When actors list other actors they deeply admire, Gary Oldman’s name inevitably shoots to the top. Sid Vicious, Dracula, Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald, The Dark Knight’s Commissioner Gordon, Harry Potter’s Sirius Black—Oldman’s range is so staggering, a video meme went around recently called “20 Gary Oldman Accents in 60 Seconds.” Google it in awe. He’s Meryl Streep for dudes.
Like all great character actors, the man is less familiar than the roles he plays, which makes sitting down with him intriguing. His films have grossed more than Leo’s, Will’s, Brad’s or Denzel’s, yet Oldman remains as blank as a stare from George Smiley, the “breathtakingly ordinary” British intelligence officer Oldman plays in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. That part earned him a 2012 Academy Award nomination for best actor. This July he leads the human resistance in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Born Gary Leonard Oldman in London on March 21, 1958, he grew up working-class and dropped out of school at 16. His father abandoned the family when Gary was young, but the budding actor later won a scholarship to Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance. Acclaim on stage gave way to audacious movie roles, first in the 1986 punk-rock biopic Sid & Nancy and, the following year, in Prick Up Your Ears, in which Oldman plays gay playwright Joe Orton. But it was portraying Oswald to newsreel precision in Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991 that had critics—and other actors—calling him Hollywood’s best new talent. Life wasn’t always rosy. Years of hard drinking, four marriages (including one to Uma Thurman) and a few behind-the-scenes controversies kept him lying low. Of being famous, Oldman, who has three children, once said, “I haven’t got any energy for it.”
Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed Jonah Hill, sat down with Oldman over two consecutive days in a suite at the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills, a venue that stirred certain unchaste memories for the actor (stay tuned). Hochman also discovered that hanging with Oldman is a twofer. “Gary’s longtime manager and producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, sat in with us and hung on our every word,” Hochman says. “If the name sounds familiar, it’s probably from hearing Urbanski on conservative talk radio, where he frequently fills in as a guest host for Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. He also plays Harvard president Larry Summers in The Social Network. At first I worried Urbanski might hog the spotlight, but Oldman clearly saw the interview as a rare opportunity to speak his mind like never before.”
PLAYBOY: Let’s begin with an impressive factoid. Based on lead and supporting roles, you are one of the highest-grossing actors in movie history, with films earning nearly $10 billion at the box office worldwide. That must feel amazing.
OLDMAN: I suppose it should.
PLAYBOY: Any working actor would want a career like yours.
OLDMAN: Except me.
PLAYBOY: Wait. You’re not happy with your career?
OLDMAN: It’s not that so much as there’s a perfectionism with me.
PLAYBOY: When you look back at your credits, what makes you say, “I could have done better”?
OLDMAN: Most of it.
PLAYBOY: Really? You don’t like Sid & Nancy?
OLDMAN: I don’t like myself in the movie, no. Frankly, I didn’t want to make it in the first place. I was talked into it at the time. And now, if I flip through the channels and come upon it, it’s “Fuck! Sid & Nancy,” and off it goes. I don’t think I played Sid Vicious very well. I don’t like the way I look in Prick Up Your Ears. I wasn’t the right person to play Beethoven and turned it down half a dozen times.
PLAYBOY: The Dark Knight? Harry Potter?
OLDMAN: It was work.
PLAYBOY: Uh, The Fifth Element?
OLDMAN: Oh no. I can’t bear it.
PLAYBOY: You do realize you’re considered one of cinema’s all-time greats, right?
OLDMAN: It’s all so subjective, you know? I guess I shouldn’t complain. I’ve learned over the years that people get upset when they tell you something is their favorite movie and you go, “Really? You liked that piece of shit?” That’s the sort of thing Sean Penn would say. So I now tell people, “Thank you, that’s great,” and move on. But you know, I remember John Lennon saying that if he could, he’d go back and burn most of the work the Beatles did. He said he’d rerecord all the fucking songs, and I get that. Most of my work I would just stomp into the ground and start over again.
PLAYBOY: Come on. Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula?
OLDMAN: Look, I think there’s been some really good work along the way, good moments. I can look at certain movies and think, That scene was good, or, There’s something I was trying to get at. It was the most thrilling experience watching myself for the first time in JFK, for example, because I couldn’t believe I was in it—Oliver Stone at the very height of his powers, the sheer energy of it all, his commitment. When I saw the finished product I had to pinch myself. I thought, Wow, I’m in this movie. This is terrific. Or to do a role like Smiley in Tinker Tailor and to work with someone like John Hurt, who had been such a towering figure from my younger days. Every day I was like a fanboy. I fainted at his feet.
But I’m 56 now, and if you’ve managed to work as long as I have, you understand that these roles everyone fusses over are your career; they’re not your life. It’s just a job, really. You have financial responsibilities, you have children, you have all those things all the regular people have. Honestly, I forget I’m an actor until I’m reminded.
PLAYBOY: You’re probably not hurting for movie offers. What made you do Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?
OLDMAN: I love the franchise. I was a fan, as we all were, of the original films. I thought the script was very good.
PLAYBOY: And it was a big payday, no doubt.
OLDMAN: Yes, but other big paydays come my way and I go, “Would I want to be part of that? No, thank you.” This one had a pedigree.
PLAYBOY: What’s it like working with a bunch of damn dirty apes?
OLDMAN: Well, it’s hard being around the apes, because they’re basically just actors in weird diving suits with dots on their faces and cameras on their heads. Their mannerisms and facial expressions were ape-like, which was fun to watch. But the finished look comes later, through rendering and special effects. When I did Dracula and Hannibal I spent hours each morning having the makeup glued and strapped to my face. On Dracula the hair alone was a major tribulation. But making Planet of the Apes I had no idea what my co-stars actually looked like. I mean, Charlton Heston was filming with the apes. I used to love those behind-the-scenes pictures where you’d see an ape with a great big cigarette holder or a bottle of Coca-Cola in his hand—that old-time movie magic. It’s not like that now.