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'Darkest Hour' gives Oldman, Mendelsohn big chance to work together

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's "Darkest Hour."

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By RICK BENTLEY | Tribune News Service | Published: November 23, 2017

Gary Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn had only one scene together when they worked on “The Dark Knight Rises.” That was all they needed as the pair struck up an immediate friendship. They exchanged contact information and parted with the hope that they would work together again.

That finally happened with “Darkest Hour.” Oldman plays Winston Churchill and Mendelsohn King George VI in the production that looks at the early days of World War II, just before France had fallen under the blitzkrieg of the Nazi army. The fall of France would naturally be followed by an invasion of England, a fact made terrifyingly probable by the problems at Dunkirk where the British arm was one attack away from total defeat. It is up to newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) to save the country.

Mendelsohn says the scene they shared in “The Dark Knight Rises” was a big party thrown by Bruce Wayne where Oldman’s character of Commissioner Gordon gives a speech. They didn’t get a lot of time together during that filming in 2012 but it was enough to make the opening days of shooting on “The Darkest Hour” feel friendly and comfortable.

“I remember us getting on famously there,” Oldman says. “But, life happens and we finally got the chance to give it a go together. We had a great time working together and it was a real pleasure. It’s always great when you admire someone and they are a great bloke too.

“I wish they all could be Ben.”

The mutual respect the actors have helped Oldman and Mendelsohn face the challenges of “Darkest Hour.” Both actors knew going into the film they would be taking on roles that have been played numerous time on film and television. Oldman initially jokes that all it takes to make the work different is “good acting” but adds that it takes a lot of good parts coming together to make an exceptional whole performance.

He says, “You work on a character and you have a point of view for the character but you are still, somewhat, confined to the script. All of the signs there in a very good script. All you have to do then is follow the emotional roadmap you are given.

“I think that what the director wanted to do with this film was to take these icons and take them down so that you meet them at eye level as human beings.”

Both actors were able to handle that challenge because of lengthy resumes. The Australian-born Mendelsohn has appeared in “The Year My Voice Broke,” “Animal Kingdom” and “Mississippi Grind.” The role that’s brought him the most attention to date is as Orson Krennic in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Oldman began acting on stage in England in 1979, becoming a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Moviegoers know him from a diverse collection of works including “Sid and Nancy,” “Air Force One,” “JFK,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Mendelsohn took the roadmap of the script and created some mile markers along the way by watching newsreel footage of King George VI. He wanted to get a sense of how the member of the Royal Family moved plus be able to match his particular speech pattern that included a stutter.

“Matching how he spoke was very important because you can tell a lot about a person by the way they speak,” Mendelsohn says. “I think using the thing of someone having to overcome a speech impediment helped in playing him. Once I put the costume on, that’s pretty powerful.”

Oldman felt it necessary to read as many books as possible, listen to recordings and find as much factional information as possible to use as the foundation for his performance. He wanted to play Churchill as true as possible and was afraid some of his vision of the world leader had been tainted by seeing performance by other actors - such as Albert Finney - portraying Churchill. He, like Mendelsohn, was able to watch newsreel footage to put together the final pieces.

The transformation for Mendelsohn was complete once he stepped into wardrobe. The process was more complicated for Oldman as he went through a daily makeup process to create the look of Churchill.

“I don’t know why I do it, but I call the work that I do ’kitchen acting.’ I will lay the script out, walk around it and glance it. But, there is only so much you can do in your dressing gown,” Oldman says. “The big roadblock was the physical.”

That meant the use of prosthetics. The first attempt to transform Oldman - he calls “going the full Winston” - was rejected because it was too much. Oldman calls the look as if Winston Churchill and Gary Oldman had a love child.

What Oldman wanted was the spirit of Churchill looking back at him from the mirror. And once they found a balance that was as much Oldman as it was Churchill, everyone was happy with the physical transformation.

Both men loved the opportunity to take on the iconic roles and play them on a very real level. That’s a big difference from being in a movie that’s part of a big franchise where special effects, action scenes and a thick mythology tends to rule the acting day.

While a job is a job, Mendelsohn does see a difference in human driven stories and big-budget productions.

“I think in general, in a popcorn movie, you are part of a very tight rhythm section of a big orchestral piece. Ours is a softer thing with more subtlety in the score. You get more room to explore the differences. So they are, in a broad brush, very different forms of acting,” Mendelsohn says.

Oldman adds to that by quoting John Gielgud, who said, “Style is knowing what play you’re in.”

And in the case of “The Darkest Hour” the style of play features the two veteran actors bring their vision to iconic characters during one of the biggest moments in human history. It also gave them a chance to finally share more than one scene on screen.

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