Gary Oldman was the angry young man of British film who cornered the market in cinema psychos. Now, as he approaches his 50th birthday, he is taking his life and work a little easier, preferring to be at home with his sons to hanging out at premieres and parties. Craig McLean meets him on the eve of his third Harry Potter outing
In a drowsy London hotel room, from behind a bushy policeman's moustache, a quiet, reserved Gary Oldman is considering his reputation as - his words - 'Crazy-Scary-Gary'.
That is: Gary Oldman, brilliant portrayer of skinheads, punks, vampires, assassins, psycho-cops, psycho-pimps, psycho-psychos.
The actor fundamental to the success and magic of Mike Leigh's Meantime, Stephen Frears's Prick Up Your Ears, Alex Cox's Sid and Nancy, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, Oliver Stone's JFK, Luc Besson's Leon, Tony Scott's True Romance and Alan Clarke's The Firm.
The writer-director whose gritty south-east London upbringing formed the backdrop to 1997's Nil by Mouth: a semi-autobiographical tale of alcoholism, drugs, criminality, wife-beating and the misery man hands on to man.
The 'bad boy' who, almost as soon as his career started, escaped Britain for high times in New York and Los Angeles.
The thrice-married, thrice-divorced drinker who went into rehab in 1995 and hasn't, he says, touched a drop of alcohol since.
'I don't know how it happened,' Oldman says of his pigeonholing as a natural born gangster. He speaks slowly. Very slowly. In clipped sentences. 'I really don't. I was this... psycho guy. I just got into these parts. Then it... it... contaminates people. And they think that you're Crazy-Scary-Gary. The closest character to me,' he adds with ponderous gravity, 'is Jim Gordon.'
Jim Gordon is the police lieutenant in the Batman stories. Oldman played the veteran cop in Chris Nolan's hugely successful franchise reboot Batman Begins (2005). He is reprising the role in The Dark Knight, in which Lt Gordon teams up with Batman (Christian Bale) to take on the Joker (Heath Ledger). It is currently being filmed in the UK, which is what has briefly brought Oldman from his home in LA back to England.
The portrayal of kindly Lt Gordon also explains the droopy, salt'n'pepper moustache he is sporting today, if not the orange trainers the 49-year-old is wearing at the bottom of his sloppy-joe ensemble (dark suit jacket, grey cartoon T-shirt, jeans).
I tell Oldman that the first word that comes to mind when you think of Jim Gordon is 'avuncular'. 'Yeah,' he replies with a light shrug. 'Got a good sense of right and wrong. Family man. Just a regular geezer.'
Is this something that has come to Oldman as he approaches his 50th birthday, a good quarter of a century since he started out as an angry young man of British film?
Another shrug. Another reply so low and quiet my tape-recorder will barely pick it up.
'I've always been that way,' says Gary Oldman.
In the course of filming five Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe has met them all: Kenneth Branagh, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Zoë Wanamaker, Helena Bonham Carter. But Gary Oldman, Radcliffe says, 'was the person I was probably most starstruck about meeting. We're now really, really close.'
They first got to know each other during the filming of 2004's The Prisoner of Azkaban, in which Oldman played the titular convict Sirius Black: alleged murderer, outcast wizard, friend of Harry's dead parents, and Harry's godfather. By the end of that third film Harry had discovered the truth about Sirius (he was innocent), Sirius had helped Harry, and Harry had helped Sirius escape again.
In the fourth film, The Goblet of Fire (2005), Sirius reappeared to support Harry in more diabolical battles, albeit still as a fugitive reduced to counselling Harry from the flames of a fire in the Gryffindor common room.
In the latest instalment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, out next month, Sirius Black has a larger and pivotal role, functioning as a mentor and father-figure to an embattled Harry. 'I felt in a way that [in the new film] I got to play the character rather than the situation,' Oldman says with noticeable satisfaction.
Radcliffe was tickled by the off-camera impressions that Oldman - famously adept at accents and a fabled impersonator - did of the comedian Russell Brand when attired in bearded, bedraggled Sirius Black's Edwardian finery.
But beyond that, 'there's something incredibly magnetic about Gary. I just think it's his intensity. It's a constant process of refinement when you work with him. Some actors will do a fantastic first take and after a couple of days, start to get tired. With Gary you could do 100 takes and every time he's trying to get it better and better. He's fearless.'
I ask Oldman if this is fair comment.
'Um.' Pause. 'Well it's very sweet of him.' Pause. 'Yeah, I guess that's pretty... Hmmm. Not as fearless as Mr Radcliffe. Because I don't know if I could have done what he's done, and in particular what he's done recently in the theatre, in Equus.'
Does Oldman, erstwhile RSC and Royal Court player, hanker after a return to the stage himself?
'I get misty-eyed about it, yeah,' he says. 'And I get offers. And I flirt with it.' He doesn't accept those offers, though, for reasons that are 'sometimes financial. Sometimes it's geographical.' He stops. Behind the whiskers his face is wrinkling. 'I mean, I don't really want to get...' He shifts in his seat. 'My love for acting... I don't really want to get into that. Because it's a whole different... That's a long conversation!' he says with a wry grin.
Might we surmise that your love for acting has... withered? A nod.
'It's withered,' he says with jovial finality. 'Let's just say that it's withered and leave it at that.'
He talks absentmindedly about the filmmakers and actors he loves - Lynne Ramsay, Paddy Considine, Pawel Pawlikowski, Ray Winstone.
'Raymondo's done pretty good,' he says of his Nil by Mouth lead. 'He's in LA at the moment shooting with Spielberg - he's the sidekick in the new Indiana Jones film. I had not seen him for maybe four years. But recently I had a cup of tea with him. He just looked fantastic. He's invincible.'
And he is not chippy or arrogant, which is what I had feared from having read earlier interviews. He is perfectly affable. But it's just... he is the man who wasn't there. There is more life in his eyes than in his speech. But all his charisma, it seems, he saves for the screen.
Is Gary Oldman the lost hero of British acting? As he puts it with a chuckle, these days his sister is more famous in Britain than he is: the woman born 62 years ago as Maureen Oldman acts under the name Laila Morse, aka Big Mo, in EastEnders, her acting career having only begun when Oldman cast her in Nil by Mouth. (Laila Morse is an anagram of mia sorella, 'my sister' in Italian.) You have to go back almost as far as that film to find an Oldman project that was truly memorable.
Raised in a working-class single-parent family - his alcoholic father, a welder, had left his mother for another woman when he was six or seven - Oldman knew at the age of 16 that selling sports gear in British Home Stores wasn't for him. He wanted to be an actor. Between 1976 and 1979 he studied theatre arts at Rose Bruford Drama College near Sidcup in Kent. Initially Oldman tried his hand at comedy.
'The first official production I was in was a sketch with my mate Bob Sinfield,' he remembers with a chuckle. They did the Mini Drama, a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore skit. Sinfield played Pete's Glaswegian cab driver, Oldman was Dud's posh peer.
'We were both fans of them. This is in the days before video. So we recorded it on an audio cassette. And Bob's car got broken into. And the tape was stolen. And I guess they heard this tape and thought, "F***ing rubbish." But that would be the first ever performance that I did. And it got lost.'
Sinfield, now a comedy actor and scriptwriter, remembers that the undergraduate Oldman was always comfortable on the stage, and 'quietly ambitious' - he thinks Oldman was one of the first students to secure professional work.
'We did write material together,' Sinfield says. 'Gary was able to write things based on his own experience. But beyond that he was one of those creative actors who's interested in ideas but is happy to let other people work on the script.'
After spending a few years in theatre, in the late 1980s Oldman became a member of a new generation of blazing big-screen acting talents alongside Tim Roth and Daniel Day Lewis.
Stephen Frears remembers Oldman's commitment to the portrayal of the strutting playwright Joe Orton in 1987's Prick Up Your Ears, only Oldman's second film. 'He turned up actually looking like Joe,' the veteran director says. 'That took me by surprise. I hadn't expected the physical resemblance, but [doing that] came naturally to him.'
Shortly afterwards Oldman moved to America, frustrated by the class-snobbery and pigeonholing he felt he had always encountered in Britain. He tells me that 'it was such a long time ago [that] I feel such a disconnect to all of that now. But I think at one point [in an interview] I did say, "If I'd been in England I'd have been cast as Renfield, not Dracula." ' Renfield being the asylum inmate played by Tom Waits in Coppola's Dracula.
Hollywood in the early and mid-1990s was good to Oldman - or, rather, Oldman was good to Hollywood. His cameo in 1993's True Romance as the pimp Drexl Spivey was but one of a slew of incandescent performances during that time. The British director Tony Scott says that initially Oldman couldn't 'see' the character in the script.
'Then I got a phone call from Gary at 11 at night, and he said he'd got it: Drexl was a white Jamaican who thinks he's black and he's a drug dealer. He's got a glass eye and he's been bottled in the face. I thought, brilliant! Gary was shooting [the corrupt-cop drama] Romeo is Bleeding in a tough part of Brooklyn and he'd seen a guy like that hanging out on set, trying to sell the crew drugs.'
This, Scott says, was typical Oldman. 'I love working with extreme people, and Gary's extreme. He finished filming Romeo on Sunday at 11pm in New York, got on the red-eye, and arrived on my set [in LA] at seven the next morning, with his mum. Genius.'
All good, roaring stuff. But since Oldman's brilliant turn as an arms dealer in Besson's 1997's sci-fi romp The Fifth Element, there hasn't been much that has hit the radar. What has he been doing? Why is it that he is defined by his earlier films?
He thinks about this. 'First of all I think Meantime is one of Mike Leigh's best films. A lot of people are fans of Prick Up Your Ears and they say, "Why don't you do something like that?" You go, "Because it was written by Alan Bennett, directed by Stephen Frears! You don't get that every year!" And I decided to live in America... Yeah, I would say, do I do the kind of work I used to do? No. 'And this is also important: there was a big shift in the industry, which was actually just after Nil by Mouth. Where do they make all the movies now? Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary. I can't go off to these places.'
Oldman can't go off to these places because he is a single father. He has two young sons, Gulliver, nine, and Charlie, eight, by his third wife, Donya Fiorentino, whom he first met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They endured a messy divorce in 2001. He won custody. (He also has a son, Alfie, 18, by his first wife, Lesley Manville; his short-lived marriage to Uma Thurman was childless.)
The bitter public slanging match served to make him even more wary of the press. This is his first major interview in Britain for some years. Not that he has ever been much into that side of his profession.
'I don't have a publicist. Never had one.' He begins counting off on his fingers the things he doesn't want or do. 'I don't go to premieres. I don't go to parties. I don't covet the Oscar. I don't want any of that. I don't go out. I just have dinner at home every night with my kids. Being famous, that's a whole other career. And I haven't got any energy for it,' he says, the air wheezing out of him, his body sagging.
He looks at me meaningfully.
'There's a saying I picked up from Anthony Hopkins [his co-star in Ridley Scott's Hannibal (2001), in which Oldman played the faceless quadriplegic Mason Verger]: what other people think of me is none of my business. I don't give a f***. You just have to be practical. And your responsibilities change. And when you have kids it all changes. I just don't want to be away. So I have been lucky, extremely lucky, to have sort of landed on the franchise thing.'
That is, two franchises. The first Batman, released in 2005, was a mammoth shoot, and most of Oldman's scenes were shot in Britain. But it overlapped with the school term. So he commuted, LA-London. He thinks he did that round trip 17 times.
The first Potter was shot over the summer holidays so the children came with him. The new Batman is another behemoth, the shoot running from May until October, but his scenes are mainly in Chicago. 'So it's half the trip.'
The 'franchise thing' is also well paid, which means Oldman - who says he is single right now - can do his part, secure his nice pay cheque, then spend a good chunk of time at home.
'My main focus has been the kids. And I didn't do it in an ideal way with Alfie - I did it as best I could. And I've had a wonderful gift to be able to do it again. Under unusual circumstances,' he says with a waggle of eyebrows.
'But I didn't plan any of this,' he laughs. 'So I've focused on that, and that's what's been fantastic about doing Potter and Batman. And it does require a different kind of approach. It's not emotionally - ah - all-consuming. I can do the work and turn it on, turn it off. And that's allowed me to be with the kids. I want to [direct] more movies but primarily that's why there hasn't been a movie since Nil by Mouth.'
How does he instruct his three boys in the things that have been troublesome in his life - drinking and women?
He laughs throatily but doesn't immediately answer. Because, I continue, they have seen and known of the difficulties...
'Well, they haven't seen, that's the thing,' he interjects. 'It may to some extent have touched Alfie indirectly. But it all seems... It's over a decade now. And it's another life. It's like somebody else.'
Was it someone else who was married three times too?
'Yeah,' he says lightly. And then, 'Do you want to write about that? Is that what you...'
In passing, I say.
'Because the trouble is, you never get away from it. It's always there, the past.' A long pause. 'You know, I've really kind of forgotten about it. It's not really part of my life any more.'
When he is not filming his franchises, Gary Oldman isn't just a stay-at-home dad cooking, attending school meetings and ferrying the boys to Little League games, golf camp and music lessons.
He has been writing another original screenplay, a story that takes place in LA and London. And he has spent the past 18 months adapting a 'fictionalised' biography of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. Born in what is now Thailand, they became celebrities in 19th-century America, marrying sisters and siring 21 children between them. Oldman won't be appearing in it but he will direct the film, even if that means being away from his boys. 'If it's your baby, your film, then there's certain sacrifices you might want to make.'
He says, 'Don't get me wrong, I've had a great career and I'm very lucky to do what I do. But I've been doing it a long time, and you can get tired. Just like anybody.' He's very quiet again, barely audible. 'You might say, "I want to change careers or I want to do something else..." But,' he repeats, 'it's given me a great life.'
Tony Scott thinks we shouldn't set too much store by Oldman's seeming disenchantment with acting. The director has known him for a while.
As well as True Romance, he persuaded Oldman to star in short film he made for BMW, alongside the soul legend James Brown. Oldman was a 'Nosferatu in drag, in nine-inch heels'. Scott and Oldman were also neighbours for a while, 'on the beach' - presumably Malibu.
'Gary's got integrity,' Scott says. 'He's like a chameleon, and he goes through changes in his life - he fought his own demons for years. These extreme individuals develop and twist and turn in terms of their lives. Gary will come back in a different way. But right now he's taking downtime, sober time, to look after the kids because that's the main thing in his life.'
Indeed. For now, Gary Oldman is happy clocking in, giving it his all - those '100 takes' that so dazzled Daniel Radcliffe - then clocking off.
Talk turns to the theatre again. 'I saw Dan recently, in Equus. I sat there and thought, God, it would be nice to do this again. But I get over that pretty quickly,' he says, laughing again.
However, he concedes, he does hanker after the company of theatre. 'That's what one misses with the movies. That's what's been great about doing three Potters. Because it really is pretty much all the same people. The directors and crew change, but the hair and make-up and costume people and the cast - that's a nice thing. That is what you get from the theatre. It's a conspiracy of friends.'
I ask David Heyman, producer and custodian of the Harry Potter films, what he thinks Oldman has brought to a franchise already studded with stars.
'A wonderful combination of danger and heart,' he says. 'Gary has a youthful exuberance which is just beautiful. And you feel that he has lived. It's etched all over his face, and etched all over his performance. He brings a real depth and humanity to Sirius Black, who is a complex character. He's been locked up for 12 years in Azkaban prison, and now he's escaped. He is in many ways the father Harry never had.'
Heyman cites the deep connection between Oldman and Radcliffe as central to the power of their scenes in The Order of the Phoenix.
'Gary's an actor's actor, but also a producer's and a director's actor. He comes prepared, he's collaborative, he's passionate. I've heard the stories - "Oh Gary..." - but nothing could be further from the truth. Gary is a hero. You just want to see him do it more. To have him flexing those not-inconsiderable acting muscles in Harry Potter is a treat.'
Sirius pic, just because: