Gary Oldman Is Gross And Loving It
2:47 PM EST on December 8, 2023
You don’t have to see him to know he’s there—you can smell him. Even through the screen. The opening of the third season of Slow Horses has Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), only his shoes visible, supine on a pristine couch in a high-end clinic. A wincing fart emerges from his general direction and one of the other besuited patients in the waiting room is unsettled enough to go up to the receptionist to complain (incorrectly identifying the head of a group of MI5 cast-outs as a “homeless man”). If you know Lamb, though—and this callback to his post-credit introduction in the first season, in his fast-food-and-fag-strewn office, awoken by his own flatulence, should remind you—he doesn’t even have to release the voluble gas he does (“It’s my colon: terminal”) for you to know how he smells. And how much Oldman is enjoying this.
Lamb is disgusting. There’s no other way of putting it. He looks like he reeks in a way that only very vintage refuse reeks. Like he is layer upon layer upon layer of unwashed. His hair is stringy with grease, his skin is plastered in broken blood vessels (no doubt the two to three bottles of whiskey per week), his discolored, damp-looking clothes, themselves worn and re-worn and re-worn, wilt upon his slovenly bulk. At one point in the latest season, in his grungy vest, he hits the office toilet to wash his armpits—there is no soap, so he grabs the dish soap, there is no dish soap—before putting his filthy clothes back on again. This man appears to only wash piecemeal, so he may as well not wash at all. And he eats like a pig. When his doctor says his blood test is clean despite the bad diet, the lack of exercise, and everything else, he is as shocked as we are. “I’ve got fucking hemorrhoids that are more fucking use than you,” he bollocks two of the spies he employs in Slough House, his ramshackle and aptly named headquarters (the moldy old building seems one with Lamb). And you would be more disgusted if he weren’t right. Lamb is fucking rank, but his mind, well, that is as smooth and slick as a GQ cover model.
Slow Horses debuted last year on Apple TV+ and is based on Mick Herron’s spy novels. It is adapted for the screen largely by regular Armando Iannucci collaborator Will Smith, with each season directed entirely by one filmmaker (not to mention the ace, loping theme song performed by Mick Jagger). The latest installment is deftly handled by Scottish filmmaker Saul Metzstein and is probably my favorite so far—it starts with a chase and it doesn’t stop, the Slow Horses running faster than ever, with Lamb stinky but stolid at their core. Oldman was the first to be cast, and it’s not surprising. Lamb’s heart is perhaps atherosclerotic, but it provides the show’s beat.
In his books, Herron describes Lamb as a “gone to seed” Timothy Spall (you know him) “with worse teeth.” Costume designer Guy Speranza recalled in an interview earlier this month that the source material also suggested Lamb should look “like he’s been dragged through a charity shop backwards.” He used oil splatter, cigarette burns, and sandpaper to age his clothing (and, yes, the trench coat is a sly nod to Columbo). In The Wrap, Oldman remembered how Speranza, who has worked on a number of the actor’s projects going back to the Harry Potter series, would call him up to say, “So what do you think? Same tie. Same suit. Yeah, a bit of grease. Same shoes.” As Oldman himself put it, “I just really come in, they grease me up as it were, and make you look suitably debauched, and I don’t have costume changes. I was ready.” This is what gives Lamb not just his lived-in quality, but his malodorous wake. “He’s not a clean person, by any stretch of the imagination. He lives in his suit. He sleeps in it, drinks in it, does everything in it,” Speranza explained. “Lots of people have commented that they can smell him on the television, which is, I think, rather a compliment.”
Look, we all know beauty is subjective, but I am always tickled by actors—people whose careers often depend on how attractive they are—who seem intent on transcending their pretty-boy looks. You could FEEL both Johnny Depp and Tom Hardy careening towards middle age like their buoyant youthful glow was some albatross that we should feel a measure of compassion for. Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman occupied a different space, though. Both men are inarguably handsome, but often, because they are both so respected as actors, it seems strange to dwell on it. Yes, like a lot of British men, Oldman has very very thin lips. But he also has these eyes that are ... well, they are the kind of eyes that undress. He’s got those cheekbones, that dainty nose. He is quite a delicate looking man. And maybe that’s in part why he is so hell bent on covering himself up—if beauty is only skin deep, is ugliness not the opposite?
While Lamb is no doubt the grossest Oldman has ever appeared on screen, from the jump he was eager to repulse. One of his first film roles was as the Sex Pistols’ infamously pock-marked, blood-spattered, drug-addicted bassist Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy. Cox initially wanted, of all people, Day-Lewis for the role, but then saw the young pompadoured Oldman on stage. Despite not being into punk and having to be convinced to do it, Oldman committed so hard to his emaciation that his diet of “steamed fish and lots of melon” landed him briefly in hospital, according to Cox. My favorite of Oldman’s disgusting transformations, however, came seven years later, for a fairly brief appearance in True Romance as scarred, milky-eyed, gold-toothed, dreadlocked, “Jamaican” accented pimp Drexl (“On that TV there, since you been in the room, is a woman with her breasteses hangin’ out, and you ain’t even bothered to look”). Oldman agreed to the role the second director Tony Scott summed up the character as “a white guy who thinks he’s black.” But Drexl’s physical appearance seems to have been entirely his choice—Oldman borrowed the wigmaker from Dracula (he had played the titular character in Francis Ford Coppola’s film a year prior) to make the dreads and also nabbed an eye from the same set. The gold teeth came from a New York dentist.
“I am partial to a disguise,” Oldman has said. “I like to hide.” But it doesn’t always take much. Sometimes he just needs a little Van Dyke here (for Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series), a substantial mustache there (for Commissioner Gordon in the Batmans), or maybe even just some statement glasses (as another more famous spy, George Smiley, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). His most time-consuming metamorphosis was for Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour in 2017, which required four hours a day of fittings, included a prosthetic silicone mask, and a foam bodysuit (his Harry Truman in Oppenheimer shared some physical similarities, but that didn’t seem to be nearly as involved). Though all of this makeup-chair stuff may seem grueling, Oldman has been open about the fact that playing the lead in David Fincher’s Mank was one of his more challenging roles precisely because of how little he was able to obscure himself. “I like a disguise because of my own insecurity. When I can hide, it makes me feel more comfortable. I don’t know, maybe it comes back to not feeling worthy,” Oldman said in The Hollywood Reporter’s actor roundtable two years ago. “I’m coming up to 24 years of sobriety in March, but I remember all the things that made me want to drink, you know? So when David [Fincher] said, ‘I want you as naked as you’ve ever been, I do not want a veil between you and the audience,’ it played into my insecurities.”
It would seem more sensical for farting and swearing and being generally repellent to be less likely to leave you feeling secure on screen, but for an actor who feels unworthy, Lamb’s unapologetic grotesqueness offers something of an antidote to that vulnerability. As Oldman told Deadline: “He’s not such a foul-mouthed flatulent oaf that he presents to the world. He’s more often than not the smartest man in the room.”