Name: Gary Oldman
21 March 1958 (Age: 55)
Where: London, England
Awards: Won 2 BAFTAs
When the producers of The Prisoner Of Azkaban, the third in the massively popular Harry Potter series, were casting for their main villain, they had a major problem. The man who would be Sirius Black needed the requisite pedigree to stand alongside the weighty likes of Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. He needed sufficient charisma to carry off the movie's final revelation. And, of course, as the titular prisoner, possible killer of Harry's parents, possibly now after Harry himself, he needed to project a frightening phantom menace from the shadows. Let's consider this for a moment. British . . . stage actor . . . impressive CV . . . charismatic . . . terrifying. It simply had to be Gary Oldman.
Having "arrived" in the mid-Eighties as part of a Brit Pack including Tim Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis, it was Oldman who led the way, mastering American accents and starring in American films. Like Streep and De Niro, he was known as an actors' actor. He didn't limit himself to "serious" roles, yet no matter how fantastic the movie's premise, he would always bring something serious, something real, something intelligent to the party. He was always watchable. And what performances he delivered - as Sid Vicious, Joe Orton, Beethoven, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, the vicious Alcatraz warden in Murder In The First, the lunatic pimp in True Romance, the endlessly corrupt copper in Leon. Once seen, never forgotten. This is always the way with Gary Oldman.
He was born Leonard Gary Oldman on the 21st of March, 1958, his family living in Hatcham Park Road, close to New Cross Gate station in one of south London's rougher areas. His mother was an Irishwoman named Kathleen, his father was Len, a former sailor who'd toiled in the engine-room (and was later a welder and pipe-fitter), the couple having met in Cardiff during World War 2.
Gary had two sisters, much older than himself. They would help Kathleen in raising the boy, and also provide him with a far wider education than is usual. When he was 5, one of them, at the time a teenage mod, would take him to the Sombrero Club and have him perform for her friends. "What have cowboys got?", she would ask. He would cry, not wishing to give the required answer, but the question would be repeated until he blurted out "Big bollocks!" and the in-crowd fell about laughing.
This could still be described as fun. But the fun did not last for long. When Gary was seven, Len left Kathleen for a younger woman and it hit the young boy hard. Though he didn't know it then, therapy years later would reveal that he blamed himself for his father's departure and missed the man terribly.
Now he'd be raised solely by women and, as both his sisters would marry shady geezers and move out, he'd spend long hours alone and lonely. Much like Robin Williams
, another great mimic, he was rescued by his imagination, dressing-up, play-acting, inventing characters, inhabiting worlds far less harsh than New Cross. He recalls making a Batman utility belt from empty cigarette packets, and also, in a spooky foretelling, entering a Butlins fancy dress competition as Dracula.
. He did not enjoy school, did not appreciate the attitude or the rules. He remembers being constantly told "Oldman, you're stupid, you're thick, you'll never amount to anything". It was no surprise when the place was shut down soon after his departure.
He wasn't thick, just uninspired. When he found an interest, his enthusiasm was unbridled. Having been taken to see A Hard Day's Night by one of his sisters, he obsessed over the Beatles and treasured a guitar featuring the Fab Four's faces. At 13, he'd find a Liberace album in the attic, Liberace playing classics, and he dumped pop music, now obsessing over Chopin. He took up the piano, teaching himself to play. Then the famous confrontations between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier led him to take up boxing. There was football, too. Oldman's take on all this is fascinating. He believes, with hindsight, that he was only interested in these subjects on an acting level. At the piano, in the gym and on the pitch he looked great, was utterly convincing in his roles even though he was actually not very good. Without realising it, he was trying to master the appearance of musicians and sportsmen, rather than their crafts. He was already acting.
Having left school at 15 with next to no qualifications, Oldman took a job in a sports shop. Acting as a profession had not crossed his mind. But then came a moment, or rather two moments of revelation when, on TV, he saw the movies If... and The Raging Moon. Both starred Malcolm McDowell, the first as a schoolboy defying then machine-gunning the Establishment, the second as a young man trapped in a wheelchair and screaming against his lot. And both appealed to Oldman enormously. McDowell was expressing Gary's own feelings of loss, anger, alienation and imprisonment, and turning the whole mess into something positive. Here, at last, was something that made sense.
Of course, it wasn't going to be easy to escape. Gary signed on at the Greenwich Young People's Theatre, but was soon drawn back into his former life. He did not enjoy the social life of south London, the pub culture, the bragging, the put-downs, the racism and violence. But his peers pulled him in and he acted his way through, even acting his way into a gang. For money, throughout these early years, he would work on assembly lines, as a porter in an operating theatre, selling shoes, beheading pigs in an abbatoir and, naturally, stealing things.