Why Gary Oldman Loves Playing His ‘Openly Hostile’ ‘Slow Horses’ Character: ‘He Has A Very Strong Moral Sense, Even If He’s Not PC’

TheWrap magazine: “He gives the impression that he doesn’t care and maybe he cares more than most. That’s interesting to play,” the Apple TV+ series star says

Gary Oldman (Credit: Steve Schofield for TheWrap)

A version of this story about Gary Oldman and “Slow Horses” first ran in the drama issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Here is how the world was introduced to Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb, distinguished British spy: He is asleep on the couch in his office, a wreck of a room littered with half-drunk bottles of booze, overflowing ashtrays and the remains of several fast-food take-out meals. The camera pulls in, rests a beat on his holey-socked feet, and then: He rips a fart so uproarious, it jolts him upright, yanking him out of his slumber.

This is not the suave world of British spies epitomized by James Bond and John le Carré’s George Smiley (who Oldman played in 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). This is “Slow Horses,” Apple TV+’s viciously funny espionage thriller about MI5 agents sent to a purgatorial outpost called Slough House, where they pay penitence for screwing up royally on the job. Adapted from Mick Herron’s series of books, “Slow Horses” hinges on Oldman’s gloriously laid-back performance as Lamb, an acid-tongued slob well past his Cold War prime, but still brilliant in his unorthodox way. He’s unkempt, emits foul odors and is as contemptuous of his team of “joes” (spies) as he is protective of them. As Lamb himself puts it, “They’re all a bunch of f–king losers. But they’re my losers.”

Gary Oldman Slow Horses
Gary Oldman in “Slow Horses” (Apple TV+)

“It is oddly very liberating to play a character who is openly hostile and publicly humiliates people,” Oldman said during a recent Zoom interview from his home in Palm Springs, sporting no trace of Lamb’s rumpled appearance. “But at the core, he has a very strong moral sense. I think that’s why, ultimately, you can like Lamb even though he’s not P.C.”

The juicy “Slow Horses” role is the latest high point in a 40-plus-year career that has not been short on them. From Sid Vicious to Sirius Black by way of Lee Harvey Oswald, Commissioner Gordon and Herman Mankiewicz, not to mention stage work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Oldman has amassed a body of work that is near peerless in its versatility and depth. It has earned him a bounty of accolades, including a Best Actor Oscar for his disappearing act into Winston Churchill in 2017’s “Darkest Hour.” And let’s not forget his 2001 Emmy nomination for guest-starring on “Friends” as a pretentious actor costarring with Joey in a WWII movie.

When “Slow Horses” came Oldman’s way, its mix of white-knuckle suspense and “dark, anarchic humor” hit the spot. “I was looking for something to do long form,” he said. “And it came in and it was just a jewel.” Praising Herron and showrunner/head writer Will Smith (not that one), Oldman added, “The creation of Lamb was pretty much all there on the page. All I had to do is give it some voice and a bit of imagination, bring my own little thing to it.”

Over two trim six-episode seasons, Lamb and his staff of proverbial sluggish equines uncover dirty deeds at MI5 (in his parlance, “M-I-f—ing useless”) and connect the murder of an ex-joe to a cell of Russian sleeper agents. Some of the most delectable scenes are between Lamb and Diana Taverner, the posh, polished second-in-command at MI5 played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Oldman’s costar in “Darkest Hour”). Polar opposites in manners but intellectual equals, they spar like a pair of highbrow insult comics. “You’re as good as the person you’re in the scene with and we can really really hit the ball back and forth,” Oldman said. “And we sort of tease each other a little off camera. She’s Dame Kristen so she’s Lady Di to Lamb and Dame KST to us.”

Slow Horses
Kristen Scott Thomas and Gary Oldman in “Slow Horses” (Apple TV+)

In the Season 2 finale, when Lamb is about to face off with the master of the Russian spy ring (Rade Serbedzija), Oldman injected some of his “own little thing.” The scene called for his character to sit nonchalantly with his feet on his desk, anticipating his adversary’s arrival. “I just turned to the director, Jeremy Lovering, and I said, ‘While I’m waiting for him, why don’t I eat a bag of chips?’” Oldman said. “Because Lamb’s an eater. He’s a smoker, a drinker, he has flatulence. That’s what’s fun about the show. You never see James Bond eating a bag of crisps, you don’t see Moneypenny go into the launderette.

“And rightly so. I mean, if I was playing Bond,” he continued, laughing, “obviously I wouldn’t turn to Sam Mendes when I’m driving the Aston Martin and say, ‘Can I be snacking on a Twix?’ Mick has taken a genre we’re all familiar with and turned it on its head. He gives you spies, warts and all.”

When we spoke to Oldman, he’d already finished shooting the third season of “Slow Horses” and begun production on the fourth. There are currently eight novels in the “Slough Houseseries, with a possible ninth on the way. And as far as Oldman is concerned, he will happily keep donning Lamb’s nicotine-stained mac until Herron and Apple decide to end the saga. “I’d like to see us finish course — eat our way through the menu to this,” Oldman said. “In the arc of the books, Lamb doesn’t change a great deal. I don’t see some wonderful, cathartic moment at the end of the rainbow. He’s more like an arrow. But there’s always something surprising and redeeming about Lamb. When he’s got his feet up on the desk and his eyes are closed, that’s when he’s working. He gives the impression that he doesn’t care and maybe he cares more than most. That’s interesting to play.”

About those feet up on the desk: We should not expect them to start sporting neater, cleaner socks. “They get worse!” Oldman said. “In Season 4, which is [adapted from the book] “Snoop Street,” which we’re currently shooting, I’ve odd socks. They’re pink and blue. They look similar, but they are odd.” And his signature raincoat, he added, “could walk on its own now. It’s always funny talking with Guy [Speranza], the costume designer, because he calls me up and he says, ‘So what do you think? Same tie. Same suit. Yeah, a bit of grease. Same shoes.’”

And of course, Lamb will keep offending the living daylights out of his team. “I’ve got some ringers coming up,” Oldman said, laughing. “I don’t think you can get tired of me riding and giving the horses a bad time because we’ve got some new [characters] coming in who are going to be on the end of the assault. I take no prisoners.”

Read more from the Drama Series issue here.