A cinematic awakening: Gary Oldman on his vocation as an actor.
I was around 14. It was the preview of Brian Forbes' Raging Moon de Bryan Forbes (1971). I saw Malcom McDowell's vulnerability in this role, but also his huge, threatening blue eyes. To my mind that was the ideal mixture: vulnerability and threat. It was as if a light had come on in the cinema.
How does one become an actor?
You have to go to acting school, which I did. I was highly motivated, and really applied myself. I wrote a lot of letters. My training lasted three years, 24/7. That taught me discipline. I soaked it all up like a sponge. I had to train my voice, learn other accents. When young actors ask for my advice I tell them: "Don't turn up on time on set – turn up in advance!"
I began in the theatre. I started out acting six months in a row in a troupe, where we performed five or six plays at the same time. We'd rehearse a play one day, and perform another that evening. I'm not sure I could maintain that rhythm today. I've had a dozen or so theatre directors and I've acted in all kinds of plays.
The big screen
Making films was always my dream. The transition was not easy, but I think that the hardest thing to do is to go from cinema to theatre, like Christian Slater. I'd never have been able to do it without acting school. And then when you go from earning £80 a week to £35,000 for a role in Sid and Nancy (Alex Cox, 1986), my second film, you don't need a second invitation! I loved Motown, but I had to listen to a lot of punk, consult the archives, lose a lot of weight. I don't think much of my performance in that film. After that, I tried to alternate between plays and films – you could still do that then. Today people can call you up just a week before the shoot begins.
9 times out of 10, I begin by listening to the voice. When you play someone who really existed – a great man like Churchill for example, you have to remain true to their memory and respect it. That's a heavy responsibility. You study the movement, the way a person moves around. I spent six months studying with Mike Lee to create the character of Churchill. I've never had a coach – we British don't tend to do that, almost certainly because we learn in schools, which isn't always the case in LA.
When I saw this extraordinary film, I said to myself: "I'm in that, it's incredible". That was also another era. To prepare for my role as Lee Harvey Oswald, Oliver Stone had sent me plane tickets so I could go to New Orleans and Dallas to scout around. He said to me: "Go and find stuff out!" as if I was a detective. It's incredible to enjoy the confidence of someone like that. Oliver's a historian. In Dallas, the scene of the assassination and the surrounding area were made available to us for three weeks. That'd be unimaginable today – you'd have to shoot elsewhere, in Bulgaria, or Toronto… And meeting Oswald's daughter and relatives was just crazy.
Coppola is one of my heroes. When he offered me Dracula, a role I'd never dreamed of playing, I immediately said to myself: if it's Francis, I'm in. I worked with an opera singer to develop my voice. And then who could resist a reply like: "I've crossed oceans to be with you?"
I play the piano well enough even though I'm no genius. The director didn't want to overdub the music so I had to learn six or seven pieces. I attached myself to a Steinway for seven weeks…
I love to be surprised by actors. I love their game. And I've long since loved everything that goes with technique. At a certain moment, your career curve becomes gentler and you have to know how to rise to challenges. The great roles become fewer and further between and you need motivating...