The chameleonic Gary Oldman adds Winston Churchill to his impressive resume of real-life figures with Darkest Hour

Over the years, Gary Oldman has played wizards and generals, punk rockers, composers and Count Dracula, but even he hesitated at the prospect of portraying Winston Churchill.

“I was very wary because not only is he so iconic but because there’s many great actors who have played him before: Richard Burton, Albert Finney and Robert Hardy – they’re big shoes to step into,” says Oldman when we meet at the Toronto International Film Festival, neglecting to name recent performances by John Lithgow and Brian Cox.

Such an over-abundance of recent Churchills likewise gave director Joe Wright pause when he was first offered Anthony McCarten’s script for Darkest Hour, charting the early days of WWII where the fate of western Europe hung on the leadership of the newly-appointed British PM.

“I met with Anthony and told him I wasn’t sure whether I would go and see this movie, but as soon as Gary Oldman’s name came up, I knew that I would go and see that movie,” says Wright.

“Gary has been a hero of mine since I was 15 when he played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy,” says the Atonement director. “The idea of a career that goes from Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill seems too tantalising really.”

Both men were strangely hesitant about meeting with each other for the first time, but soon broke the ice. “I was surprised to find he was nervous about meeting me, so we went outside and vaped together and after that we were like brothers,” laughs Wright.

Later they would run up a USD 18,000 cigar bill as Oldman puffed his way through six stogies a day, promptly arranging a check up with his doctor after the shoot was finished.

If Oldman was anxious about taking on Churchill then ditto Ben Mendelsohn, the Australian actor tasked with portraying King George VI – Colin Firth having taken home an Oscar for his own performance in The King’s Speech.

Avoiding other actors’ interpretations, Mendelsohn says, “I mainly just watched newsreel. I knew Jared Harris was playing him in The Crown, so I didn’t want to go near that because he’s so brilliant.”

“There’s a lot of radical revisionism that goes on with Churchill”

After immersing himself in all things Churchill, Oldman admits he’s none the wiser. “There’s a lot of radical revisionism that goes on with Churchill. I don’t know if he was such a boorish, cruel man as he is sometimes portrayed by critics. There’s those people out there who love him and there’s those that don’t.”

To that end, he went on a Churchill fast. “You really have to find your own man so, in terms of other performances, I didn’t watch them. I had watched Robert Hardy when it was on TV many years ago but I didn’t want to be contaminated or influenced by other people’s performances.

“We’ve all got an idea of Winston – not on the actual man but on the other people who’ve played him, so I looked at the actual Pathe newsreels instead. My admiration for him is tenfold after having the opportunity and privilege to play him.”

In portraying Churchill’s wife Clementine, Kristin Scott Thomas was surprised to learn that, behind closed doors, Churchill was riddled with doubt and insecurities.

“I grew up with images of Churchill, and this rather strange looking woman who was his wife. She had a very particular hairdo and her clothes seemed to be from another era, and then I discovered that she was an absolute fighter and was incredibly engaged during the war,” she says.

“It’s fascinating that Churchill was able to articulate all these incredible feelings of national pride and unite people, yet he was just a human being like any other. In portraying Clemmie, I was able to help reveal the man rather than the hero.”

If much has been made about the long hours Oldman, 59, endured in the make-up chair, as layers of prosthetics were applied, today he puts it into perspective: “I’m playing a man who, at 65 years old, took on Adolf Hitler, so for me to sit there for three hours of make-up? Well, it could be a lot worse,” he says, cracking up with laughter.

Darkest Hour is in cinemas January 11, 2018.