It started, like so many other things, with The Beatles. It was 1964, and inside the Odeon cinema in Peckham, without a notion of the world shaking up beyond his neighbourhood, a six-year-old boy who was to become one the finest actors of his generation was having the time of his life in front of a film screen.
“To this day I think my happiest memory is the night my sister Jackie took me on the 36 bus to the Odeon,” says Gary Oldman softly. “We went to see A Hard Day’s Night. I remember clearly waiting in line, then sitting in the audience in that lovely old cinema singing along to all the Beatles songs.
“Jackie had the album so I knew all the lyrics. I think I was wearing short trousers and a sweater my mother knitted for me. At one point Jackie had to shush me because I was singing so loudly.
“I remember that moment. Great memory. A great memory. I was six. And I didn’t have a care in the world.”
I remember being a teenager, trying to develop a self-image, thinking a lot about how people saw me. And if you’ve got greasy, mousy hair and you’re not very tall and you have the kind of pale acned skin that just immediately strokes in the sun, you’re going to suffer
He might be the kind of man whose mood swings terrifically from day to day – actors often are. But if I was expecting Gary Oldman to be a bold bearer of grand statements – perhaps overinfluenced by his towering stature and many roles of aggression and control (Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Count Dracula) – he caught me on the hop with this gentle drift into nostalgia.
He wasn’t trying to be a movie legend delivering a tale of great prophetic import (he spent the next 10 years dreaming of becoming a footballer, and only had a rethink when he saw a Malcolm McDowell film on telly in his teens). He was just musing, idly, and with romantic pleasure. He surprised me. But bearing in mind the expectations I had before speaking to him, he surprised me a few times.
Interviewing people on the phone is never ideal. In this case it can’t be helped; Gary Oldman is thousands of miles away and time is of the essence. But it’s frustrating to begin a conversation by going through a mediator, usually a PR overlord, who verifies you with the same stiff disinterested formality of passport control, and then, if satisfied, informs you that you are about to be connected to Gary.
When my phone rings, the first person I speak to is the kind of sparky young fellow rarely employed by high-end PR companies. ‘Who is this amateur?’ is my initial thought, as the kid, who sounds about 21 and has an unpolished working-class South London accent and a light, nasal, unauthoritative way of speaking, greets me.
“Aw’right?” says the chap you have already guessed is Gary Oldman. The chap who has been called The Greatest Actor of his Time by his peers more times than anyone except perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis. And suddenly the phone is a great idea.
Because this Gary Oldman still sounds like the skinny, twitching chancer who was groping to find his way in Mike Leigh’s Meantime in 1983. He could be tipping his chair back emptying a packet of crisps into his mouth right now.
This guy is not impressive enough to grow a moustache. He could conceivably be the errant nephew of the portentous grey-haired, slump-shouldered George Smiley who quietly controlled the nervous MI6 wingmen buzzing around him in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2012 (a performance that won the 55-year-old father of three his first Oscar nomination), but he has years of accumulating wisdom and gravity to go before he sounds anything like that man himself. All of which makes him remarkably easy to talk to.
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I’m so taken aback by Oldman’s playful phone voice that I can’t help commenting on it, focussing more on the unadulterated Sarf Londoness of it – despite 20 years of living in America – than its bright, cheeky ‘alright Guvner’-ness.
He laughs mirthfully – “heh heh” – and agrees. “Though I have dropped some English words for American ones; I say trunk and elevator and cellphone these days.” But revealingly, he says he thinks a person’s voice is often the key to their personality.
“The way the character sounds is a good way into finding them,” he says. “I often hear the voice first, before I know how they move or anything like that. I was never in a school play, I was never one to get involved in school. But I was quite a good impersonator. I have a knack. I can meet a person and do an impersonation of them within minutes.”
That’s quite a skill I say, because I detect a gleeful pride. He cheerfully agrees.
“Yeah, it is a skill. I could have a whole conversation with myself and the four Beatles. I like language and I’ve always enjoyed the wonderful sounds of different accents. I can pick up an accent very quickly up.
“If I fire your accent back at you it’s not me mocking, it’s just… [He suddenly adopts a very convincing Glasgow accent] I remember ma days, ye know, at the Glesga Citz.” [He laughs jubilantly, quite delighted with himself]. “Aye, when I use’te live thare.”
It’s interesting that Oldman, now a grand sire of the British acting establishment, a multi-award-winning thespian with a roster of impossibly cool cult film roles – Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, tooled-up skinhead Bexy in Alan Clarke’s The Firm – and box office big hitters – Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sirius Black in Harry Potter – should emphasise the elucidative qualities of a voice, considering the boyishness of his own.
But then, he also says – when discussing his happy disbelief that he is about to be honoured with the prestigious Dilys Powell Award For Excellence In Film at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards – such validation is still “beyond my imagination. It’s a fairytale. Bonkers. Because part of me is still that teenage kid from South London”.’
So what was that kid like? On paper he was quite a tough lad whose ex-sailor dad – immortalised as a sadistic drunk in his son’s gritty directorial debut Nil By Mouth – left home when Gary was seven.
He learned to duck and dive with his mates (“You come from a certain place, a certain culture,” he explains. “You mix with a certain type and it’s, ‘Go on Gary, climb over the wall, nick that thing…’”.) He developed an itchy edge, probably enhanced through the years by his battles with alcohol, which saw him excel in unsettling, often violent roles.
In reality, however, Oldham insists he was basically “a sweet boy whose conscience always got the better of him. A nice boy, a bit too sensitive for my own good”.
“I remember being a teenager, trying to develop a self-image, thinking a lot about how people saw me. And if you’ve got greasy, mousy hair and you’re not very tall and you have the kind of pale acned skin that just immediately strokes in the sun, you’re going to suffer.
“And I had a friend who was very good looking. You know that black Irish look? Yeah… He had this thick unruly mop of dark hair, he had that Gabriel Byrne thing going. I knew he would be a ladies man. Me… [he sounds unexpectedly coy]… I got the odd one. I wasn’t a huge success. I still remember my first kiss. I was nine years old. She was called Nicola. I was very very sweet on her.”
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He seems to have got over his early trepidation with women, having tallied up five marriages – one to the formidable Kill Bill film queen Uma Thurman – as well as a relationship with screen siren Isabella Rossellini. He wed art curator Gisele Schmidt last year.
But despite these impressive seductions and starry-eyed gushings from colleagues like – deep breath – Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ryan Gosling, Johnny Depp, Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and Colin Firth, who called him “a very strong candidate for the world’s best living actor”, he claims to be knocked out whenever he comes across a big player who knows and likes his work.
“What blows my mind most is when you meet people you respect and they revere you,” he says, without a detectable hint of false modesty. “You’re a fan of theirs… and it turns out they’re a fan of you. I still meet these people thinking, oh come on, they won’t have a fucking clue who you are.
“It’s wonderful when they know who I am. I remember with Dustin Hoffman, he actually just called up one day. He’d asked for my number. I answered the phone and there he was [he drops into a perfect Dustin Hoffman nasally snuffle], ‘Look, Gary, it’s uh, it’s Dustin’. And I said, oh… alright? And he’d seen something I was in and wanted to tell me.”
He appreciated the sentiment so much he began to make a point of personally congratulating fellow actors on a great performance himself; the last call he made was to the “fabulous” Matthew McConaughey after seeing Dallas Buyers’ Club. One imagines McConaughey was pretty chuffed.
As I’ve discovered, a phone conversation with Gary Oldman can be rather a lovely thing. And if McConaughey got him in the reflective, generous and modest mood I found him in, it’s unlikely Oldman even mentioned the film he was promoting at the time, Robocop, to him. In our entire hour-long conversation he didn’t drop its name once. Yup, our Gary’s a one-off.