How Gary Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill in 'Darkest Hour'

Ethan Alter

Joe Wright and Gary Oldman worked together for three intensive months making the new World War II drama Darkest Hour, about the rocky early tenure of Britain’s celebrated wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. According to the actor and director, though, they’re only just starting to get to know each other. “Joe never saw me as Gary for three months,” Oldman recently told Yahoo Entertainment, a sentiment echoed by Wright in a separate interview. “I didn’t see him for three months apart from the time that he turned up for Christmas dinner at my house. I was like, ‘Who is this guy? I don’t recognize him at all.‘”

Credit the Darkest Hour prosthetic team — led by renowned Japanese makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji — with making Wright and Oldman feel like strangers. The intensive process required to turn Oldman — already an actor famous for vanishing into his characters — into Churchill made his performance even more immersive. “Gary started in makeup four hours before he had to arrive on set,” Wright remembers. “I would arrive a couple of hours later, and he’d already be in makeup while I was preparing for the day ahead. I’ve never really used prosthetics this much before, so it was a complete revelation to me.”

According to the director, it took six months to perfect that four-hour makeup session Oldman endured every morning during the Darkest Hour shoot. “There were many iterations,” Wright says now of the Churchill facial prosthetics. “The first went way too far, and Gary looked like he had this mound of plastic on his face!” Successive tests found a better balance between man and makeup. “You didn’t want to feel like you were watching a man in a rubber mask, so we tried to give enough of Churchill and enough of Gary,” Oldman explains. “Our bone structures are different, so [an exact replica] never would have quite worked. We came up with a nice hybrid that captured the essence of the man, without having to look completely like him.”

Wright says that the “sweet spot” the team discovered was to essentially split Oldman’s face in half between prosthetics and nonprosthetics. “The top half of his face is all Gary; the bottom half is where the prosthetics are. If the camera was lower, he’d look more like Churchill, and if it was higher, he’d look more like Gary. In general, I kept the camera a little bit lower, but the makeup was so good, I forgot it was there. There’s no visual-effects cleanup at all — it was just like working with an actor who looked like Churchill.” Should he win the Oscar in March, maybe Oldman can accept his statue in character.

Darkest Hour is currently playing in limited release, and will be in theaters everywhere on Dec. 22.

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