Friday, July 27, 2012

What Writers Can Learn From Actor Gary Oldman

The Dark Knight Rises
I’d like to talk about actor Gary Oldman, and what writers can learn from him. The inspiration for the post comes from the third movie in the Dark Knight trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises. I can’t wait to see the film (it opens here in South Africa this weekend!). I know it’s going to be amazing and one of the reasons is my all-time favourite actor Gary Oldman. (My sympathies go out to all the victims and their families of the shootings at the Aurora, Colorado opening.)

It may seem strange to use an actor as someone that writers can learn from, but be patient, dear readers.

Gary Leonard Oldman (born 21 March 1958) is an English screen and stage actor, filmmaker, and musician. A Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Court Theatre alumnus, Oldman’s many and varied film roles include: Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Clive 'Bex' Bissel in The Firm, Count Dracula in Bram Stoker's Dracula and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; as well as prominent supporting roles including Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series and James Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy. A popular portrayer of villains, he has played the antagonist of films like True Romance, Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, and The Contender. Aside from film acting, he played an acclaimed guest role in Friends, and wrote and directed Nil by Mouth.

Oldman has garnered widespread critical and peer respect: he has been described as "the best young British actor around", and later, "one of the great actors, able to play high, low, crass, noble”; actor Tom Hardy once remarked, "Gary Oldman is, hands down, the greatest actor that's ever lived.” As an actor, he has been nominated for an Academy Award, an Emmy Award, two BAFTA Awards, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and three Saturn Awards (one win); for Nil by Mouth he won two BAFTA Awards and was nominated for the Palme d'Or. Norman Stansfield, the antagonist played by Oldman in Léon: The Professional has been named as one of cinema's greatest villains. In 2011, Oldman was voted an "Icon of Film" by Empire readers.

The highest praise comes from Oldman’s peers, film critics, and from upcoming actors. His talents have provided inspiration and influence for younger actors including Brad Pitt, Daniel Radcliffe, Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, Shia LaBeouf, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Jason Isaacs, and Michael Fassbender. Peers such as Anthony Hopkins, Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes, and John Hurt have expressed their admiration of Oldman's acting talents. Prior to his first (and long overdue) Academy Award nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oldman was widely regarded as one of the greatest actors never nominated for such an award; Leigh Singer of The Guardian called him "arguably the best actor never Oscar-nominated."

Right, so by now you get it. Oldman is a brilliant actor. It took me quite a long time and many movies later to remember the name of the actor playing the above-mentioned roles. He played them so perfectly that I remembered the character, not the actor. Isn’t that how it should be?

Oldman never ‘plays the same’ in any of his roles. Chameleon-like, he fits on the skin of the character, and becomes that character in every possible way. Unlike big name stars like Tom Cruise (sorry, Tom!) and Will Smith (ditto) whose acting talents, unfortunately, have become bogged down by their glamour and fame, Oldman glides effortlessly from one persona to another.

Each time he adopts a character, he creates a unique, never-before seen persona. Even his villains have many layers and facets to make them absolutely credible.

As a writer, do you do the same?

  • Are you recycling characters because it’s easier than getting under the skin of someone new?

  • Is your feisty heroine the same as all the previous feisty heroines you’ve written or read about?

  • Is your villain the same ‘Mwahahaha!’ mustache-twirling, evil-eye-glaring villain in all your books?

  • Is your strong-jawed uber-heroic hero a carbon copy of his predecessors?

  • Do you like certain scenes/elements/conflicts so much that you dust them off, change a few things, and then throw them into the plot?
Many actors and even more writers take the easy way out. How many times have you, as a reader, stopped reading a once favourite author because their writing is starting to sound the same? I know I have. How many actors do you find rehashing their one great opus magnum role, time after time?

See? It's Tom on the poster. Can't miss him.
Let’s take Tom Cruise as the best example (sorry Tom!). He is absolutely brilliant in many ways (actor, businessman, producer, strategist), but he keeps taking on roles that show the flashy glam side, with little or no substance e.g. Mission Impossible. I remember four movies that I felt were excellent, and although I knew it was Tom Cruise, he played the roles to perfection. Born on the Fourth of July, The Last Samurai, Valkyrie, and Tropic Thunder. The fact that I did not recognise Tom Cruise as the nasty producer (Tropic Thunder) until the credits rolled will always stick in my memory. However, those are the exceptions. (Okay, confession, I still enjoy watching all the Mission Impossibles…)

But I don’t want to ‘have to’ suspend my disbelief. I want to just tumble into the story unfolding in front of me, be it on the screen or on the page.

So, once again, do you put in the extra work to get to grips with each character and create someone new and fresh? Or do you rehash the old stuff?


Melanie B said...

Gary is one of those underrated actors that you remember seeing somewhere before but didn't recognize him, and the films you mentioned are only a handful of the many great characters he's played.

As for writing, I sometimes recycle characters, unless I get inspired by a spur of the moment idea. ;)

Fiona Ingram said...

I agree, Gary Oldman has played so many superb parts but too many to mention. The movies I listed are the most memorable ones for me. As for recycling characters, one also has to take into consideration archetypal characters, which also have recurring elements of their make-up. I mean authors who don't bother with much tweaking. I recently read a review of a prolific author's latest work (her 200th novel) in which the reviewer commented on exactly that but said loyal readers would probably 'give it a try.'