Gary Oldman On The Joys Of Playing “Flatulent Slob” Jackson Lamb In Apple TV+ Spy Drama ‘Slow Horses’

EXCLUSIVE: Gary Oldman has found “great joy” in playing the Falstaffian, flatulent-sharing, British espionage operative Jackson Lamb in Apple TV+’s Slow Horseswhich has just launched season two. Meanwhile, the Harry Potter star confirmed he will play Harry Truman in one scene in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.

Lank-haired Lamb plays the operative in charge of a host of lost causes exiled out of harms way to Slough House where they wind up defending the realm from harm.

Lamb looks shambolic in shabby raincoat, weather-proofed by beer stains and slops of Kung-pao chicken, and yet you can never underestimate him.

”I don’t know how nice Jackson is really,” he tells Deadline. “I think that rather than seeking a career in the spy world, the spy world finds you. And so he is loyal and has a very strong sort of moral compass and is in a very questionable career in terms of morality and ethics.”

“There’s a ruthlessness to him,” adds the actor of Lamb, who leapt from the pen of novelist Mick Herron.

Season two is based on Herron’s second Lamb story  Dead Lions, which finds Lamb and his motley crew investigating the curious death Dickie Bow, played by Phil Davis (Vera Drake, Trying).

Oldman believes that a comparison can be made to John le Carré’s George Smiley and the 64 year-old played the wily Smiley in director Tomas Alfredson’s Oscar-nominated Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was based on le Carré’s 1974 book of the same name.

“It’s that ruthlessness and it’s also perspicacious,” he adds. “You are always three or four chess moves ahead of the opponent. He has that sort of mind but outwardly his cover is being a sarcastic, bitter, flatulent slob. But I love the fact that he’s publicly offensive and that’s the great joy of playing him.”

A lot of the work had already been done for Oldman by Herron in balancing seriousness with dark humor, the Harry Potter actor adds, all he had to bring was “your own sensibility and skill to it.”

“But I don’t break a sweat playing Jackson,” says Oldman, while observing that there’s added fun in how  each member of Slough House “will react differently to my offensiveness, or my sarcasm or that acerbic wit that he has.

“It’s great to not give a f*ck,” he says.

Indeed, those interactions with the troop of Slow Horses point to the laser-like accuracy of Lamb’s lacerating comments. We care because both Lamb and his stragglers are so finely drawn by Oldman and his co-stars: Jack Lowden excelling as wannabe 007 River Cartwright, Sasikia Reeves capturing the delicate poignancy of office manager Catherine Standish, Rosiland Eleazar’s sizzling over-eager Louisa Guy and Christopher Chung nailing the exuberant nerdiness of cocky tech dude Roddy Ho. Oldman relishes his scenes with them.

And he sizzles, in a slovenly way, when Lamb goes into verbal combat with Kristin Scott Thomas’s sly Diana Taverner, the MI5 deputy director-general dubbed with the sobriquet, Lady Di.

Oldman and Scott Thomas have form of course, having worked together playing Winston and Clemmie Churchill in Darkest Hour, which won Oldman an Oscar.

Their jousts in Slow Horses are performed with comic skill. ”The thing you feel is that you’ve got something cooking,’ he says of working with Scott Thomas and their colleagues. “There’s not a poseur among them, they’re down to earth.”

Pipeline of tomes

One reason for Oldman’s optimism is the fact that there’s a pipeline of Herron’s tomes to pick from. “Mick’s ahead of us with the books so I know that we’re not going to get to season five and have a bunch of writers in a room scratching their heads going, ‘God what do we do now, where do we take these characters?’”

“We know the books are working, so now we’ve got to just make sure every time around that we cast well,” he says, and a third season has already been commissioned from a rare double series order.

Another advantage, Oldman says, is that “we’re not swapping directors every two episodes.”

That was a key decision that Oldman’s longtime manager Douglas Urbanski pushed for during negotiations with Iain Canning and his partners at producer See-Saw Films, and the powers that be at Apple TV+. James Hawes (Black Mirror) directed all six episodes of  Slow Horses launch season with Jeremy Lovering (Doctor Foster: A Woman Scorned) taking over the reins for season two.

“I see Slow Horses as like a six-hour movie rather than episodic TV show and the director decision was a very good one,” says Oldman. “It’s a lot of work for them. And the sheer size of the production is like manoeuvring an army.”

Oldman recognizes that it was a tougher task for Hawes “because he really is establishing the world.”

“It’s like how everybody remembers David Yates [director of four Potter films starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix] and Alfonso Cuarón [Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban] but they forget that Harry Potter and that film world was put together by Chris Columbus and all they did was just come in and cook in the kitchen,” he says.

“But Chris built the kitchen. Getting the machine on the rails was a bigger job, I think, for James than for Jeremy because we were cooking and we had the machine working.”

And Oldman himself brings decades of “cooking” experience with the heat turned up. “I know I said that I don’t break a sweat playing Lamb but what you’re watching is 42 years of doing it,” he explains. “I’ve always said that when you’re working too hard for something – if the dialogue’s not good or the script isn’t good – you break a sweat and you go, ‘I’m working way too hard for this show.’” 

He likens himself to a rider adept at following signposts. “It’s like an emotional map and you follow it and if the rider has good instincts then he gets to where he’s going,” he says.

The cast is packed with thespians with good instincts. 

Mention Jonathan Pryce, who plays David Cartwright, an old intelligence warrior and grandfather of Jack Lowden’s River Cartwright, and immediately we’re recalling Pryce’s landmark Hamlet directed by Richard Eyre at London’s Royal Court Theatre four decades ago.

Oldman has little involvement in casting though ”occasionally” he’ll hear about someone the production’s after. 

“When Kristin’s name came up for Diana I just said: ‘That’s a fantastic idea’,” he says.

The same with Sam West who plays the venal, right-wing politician Peter Judd. “Sam’s a lovely man. I worked with him on Darkest Hour for the first time and then when his name was in the mix I was like, ‘Oh, I hope it works out.’ And he’s captured him very well.”

“Your mind is sort of like a Rolodex of the actors you’ve worked with but if a director has an interesting idea, you can’t always dismiss it out of hand,” adds Oldman.

He loves watching a good performance and then sharing that with others not necessarily in the business and, compared to the insecurity of his early years, tends not to second guess himself too much these days.

”Yet I can still finish a day’s work and worry whether I got it or whether it was any good. You’ve got to hone your craft and keep honing it until it becomes sort of second nature.”

That desire for perfection gets noticed, not just by audiences, producers and filmmakers, but by other actors, too.

The likes of Succession’s Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt when he was making Fight Club with David Fincher and Leonardo Di Caprio have all cited Oldman as an influence.

So too has Daniel Radcliffe who performed opposite Oldman when he played Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius Black. Tom Felton who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films has spoken of looking on enviously as Oldman and Radcliffe would sit in their canvas chairs having a lark and discussing the finer points of thespian arts. “I didn’t have scenes with the other kids, really,” Oldman explains.

“All the kids were great, so impressive. I just had a sort of connection with Daniel because of the nature of our relationship in the story.”

He laughed as he recalled Felton thinking that the first time he spotted Oldman on set he was the cleaner.

“I was walking in the Great Hall and he looked at the floor and went, ’Yeah, good job mate,’” Oldman says chuckling.

The actor lifts his head up for a moment and talks of conversations he had on the Harry Potter set with Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith and others. ”You’re sitting there smoking and talking and the kids would be there and after a while you’d forget they were there so you’d line up another cigarette and someone would tell another story about Larry Olivier and so on. Now you’d think, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ But they were sitting there drinking it all in. It’s quite nice being the old guard.”

Passing the baton to the next generation “is a big thing” he adds. “John Hurt always said ’We’re just links in a chain and we keep passing it on.’ You know what I mean? Now I’m one of the oldest people in the cast [of Slow Horses].”

How does that feel? “Well, I don’t feel the oldest,” he says. “I’m still 21 in my head and enjoy being silly and then these people say ‘Oh I remember I saw you in that when I was a little kid.’ The last bit hits you.”

“But careers taper off and the roles that you get offered, if any, are very intermittent, so I feel really privileged and lucky enough to have landed Jackson.

Playing Truman

Other roles pop up here and there. Oldman did a one day stint with Christopher Nolan on Oppenheimer portraying President Harry Truman. “Oh, that’s out there is it?,” he remarks, before saying it was a tricky part to perform because he wasn’t allowed to cut his hair as Slow Horses season three was soon entering production.

For Truman, Oldman had his tresses pushed under a wig. “They shaved the beard off because we knew that would grow back quickly,” he explains.

One of Deadline’s meetings with Oldman was over at the British Film Institute’s theater complex on London’s Southbank for a 25th anniversary screening of Nil by Mouth, which Oldman wrote and directed. The pic remains a soaring achievement for Oldman. His ear for dialogue and interactions of white, working-class South Londoners rings as true now as it did then and Oldman was raised in that neck of the woods.

Back in the day I covered court cases involving the kind of characters littered throughout the film. The petty drug dealers; the violent crooks who beat their wives and girlfriends and Ray Winston, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Steve Sweeney and Jamie Foreman crawl right under the skin of their characters. Burke won the best actress prize at the 1997 edition of the Cannes Film Festival and the following year it won the BAFTA for Best British Film, with Oldman collecting a trophy for Original Screenplay.

“It’s better than I remembered it,” he told us after the screening of a print that had been beautifully restored by the BFI with involvement from Oldman and Douglas Urbanski.

During a Q&A before the BFI screening, Oldman made a comment about directors being pigs, which he said, months later, was taken out of context. “I was talking about theater directors, not so much movie directors,” he says, though he admits to having taken a dig at Oliver Stone for whom he portrayed Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. “He’s just tough,” Oldman reasons about Stone.

“He’s committed and passionate so it’s inspiring,” he says. “We’re all quirky, you’ve got to be. You’re in a tough position as a director because not only do you have the sheer mechanics of making a film just coming at you every day but you also have to handle all the people. There are actors that need more attention and actors that need less attention. I’d call it benign dictatorship. And occasionally directors stamp their feet.”

Questioned on whether this is the reason he hasn’t been in a hurry to return to the stage after early successes at London’s Royal Court Theatre, some with his then wife Lesley Manville, Oldman says “no, not really.”

“I did my time doing it and maybe I’ll do it again, maybe I won’t,” he adds, screwing up his face at the memory of appearing in the West End in Robert David Macdonald’s play Summit Conference in 1982 opposite Glenda Jackson. “I did my one six month thing in the West End and I wanted to blow my brains out. It was eight shows a week for six months. I think about it and I say I really want to do it, and then I think maybe not.”

In any case, Oldman feels that he’s working with a sort of repertory company of actors with his beloved Slow Horses cast.

“It’s such a joy to come in and work with these people,” he concludes with genuine affection.

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