Why ‘Darkest Hour’ Star Gary Oldman Finally Said Yes to Playing Winston Churchill

The Oscar nominee had turned down offers to portray the British prime minister before — “I forbade everyone around me to even mention him” — but, he says, Anthony McCarten’s script was eye-opening.

More than 30 years after he broke out playing the emaciated punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, Oldman, 59, has ventured to the other side of both the waistline and the British class spectrum for Darkest Hour. It took a sizable effort to persuade the actor that he could become Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the U.K. through World War II, but the allied forces of producer Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten’s script, Joe Wright in the director’s chair, makeup artist extraordinaire Kazuhiro Tsuji, and a 14-pound fat suit and silicon face mask did the job.

You’d turned down Winston Churchill roles before. Why?

I just thought that the physicality was the biggest challenge. How the hell would I do that? If someone had said to me, Neville Chamberlain, I could have maybe wrapped my head around that. So the hurdle to leap was the physical — it was the elephant in the room. And so I forbade everyone around me to even mention him — don’t keep bringing him up! It’s never ever going to happen!

So what was it about Darkest Hour?

God bless Eric Fellner, who I had started my career with. I’d done other things before Sid & Nancy, but you could say it was that movie where they say you “arrived on the scene.” And he thought of me for it. And it was five weeks of Churchill’s life, it’s not really a biopic. It wasn’t a huge, great big epic transformation in that sense. Then I went in and started to read around that period and learned things from the script I didn’t know. I just thought, “Can that be right? Were we that perilously close?” And so it just grabbed me.

Did you watch any previous Churchill performances?

Once I signed on, I would go to the footage that was available. But I do remember Robert Hardy from the television series and Albert [Finney]’s Churchill. I think that people in general have an idea of who the man was and how he sounded and how he looked. And I was amazed to discover that he wasn’t quite so rotund in 1940. His waistline got a bit bigger through the war. But he had a really athletic tread — he really skipped around like a young man.

Have any of Winston Churchill’s descendants seen the film?

We actually had a visit from the Churchills. They came one day — 17 of them, from Randolph Churchill, the great-grandson, to the tiniest who I think was about 4, with red curly hair and great blue eyes. He looked just like his great-great-great-grandfather.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.