When you see a performance as stunning as Gary Oldman’s in the new biographical World War II drama “Darkest Hour,” it begs the natural question of where Oldman the actor ended and his channeling of legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill began. On the face of things, it’s easy to presume that Oldman’s transformation took place somewhere in the daily three and a half-hour makeup process and extra half-hour to assemble the costume; but for the master thespian, becoming Churchill to face the darkest hour in the history of Great Britain took a lot longer than people would imagine.
“It takes the better part of a year to work on the role, and that includes all of the things that you would imagine. You read the material and then go to the books and the news footage and speeches, and all of that stuff,” Oldman told me in a recent phone conversation from New York City. “What it becomes is a year of one’s life in surrendering to all things Winston. But there is only so much of the work that you can do in isolation. So, I decided that once the script was finalized and there were various changes made to the script as it evolved, that I learned it like a play. I knew it long before I got to the set so I’d just have the material inside me and wouldn’t have to think about it. It’s like the old saying, ‘It’s not how well you’ve known something, but how long you’ve known it,’ so the role was in my DNA.”
Now playing in limited release and expanding to more locations throughout the country on Friday, “Darkest Hour” chronicles a short yet remarkable time in the life of Churchill in 1940, when the legislator was suddenly escalated to the post of prime minister because of the resignation of his predecessor Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who lost the confidence of Parliament. With little support from either side of the political aisle and perhaps most importantly, King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), Churchill was faced with either negotiating for what it sure to become a doomed peace treaty with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, or take a stand to fight for the ideals, liberty and ultimately, the freedom of Great Britain.
Intensifying the situation, however, is that whatever tact Churchill takes, it must be accomplished in a matter or mere weeks. Nazi forces are moving across Western Europe and have 300,000 British troops surrounded with seemingly nowhere to go on the beaches of Dunkirk in France.
Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” comes at an interesting time in the state of politics in both the U.S., where the divide between liberals and conservatives is as deep as perhaps it has ever been. But there shouldn’t be a quandary for audiences rooting for Churchill — who early in his career moved from the conservatives to the liberals, only to switch back to the conservative party 26 years prior to the dire circumstances Great Britain faced in “Darkest Hour” — simply because partisanship has no place when it comes to fighting evil.
“There’s nothing either partisan or bi-partisan about going after Hitler,” Oldman said. “It’s an interesting question, though, because Churchill made himself at times unpopular, because this was a man who made mistakes in his career as we all have. He certainly made some blunders. But as far as Hitler was concerned, Churchill was almost clairvoyant.
“He caught on to Hitler very, very quickly — way back in the early ’30s,” Oldman added. “Once he got a taste of it, he came back to the UK as a backbencher. He stood up in Parliament and said, ‘We should rearm — this guy is coming after us,’ but no one would believe him, because it was unthinkable, especially after the first World War that there would be another war. Pacifism was very universal, and they wanted to repair relationships with the Germans, so what Churchill was doing was considered a little politically incorrect and scaremongering. But he stuck to it. He never wavered from it — and he was right.”
In some ways, Oldman believes Churchill was destined to be at the right place at the right time in history; all of which stemming from a singular incident in World War I that’s recounted in “Darkest Hour.”
“If one of those bullets that he talks about in the first World War, when he is quoted, ‘There is nothing more thrilling than being shot at without result,’ if one of those stray bullets would have hit him and removed him from the scenario, or if he had worn out in Parliament and capitulated, then the landscape would have looked very different,” Oldman said. “All of Western Europe would have been fascist … and while people say it, and they say it in jest, ‘If it wasn’t for Winston Churchill we’d all be speaking German,’ there’s some truth in that.”
Not surprisingly, Oldman is already a favorite for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as Churchill, as are Wright and the film for Best Picture and Best Director, respectively. But in coincidental bit of timing, another film about the pivotal events depicted in “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk — director Christopher Nolan’s spectacle about the soldiers trapped on Dunkirk Beach — is also considered an odds-on favorite for Oscar nominations.
No matter how the Oscar race shakes out, Oldman agreed with my observation that the true victor is not either “Darkest Hour” or “Dunkirk,” but history itself, as the acclaim both films are receiving essentially ensures that these life-changing historical events will never be forgotten.
“It’s interesting when we screen this film. I can forgive the Americans for not knowing the real details of what happened, but you’d be surprised to the number of people that we screened it to in Britain who don’t know this story outside of scholars and historians, and people that really follow it and look at history,” Oldman said. “It’s amazing the number of people who said, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea.’ So, both films present a story very much worth telling and I couldn’t have put it better: History wins on this one.”
There are very few times in life where you can see an actor completely disappear into a role, and that’s exactly what happens with Gary Oldman becoming British Minister Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Yes, ultimately it’s a performance, but it’s so completely engrossing that you feel that you are in the film with him, watching the extraordinary events unfold.
Directed by Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour” takes us behind the scenes of a crucial time at the beginning of Churchill’s first run as prime minister, a post he’s escalated to after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) loses the confidence of Parliament after Adolf Hitler marches his forces across Western Europe. Facing opposition from both sides of the political aisle and King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) — as well as underhanded pressure from Chamberlain and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) to negotiate what it sure to become a doomed peace treaty with Hitler — Churchill must decide what is right for the country and if fighting for their freedom is the best resolve.
Despite all that “Darkest Hour” has going for it — the film benefits even more from the blockbuster success of director Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” over the summer. The miracle of Dunkirk is a make or break moment for Churchill, as he calls for civilian boats to cross the English Channel to rescue 300,000 British troops that are trapped on the Beaches of Dunkirk, France.
Seeing “Dunkirk” helps you understand the stakes of saving the soldiers at Dunkirk, making “Darkest Hour” all the more riveting. All told, “Darkest Hour” is easily one of the best films of the year, punctuated by the hands-down best performance of the year by Oldman.
When the characters where drawn out for the hotly anticipated “Peter Pan” film prequel “Pan,” filmmakers Joe Wright and Jason Fuchs, along with star Garrett Hedlund were pretty intent on giving the J.M. Barrie story’s iconic characters a different spin.
Since it’s not often such a time-honored tale gets a fully fleshed-out back story, Fuchs decided to give one core character, Captain Hook, a new, well, hook; and Hedlund was thrilled to be a part of it.
“It all starts with Jason. When I read the script, it examined how Hook and Peter were sort of forced to be allies. I thought it was a unique take on the story,” Hedlund told me in a recent phone conversation from New York. “I obviously wondered if people would accept the version of Hook without a hook, but since it’s a wonderful and interesting beginning, who better to create a world like this than Joe Wright? He’s one of the best directors out there.”
Hedlund said he loved how Wright brings “a beautiful, fantastical underbelly” to every film he makes.
“I love ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Anna Karenina,’ and he takes these stories that people know and love, and gives them the Joe Wright flair that’s so brave and unique. That’s why I so excited to see what he was going to do with the story of Peter Pan. For Joe Wright, I would have played Tinkerbell,” Hedlund said with a laugh.
Opening in theaters nationwide on Friday, “Pan” examines the origin story of Barrie’s classic character, Peter Pan (Levi Miller), a young boy given up by his mother (Amanda Seyfried) as an infant and raised in a London orphanage during World War II.
Whisked away from the orphanage in the middle of the night by pirates, Peter finds himself transported to the mysterious island of Neverland, where thousands of other “Lost Boys” are forced to mine the landscape for pixum, a gem which contains fairy dust and the key to keeping the evil ruler of the island, Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), immortal. Fortunately for Peter, he gains a fast friend in James Hook (Hedlund) and together they team with island native Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) to stop Blackbeard’s dastardly plans.
Fuchs in a separate interview told me that his inspiration for penning the prequel story was partially an ode to the musical prequel of another classic fantasy.
“‘Wicked’ in some ways is a semi-inspiration for ‘Pan,’ because I think what ‘Wicked’ does so beautifully is that it’s not a prequel for the sake of a prequel to tell more of a story that people like, it puts the characters that people know and love in a different context — it rephrases things,” Fuchs said. “‘Wicked’ gave us a better understanding of who those characters are in the original ‘Wizard of Oz,’ and for ‘Pan,’ my aspiration was to achieve the same thing. It’s not about filling in blanks, it is saying, ‘Hey, take a second look at Peter Pan, Hook, Tiger Lily and Tink,’ and walking out of this film, you may look at them very differently now that you have an understanding of where their journeys begin.”
tconversations.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Tim-Burton-Book-2.jpg" alt="Tim Burton Book 2" width="333" height="502" /> Click book cover for info on how to buy!
Glimpse of home
A native of Roseau, Minnesota, a northern town close to the Canadian border, Hedlund was asked by Wright to recall his farm boy upbringing to help determine and inform Hook as a character — which the actor was thrilled to do.
“When I first met with Joe, he revealed to me that he’d always seen Hook as somebody out an old John Ford film,” Hedlund recalled. “If he wasn’t in Neverland, he would have been happy being on a horse in some prairie. I thought that was quite brave and it wasn’t like any version of Hook that we’ve seen before. Ultimately, though, it’s an origins story, which reveals that there could something mischievous going on with this character and we’re yet to find out what that is.”
The 31-year-old actor’s upbringing also determined Hedlund’s accent for Hook, but for fans of Minnesotans being portrayed in film, don’t expect a “Yah, you betcha,” which Joel Coen and Ethan Coen joyfully brought to light in “Fargo.” (Ironically, Hedlund got a glimpse of home working with the Minnesota-born brothers a couple years back on “Inside Llewyn Davis.”)
“I was trying to make my tagline in ‘Pan’ be ‘Uff da,'” Hedlund said, laughing. “We’d miss something careening down on us and we’d escape the impact just in time, and I’d say ‘Uff da.’ Joe just fancied this sort of Scandinavian-route with Hook. Or maybe he just hasn’t heard too many Minnesotans speak before, and there was something about the way I spoke made him crack up and look at Hook in another light.”
Fuchs views Hedlund as much more than a hearty Midwesterner. In fact, the writer feels he represents all of us.
“Garrett is an extraordinary actor and the definition of an American movie star,” Fuchs said. “The guy just oozes charisma and a tremendously talented dude.”
Needless to say, Fuchs was happy when Hedlund, whose credits include the original film version of “Friday Night Lights,” as well as “Tron: Legacy” and “Unbroken,” committed to play his bold new version of Hook.
“When I conceived the character for this film, I knew that this wasn’t going to be the character that we know in J.M. Barrie’s book, this is someone that you find cut from the mold in ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ — a roguish leading man-type of adventure,” Fuchs said. “Also, he’s a man who’s quite selfish and hasn’t grown into the man he’s supposed to become. All of those things led us to things led us to the version of Hook you seen in the film. In a way, it’s quite different, yet it has the seeds of the Captain Hook we know and love, or love to hate.”
Original Interviews, Reviews & More By Tim Lammers