Gary Oldman interview: RoboCop, Barack Obama and more

We talk to Gary Oldman about his role in RoboCop, his thoughts on the original, politics, and refusing to play a villain in Batman Begins...

Gary Oldman: quite possibly the finest actor of his generation. A charismatic force of nature, capable of blazing through the screen as a central villain (like killer cop Norman Stansfield in Leon), or even in relatively small roles, like the bizarre Drexl Spivey in True Romance. Then there are the stunning character portrayals, like Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, or Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, or the troubled Jackie Flannery in the little-seen but wonderful State Of Grace.

Typecast for a time, at least in Hollywood, as the go-to villain type – see Air Force One, The Fifth Element or Lost In Space to name three – Oldman has since, as he puts it, “turned the ship around”, and has more recently starred as Sirius Black in Harry Potter, Jim Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy, and British spy George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Most recently, he’s appeared in RoboCop, playing the conflicted science genius Dennett Norton in Jose Padilha’s remake. The sci-fi scientist is the kind of genre staple we’ve all seen a legion times, and Oldman could easily have sleepwalked through it, cashed the paycheque and moved on. But as ever, he didn’t; as he did with Jim Gordon, or Sirius Black, or even Rolfe in the critically-panned Tiptoes, Oldman brings something special to the character – there’s the sense that some sort of emotional war is being played out behind his eyes.

Given just how intense Gary Oldman is capable of being on screen, we were nervously wondering what he’d be like in person. Yet the Oldman we sat down with in a London hotel one rainy afternoon couldn’t be different from most of the characters he’s played; if he’s like anyone, he’s like Jim Gordon on a day off. He sits well down on a comfy sofa, relaxed, and speaking in a gentle, quiet voice that phases melodically from a London accent (he was born in New Cross) to American (he now lives in California) with an occasional hint of Royal Shakespeare Company-trained luviness sprinkled on top.

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Taking time to answer each question, and pausing as if to make sure he has every statement exactly right, he’s the very definition of reserve. And while we dearly wish we had more time to talk about some of his other stunning performances and career moments (say, an entire afternoon rather than a dozen minutes), what he has to say about the new RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s classic original, politics, and refusing to play the villain in Batman Begins makes for some fascinating reading.

Were you familiar with the original RoboCop movie before you signed on for this one?

You know, it’s always interesting when you’ve got someone like Paul Verhoeven, who’s a maverick kind of outsider, who comes in and tinkers with Hollywood or pop culture. That’s what fascinates me with this remake – you’ve got someone [like Jose Padilha] who first and foremost is a physicist, a brilliant guy, a documentarian, a Brazilian, doing RoboCop.

And I always think it’s fascination when you have people like this doing genre films. You’ve got Alfonso Cuaron doing Harry Potter, Tomas Alfredson doing Tinker Tailor – they give it their own… spice. It has an edge to it.

Do you feel the themes in the script chime with your own world view? Because it has quite a dystopian view of the present in the way it relates to current events.

Yeah. It’s as if we’ve… with the original, it was a kind of fantasy about a future, that as you watch it as a viewer, it’s sci-fi. This one, I think you watch it and it’s science fact – you watch it and it looks recognisable. I think the debate of security and safety versus liberty, and how, in the name of security, liberty has been encroached upon… drones is a big argument at the moment, and how they’re saying troops on the ground will be robotic troops at some point.

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Freedom of choice. The cynicism of the media. He’s sort of touched on all of this. And in many ways, there’s also the question of the soul versus machine – is it morally and ethically right? Just because you can do it, should you do it? All those questions are important. It’s a political film wrapped up in a [sci-fi story].

I mean, if this was a political movie, but Paul Greengrass was doing it, it would hold up, wouldn’t it? So it’s got a lot going for it.

Do you think it holds up against the first one?

I think it dares to be its own thing. It does similar things to the original, because that looked at how the media represented real-world events, and the role of the police, corporations – as a corporate satire, it was really brilliant. The remake explores those themes in a different, modern way.

Yeah. I like the touch of the inside marketing. “Let’s make him look like a Transformer – the kids want him to look like a Transformer. What do you think? Shall we go for the silver suit or the black suit?” Even the candidates!

It’s a PR campaign, essentially, isn’t it? He’s a puppet.

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Yeah, yeah. That idea of, “No, I’m going to give them a man inside a machine. That’s what the public wants.” And the more you find out, the more… I live in America at the moment, in California. But you look at American politics at the moment, and it’s one mess after another, one scandal after another. I mean, it’s falling around him. The empire is crumbling.

You mean it’s crumbling around Barack Obama?

Right, yeah. And you’ve got footage of him speaking in 2008 and 2009 talking about Bush, and how against the Executive Order he is, and how everything was going to be transparent, and now he’s doing the same thing but on steroids. It’s Bush on steroids.

I saw the movie – I’ve only seen this version of RoboCop once – but I thought, “My God, this is the world we’re living in.” I could turn on the regular TV and see this. 

On the news just now, I saw Britain’s top-secret drone aircraft being unveiled on the BBC.


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Yes. Quite a coincidence, given the premise of the film.

Yeah. And we’re going to have drones delivering things. [Laughs]

So when it comes to the roles you’ve taken – and I mean all of them – you always bring something else. In RoboCop, he isn’t just a stock sci-fi scientist, though he could easily have been.

Jim Gordon could have been a stoic cop, but he was so much more. So what’s your process for bringing the nuances to those characters?  

Well, it was almost there on the page. And then we were very fortunate to have rehearsals, and we sat around with the script and the other actors and Jose, and we weeded out all those things that are what I call “Stupid people doing stupid things.” Because it’s a certain type of genre, filmmakers think they have the license to just insult you, you know? And you sit there watching these movies and rolling your eyes, thinking, “Oh come on, how could that happen”, or, “That’s ridiculous.”

And I think what Jose wanted to do was weed out all those moments and make it as smart as it could possibly be. Then we talked about who Norton [Oldman’s character] was, and how he underestimates Sellars [Michael Keaton’s OmniCorp CEO]. He’s in a situation where he’s working for a company that he knows has a military aspect to it. He’s in the research department, he’s the head of the research department, which is very much experimentation. And he tries something and it doesn’t work, so he goes back to the drawing board, and he doesn’t have a clock.

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Then he’s reluctantly taken into this project with the promise of unlimited funding. And he’s flattered – that’s one of his weaknesses, his vanity. So he goes on board, and he’s in this hideous cut-throat corporate world, where it’s all about release dates and deadlines. And he’s up against the wall. He’s challenged, ethically.

My thing is, what’s he going to do? He forms a relationship with this man [Alex Murphy], who trusts him. Is he going to walk away and let someone else come in who doesn’t have that relationship and doesn’t really care? Or does he stay and give him a little tweak?

I’m not sure whether in the script the end’s the same, but we wanted Norton to ultimately take responsibility, and that redeems him. And in a world where nobody wants to take responsibility for anything, that makes him unique in my book. 

In Hollywood, things seem to have changed a great deal over the last 10 years. In the 80s and 90s perhaps, British actors or European actors tended to be cast as villains, certainly in mainstream films. Whereas now you can have a British Batman, a British Superman, a British Spider-Man. What’s changed?

Well I think what happens is a trend. And someone starts the trend, and it’s so blinkered that they go, “Oh yeah, now it’s this,” and off they go.

I got typecast as a villain, the bad guy, and I wanted to turn that around. Slowly, slowly, I turned that ship around, but you’re at the mercy of the imagination of who’s casting you. And Chris Nolan came to me with a villain, and I said, “I don’t want to play the villain.” I think it was [suggests scary mask over face, with hands].

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The Scarecrow?

Yeah, maybe. I said I wasn’t interested. I said, “What about Commissioner Gordon?” And to his credit, he thought about it, came back and said yes. Now, Chris auditioned people for Batman, and there are qualities you have to have, and you have to have a good jaw. You’ve got to look good in that suit as well. So he cast, he auditioned, liked Christian [Bale], called him back, did another test to be sure, and cast him as Batman. And that caused a whole trend, like dominoes. I think it takes one person with imagination like Nolan.

Gary Oldman, thank you very much.

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