In his thirty two year acting career, Gary Oldman has played madmen of many makes and models, literature’s most famous vampire, punk rock royalty, the man who shot JFK, beleaguered spies and policemen, and falsely accused wizards; he’s worked with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Oliver Stone, Alex Cox, Tony Scott, Luc Besson, and Alfonso Cuarón. Even taking into account the misses that come part and parcel with his (far more numerous) successes, describing the man’s filmography as “distinguished” feels like a massive understatement.
Unless, of course, you’re Gary Oldman, in which case the compliment elicits a roll of the eyes. Turns out that Oldman is his own number one detractor; he’s the counterpoint for every Harry Potter fan who considers his casting as Sirius Black pitch perfect, and for everyone who can’t bring up True Romance without talking about his meager (but well-used) ten minutes of screen time. Here’s a modern thespian who has contributed boatloads of quotable material to the cinematic lexicon, but can’t stand the sight of his acting.
Oldman’s on the press circuit to promote Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which he plays the villain, of sorts, a vengeful man bent on repaying the apes for the deaths of countless humans following the events of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In making the rounds, he took the time to sit down with Playboy to discuss the part, but the conversation wound up zigging, zagging, and generally meandering all over the map. The juiciest bits of the tete a tete have stirred up a measure of controversy over the web, and in that hubbub, everyone has come to overlook the most personal part of the interview: Oldman’s take on his time spent in front of the camera.
It’s arresting stuff, though it comprises only a very small portion of the otherwise scattershot dialogue. Here’s arguably the most important quote from Oldman about how his attitude toward his work has evolved:
It’s all so subjective, you know? I guess I shouldn’t complain. I’ve learned over the years that people get upset when they tell you something is their favorite movie and you go, “Really? You liked that piece of s**t?” That’s the sort of thing Sean Penn would say. So I now tell people, “Thank you, that’s great,” and move on. But you know, I remember John Lennon saying that if he could, he’d go back and burn most of the work the Beatles did. He said he’d rerecord all the f**king songs, and I get that. Most of my work I would just stomp into the ground and start over again.
Oldman’s not completely dismissive of his efforts; he’s willing to concede the quality of a role there, the efficacy of a specific scene from a specific movie there. But he’s a perfectionist, and like all perfectionists he sees all of the pockmarks in his accomplishments where everyone else just sees great turns in films like JFK and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the only two of his movies that he speaks of with pure fondness).
He’s also a professional, in the sense that he sees acting as a job, something that he does for a living first and foremost. To read his words in the article, one would almost assume he’s talking about a profession that’s more mundane than walking onto a bustling Hollywood set and stepping in front of the camera; it’s not that he isn’t enamored of his career, but that he sees it in a different light now than he did back when he was a young up and comer. (One has to wonder what the Gary Oldman of 1982 might have thought of the Gary Oldman of today.)
The self-scrutiny and humility Oldman displays is refreshing, if not surprising. Try naming as many modern actors with the same humble attitude as you have digits on your hands. That said, we’ll just have to agree to disagree with Oldman on the quality of (some) his work.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives in theaters on July 11th, 2014.