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In Search of Gary Oldman : The Actor’s Onscreen Intensity Belies His Lighter Side

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To people who don’t know him, Gary Oldman might not seem like the rollicking type. But on his film sets, he usually keeps the crews laughing.

That was certainly the case on the Prague set of “Immortal Beloved,” the romantic mystery/biography of Beethoven that opened in December. Oldman entertained the cast and crew by doing impressions.

“He’d do Richard Burton playing his scenes as Beethoven,” says Bernard Rose, the movie’s director. “Then he’d do more complicated bits like Richard Burton doing Robert De Niro’s scenes in ‘Taxi Driver.’ The trick was to find more and more obscure situations. But no matter what we suggested, he did them perfectly. Besides being prodigiously talented, he’s a tremendous comic, a fun, happy guy. Someone should really cast Gary in a comedy.”

Given Oldman’s string of doomed and/or demonic characters--Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” Joe Orton in “Prick Up Your Ears,” the passionate vampire in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK,” and his two in current release, the sadistic Alcatraz warden in “Murder in the First” and the raging, embittered Beethoven--you can’t blame directors for not coming up with the same idea.

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Known to be edgy, intense, impatient, obsessive, given to such physical transformations for films that he’s pushed himself to the point of breakdown, the 36-year-old actor is often described as brilliant and changeable as a chameleon. Light usually doesn’t come into play.

In person, though, Oldman somewhat bears out Rose’s words. Pale and slight, unshaven and dressed all in black, he looks like the kid from a tough London neighborhood he is. His blue eyes are sleepy but sharp. He smiles and laughs easily, whether showing off a fun Coffee-Time watch he bought at an airport, describing himself as goofy in his relationship with his 6-year-old son, or explaining that the reason he doesn’t want to be photographed today is that he’s having a bad hair day. He’s trying to grow it out between film roles--he recently finished shooting “The Scarlet Letter,” in which he portrays the passionate Rev. Dimmesdale--and it is, in fact, sticking straight up. “When you’re in movies,” he says, in a softer voice than one would expect, “your hair is never your own.”

Neither, as he’s discovered recently, is your life. In the last several months, he’s become fodder for gossip columns. Just before Christmas, items appeared in newspapers--"leaks” as he derisively describes them--detailing that he’d checked into alcohol rehab and temporarily called off his wedding to Isabella Rossellini, his “Immortal” co-star, with whom he’d fallen in love during production. One part--the alcohol rehab--is true. The other, he explains vehemently, is not.

“We never were officially engaged, not really,” he says. “Well, I guess we are engaged, but the whole marriage thing was a complete invention because then they can write this whole on-and-off marriage.”

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The distortions and the focus on it mystifies him, just as it mystifies him that photographers stake out the Upper East Side apartment they share to catch the couple in such activities as walking the dogs or strolling with her adopted baby son in the park.

“Why do they try and sour things?” he asks. “This on-and-off this and that. It’s sordid. Why can’t they just leave it as a romantic story . . . and it is romantic, I know. Beethoven . . . Prague.”

The idea that they would fall in love playing lovers, surrounded by the passionate music Oldman adores, appeals to the romantic in him. But as Bernard Rose remembers it, Oldman was in love with his co-star even before they met.

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“Gary and I were in London, he was practicing the piano, we were close to shooting and we hadn’t cast the part (of Countess Erdody, the regal Hungarian who protects and loves the composer),” he says. “Isabella came to London to meet me and I told him I was going to meet her for lunch. ‘That’s the kind of woman I want to marry,’ he said. So I asked if I should bring her around if she was nice. And I did. She got off the plane, I gave her some lunch and took her off to Gary’s bedroom.” He laughs. “Of course, she also went back to New York that afternoon. And I know that the first time they kissed in the film is the first time they kissed.”

Oldman remembers the London meeting a bit differently. “No bells rang or birds sang,” he says. “But I thought she was very enchanting. And very humble and shy--which is a very attractive quality. She has an amazing humility, absolutely no pretension. And that is very rare.”

He was, he says, very quiet around her. “He absolutely was on his best behavior,” says Rose. “Both of us engage in what you could call anatomical humor, British humor, and he did none of that. She’s like an old-fashioned aristocrat, very regal. They’re a nice couple together.”

Oldman denies his relationship with Rossellini accelerated his decision to seek treatment for his alcoholism--treatment he says has to be anonymous, so he won’t discuss where or how long he was in rehab. “You really have to do it for you,” he says softly. “Without sobriety, you can’t have you, and without you, you can’t have the other stuff.”

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His previous marriages to actresses Lesley Manville, the mother of his son, Alfie, and Uma Thurman, were, he admits, adversely affected by his drinking, as were other aspects of his life. But his work wasn’t. “When he turns up every single day and is completely word-perfect on his lines and is charming to everyone, you wouldn’t know (about the drinking),” says Rose.

As Oldman admits, though, he’s had plenty of episodes of tempting fate, including a 1991 arrest for drunk driving in Los Angeles while out on the town with actor Kiefer Sutherland. “But for the grace of God, I’m here today and people like River Phoenix aren’t,” he says.

Still, he says there was no singular incident that turned him around. “It’s like a three-headed dragon, it attacks you spiritually, emotionally and physically,” he says. “It likes to claim people. And I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired. I knew that (if I kept on) I was going to die.”

That was a realization drawn from a painful truth in his life, the death of his father several years ago at 62 from the effects of alcoholism. He hadn’t observed his father while growing up--the senior Oldman had abandoned him, his mother and two sisters when Oldman was 7--but the influence was palpable. “I have (alcoholism) so it’s hereditary,” he says. “I saw him briefly once or twice in that period before he died, so I have an image of him as someone old, who was dying. I don’t like remembering that.” He rubs tears from his eyes.

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While he was growing up, he reminded his mother of his father--he looked like him, walked like him. His sisters have been quoted as saying that partly as a result, she spoiled him. He just remembers she supported him in whatever he wanted, whether it was starting piano lessons--he’d signaled his intention as a child by cutting out a paper keyboard, taping it to the kitchen table and pounding on the keys--or starting to act at a local children’s theater when he was 15.

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Now he’s turning the spotlight on her as the star of a documentary he’s filming in his old London neighborhood, where she still lives. “She’s 75, she lived through the Blitz in London and she talks about the war with such a fondness. It was the best time in her life,” he says. “It was the last time people came together with a real sense of patriotism, really bonding and helping one another out. So I’m shooting her talking about it, going shopping, comparing prices and the ways things were then. She’s a natural. Afterward, I may go to someone with it or I may just keep it as a family record.”

Whatever becomes of the documentary, he’s also using it as a directing exercise since, like so many of his colleagues, he wants to enter that part of the business. It’s a decision that shouldn’t surprise any of his directors, since he’s known for questioning their takes, offering his own ideas, for not being a docile actor. Part of it is a need to be intensely involved; his threshold of boredom, he admits, is very low. And being purely an actor is often boring.

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"(“Immortal Beloved”) is one of the few things I haven’t got bored with,” he says. “And even with that, learning the Emperor Concerto got very frustrating for me. I had six weeks and I had to practice every single day. I wanted to play it up to speed immediately. If I can’t do something immediately, I get bored.”

For that reason, he’s gone through periods in which he considered getting out of acting, of doing something else entirely. “I toyed with writing children’s books,” he explains. “Or painting. Or staying in the business but becoming a producer or a script-reader.”

Instead, in the last two years he seems to have jumped from one acting role to another, from “Romeo Is Bleeding” to “True Romance,” “The Professional,” “Murder in the First,” “Immortal Beloved” and the forthcoming “Scarlet Letter,” in which he co-stars with Demi Moore. Despite the pace, he insists he isn’t pushing himself the way he used to.

“I used to work on parts 20 hours a day, my mind was always working,” he says. “I kind of beat myself up, that if I wasn’t digesting this stuff 24 hours a day and if I didn’t measure up to my own standards, it meant I hadn’t worked hard enough.” He smiles. “A lot of it was working from insecurity and fear. But then I came to realize that talent is talent. You don’t have to drive yourself mad.”

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He also tried meditation and tai chi, calming exercises he’s beginning to reintroduce into his life. And he isn’t planning too much this year. The next project he’s sure of is doing “Richard III” onstage in Boston at the end of the year. It will be his first stage appearance in nine years and it seems plausible that if the production is successful, he might be asked to move it to New York.

But he bristles at the suggestion. Speaking in the calm, measured tones of someone admittedly taking one day at a time, he maintains that the plan so far is the only plan. “I’m doing it in Boston,” he says. “And I’m doing it for me.”


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