Gary Oldman is considered the favorite to win this year’s Oscar for best actor. He plays Winston Churchill, in “Darkest Hour.”
That’s a pretty famous character for an actor to tackle. Oldman has, in fact, played more than a dozen characters that were already famous before they came to the screen. Has any other actor so often faced the challenge of preexisting famousness?
Some have been real people, like Pontius Pilate, in “Jesus” (1999), or the namesake poet in “Dylan Thomas” (1991). In a nice twist, Oldman’s second wife, Uma Thurman, played Thomas’s wife.
Some have been fictional, like the adulterous Arthur Dimmesdale, in the 1995 adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” or the message-bearing Rosencrantz, peripheral in “Hamlet” yet central to Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (1990). In a category of its own is “Guns, Girls, and Gambling” (2012), in which Oldman plays an Elvis impersonator. So he’s Elvis — but he’s not.
The best-known has been Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s godfather. Oldman played him in four movies in the series. “I’ve done so much R-rated work,” he once said, “it’s nice to have a job you can show your kids.”
Playing such already-famous characters, whether real or fictive, raises high the performance bar. There are viewer preconceptions to live up to — or, more often than not, Oldman being Oldman, exceed.
Consider these nine examples, with Oldman’s thoughts on playing them.
DARKEST HOUR, 2017
British prime minister
“You get to a point where it has to become creation rather than impersonation.”
DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, 2005-2012
Commissioner Jim Gordon
Gotham City police chief
“I’ve enjoyed playing the good guy, that’s for sure. Let the younger lads — you know, the Tom Hardy’s — chew the scenery and climb the walls.”
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 2011
John le Carré’s British spymaster
“George is a man of few words. He doesn’t need the karate and the fast car and the gun.”
LOST IN SPACE, 1998
Dr. Zachary Smith
“I always get to play the bad guy because, I guess, there’s a perception out there about me that I’m difficult and mad and crazy.”
IMMORTAL BELOVED, 1994
Ludwig van Beethoven
“You can’t play Beethoven with pink hair but . . . who’s going to tell me that’s not Beethoven?”
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, 1993
“The emotion is mine, because I don’t know what it’s like to be undead and live 300 years.”
Lee Harvey Oswald
“There was very little of Oswald on the page, and . . . I was asked to become a kind of investigator, a detective.”
PRICK UP YOUR EARS, 1987
“I concentrated on making him someone who was likable, successful, looked good, and felt good about himself.’’
SID AND NANCY, 1986
Sex Pistols bassist
“I read the script and thought it was a load of rubbish. But my agent said, ‘They’re offering £35,000.’”Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.