Why Churchill was so intimidating to play

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Gary Oldman considered turning down the role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour – because he’s been played so well by so many other actors.

The British actor is expected to lift the best actor Oscar on Sunday in LA, but said the war-time prime minister was an intimidating character to play.

He said he was drawn to the film as it showed Churchill “wasn’t a curmudgeon” but was “energetic and funny”.

“We think of him as an old man… who was born in a bad mood,” said Oldman.

Speaking at a Hollywood event to celebrate the British nominees of the 90th Academy Awards, he told the BBC on Friday it was “a privilege and an honour” to play Churchill – despite the hours in hair and make up, including having his head shaved every morning.

It all felt worthwhile because Churchill was “such great company and I loved getting into work and being him”, he explained.

‘It was a revelation’

Oldman joins the likes of Robert Hardy, Albert Finney and Brian Cox who have previously played Churchill.

He said: “It wasn’t an immediate yes. Because he’s been played so successfully… you wonder what you can add to the gallery.”

So what was it that did make him sign on the dotted line?

“It was the story and it was a very microscopic look at a defining moment in our history and also obviously his premiership,” Oldman said at the event, also attended by musician Jonny Greenwood and costume designer Jacqueline Durran.

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“But it was the discovery I made was going to the footage, when I was just looking at him and listening to him. It was the dynamism, the energy of the man.

“We’ve got an idea in our heads of who he is, and that might be contaminated by other people who have portrayed him in different parts of his life, so it was a revelation to see someone who was very light on his feet, not quite as rotund as I imagined him.

“So that was a key in to show a side of him that was dynamic and energetic and funny – he wasn’t a curmudgeon. We think of him as an old man with a cigar who was born in a bad mood. And I think he was far from that.”

‘Vulnerability and sweetness’

Oldman explained that he tried to imagine Churchill as a child to help him capture his character.

“Even if I’m playing a villain, you have to find a redeeming characteristic. I always look for the boy, the little boy in there. There was, from what I could see, even reading his speeches, there was a vulnerability, a cherubic sweetness to him.

“He could be grumpy, if you weren’t living up to his standards I’m sure he had a sharp tongue. But there was a big heart there.”

Oldman doesn’t have long to wait to find out if he has beaten fellow nominees Timothée Chalamet, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Kaluuya and Denzil Washington to lift the Oscar.

He says whatever happens, he enjoyed the ride.

“I considered it a great honour and a privilege to play him,” he said. “I’m feeling very good about it. Sunday will be – these things will be what they will be.

“They’ll either call your name or they won’t. The ride has been enjoyable and to be recognised for playing Winston is a pride in itself.

“I’m enjoying it now. It’s a moment in the Sun. There are highs and lows in your career – it’s a high, you enjoy it, and then someone else is there next year.”

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