Gary Oldman, an expert in transforming himself on screen, makes a comeback as a shady spy in Slow Horses.


There are unpleasant bosses, and then there is Jackson Lamb: unkempt, foul-smelling, demoralizing, and somewhat unethical. However, for fans of Slow Horses, the Apple TV+ show adapted from Mick Herron’s spy novels, this character consistently exudes a captivating, hardened aura. Similar to a leftover doner kebab.

Gary Oldman expertly portrays Lamb, a lackluster intelligence agency leader who has been inexplicably put in charge of a group of retired and obsolete spies.

Under the guidance of Oldman, Lamb bears the weight not only of his own shortcomings but also those of the audience as a whole. He indulges in alcohol, profanity, flatulence, and sabotaging his employees. For Lamb, every morning is clouded with negativity and every joke contains a somber reality, crafted by showrunner Will Smith, previously of The Thick of It and Veep.

Oldman has gained a devoted following through his role, although it has not yet reached the level of recognition he received for portraying Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies. His portrayal of Lamb allowed him to tap into his extensive career of unconventional and often disturbing performances. In 1988, he played a soccer hooligan in Alan Clarke’s TV film The Firm and portrayed playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears. He also took on the roles of punk musician Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, infamous assassin in Oliver Stone’s JFK, and Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film.

Over the years, Oldman has established a respected presence in Hollywood, reprising his role as Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and undergoing a nearly unrecognizable transformation as President Truman in the director’s most recent film, Oppenheimer.

However, Oldman has received the highest recognition in the entertainment industry for his performances as two vastly different British characters. He portrayed George Smiley, a meticulous intelligence leader in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and then took on the role of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. The former earned him an Oscar nomination, while the latter won him the coveted award. In addition, he received a third nomination two years ago for his portrayal of the titular character in Mank, David Fincher’s tribute to a bygone era of American cinema.

Gary Oldman, dishevled in an overcoat and tie, with greasy long hair, walks in a park eating an ice-cream cone

Every actor regularly changes shape to some extent, with the aid of costumes and props, but for Oldman this holds a special appeal. “I do love a disguise,” he admitted to Hollywood news website Deadline while he was in England filming an earlier season of Slow Horses. He had found it challenging, he went on, to divest himself of fake trappings for Fincher on the set of Mank. “You know, I do like to hide, but I’m hiding because it’s all my baggage and all my stuff, and so that was my problem, that wasn’t Fincher’s problem, and when he said: ‘No, I just want no veil between you and the audience’, it wasn’t that I resisted it, it made me a little anxious because, hey, even George Smiley has those glasses, you know – at least I could hide a little behind those glasses.”

Oldman’s personal “baggage” likely includes his challenging upbringing and past struggles with alcohol addiction. He has also been through four unsuccessful marriages, including one with British actress Lesley Manville, who is the mother of his oldest son Alfie, and a short-lived marriage with actress Uma Thurman when she was younger. He has also been in a relationship with Isabella Rossellini.

It is believed that the film Nil By Mouth, which was written and directed by Oldman in 1997, effectively portrays the struggles of his childhood. Despite this, Oldman has made it clear that the story is not based on his own personal experiences. Film critic Nick James praises the film for its depiction of a violent father in the south London where Oldman grew up. James stated, “He is a role model to me solely because of this film. Setting aside his acting accomplishments, he has created the most genuine working-class Cockney movie to date.”

Born in New Cross in 1958, Oldman’s father Leonard was a welder and ex-sailor. When Gary was seven, his father left home and his mother Kathleen. As a teenager, Gary was a fan of Millwall and had aspirations for a career in music. However, after watching Malcolm McDowell perform on stage, he became more interested in theatre. He attended drama school and later appeared at the Royal Court and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also landed roles on television, including a part in Mike Leigh’s movie Meantime and Clarke’s highly praised TV drama about football gangs.

Oldman made up to look like Winston Churchill, in a scene from the film Darkest Hour

As film actors continue their career, they develop a unique and individual style. The characters they have portrayed in previous films begin to hold significance, regardless of their various costumes and ability to transform. A collection of their past work gradually forms a visual and emotional connection, which is tied to them whether they desire it or not. Skilled casting directors are aware of this and may choose to cast an actor against type, making a villain into a hero or vice versa. However, a celebrity’s image can also be impacted by associations with their personal life. During the heyday of Hollywood, studios recognized this danger and fiercely protected their stars’ reputations as a result.

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During the 1990s, there were reports in the media about Oldman’s excessive drinking and disruptive actions. In recent years, he has also had to confront allegations of violence towards his third wife, Donya Fiorentino, who is the mother of his two younger sons, Gulliver and Charlie. He refuted her statements, which were made public during an interview while he was receiving praise for his role in Darkest Hour in 2018.

In 2014, Oldman apologized for causing offense to the Jewish community. This came after he expressed sympathy for Mel Gibson’s past antisemitic remarks in a 2006 Playboy magazine interview. Oldman expressed deep remorse for his words and clarified that he only intended to expose common hypocrisy. He also stated that he has a strong personal connection to the Jewish people, both in general and in his personal life.

The opportunity to acquire new props and a fresh persona may be alluring for an actor who has a troubled past, regardless of the audience’s perception of them. Oldman has expressed gratitude for the significant roles he has been fortunate enough to play over the years. He believes he has been lucky to have a few exceptional opportunities come his way.

Fans of movies can only wish that high-quality screenplays continue to come to Oldman. And if the desk he is sitting at when they arrive happens to be the same one occupied by Lamb in the grimy Slough House set of Slow Horses, it will undoubtedly be littered with empty glasses and discarded cigarettes, as fans are aware.