Gary Oldman is a man of many faces: from the quiet, desperate police commissioner who all but fades into the background before a hopeless task to driven, sadistic villains, Gary Oldman can play them all. He is one of the most versatile British actors around. But what has he played?
How Actor Gary Oldman Came to Be
Gary Oldman was born on March 21st, 1958 in New Cross, London. As a child, he at first wanted to pursue music, but at the age of 13 he saw Malcolm McDowell in The Raging Moon and decided to become an actor instead.
He left school at 16 to work in a shop and continued to work odd jobs to support himself while he took acting classes at the Young People’s Theatre in Greenwich.
After being rejected by the Royal Academy of Dramatic art, he won a scholarship for the Rose Bruford College and in 1979 graduated with a BA in Acting.
He managed to land various parts on stage after college, staying for some time at the Citizen’s Theatre in Glasgow, where he became an audience favourite as:
- Puss in Dick Whittington and his Cat (Royal Theatre, York)
- Christopher Marlowe in The Massacre at Paris
- Shaun Lawton in Desperado Corner
- Chinchilla, A Waste of Time and Summit Conference by Robert David MacDonald
His first film roles
In 1982 he landed his first film role in the Navy film Remembrance, where he played Daniel, a character whose death would affect all the other interweaving plotlines.
In 1983 he played skinhead Coxy in the made-for-TV film by Mik Leigh, Meantime.
He then went back to theatre and starred in the leading role of Entertaining Mr Sloane, as well as landing a part in a revival of Edward Bond’s controversial play Saved in 1983.
Gary Oldman Discovered
Discovered for the Stage
The artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre, Max Stafford-Clark, had seen Oldman in Saved and offered him the lead in another of Edward Bond’s plays, The Pope’s Wedding, for which he won two awards. He stayed on at the Royal Court for several more plays:
- The Rat in the Skull
- The Desert Air
- Cain and Abel
- The Danton Affair
- Women Beware Women
- Real Dreams
- Red Black and Ignorant
- The Tin Can People
- Great Peace
From 1985 to 1986 Gary Oldman was also a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, like many of the best British actors and actresses, including Dame Judi Dench.
Discovered for film
He was discovered in 1984 by Alex Cox during the run of The Pope’s Wedding. Cox offered him the lead in 1986 film Sid and Nancy opposite Chloe Webb, about the relationship between Sid Vicious of the punk band Sex Pistols and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Oldman turned the part down twice, finding it hard to relate to the protagonist and doubtful about the artistic merit of a film about a rocker, but his agent convinced him to take it on. Though it petered out at the box office at the time, it has since then achieved cult status.
His third starring role in a film - Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears - landed him his first nomination for a Best Actor Award at the BAFTA.
These two films garnered the interest of American critics and put him on the radar of Hollywood directors.
His first large role in a Hollywood production was not until the State of Grace in 1990, for which he was critically acclaimed.
In the meantime, he worked in several British films, including:
- We Think the World of You in 1988, about a bisexual married man, his ex and his dog.
- Chattahoochee in 1989, produced by a British-owned but Los-Angeles based company, Hemdale Film Corporation
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, starring as Rosencrantz with Tim Roth as Guildenstern and Richard Dreyfuss as the lead player (of the acting troupe in Hamlet).
Gary Oldman: The Leader of the “Brit Pack” and the King of Villains
With a host of young British actors breaking into Hollywood in the 1980s - such as Colin Firth, Paul McGann and Daniel Day-Lewis - they collectively became known as the “Brit Pack”, referencing Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”.
Oldman’s first true US blockbuster role was as gunman Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s biopic JFK, going on to star as Dracula in Francie Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with fellow British actor Anthony Hopkins as his opponent Van Helsing, Winona Ryder as Mina and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker.
Dracula typecast him somewhat as a villain. Thus, he played a pimp, Drexl Spivey in True Romance in 1993, a sadistic prison warden in Murder in the First (1995), a Russian terrorist in Air Force One (1997) and Dr Zachary Smith in Lost In Space in 1998.
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Luc Besson and Gary Oldman
French director Luc Besson cast him as the villain in his 1994 thriller Léon, the Professional, where Gary Oldman played a corrupt DEA officer who murders Mathilde’s family, leading the young girl (played by Nathalie Portman) to seek refuge with a professional killer. His performance has caused the character of Norman Stansfield to be rated among the best cinematic villains of all time.
Several years later, Luc Besson cast Oldman once more as a villain, corporate magnate and tyrant Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, in his cult sci-fi extravaganza the Fifth Element.
Gary and Anthony: a Reunion
When Anthony Hopkins returned to his signature role as Doctor Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs sequel Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott), he was reunited with Gary Oldman, who played Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s old psychiatric patients out for revenge. Jodie Foster, though, had refused to reprise her role of Clarice Starlice because she did not agree with the character development; instead, Julianne Moore played the FBI agent.
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A Break for Gary Oldman
In the early 2000s, Oldman did not act in many films of note - the best being Interstate 60 and the worst being Tiptoes, a movie greatly trashed not just for general mediocrity but also for depicting a family of people with dwarfism without casting a single Little Person. Oldman’s acting, however, was as always on point, earning him a mention in Mark Kermode’s special blog entry on “Great Acting in Bad Films”.
It is possible that Oldman, who had retained custody of his two sons after 2001 divorce from Donya Fiorentino, deliberately toned down his career to focus on his children, as British actress Kate Winslet had done on two occasions.
Harry Potter and Gary Oldman
Due to author J.K.Rowlings’ insistence that Warner Bros. only cast British actors in the Harry Potter movies, the role of Harry’s godfather Sirius Black was given to Gary Oldman in the third instalment, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Playing a man who had been wrongly imprisoned for years in a wizard prison where the inmates are tortured by their worst memories, who only survives by turning into a dog for most of the time and finally escapes to find his best friend’s child and his godson - Gary Oldman brought just the right mix of the manic, the desperate and the tender.
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He reprised the role of Sirius in subsequent Harry Potter movies.
Gary Oldman and The Batman
In 2005, Christopher Nolan re-started the Batman franchise with the blockbuster hit Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne / Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred, Liam Neeson as the villain Ra’s al Ghul and Gary Oldman as possibly the best commissioner Gordon yet. He even looks like the way Gordon is depicted in the comics.
Oldman reprised his role in the sequels, The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
Gary Oldman: Rabbi, Priest, Mobster, Spy
In 2009, Oldman starred as a Rabbi attempting to exorcise a dybbuk, a type of demon, from Odette Yustman’s character in the horror film The Unborn.
A year later, he co-starred with Denzel Washington in the post-apocalyptic epic The Book of Eli where he plays a village headman seeking to expand his influence with the help of a certain book.
On the wave of several fairy tale re-tellings, Red Riding Hood - produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, starred Amanda Seyfried as the Riding Hood, and Oldman as the ruthless Father Solomon.
Gary Oldman earned a BAFTA Award and his very first Academy Award nomination for his role as George Smiley in the 2011 spy film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the novel by John LeCarré. He starred alongside Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt and Benedict Cumberbatch. Oldman’s performance was in part inspired by Alec Guinness in the same role in the 1979 BBC miniseries, but also on LeCarré himself, adopting several of his mannerisms to bring Smiley to life.
In 2012 he paired up again with Tom Hardy in Lawless, together with Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pierce and Jessica Chastain.
He worked with Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth in Paranoia, and in 2014 played Norton, the scientist who created Robocop, in the remake of the cult sci-fi thriller.
In yet another franchise reboot, Planet of the Apes, Oldman starred in the second instalment - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as Dreyfus, the leader of the humans to have survived the ape uprising.
Gary Oldman’s Recent Work
After teaming up yet again with Tom Hardy in Child 44 (2015), Gary Oldman can be seen in Man Down (again with Shia LeBoeuf), as a CIA chief in Criminal (2016 with Kevin Costner, Ryan Reynolds and Tommy Lee Jones), then as the villain in The Hitman’s Bodyguard with Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds (again) and Salma Hayek.
In 2017, he played former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for which he won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actor’s Guild Award and a BAFTA for Best Actor.
Gary Oldman’s Voicework
Less known outside the industry is the amount of voice acting roles that Gary Oldman has done.
Apart from video game adaptations of his films (Dracula and The Fifth Element), he has voiced Sgt. Jack Barnes in the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault installment, both Agent Masterson and “Rocky” Kuznetskov in True Crime: Streets of LA, Ignitus in the three Legend of Spyro installments and Sgt. Viktor Reznov in Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops, where he reportedly did a lot of screaming.
He also voices Lord Vortech in the Lego Dimensions game.
In Quest for Camelot, he plays the villain, Ruber, who wants to overthrow King Arthur.
Like Jim Carrey, he voiced several characters in the 2009 animated Christmas Carol: Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley and Tiny Tim.
He was nominated for an Annie Award for his voice role as the peacock Lord Shen in Kung Fu Panda 2.
Gary Oldman also provided the narration in several documentaries, including Countdown to Zero and One Night in Turin.
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