hair, but that’s a huge talent in itself. I hate makeup and wigs. With Beethoven, I said I wanted to play a role where I didn’t have to do anything stupid with my hair, and my agent said, ‘Read it again.”’

Ultimately, the appeal of playing a stricken genius won out. ”People who are artists and brilliant and gifted, they have so many emotions and feelings that are sort of bubbling around inside of them,” says Oldman. ”But you can imagine that there’s a great deal of love there.”

Oldman grew up in New Cross, a working-class neighborhood of South London, where he and his two older sisters were raised by his mother after his father, a welder, deserted the family when Oldman was 7. His father, who rarely saw his son, died several years ago at 62 from complications of alcoholism.

Rebellious and bored with school, Oldman dropped out at 16 and went to work in a sports-equipment store. Away from the influence of teachers, he began to read and study literature, as well as continuing to teach himself to play the piano. He also began to win small stage parts and met his mentor, drama teacher Roger Williams. ”(Acting) was like this shadow opening up to me,” Oldman says. ”(Actors) find it very difficult to live in the here and now. Acting is a license, in a way, to live in the moment.”

That license wasn’t always something Oldman could appreciate. In earlier days, even as he was being hailed as an actor’s actor, his life was a shambles: In the late ’80s he married English stage actress Lesley Manville, with whom he has a 6-year-old son, Alfie. The marriage ended, and in 1990, he wed Uma Thurman; that union dissolved in less than two years. ”Sometimes acting gets in the way of living life,” he allows. ”It’s very consuming.”

”Sometimes when he’s off the set, he’s a little sad or doesn’t feel so good,” says Luc Besson, the French director of The Professional. ”But on the set, he’s like an angel.” Adds Cary Elwes: ”He has one of the most beautiful souls. It’s very pure, and very gentle. One has the feeling when one’s around Gary that one wants to protect him from all the darker and negative forces that are at work in the world.”

Unfortunately, Elwes wasn’t around when dark forces struck in the form of the California earthquake of Jan. 17, 1994. Oldman had just begun filming Murder in the First on a Los Angeles soundstage. He felt as if the world were crumbling. ”I was thrown against the wall and I was actually under the door frame, which is where you are supposed to be,” Oldman says, smiling — as he does best — ironically. ”But the door frame was the set, and there I am, holding on to props. I’m holding on to cardboard, and I can still smell the glue that’s drying.” Two days later the cast and crew returned to a surviving set — and a newly self-protective costar. ”At lunch, you’d see Gary in the middle of the biggest parking lot he could find, with a fold-up chair and a tray,” says Rocco. ”I think he saw all of the telephone poles and measured off where they would land. There was no way anything was going to fall on him.”

As a father, though, Oldman finds himself in the role of protector. When asked if he worries about being the kind of father to Alfie that Oldman’s father was to him, the actor says, ”I see my son, so I’ve already broken the cycle.” He’s considering renting an apartment in London so that Alfie would have his own bedroom when Oldman comes to visit. But for now, Oldman is living in New York with Rossellini and her two children, Elettra, 12, her daughter with Jonathan Weidemann, and Roberto, whom she adopted as an infant in late 1993. With filming completed on The Scarlet Letter (in which he plays the haplessly passionate Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale opposite Demi Moore’s Hester Prynne) and with no movie project looming, he’s giving thought to what, besides staying sober, he’d like to do next.

Immortal Beloved

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  • Bernard Rose