Although one of the world’s greatest actors, the East Londoner says his Docklands’ roots – and being a father – keep his size tens firmly on the ground
You can take the boy out of London. But when it comes to Gary Oldman, you can never take London out of the boy. The actor extraordinaire, and inspiration to a new generation of thespians, resolutely retains the down-to-earth attitude of his New Cross council estate start in life.
Our home-grown Oscar nominated star of Darkest Hour, lives in LA these days, but has his priorities sorted: “You’ve got to have a decent cup of tea, so I have Typhoo tea bags,” he laughs. “And Colman’s mustard, Yorkshire puddings – things like that.” He turns 60 this month and recently married his fifth wife Gisele Schmidt, yet despite his wealth, fame and accolades, he has never felt the need to gloss over his working-class roots.
Born Gary Leonard Oldman in south-east London, he is the son of sailor and welder Leonard and housewife Kathleen. He has two younger sisters, Jackie, and Laila Morse, who went on to star as Mo in EastEnders. He has talked about how his father – an alcoholic who worked in the Docklands – left the family ‘with not even two ha’pennies to rub together’ when he was seven.
When we meet, he is chic in a beautifully-cut dark suit and black-rimmed glasses and appears a million miles away from the constraints of his poor upbringing. He clearly loves talking about home. “London changes so quickly and it was a very different place for me when I was growing up. In a way, it’s lost a lot of that raw edge that it had, particularly around where I grew up. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. The transformation has been incredible, and now we will never go back to that version of the city.”
The young Gary attended West Greenwich School in Deptford, leaving at the age of 16 to work in a sports store and then the now-defunct British Home Stores. A Millwall supporter, he was stunned and thrilled when a few years ago, his mother Kathleen, now 92, regaled him with the fact his dad played briefly for the team. “Just after the war, mum ran a boarding house for Millwall players. I knew already that my dad was somehow involved with the reserve team, but two weeks ago my mum said, ‘Oh yeah, your dad played for Millwall.’ It turned out that when he was young he had a couple of first-team games.
“I was in the kitchen, making tea. I said, ‘What are you talking about? You tell me this now? I was rather surprised to discover that my dad – albeit for five minutes – had been a professional footballer. I was quite chuffed, and proud.”
Life for Gary in east London took a turn for the better when, following a succession of unskilled jobs, he won a place to study at the Rose Bruford College in Kent. The first part of his acting career was spent in the theatre and that’s how he expected it to continue. It all changed in 1986 when Oldman was offered the chance to play self-destructive, doomed Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious in the biopic Sid and Nancy. He nearly turned it down: “I read the script and I just thought it was a load of rubbish. I didn’t want to do it and my agent said, ‘Well, they are paying you £35,000,’ which was a fortune in those days. I was getting 80 quid a week at the Royal Court Theatre company and I thought, ‘I could do with a flat.’ So I went and did it, and it changed things for me overnight.”
The following year he married actress Lesley Manville, best known for dramas Cranford and River. He left her in 1989, three months after the birth of their son Alfie, now 29. The following year he wed Hollywood star Uma Thurman but that marriage lasted only two years.
Uma later observed: “It was immature and rebellious. It is infantile to marry your first boyfriend, which Gary was, in my case.” Oldman remains pretty philosophical about his marriages, remarking: “I’m not proud to say it, but I’ve had a few goes at it, so I’ve probably learnt something.”
After landing his first Hollywood roles in the early 90s, with parts including Lee Harvey Oswald in 1991’s JFK, he celebrated his success by hell-raising with fellow hard-partying stars including Kiefer Sutherland. His boozing, already out of control, began to really take its toll and Oldman said at the time that he realised he’d die if he didn’t get into rehab. He has now been sober for more than 20 years.
In 1997 he produced, directed and starred in Nil By Mouth, the knuckle-hard portrait of a south-east London family. His own history appeared to be at its core and Oldman even shot his characters getting drunk in his dad’s former local – the Five Bells. Twenty years later, it remains one of the greatest British films and ensured Gary’s history with the London area would be immortalised forever.
Just after the release, Oldman married photographer Donya Fiorentino whom he’d met at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. They had two sons but this third marriage ended in 2001 following public and acrimonious accusations from both parties. He was later granted sole custody of the boys – Charlie, who is now 20 and an aspiring photographer, and Gulliver, 18, a model. They live with him in LA.
Gary said of that time: “I woke up one day and was a 43-year-old single dad with two kids. It wasn’t exactly what I’d planned, but there it was in front of me. So I just made a decision to be at home more.” And he has relished it ever since. “It’s been wonderful. They are my greatest accomplishment.”
Today, he says he has instilled in his boys the working-class mindset and that they should always be responsible for putting food on the table. He says: “Working is good for you. It gives you a sense of value and it’s important to get out there and do something. I say to my kids, ‘You have to work. And you have to provide for your family.’ I’ve never been on the dole. I would always find things to do.”
Big-money roles – as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and Commissioner Gordon in the Batman trilogy – came along at the perfect time. “They allowed me, certainly financially, to really be at home with the kids. I’d make a Harry Potter movie for six weeks and then I’d have maybe seven months at home. It worked well.”
In 2008 he married for a fourth time, to musician Alexandra Edenborough, but she filed for divorce in 2015. Following this, Oldman apologised to the Hollywood elite after he appeared to support Mel Gibson who had been accused of anti-Semitism. Oldman at the time offered a heartfelt apology and defied the odds to land his role in Darkest Hour.
Talking to me, he’s full of humility, reflection and charm. His suave appearance contrasts with that accent that remains straight from the ruthless, unforgiving concrete of 1960s south-east London. About his most famous role to date as Churchill, he explains: “Playing him was a joy and a torture in equal measure. It was an arduous journey to get into him, finding all those moving pieces and putting him together. But when I did, what a joy. What a pure joy.”
Insisting he never goes “full method”, Oldman admits to feeling that he was indeed channelling Britain’s most loved Prime Minister. “My wife said to me – which I loved – ‘I go to sleep with Winston Churchill and I wake up with Gary’.”
Deliberating over the role, and not just because of the gruelling four-hour make-up and costume process undertaken for 48 consecutive days, Oldman had to reach into reserves of courage not plumbed for several decades. He looks thoughtful as he says: “There was always this big fat pink elephant in the room, asking me how I was going to pull this off. I wanted to say no but I mulled over it. There was a lot of pensive soul-searching. But once that seed was planted, I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I would never get a chance like this again.”
He adds with a wry smile: “I listened to some of his speeches over and over, learning the gravitas of his timbre. And then I recorded myself on my iPhone giving it a try. It was horrible, but there was something there. Something worked. And it was really my wife Gisele, who said to me, ‘Are you really going to give up the opportunity to say those words? You’ll always regret it’.”
It is obvious that Oldman’s childhood helped shape him. His first home in Hatcham Park Road in SE14 stays in his mind, as does the Five Bells pub. That he overcame such a start speaks volumes about him and he believes his roots, while not always easy, enabled him to never give up on finding the right partner. He married fifth wife Gisele, an art curator, quietly last September.
He says: “You know, sometimes you have to go through things first. I’ve gone through my thing and we’re like peas in a pod. I’m nearly 60 and at last, I think I’ve come home.” And he is convinced that this time, it will last — that his own dark hours are over for good.