In Darkest Hour (now playing), newly minted Golden Globe-nominee Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in the early days of being Prime Minister. He has to deal with the looming threat of Britain's involvement in World War II, and a parliament who is unsure of his abilities to lead. And a hugely important part of Churchill's ascension in Darkest Hour, is his relationship with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). It's George who begrudgingly hands him the title of Prime Minister and it's through their relationship that the other learns new ways to lead. It's a pivotal part of the story of Darkest Hour and one that develops in intriguing ways. Plus watching actors as excellent as Oldman and Mendelsohn play opposite one another is terrific fun.
When we asked what Mendelsohn did to prepare for the role, he said that he watched a lot of newsreels. It was in those newsreels, he told us, that "you can see and hear George." He also worked with a "wonderful voice teacher," to perfect George's speech patterns, which were once hindered by a crippling stutter. (Darkest Hour is set during a period when he had gotten it mostly under control.)
Even though Mendelsohn is an Australian actor, he was able to nail the royal role flawlessly. This is something that he took very seriously. "There's a sense of responsibility about it," Mendelsohn explained. "I'm an Australian. So coming from Australia to England to play a royal, you don't want to half step."
Of course, the sequences where Mendelsohn plays against Oldman are pure fireworks, bristling with raw talent, finely honed craft, and keen observation. We asked what it was like when he first saw Oldman as Churchill. "It was pretty remarkable. I tried to look for where the work was and it's really, really hard to see," Mendelsohn said. "One of the first scenes we did was when he was walking up the corridor to become Prime Minister. And it was one of those things where you phase. It was like the old magic eye trick – where you look at something and then you see something else. But that was what it was like."
Of course, all of these vivid recreations were under the watchful eye of director Joe Wright. An unparalleled filmmaker, who has made almost all of his movies for Focus Features, Wright directs Darkest Hour with his singular flair, creating rich moments of human drama within the dramatized historical events. It was the first time the director and actor had worked together, and the experience sounded grand. " Joe is a lovely guy. He's a lovely guy to work for and with. He gave me a lot of space, so I was able to pull stuff apart and we had discussions about pieces here and there," Mendelsohn explained. "There are few people with as rich a sense of texture and color and light. He's amazing with that stuff. His films feel very lush and tactile." That they do. And Darkest Hour is no different.