Gary Oldman’s Secret to Making Your Own Luck as an Actor

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A consummate character actor of stage and screen for the better part of 40 years, Oscar winner Gary Oldman—who’s also a nominee this year for David Fincher’s “Mank”—knows a thing or two about losing himself in a character. From revealing the at-home technique he calls “kitchen acting” to citing Francis Ford Coppola’s advice on how to make your own luck as an artist, he gamely offers actors everywhere some tips on how to build a lasting career. 

How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
I think it was on “State of Grace” [in 1990]. Good one to get it on. We were shooting in New York, and I later moved there, but I was not living there at the time. We were shooting, and they just said, “Well, you’ve gotta be part of the union.” So that was it.

“If people treat you badly, they’re assholes and you don’t want to work with them anyway.”

What is your No. 1 piece of audition advice?
Well, it’s [been] a long time since I auditioned. I was given a piece of advice once, which I thought was good. I was very nervous and worried about an audition—this is many, many years ago now, I’m talking early 1980. I wanted very much to work at a theater company called the Citizens Theatre; it was very renowned, and it was one of my ambitions to work there, so I was more nervous about this particular audition. And a young director that I had done a little bit of work with said to me, “When you go in to do this audition, you’re probably going to be one of the best actors they’ve seen all week, because you have this thing in your head that you’re less than.” I still have it. I think it’s the natural thing of the performer, or someone who is creative: egomaniac with low self-esteem. You’ve got to have something that pushes you forward to just get up there in front of people, and yet there’s a vulnerability and insecurity that comes with it. I think that’s what keeps driving you to get better and better and better. But I remember it really helped; it did take the edge off the nerves. And take your time. Breathe and take your time. If they’re horrid to you, then maybe they weren’t worth working for anyway—that’s what matters. That’s why I always think it doesn’t cost very much to be polite and to be nice.

Years ago, I directed a movie [1997’s “Nil by Mouth”], and there were scenes that ended up not being in the film. I remember taking the footage and making VHS copies and sending it to the actors who were not in the film anymore. I said, “You can tell that your work is terrific. Unfortunately, there’s an emotional trajectory in the film, and scenes have to go; but you weren’t cut because you weren’t any good. You were cut because the film becomes its own animal, and it tells you where it needs to go.” I just wanted them to know that they weren’t cut because they weren’t any good. 

What were auditions for that film like? 
I remember auditioning a boy [Charlie Creed-Miles] who ended up being in the film. I went to a drama school and they were doing these improvisations, and he had a real edge—he had charisma, something about him. I picked out the guys I was looking for, and we went upstairs and each one would come in, and they would read for me a couple pages from the script. I remember Charlie came up, and he didn’t read very well. And I said to him, “You know what? I’ve got an instinct that you’re a better actor than how you just read, because I just saw you in this improvisation. Would you like to go away and learn the material, and then come back and see me in a week?” And he said, “Yeah, I’d much prefer that.” He learned it and he came back, and, literally, at the audition, I reached over and shook his hand and said, “You’re brilliant. You’ve got the job.” So, if people treat you badly, they’re assholes and you don’t want to work with them anyway. 

What’s your secret to acting-career longevity?
Well, I think Coppola said, “What makes a successful career? It’s luck, and it’s talent.” Now, I’ve had my fair share of good luck, but it depends how you look at luck. If you think of it as an opportunity that is given to you, then if you’ve done the work, you make the most of that opportunity. If you test positive for the theater disease and you just have this thing in you, then you keep going. If you’re just dabbling in it, or you just have a mild, passing interest, or you think it might be cool to be a movie star, or you’ll get more people following you on Instagram—you know what I mean? You’ve got to really live, eat, sleep, [and] breathe it. You know if you have that. It’s a calling rather than just something you kind of want to do for want of doing something else. It’s like anything; it’s a drive that you have, and I think that drive will keep you going.

“Well, I think Coppola said, ‘What makes a successful career? It’s luck, and it’s talent.’ Now, I’ve had my fair share of good luck, but it depends how you look at luck. If you think of it as an opportunity that is given to you, then if you’ve done the work, you make the most of that opportunity.”

What does your script analysis process look like?
Well, for some reason, I always navigate to the kitchen. I like putting the script on a countertop because it’s higher than a desk, and then I wander and look and walk around and go to other places; and then I come back. I’ve always referred to it as “kitchen acting.” Even if I’m not thinking it, I’ll always end up there. 
Give yourself a little help. You just need to be able to get on the bike. And once you get your balance, you’re off, and then you’re making it your own. It’s Jack and David Fincher’s version of Mank. It’s all hearsay, isn’t it, in the end? None of us were there; we don’t know really what went down and what these conversations were, so it’s all based on fact, but we’ve taken liberties with it. Theatrical license, I think they call it. 

What was building the character of Herman J. Mankiewicz like?
There’s no footage of him—not that David Fincher was really concerned with that; he wasn’t casting because I looked like him or whatever. He’s not particularly concerned with that. He said to me, “I don’t want any prosthetics or wigs. I want no veil between you and the audience.” So that made me a little insecure, and I fretted about that for a while, because you’re kind of naked. Once we started, he made the right decision, and it was fine. But doing that work [is important]—the work you do alone. There is a book called “Mank” [by Richard Meryman] with a description of him in it, which was helpful. And Jack Fincher, who had written the screenplay, had done a great deal of work himself. It was obvious, from anything I was reading around the material, that he had captured some essence of the spirit of Mank on the page. So a lot of my work was all in the words.

This story originally appeared in the April 15 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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