When filmmakers bid to add substance to genre movies via the sprinkling of noteworthy names, they often turn to Samuel L Jackson.
Or perhaps even more regularly to Gary Oldman.
Director José Padilha, the man helming the new RoboCop movie that is due in cinemas next week, plumped for them both, recruiting Jackson to play a loud-mouthed media man, Oldman to star as a buttoned-up scientist.
It looks a smart move. They are a popular pair and, in box office terms, they are unimpeachable, vying neck and neck for the position of highest-grossing film star of all time. Oldman, for one, is aware of the contest.
“I wish I had a cut of those figures,” he smiles when we sit down in a Beverly Hills hotel suite to talk about his role in Padilha’s rendition of the iconic 1987 Paul Verhoeven film. “It’s fun to think about, but it is all by accident. I am having this little race with Sam Jackson. He overtook me for a while, but to overtake us two you’d have to have a career where you took in a franchise or two.”
Oldman has featured in no fewer than 13 movies that have opened No. 1 at the US box office, his overall figures boosted by his appearances in the Harry Potter films and Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series. “You would have to do all of that stuff to catch up with me,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to be associated with these franchises and that allows me to spend more time at home. If one can do the smallest amount of work for the most possible money, that seems smart.”
He’s always been smart, Oldman – too smart, some might say. Such is his ability, he can pretty much do anything required, and that facility has led to a clutch of rather mediocre movies, Oldman’s versatility allowing him to become “the victim of whimsical, or desperate, casting calls,” according to Hollywood biographer David Thomson.
Think of Immortal Beloved or Scarlet Letter, Basquiat or Air Force One; more recently there’s been Red Riding Hood or last year’s <i>Paranoia<i>, “a record of skills perverted.” Those skills have found prize outlets, of course, from the electric to the eloquent, from Sid and Nancy to JFK.
After starting out working exclusively in theatre, London-born Oldman broke through in the early Eighties among a crop of home-grown screen talent that included Tim Roth and Daniel Day Lewis; he is a keen photographer, and a collector, and over the course of a 30-year film career has created his own rogue’s gallery of movie misfits.
From the bleak compositions of early films like Meantime, Prick Up Your Ears and The Firm, through the surreal extremities of his Luc Besson output, to the epic landscape inhabited by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oldman has never been afraid of chasing demons on screen, or being disliked in his roles.
His only directorial offering to date is 1997’s bruising London-set family drama Nil By Mouth, while his first Oscar nomination came courtesy of the icy and taciturn George Smiley in the 2011 John Le Carré adaptation Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (a move that delighted Donald Sutherland, by the way, who can henceforth claim that he is the best, working actor not to have had any recognition from the Academy).
“I was happy to be nominated for the Oscar,” the 55-year-old Londoner says of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dismissing any hint of disappointment. “We all thought they’d give it to the Frenchman [The Artist’s Jean Dujardin] anyway. It wasn’t expected. But I enjoyed every minute of the ride.
When you get on it, pretty much everyone likes you wherever you go. They fly you in, they give you nice food; they treat you well.
“When I was in that seat at the Oscars I was as relaxed as I am now,” he adds. “I thought, ‘You know what? I could win this. It could be an unexpected thing.’ I was completely ready to get up and get it, or to stay in my seat. It was a great journey, really. You’ve got to surrender to that experience. There’s nothing to complain about — it’s not like you’re working down a coalmine with your union threatening strikes.”
For sometime Oldman has claimed to be happy with his lot. The money-spinning side of moviemaking has set him up nicely and he has enjoyed raising his two boys (born courtesy of his third marriage, to Donya Fiorentino) in California. “I like being in the house with the kids, going out just to do the shopping or going to pick them up from school,” he says, even though he recognises how disconnected he is from the make-up of modern adolescent life.
“I have got a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old, and they do seem to spend a great deal of their time around technology. They can intuitively interact with technology. I have to look at the manual.”
He smiles. “For me it was textbooks; there was no visual aid, no interactivity. You are conditioned. I am programmed in a certain way. I want to read a book in my hand not on a screen.” The boys, he says, sometimes despair of his Luddite behaviour.
“They laugh when I am trying to operate the television. I mean, I can’t do it because it is four controls these days, turn it on with that one, change channel with this one. I just want the one.”
Now his sons are teenagers, Oldman is introducing them to his favourite movies. “I have a huge library of films,” he says. “I could download them but I like having the DVD. I like the packaging. I used to really like album covers. “But the boys are catching up. Next week I’m going to show them Raging Bull, because they only know De Niro from Meet the Fockers.
Can you believe that? When I say he is one of the great actors of our time, the greatest actor in the world at one time, my kids look at me and go, ‘Really?’ So I have got to show them Raging Bull.” He pauses. “And Taxi Driver.
“My kids can watch a movie on an iPhone,” he adds, throwing his eyes skyward. “I can’t. I miss the cinema and the collective experience but their mind doesn’t work that way. Me, I’m old school. In fact, I think I’m robo-phobic!”
Robo-phobia is a term that pops up in RoboCop, incidentally, a film that Oldman defends as “not a remake and not a reboot.” He explains, “What the director wanted to do was take the ideas from the first movie and expand on them. To do that, he had to smash it to pieces. It’s what Nolan did with Batman. He just wiped the slate clean, went way back to the original source material, and then gave you the world. He reinvented it.
“It’s the same thing that Tomas Alfredson did with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. You have got that great big book, you have got a very successful television series, and he had to make it his own thing while keeping the spirit of original work alive.
That’s what appealed to me about RoboCop, doing this with José. It’s a genre movie, but why does it have to be f—king stupid? Like, Iron Man flies from Malibu to Afghanistan; that’s stupid.”
In Padilha’s movie, Oldman plays RoboCop creator Dr. Robert Norton, a Dr. Frankenstein for 2028. “There is no happy ending, there’s never going to be a happy ending in this film,” he says, “RoboCop is not a normal man.”
The film has struggled under the weight of artistic difference, the studio and its director apparently failing to see eye to eye. Filmmaking, Oldman concedes, is not an easy business.
He now has a film that he wants to direct as his follow-up to Nil By Mouth, called Flying Horse, which is based on the life of Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer noted for his early work in motion-picture projection.
There are already a number of stars attached to the script, including Ralph Fiennes, Amanda Seyfried, Benedict Cumberbatch and himself. Oldman is still struggling to get the film fully financed, however.
“Studios now, they have a model,” he says, “and their model is a certain amount of money, and then you can’t shoot anything here, because it’s too expensive, so you have to travel to South Africa or Canada or New Orleans, where there’s a little tax subsidy.
“They want it a certain budget so they go into profit before the movie is even shot. That’s how they are making movies. So I have a script but it doesn’t fit their model. You need someone who will actually be a risk taker.
Flying Horse is set in San Francisco, but they want you to make it in Romania, and then you get a tax subsidy if you do a week in Ireland. It’s f-king eye-crossing!”
So what will it take to get Flying Horse up and running? “We’d probably need Leonardo DiCaprio, someone of that stature,” he says.
Being the highest grossing box office star of all time has its moments, it seems, but it’s no guarantee to getting your movie made. Similarly, a name like his helps get people into the cinema – next up he’ll appear in the forthcoming Planet of the Apes sequel – but it’s no guarantor of box office success.
Quite how well RoboCop is received, for example, remains to be seen – not, one suspects, that this will keep Gary Oldman awake at night.
RoboCop is released on 7 February
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