The working-class streets and pubs of south London are a far
cry from the soundstages he inhabits as a major Hollywood player.
This is not Hollywood studio territory, yet Gary Oldman has
managed to take something from these experiences into his new
found love: film making. "I guess I've been disillusioned
about acting for years, and now I have found something to fill a
creative void. Having made some 20 films as an actor, I've at
least been able to pick how NOT to do it."
There was a time, at the genesis of his film career, that
Oldman regarded acting as therapeutic: a means to exorcise his
inner demons. Those particular demons may well have been flushed
by now, but the brutally honest Nil by Mouth implies there may be
some new demons waiting in the wings for the writer/director.
"I'd be lying to you if I seriously thought that Nil by
Mouth was in any way cathartic." Rather, he insists, the
film comes out of "a burning desire to go back to London and
tell that story there."
"I always said that
this film was for me and a bunch of friends"
Oldman adds that "a lot of the emotion in the film is a
well from which I had been drawing and channelling into acting,
for a long time."
Oldman's searing south London tale centres
around the abusive Raymond (Ray Winstone), and the people who
orbit around him. He spends his days hanging out with friends at
pubs and girlie bars, and returns home to his five year old
daughter and pregnant wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke), who he abuses
in drunken rages. Raymond also demonstrates his violent
tendencies (and paranoid delusions) when he accuses Valerie's
brother, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), of stealing. Raymond
proceeds to beat (and bite) him to a bloody wreck. But these are
the least of Billy's problems. Billy is a heroin addict on the
downturn, and it doesn't seem that he'll last much longer.
Billyís mother, Janet (Laila Morse), is Raymond's nemesis.
She disapproves of him (and visa versa), but is powerless to do
anything about it. She merely struggles on, hoping her children
will survive their respective torments.
Oldman was forced to finance Nil by Mouth himself, taking out
sizeable personal loans in order to bankroll the movie's $US2m
budget. "I'm still paying the debt off and it bankrupted me.
I'm not likely to see any of it." Yet none of that concerns
him. "I wanted to make this film, and do it my way. I wanted
to make it as real and uncompromising as I possibly could, and
with as much honesty as I possibly could. For the most part, I
achieved it. I always said that this film was for me and a bunch
of friends, and that if it sat on a shelf without a distributor,
I would dust it off once every couple of years and show it to a
bunch of mates."
But the film HAS received distribution as well as prizes: from
Kathy Burke's Cannes Best Actress award, to the director's prize
at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and the BAFTA Awards for best
British film and best screenplay. "Here is a personal movie,
and we were taking a gamble, perhaps on a losing ticket; but who
gives a fuck. I did it anyway. Then, for the film to have
received that kind of recognition and critical acclaim - it truly
"I was the
working-class kid who got too big for his boots and fucked
Oldman made a conscious decision to set and shoot Nil by Mouth
in the environs of his poverty-stricken youth. Although he did
not leave in the best of circumstances, his homecoming, close to
20 years later, was somewhat different to his expectations.
"You tend to have a relationship with the tabloids and not
the actual place. And when you come under the tabloidís
hammer, you think that they speak for the nation, who is against
you. Therefore, you build up big demons and think: oh, that awful
place. When I left, they weren't making movies there, so I moved
where they were. But to the press, I was the
working-class kid who got too big for his boots and fucked off.
And they didn't like that. So I got a rough ride. But I had such
a wonderful time going back. I thought: what was all the fuss
Though not conceding the film to be autobiographical, Oldman
says he based it "on life. I guess, that's what I draw on.
It's all based on experience. It's true, that at times in the
past, I've done my fair share of bouncing off the walls and
bashing my head against them."
"it subsidises and
always has subsidised what I want to do."
That can be equally applied to his recent professional career,
as well as his much reported days battling alcoholism and failed
Oldman admits he wanted to make this film as a result of
creative frustration, not only from his Hollywood roles, but from
his days in the theatre. (Although he hasnít done a play in
fifteen years, nor does he have the desire to go back on stage.)
"Yeah, it was born from a dissatisfaction at the movies,
where the audiences' ride has been made so much easier. They come
in and start from a dishonest place. So you just go: I just don't
believe it. People don't talk like that, life isn't LIKE that;
it's not all chocolate boxes wrapped up and handed to you.
There's no CONCLUSION, and that's why I get frustrated."
Ironically, it can be argued, given the recent spate of films
in which he's appeared, that as an actor, Oldman has contributed
to this mindset. "Oh yeah, but I know why I'm doing
it," he responds laughingly. "I have no illusions about
that." And adds that "it subsidises and always has
subsidised what I want to do." Yet at the same time, Oldman
has no regrets about his acting choices. "You grow up in a
time - in the seventies - as an acting student. I'm watching
movies like The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon and
Serpico. Now Iím old enough to do this, it's: 'let's blow
'em up again Harry'. When people say to me that Iím wasting
my talent, I ask them to name me a part that I didn't do that I
SHOULD have done, ANYWHERE?"
"I don't get offered
Yet it's his Hollywood career that has enabled him to get Nil
by Mouth off the ground. As well as his next film. Although he
now wants to do fewer blockbusters, he adds: "that's all
I'll do, because they pay better." He would also like to
shake off the mantle of playing villains. "I don't get
offered many comedies [come to think of it, I get offered none],
but if people look closely at Dracula, ANYONE who can come up
with that sort of outrageous performance could do comedy.
Unfortunately, you're only known for what you do, and lately I'm
Mr Bad Guy. That's how Iím perceived."
Oldman is currently writing his next project, which will be
set in New York "where I lived for years. It's about
addictions. In particular, it's about the biggest opiate of all:
sex." At last, after years of dissatisfaction, it seems that
for Gary Oldman, the world is a better and more culturally
interesting place in which to live.
NIL BY MOUTH OPENS ON MAY 21, 1998
This article also appeared in Sunday
Telegraph, May 17, 1998