Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything), had its New York premiere Wednesday night at the Paris Theatre in Manhattan. Darkest Hour features Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman (Harry Potter, Dark Knight, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Winston Churchill, Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings and a Funeral, The English Patient, The Seagull) as his wife Clementine, Ben Mendlesohn (Bloodline, Dark Knight, Rogue One) as King George VI, and Lily James (Baby Driver, Downton Abbey, Cinderella) as Churchill’s personal secretary Elizabeth Layton. The film unfolds in the thick of the tensions brewing in Europe during the 1940s as Hitler becomes more formidable. In these early days of the WWII era, most of Western Europe depended on the decisions of a single man – Winston himself. On the red carpet before the premiere, we got to talk to a few of the stars.
LISA BRUCE – Producer
Q: What was your initial reaction when you first heard about the project? Did you say yes right away?
A: It took a minute because I was thinking, hmm, a movie about WC…But what was so interesting is Anthony McCarten, the writer, the way he focused it. I did Theory of Everything with him and he’s really great in framing a story in a very specific period, so it’s really only a three-and-a-half week period. It’s this unknown history that no one knows about, particularly that [Churchill] had to go up against his own Parliament to not sign a peace treaty with Hitler. I don’t think anyone knows about that.
ANTHONY MCCARTEN – Screenwriter
Q: Winston Churchill is someone who has been documented and portrayed a number of times. What is different about your Winston Churchill?
A: I wanted to present Winston the writer. My thesis was the proposition, at the center of this story, that words can change the world. So, I wanted to show him writing and delivering three of the greatest speeches ever written. Also, in the portraits of Winston we have, I don’t think anyone has really captured his humor. He’s presented as a real grinch, like a guy born in a bad mood, who just smokes and drinks brandy. So I wanted to get his humor, I wanted to get his romanticism, explore that and the relationship with his wife, which was a real love affair. And then thirdly I wanted to show that he was capable of being uncertain and full of doubts. I found that very human. And that’s not the image that Winston’s been given. The classic image is the guy who never doubted himself, but I never trusted that. It’s inhuman.
Q: How did you take on the task of figuring out who Winston was in his private moments, the ones that there is no proof of?
A: It’s stunning. It’s a little bit arrogant, but that’s what we have to do as writers. We have to assume the language, the vocabulary, the style, imagine what the emotions are, do research into the letters to see how they expressed themselves, and then it’s almost an act of ventriloquism, you’re speaking for them. And you’re hoping you get it right. The only way to make sure is to do as much research as you can. But what I’m really delighted with is that the entire Churchill families, some of whom knew him when they were very young, one of his grandsons saw the movie and went, ‘You got him. You got my grandfather.’
BEN MENDELSOHN – King George VI
Q: You’ve worked with Gary [Oldman] before. Did you enjoy working with him again?
A: I did, I loved it. It’s an honor.
Q: When portraying a historical figure, there’s less room for an actor to add his own artistic influence, but inevitably, you make the King yours. How do you do this?
A: It’s an extra level of responsibility, and that bit of making it your own I think actually just happens after the fact. I don’t think it’s something you’ve got to set out to do, but as soon as you do it, because you’ve got your own whatevers, then it becomes your own. So first you have to think about going in, I think.
Q: Were you all-in when you first got offered the role?
A: Oh, yeah. As soon as I read it.
Q: What was perfecting the accent like?
A: It took a long time. I don’t sound like him – I don’t sound like him at all. We do it everyday, an hour here, an hour there, just working on the accents.
GARY OLDMAN – Winston Churchill
Q: What did you learn about yourself in doing this film?
A: Stamina. I did 48 days straight in that makeup. My average day, from the time I got in, and worked, and took it off, and got home, and had dinner, was 18 hours. And I’m driving the movie. Stamina. I had the stamina to do it. And I’m not a young man.
Q: I read that you spent a total of 200 hours in that makeup chair over the course of the filming process. When you looked in the mirror and saw yourself as Winston, did you feel more believable to yourself? Do you think it added to your performance?
A: Yes. What you do is, you forget. You forget after a while. And occasionally, I would walk down the hall and pass a mural, and then like look in the mirror and just go oh! Because you get so used to it. That’s the great thing about it. It looks like a lot. And it is – it’s hot. But you do forget. It’s not a distraction. I had to pinch myself sometimes and say, oh, it’s Winston Churchill.
The film hits theaters on November 22.