GARY OLDMAN: Acting On Instinct-and Outrage

By Paul Freeman [1994 interview. Since we chatted with Oldman, who was promoting “Romeo Is Bleeding,” he has gone on to etch memorable characters in such films as “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “The Dark Night” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”]

Most people perusing the "Romeo Is Bleeding" screenplay would find the protagonist, Jack Grimaldi, repugnant. This is a cop who sells out his fellow officers on a regular basis. This is a man who is in love with his wife, but cheats on her at every available opportunity.

To British actor Gary Oldman, who has memorably portrayed punk-rocker Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula and the dreadlocked, psychopathic drug dealer of "True Romance," Grimaldi displays redeeming features.

"I see it as sort of a tragic love story," says Oldman. "The most wonderful thing in his life, his wife, is right under his nose, staring him in the face. When I read the script, I so desperately wanted him to get with the program. And he didn't. He learns too late. I think we've all experienced it-`I should have done that. I could have done that. And I didn't. Now look where I am.' "

Oldman didn't want Grimaldi's sordid existence to cancel out audience sympathy. "He's greedy and selfish. So I had to invest him with a bit of a twinkle in the eye to pull it off."

Grimaldi is trapped in a nightmare of his own making. He's been selling information concerning the Witness Protection Program to a mob boss (Roy Scheider). Unbeknownst to Grimaldi's neglected wife (Annabella Sciorra) and his naive mistress (Juliette Lewis), he is accumulating a large amount of cash, which he buries in his back yard.

Grimaldi seems poised to fulfill his shallow dreams until Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), a maniacal, wildly sexual hit woman, crashes into his life. Does she plan to seduce him, kill him or both? Whatever her plan is, it's sure to wreak havoc. Grimaldi knows she's bad news. But he quickly becomes addicted to her.

Oldman reveals that, when first scanning a script, it's often a single line that hooks him. "I read the line, `I crossed oceans of time to find you,' and I wanted to play Dracula. In `Romeo Is Bleeding,' I loved the line, `You know the thing about love? You don't own it. It owns you.' That's why I wanted to play Jack.

"When you fall in love, you lose all reason," the actor says. "Shakespeare's written how many plays about that? You lose control. We all want to be in control. We don't want to be manipulated."

Oldman saw the project as a long-awaited opportunity to team up with director Peter Medak ("The Ruling Class"). He believed that Medak could bring just the right elements to the film, making it unorthodox, outrageous and laced with dark humor.

"I see this as a very different look at a very familiar genre," Oldman says. "We've all seen the cop in crisis before. But this is almost like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch in style. It's got something askew."

Medak says that on the set, Oldman was able to snap into character in an instant. "Once you do the initial homework," Oldman explains, "you have it there. You don't have to go spend 20 minutes meditating in a dark room or repeating, `My dog is dead. My dog is dead.' Once you've got it, you've got it. When the camera's pointing at you and the green light goes on, you can't say, `Oh, wait! I'm not ready yet!'

"I've worked with Dennis Hopper, Sean Penn, Ed Harris, some really amazing actors. And they don't work any differently from the way I do. It's what I call do-it-in-your-bedroom acting. I came up with Dracula in my bedroom."

Oldman is a quick study. "I read a script once and know immediately if I want to do it. Then I'll probably read it one more time and then I know it. I don't study a lot. If I did, it would become stale.

"I tend to just show up and see what comes out of my mouth," he explains. "As long as you're always conscious of the objective of the scene and don't break away from that framework, you're all right. Your script is your map. If you stray too far from the material, you're not going to find your way."

Acting doesn't receive reverential treatment from Oldman. "I'm very disrespectful of it, I suppose. I don't really see it as a craft. It's just something that I do. I've never studied it. I've never read Stanislavsky. Actually, I read six pages once and got so bored. I thought, `That's what I sort of do instinctively.' I have a very strange, tempestuous marriage to acting."

Medak was especially impressed with Oldman's work in an emotional scene in which Grimaldi breaks into tears. "Peter's such a romantic. I resisted the tears," Oldman says. "He would say, `No, I love them!' I said, `Listen, if the people in this movie could cry, their lives wouldn't be so screwed up!' "