PLAYBOY: What’s this sequel about?
OLDMAN: We are 10 or 15 years on from the last movie. The simian flu has pretty much taken care of the world’s population except those who were immune to it. Those who did survive are facing chaos and complete societal breakdown. It’s apocalyptic. I’m a designated leader in the small community of humans trying to reestablish some kind of order to life as it was, having experienced my own personal tragedy in it. It’s a fragile peace between man and ape, and my character is hoping the two factions can co-exist. It’s like putting life back together after Hiroshima or something.
PLAYBOY: It sounds pretty bleak.
OLDMAN: The ultimate message is more hopeful, but yeah, it’s a rather dark view of the future.
PLAYBOY: What’s your view of the future? Are you optimistic about where society is heading?
OLDMAN: [Pauses] You’re asking Gary?
OLDMAN: I think we’re up shit creek without a paddle or a compass.
PLAYBOY: How so?
OLDMAN: Culturally, politically, everywhere you look. I look at the world, I look at our leadership and I look at every aspect of our culture and wonder what will make it better. I have no idea. Any night of the week you only need to turn on one of these news channels and watch for half an hour. Read the newspaper. Go online. Our world has gone to hell. I listen to the radio and hear about these lawsuits and about people like this high school volleyball coach who took it upon herself to get two students to go undercover to do a marijuana bust. You’re a fucking volleyball coach! This is not 21 Jump Street.
Or these helicopter parents who overschedule their children. There’s never any unsupervised play to develop skills or learn about hierarchy in a group or how to share. The kids honestly believe they are the center of the fucking universe. But then they get out into the real world and it’s like, “Shit, maybe it’s not all about me,” and that leads to narcissism, depression and anxiety. These are just tiny examples, grains of sand in a vast desert of what’s fucked-up in our world right now. As for the people who pass for heroes in entertainment today, don’t even get me started.
PLAYBOY: Well, since you started.
OLDMAN: It’s like the old saying about mediocrity: The mediocre are always at their best. They never let you down. Reality TV to me is the museum of social decay. And what passes for music—it’s all on that plateau. Who’s the hero for young people today? Some idiot who can’t fucking sing or write or who’s shaking her ass and twerking in front of 11-year-olds.
I have two teenage sons and they occasionally turn me on to stuff—Arcade Fire, hip-hop or whatever. I go, “Wow, that’s interesting.” And I do watch television. I’m a huge fan of long-form TV. Mad Men. I loved True Detective; Matthew McConaughey gets better and better. Boardwalk Empire, The Americans, House of Cards—oh God, I loved it. It makes me want to create a show and sit back and get all that mailbox money.
I’m trying to give my sons an education about movies as well. You sit there and watch a comedy, let’s say Meet the Fockers, and it’s Robert De Niro. You tell them this guy was at one time considered the greatest living actor. My boys look at me and say, “Really? This guy? He’s a middle-aged dad.” So what I’ve tried to do recently is introduce them one by one to the great movies of the 1970s—The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Deer Hunter, Dog Day Afternoon, the work of Lindsay Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, John Cazale, Peter Sellers. I try to give them a sense of what cinema used to be like rather than just these tentpole movies that come and go on demand within five minutes. Don’t get me wrong; there are directors I would still want to work with—Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve never worked with Todd Haynes. I love John Sayles. I’ve never worked with Scorsese.
A great director is a great artist. I felt that way with Alfonso Cuarón on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. You could just tell being around him that he’s a master, partly because he isn’t afraid to say, “I fucked myself up over here.” I remember a scene where he was scratching his head for two days, figuring out eye lines on 11 characters. “So we’ve got Harry and Hermione looking that way, and now we’ve got Snape, we’ve got Ron, we’ve got Sirius.” Plus he had to match the movements to the mechanical set, which had walls that were moving and breathing. He was never embarrassed to say, “Christ, I’ve really got myself in a pickle here.” And he worked it out. I love it when a director says, “I really don’t know the answer to that.” The thing you don’t want a director to say is “Oh, it’s exactly how I imagined it.”
The best directors are geniuses. I looked up the Playboy Interview with Stanley Kubrick, and it’s remarkable how much knowledge that man had at his fingertips. You need a Ph.D. to understand it. His access to the memory of names—not only could he talk about a theory, but he could talk about what institute the person who devised the theory was from. It’s a great read for a student of cinema like me.
PLAYBOY: Which movie first grabbed your attention?
OLDMAN: To me it was about the actors. It was Malcolm McDowell, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Peter Sellers. And Tom Courtenay in films like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But probably the first movie to inspire me was a film directed by Bryan Forbes called The Raging Moon. Malcolm McDowell plays a sort of Cock o’ the North character, a sporting guy, a bit of a lad with the ladies. And he comes down with a paralyzing disease; it may have been polio. He loses the use of his legs and is confined to a wheelchair and gets shunted off to one of those homes where they look after the disabled. I had never been in a school play, but watching that performance was a sort of moment of spiritual awakening when I thought, I want to do that.
PLAYBOY: How did you get into acting?
OLDMAN: We didn’t have any money, but I would generate things. I wanted to learn the piano, so I saved my pocket money and bought a cheap secondhand piano and took lessons. I wanted a guitar, so I saved my pocket money and bought a guitar. I sometimes wish my boys were more like that. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I was interested in performing, so I inquired at school. My math teacher told me about a local youth theater, and I went and met the artistic director. I told him I had this sort of ambition to be an actor, and he said, “Well, you would have to go to drama school, and you would have to have some pieces to audition.” So that would have been the first time I ever really thought about a character. Oddly, it was a Joe Orton character. I didn’t know a thing about him, but I found a speech from Entertaining Mr. Sloane. I was very good at just getting out there. Nothing was handed to me, that’s for sure. My mother did everything she could for me, but I knew I had to do it on my own. I had to escape.
PLAYBOY: What about your father?
OLDMAN: I mean, just google it; it says, “Gary Oldman, son of welder.” When I first arrived in America to promote Sid & Nancy I made the mistake of being overly forthcoming in interviews. I had no rule book. I was so naive. I was very happy where I was in the theater and thought doing a movie would be just a one-off thing. I should have just said, “I don’t talk about family. Next question.” Now, because of the internet and all that, people just go to the fucking morgue, open the drawer and write, “Son of welder, once married to Uma Thurman.” I’m so tired of it. I sometimes fantasize about sitting down in a situation like this and actually saying, “You know, it was all made up. You will never know who my real father was. He wasn’t a fucking welder. I was just having a lark with you all.”
PLAYBOY: Is there something wrong with being the son of a welder?
OLDMAN: It’s not so much that. It’s that your life story is out of your control. [in a nasal voice] “We read many stories after you directed your first film, Nil by Mouth, that said it was autobiographical and that your father used to beat your mother.”
PLAYBOY: And that’s not true?
OLDMAN: No, it’s not true! You’re hearing it from the horse’s mouth. That character is not my dad. My mother never got beat up. That character was a composite—partly fiction and partly a kid I knew at school. It’s not my personal story, but that’s what the media wanted. Sorry, I get a little angry about these things.
PLAYBOY: Your characters are always screaming their heads off. Is rage an issue for you in real life? Are you the guy shouting at the waiter when the food doesn’t come fast enough?
OLDMAN: I know what it means to do a job. I was a sales assistant in several places. I was a stockroom boy and did a lot of sweeping up. I worked in a factory. I respect people in the service industry. What irritates me more is when people aren’t respectful. There’s a lot of nonsense behavior, especially in a place like Hollywood. The money, the power, they create little monsters.