A portrait that was an opportunity of a lifetime, as he puts it. The actor spent more than 200 hours in the makeup chair to become the iconic British politician Winston Churchill, and at the film’s end had carried around half of his body weight with the prosthetics that added 10 pounds each day.
An admirer of Don Quixote, he confesses his passion for the Spanish culture and not just that, two of his sons are bilingual in Spanish and English
Question: You’re getting great marks for this film. Could you tell you were onto something good?
Answer: Yeah, yeah. There’s so much of it that is beyond your reach, out of your control. Yeah, you can hopefully be doing the best you can do at the time in the given circumstances, and it really depends what the vision of the director is, how he puts it together, what takes he uses, how he cuts it, the rhythm. Within the performance you can engineer it to a point. I’ve been in things where I thought the end result would have been better than it ended up. So you never really know. With this one, I at least knew that Joe Wright, we had a good story to tell.
Q: So many actors have played Churchill, and he’s a larger-than-life figure. Was there any hesitation about taking him on?
A: Well, in the taking on of a part like this, he is arguably the greatest Briton who ever lived. Many people believe that. And he is such an iconic figure, not only in what he achieved and he wrote, but also in the way he looked, and as you say, there are many great people who have walked in those shoes. So yeah, there’re dragons that you have to slay before you commit to it.
In some respects I’ve been there before. Because when we did “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” I was asked to take on George Smiley — forever the image of George Smiley is the wonderful Sir Alec Guinness. That was another one. You were walking on very dangerous ground (laughs). But in that, in saying yes to it, you don’t want to be influenced by those other actors, so all of that really got pushed to one side and I just focused on my Churchill, my interpretation of the man. As I read about him and I watched some of this old newsreel footage, I realized this was not a man who was a tired, drunken 65-year-old, but a 65-year-old who was dynamic and had energy and had a real lust for life and a sparkle in his eye.
Q: What does it mean for you to win, finally, an Oscar?
A: Winning an Oscar for this role has a special meaning because I have done it interpreting who can be one of the best prime ministers that England has had in its history. Winning to play Winston makes it doubly special. Doing it in this company of actors has been an unforgettable experience, one of the best in my career.
Q: You are one of the actors most admired by the new generations
A: One of the lessons I learned when I went to the movies when I was young, and I admired; Peter O'Toole, Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness, my heroes, is that we are all links in a chain. Timothee Chalamet is a charming child with immense talent to whom I told him tonight not to worry because we will see him nominated again. This is my last chance, but he has many ahead
Q: You are such a talented actor, are you good with foreing languages?
A: I am triying to learn some Spanish, and I’m picking things here and there but have a thick accent, because you need to learn languages young! My kids speak Spanish perfectly. I’ve being many times in Spain, love it
Q: Any Spanish author that you like
A: Don Quixote is one of my favorite characters of all times. I identify more with the characters than the writers, and Don Quixote is one of the best characters ever written
Q: Churchill was a great writer, and it’s fun to see how that process works — him thinking and speaking and his secretary writing it all down.
A: That’s how he did it and indeed many of the books (he wrote) he would dictate. Then they would go type it all up, then he would look at it and rewrite. Then he would dictate more. He would do it like that.
Q: If Winston Churchill were alive today, what advice do you think he would give to the leaders of the world?
A: My God, I think I would give them a good talk. He was a great believer in the value of history, he studied and learned from history, but we no longer teach history. No one knows anything, nor do the students of today's university know who Winston Churchill really was. We have no idea of ??our history.
Q: He was a busy man.
A: It’s amazing that he ever had the time, if you think of not only was he writing his own speeches, not only was he fighting, trying to save Western Civilization, but he then had to deal with all the domestic policy, as well. It’s very interesting to see documents from the period during the war, like domestic documents where he was dealing with running a country and fighting Hitler at the same time. And as we see from the film early on, not only was he up against Hitler, he was up against his own cabinet.
Q: Yes, he appointed enemies because he knew he needed them, somewhat like Lincoln.
A: Absolutely. I think that’s why, even early on, we see (Secretary of War) Anthony Eden asking him who he wants in the war cabinet. He doesn’t go for yes-men. He puts the opposition at the table with him (laughs). He didn’t want to be yessed. He wants debate. Even though with Hitler, he got Hitler’s number very early on and understood what he represented. That’s certainly a mission he never wavered from.
Q: You don’t see that kind of political compromise anymore.
A: It was a different time. I don’t know, they were all physically so much further away. It all seems to be much closer today. Then they didn’t have the firepower they have now. I can’t imagine what it’s like sitting behind that big desk in this world today. I mean, who would want these jobs? These men put themselves there. If you’re the prime minister during 1940, or even today, if you’re the president, I mean my god, every morning they wake you up and they say, “We’ve got some bad news for you.” And an hour goes by and they say, “We’ve got even more bad news.” And then after lunch it’s even more bad news. I can’t imagine what it’s like.
Q: He says up front he may not last long in the job, and it seems almost freeing.
A: Yeah, but he voiced this from the early ’30s. That was one of the advantages he had. He had been researching his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, writing this biography, and just happened to go to Germany to visit the battle sites for his research. He happened to be in Munich in 1932 and saw a lot of this going down first-hand, and came back to Parliament as a backbencher and raised a red flag on this. At the time he was dismissed as a kind of warmonger and a scare-monger. Another war was inconceivable. That’s why there was very little recourse. There was no preparation. We have a very small army. We didn’t have a lot of money. We had not taken Winston’s words to heart and re-armed, and suddenly we were met with this overpowering force, which was Nazi Germany.
Q: You’ve played such eclectic characters. How do you decide what you’re going to do?
A: I think one is still very much at the mercy of what the industry is making. You’re at the mercy of the imagination of the directors that are casting you, how they see you. Having been on the other side, and having to go through that process of casting, often it’s not about not liking the actor or their talent. You’re looking for a very specific type, or you’re looking to cast a family, so you need a husband and brother-in-law and a sister. You’re looking for something very, very specific. A lot of the things I have done I have not chased, and they have come in across the desk. It’s the same with Winston. He chased me. Winston chased me, yeah
Q: The response to the sexual misconduct allegations that have overwhelmed Hollywood marks an “evolutionary” moment
A: Yes, and I made a conscious decision decades ago not to work with Harvey Weinstein. When the curtain came down on Harvey, I was flabbergasted and shocked. Fortunately he was never in my orbit. We met in 92. He gave me the creeps and I said ‘Let’s not work with that guy,’ and I never did. I am glad for the Time Up movement because a wheel is turning. It’s turning a notch in the evolutionary wheel. We’re still coming out of the mists of time.