Gary Oldman - Biography
But acting was still in his mind and, encouraged by drama teacher Roger Williams, he applied to RADA. They advised him to do something else, but he persisted and won a scholarship to the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. One lecturer told him that, with his tenor voice, he would only ever play Puck, nevertheless he graduated in 1979 with a BA in Theatre Arts. He was on his way.
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.
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.
. 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.
. Experience was what he needed, and he went into rep, first at York's Theatre Royal, where he'd make his pro debut as Puss alongside Michael Simkins in Dick Whittington And His Wonderful Cat, then in Colchester, then with Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre. He'd study mime, the commedia dell'arte, everything. 1980 alone would see him appear in Massacre At Paris, Chinchilla, Desperado Corner and A Waste Of Time. And he loved it, loved acting all day, loved the collaboration, the notion of a group of supportive individuals working towards the same goal. He could re-route all the anger, tension and confusion of his youth into his parts, and quickly gained a reputation for intensity. Indeed, he was so wired up that, he later recalled, a 6-month West End run of Summit Conference in 1982, opposite Glenda Jackson, "nearly killed me".
With his theatre stock rising, in 1983 he turned down the chance of a screen debut in a film to be called Mutiny and moved on to Chesterfield to play the lead in Joe Orton's 1964 masterpiece Entertaining Mr Sloane. It was a perfect role for Gary, himself a New Cross interloper in the comfy world of theatre. He moved on to Westcliffe and Edward Bond's 1965 effort Saved, another well-chosen work as it was an emotionally draining representation of the effects of cultural deprivation. Indeed, it had once been banned by the Lord Chamberlain due to a scene where a gang of bored kids stone a baby.
Saved actually proved a landmark performance for Gary. He'd written to Max Stafford-Clark, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, and asked that he come see the show. Stafford-Clark received many letters from young actors, but Oldman's had something different - most notably a set of good reasons why he should be taken on at the Royal Court. So he went, and was impressed, both by Oldman's efforts and the fact that 30 members of the audience walked out. This was the kind of confrontational work for which the Royal Court had long been famous. Indeed, it was the Royal Court that had first performed Edward Bond's plays. And, as they were about to revive Bond's debut, The Pope's Wedding, Oldman seemed an ideal choice for the main role of the frustrated Scopey.
This would be a major breakthrough for Gary. For one thing it would lead to a run of work with the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company, performing Rat In the Skull, , The Desert Air, Abel And Cain, The Danton Affair and all three of Bond's War Plays. In 1986 would come Women Beware Women and Real Dreams, the next year The Country Wife and Serious Money.
The Pope's Wedding also saw him accepted as British theatre's latest enfant terrible, sharing the British Theatre Association's Drama magazine award for Best Actor with Anthony Hopkins
. Perhaps even more importantly, his performance was seen by director Alex Cox and producer Eric Fellner, then in the process of casting for an upcoming project, Sid And Nancy.
. Due to his concentration on theatre, Oldman's film career had been slow to take off. 1982 had seen him take a small part alongside Timothy Spall
and John Altman (later EastEnders' Nasty Nick Cotton) in Remembrance, directed by Colin Gregg and written by Hugh Stoddart. This had followed the drunken, violent and hugely emotional last night of a gang of Royal Navy recruits about to leave on a 6-month NATO exercise. It was 1984, the same year as The Pope's Wedding, that we really had a taste of what was to come. This came with Mike Leigh's Meantime, which took Gary back into London's council estates, made ever more hopeless by the heavy hand of Margaret Thatcher. This would see Tim Roth
as the shy and simple Colin, brother to a wide but lazy Phil Daniels, as they underwent family battles and a daily round of frustration and humiliation. Oldman would make a striking appearance as Coxy, a racist skinhead, a bully, a coward and incredibly dumb. He had clearly seen all this before.
1984 would also see him in an episode of Dramarama, a series of imaginative TV plays for kids, and the miniseries Morgan's Boy, the hugely depressing but critically acclaimed tale of a Welsh hill farmer (played by Gareth Thomas - Blake in Blake's 7) struggling against modernisation and spiralling towards suicide. The next year would see a solitary screen appearance, in Honest, Decent And True, where he'd work alongside Adrian Edmonson and Derrick O'Connor in a London ad agency where the proto-yuppie staff are trying to launch a new brand of lager. The film would also mark the debut of Richard E Grant
, later to pop up in two of Gary's projects - Henry And June and Dracula.
Now, Gary's stage work would give him a mighty boost. After The Pope's Wedding, Alex Cox, then on a high after Repo Man, cast him in the lead role of Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. This would follow Sid's path into The Sex Pistols and on to worldwide infamy as the face and spirit of punk, concentrating on his relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen - a love affair that ended in drug overdoses and bloody death. Once again, Oldman was superb as Vicious - stoned and confused, lost and self-loathing, but furious with the world and fighting madly to live up to his reputation. For research, Gary would interview Sid's mother and she would lend him Sid's own chain necklace. It would serve Gary well. In order to achieve the requisite skinniness, he also dieted, so drastically that he wound up in hospital.Gary's next screen outing would be equally prestigious and successful, earning him a BAFTA nomination. In Prick Up Your Ears, directed by Stephen Frears and written by Alan Bennett, he returned to Joe Orton, this time playing the playwright himself. It was another excellent role, Oldman bringing to life the cocky, precocious, careless young writer as he set alight the theatre world with Loot and What The Butler Saw and revelled in his illegal search for rough trade on the streets of London and the beaches of Morocco, before being beaten to death by his ignored lover, played by Gary's former Meantime co-star Alfred Molina.
Molina would also appear onstage with Gary that same year, 1987. This would be in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money, another attack on British values staged at the Royal Court. It would be more invaluable experience for Gary, and would also introduce him to his first wife, co-star Lesley Manville. Manville, two years Oldman's senior, had appeared in Emmerdale Farm between 1974 and 1976 then gone on to a successful stage career. 1985 had seen her onscreen in Dance With A Stranger and 1988 would see her in High Hopes, beginning a four-film run with Mike Leigh. She and Gary would quickly marry and she'd bear him a son, Alfred (known as Alfie) in 1988. Sadly, with film stardom beckoning and Gary's workload and notorious intensity increasing, they would find their marriage untenable. By 1990 it would all be over, Manville gaining custody of Alfie and enjoying a long relationship with actor Bernard Hill.
There was something else, aside from his workload, stage success and the cult stardom he'd found in the US that was making Gary hard to live with. Since the age of 7 he'd had no real contact with his father, but finally they had begun to exchange letters, and were close to arranging a meeting. Gary had even prepared his monologue. Unfortunately, during the filming of Sid And Nancy, Len, a long-time alcoholic, died at the age of 62. Gary was to find no closure in reconciliation, his anger would remain with him, bubbling away.
In the meantime, Gary's profile was rising fast. Nicolas Roeg's Track 29, written by Dennis Potter, saw Theresa Russell in an unhappy marriage with obsessive, unfaithful Christopher Lloyd. Stuck at home, she drinks hard and dreams of sex and the past, drifting through her life until - bang - Gary arrives. He may be her child from a rape years before, back for his birthright. He looks like the rapist in her dreams. Whatever, he proceeds to insinuate his way into her life, teasing, taunting, flirting and manipulating, smirking at her pain and confusion, a frighteningly knowing and malevolent Oedipus. Another killer role.
After Track 29, Dennis Potter, as usual, had something interesting to say: "Gary's a formidable actor, but he's a delinquent actor as well. He's very much on the edge of things; he makes you feel nervous watching him. He's the stranger outside who's also inside your head. He's part of your mind when you're worried and not quite going to sleep, but not sure whether you're awake or not". Stephen Frears, though, was unsure of Gary's rebellious image. He claimed that Oldman was actually very mild but, as the best British drama of the time was angry and anti-Thatcher, he had aligned himself with that. The main thing about Gary, said Frears, was that he hated to be bored.
Gary followed Track 29 with his first foray into US cinema - Criminal Law. Many British actors have tried to make it in mainstream American films, but their failure to deliver a convincing accent has been their downfall. Oldman, a quite superb mimic, has never had that problem. Criminal Law saw him as a hotshot Boston lawyer who successfully defends rich kid Kevin Bacon from a murder charge. This, naturally, makes him even smugger. But then Bacon turns out to have been guilty. In fact, he's still hacking up and burning women who've had an abortion. And he wants to be Gary's friend. And so Oldman's smug grin turns to panic as he recognises his own part in this judicial debacle and tries to get Bacon to incriminate himself.
Criminal Law would take some time to make it to cinemas. Meanwhile, Gary was very, very busy. When The Face magazine covered the new Brit Pack of upcoming actors - including Gary, Tim Roth, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, Bruce Payne and Spencer Leigh - Gary was the only one too tied up to attend the interviews. Next, We Think The World Of You reunited him with Colin Gregg and Hugh Stoddart, Gary playing a restless and confused sailor (he wore the same badges as his father had in the Navy) who's married to Frances Barber but engaged in an affair with Alan Bates. With Oldman in jail, Bates tries to help Barber but then transfers his best intentions to Gary's dog, all the while aware that discovery of the affair will destroy his civil service career - the movie concerning British society's need and desire to cover up any unpalatable truths.
He now moved on to an even tougher social drama with Alan Clarke's The Firm. This saw him as Bex, leader of an East London football hooligan crew. During the week they all hold down good jobs, they have wives and kids, but for fun they like to engage in vicious confrontations with rival crews - local enemies being the Crystal Palace mob run by Phil Davis's Yeti. Bex knows he shouldn't do this but insists he needs the buzz ("So buy a bloody bee 'ive!" complains long-suffering wife Sue, played by Lesley Manville) so the unpleasantness continues through painful initiations and horrible accidents (Bex's young kid trying to eat his Stanley blades). But Bex is no ordinary thug.