How Gary Oldman Landed His Dream Role as a Farting Slob in ‘Slow Horses’ | Video

TheWrap magazine: “There’s something very freeing and liberating about playing someone who really doesn’t give a f–k,” the veteran actor says

Gary Oldman
Photo by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

Several years ago, Gary Oldman was talking to his longtime producing partner and manager, Douglas Urbanski, when he made a modest request. He wanted, he told Urbanski, to do a project — a TV series, maybe — where he could play a well-written character over a more extensive arc than you’d get in a two-hour movie. He’d rather not have to do an accent or wear cumbersome costumes — in fact, he’d prefer it if there weren’t too many costume changes at all. He didn’t want a role that required the kind of prosthetics and extensive makeup work that helped win him an Oscar for “Darkest Hour.” Oh, and it’d be great if it was set in the world of espionage.

A while after he gave Urbanski that wishlist, the two men were on a plane together. Urbanski was perusing a script. “What are you reading?” Oldman asked him.

“I’m reading a character who’s about to become your new best friend,” Urbanski said. “I won’t say anything more than that.”

The new best friend, it turned out, was Jackson Lamb, a rumpled and grumpy British intelligence agent who presides over a motley crew of discredited spies who’ve been reassigned to the bottom of the barrel at MI-5: Slough House. That’s where agents who’ve screwed up badly go to be verbally abused and given lousy assignments by Lamb. 

The role was delicious, funny and touching, because of course the misfits at Slough House — or “Slow Horses,” the derisive nickname that gave the show its name — turn out to be capable agents under the tutelage of a brilliant boss. The role lets Oldman wear the same clothes almost every episode, and he never has to worry about spending time in the makeup chair or getting in shape for a new season. Hell, he barely has to cut or comb his hair, and he certainly doesn’t have to wash it. 

Essentially, “Slow Horses,” based on a series of novels by Mick Herron, was that checklist he’d given Urbanski as a guide to the remainder of his career. As he began to navigate his 60s and his fifth decade as an actor, the man known for his fierce performances in “Sid and Nancy,” “Prick Up Your Ears,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “True Romance” and many more was going into his final act as a slovenly grump who farts ferociously and never changes his raincoat.

And he was loving it.

“He’s got no filter, he doesn’t care about being judged and there’s really nothing to lose,” Oldman said with a grin. “There’s something very freeing and liberating about playing someone who really doesn’t give a f–k.”

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Slow Horses
“Slow Horses” (Apple TV)

Oldman sat on a couch in a sleekly appointed house above Beverly Hills. His suit was pale linen, casual but stylish; his striped socks added a touch of color above his cream-colored, elegantly detailed brogues. He was sharp in a not-trying-very-hard kind of way. And yet, Jackson Lamb was peeking out all around the edges. The hair was long and tangled, albeit cleaner than Lamb would have it. The T-shirt, an off shade of blue, was a little ragged around the neck. And when he leaned back on the couch, a visible potbelly protruded above his belt.

The actor, it turned out, was on a break in the middle of shooting Season 5 of the Apple TV+ series. And if we always hear about stars getting in shape for a role, this is the kind of series where you might want to get out of shape before reporting to the set, right?

“Yeah, I suppose so,” he said, laughing and patting his belly. “I gained a few pounds for ‘Mank’ and this followed shortly after, and obviously the character is unhealthy and has let himself go. So I’ve sort of been carrying it around.” He glanced at his waist and shrugged. “It, and the hair. And when I’m not on the set, it just is what it is.” A grin. “It doesn’t work with every outfit.”

But it works with Lamb’s shabby outfits, which include a wrinkled shirt, a half-hearted tie and the same ragged raincoat no matter the weather. “I’m so thankful to be able to come in and throw on these old clothes that never change,” Oldman added. “I’ve got the same shoes I’ve been wearing since Episode 1. It’s quite fun to almost be in your own clothes, you know?”

Of course, there’s more to Lamb than the clothes, which in a way are an act of deliberate camouflage. “The whole thing with the greasy hair and not bathing very often and having holes in his socks — it’s all designed to make people underestimate him,” he noted. But Herron’s books aren’t big on explaining how Lamb got that way — and when Oldman went to the writer early in pre-production to ask questions, Herron told him that if it wasn’t on the page, he didn’t really have an answer.

Gary Oldman
Photo by Molly Matalon for TheWrap (Desirae Cherman for Exclusive Artists using Bobbi Brown and Balmain Hair)

“So I just went away and made my own little bible,” Oldman recalled. “I said, ‘Do you think he was married, and the pressure of the job and the nature of the work was such that it sort of disintegrated?’ ‘Yeah, maybe.’” He laughed. “You just have to go away and put your own spin on it. But what’s there on the page is terrific.”

Because each new season covers one of Herron’s Slough House books, Oldman said he reads the appropriate book prior to filming and often asks showrunner Will Smith if he can incorporate favorite lines into the scripts. The idea is to find that fine line between drama and humor, which has always been a key ingredient of “Slow Horses.”

“I think we walk the knife’s edge very well,” he said. “How much of the drama do you emphasize? How much of the comedy do you play up? Do you make the drama a little more like ‘Killing Eve,’ which is ever so slightly heightened, or do you go very real with the drama and make the humor more incidental? I think that’s where we kind of came down: There’s a lot of humor in the show, but we can’t ask for a laugh.”

Of course, any discussion of the humor in “Slow Horses” has to circle around to Lamb’s farts, which get a juicy place of honor at least once per season. Given that Oldman is a key creative participant in the show, the question was inescapable: Do they give him input into the volume and tone of his gas?

“I’m a fart consultant,” he said immediately. “It sounds ridiculous, but we do have emails going back and forth where we talk about the frequency and robustness.” He laughed. “I mean, come on: If we’re in the back of a Rolls-Royce, that is really good leather we’re talking about. We need a more robust fart and we should put a little echo on that one.”

Season 5, he promised, is particularly strong in the flatulence department. “It’s a three-fart season,” Oldman revealed. “I’ve got three crackers coming up, if you like that kind of thing.”

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

There was a time in Oldman’s career when you wouldn’t have pictured him in a long-running television program of any kind. Born in Southeast London, the son of an alcoholic welder who left the family when Oldman was just 7, he went to drama school and acted on the stage before bursting onto movie screens.

He was fearsomely talented and often ferocious on screen, moving into high-profile roles with Oliver Stone (“JFK”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula”), Tony Scott (“True Romance”) and, later, the “Harry Potter” and “Dark Knight” series. Odd roles aside, he was not the kind of actor you’d expect to find on the small screen.

“Early on, there was a sort of snobbishness, wasn’t there, about television?” he said. “You were either a movie actor or you were a television actor. And like theater people who looked down on movie actors, the movie actors looked down on TV actors. Even though there were great one-offs on television, we tended to look down on television.” He shrugged. “Now everybody wants to get in the game. They all want a show. We’re in this golden age of it now, aren’t we?”

As for Oldman’s own golden age, everybody has their own favorites: yours might include “Air Force One” or “The Contender,” mine might be “True Romance” or “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and Oldman’s own favorites… well, those would be the ones he had the most fun making. 

“You know the end result, but for me, the process of doing it is what I remember,” he said. He mentioned “JFK,” for which Stone gave him plane tickets and a per diem and asked him to go to Dallas and New Orleans and do his own research into Lee Harvey Oswald; “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which involved months of rehearsal at Coppola’s estate in Northern California wine country; “Hannibal,” where he loved Ridley Scott’s energy and pace; David Fincher’s “Mank”; and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Parthenope,” in which he has a small but crucial role as John Cheever in the Italian director’s rapturous film that premiered in Cannes. “Watching him work was just extraordinary,” he said, imitating how Sorrentino would pace the set looking for inspiration.

Oldman has talked recently about retiring — but when you hear him rhapsodize about Sorrentino or “Slow Horses,” it’s hard to imagine he’s at a point where he might walk away.

“Well, it’s on the horizon,” said Oldman, who turned 66 in March. “I mean, I do like what I do, but I am creative in other things, like photography. The good thing is that we shoot 12 episodes and they break it up into two seasons of six, so you have seven or eight months off. I really do enjoy the downtime, when I can take pictures.”

“What has happened is there were periods when I wished the material had been better. You know, it is a job and you have to put kids through school and put food on the table and pay the mortgage. And there were times when the work I was doing was really removed from what I wanted to do. I just started to resent it and thought, Oh, I’ll just pack it in. I’m done with it.” (Oldman didn’t say which films he was talking about, though he has said he was unsatisfied with his performance in the “Harry Potter” films in the past.) “I’d give it my best, but I just really wasn’t enjoying the material.”

“Now I have a renewed energy. But, God willing, I don’t know if I want to be doing it when I’m 80.” Another shrug. “It’s very selfish being an artist or an actor. You’ve got this vision and you sacrifice a lot of things. So now there are photographs I’d like to take, and there are books I’ve never read and films that I want to see and all sorts of things I might want to do. It’s not stopping being creative, it’s just slowing everything else down.”

He stood up and stretched, then started to leave with his wife, Gisele Schmidt. On his way across the living room, he stopped and turned. “But we’ll see,” he said with a smile. “As long as Apple keeps writing the checks, I’ll keep playing Jackson.”

This story first appeared in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap (Desirae Cherman for Exclusive Artists using Bobbi Brown and Balmain Hair)

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