Potter's magic when
you're short of work
and cash, says
Oldman of Azkaban
- EILEEN CONDON
ASK most actors why they want to appear in a Harry Potter movie and they will tell you that it is because they are huge fans of the best-selling novels.
Gary Oldman, on the other hand, is a bit more honest - to the point of bluntness.
"I needed the work," he says without hesitation. "I haven’t worked for a while - a couple of years. So, I thought it would be nice to get back to work and earn some money. Pay the bills."
However, the acclaimed actor also knows that if you are going to earn a few bob, what better way to do it than with a role in the phenomenon that is Harry Potter?
"It’s prestigious," he says with some understatement. "You’re not just making a movie - it’s joining a family of some kind of cinematic dynasty, I suppose. It’s interesting to be a part of that. The material was good and the director was interesting."
Not only that but Oldman, 45, is the captive in the title of the latest outing, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which opens on Monday.
He plays Sirius Black, an enigmatic wizard, who may have been instrumental in the death of Harry’s parents and is now on the run from Azkaban prison.
The London-born actor is no stranger to dark and sinister roles. He has an enviable reputation in Hollywood, thanks to his chilling parts in movies such as Dracula, Hannibal, Leon and JFK, in which he played assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
But the actor admits that these days he is deliberately trying to shed his hard-hitting image.
"I’ve got three kids who like Harry Potter, so it’s nice to actually be in a movie that they can see, as opposed to a job that takes me away for 12 hours a day. It’s nice for them to go, ‘Oh that’s what Dad does’.
"They really want to see the movies. One of them has read all the books, but he’s 15. The other two are too small, but they like the films."
Although he admits he’s not the "world’s biggest Harry Potter fan", Oldman is full of praise for its creator, JK Rowling.
"I love the idea that a woman has invented this world and has got kids reading again. I applaud anything that can take a kid away from a PlayStation or a Gameboy. That is a miracle in itself," he says.
Hearing the devoted father talking about his children, it is difficult to believe that this is the same man who has three failed marriages behind him - including one to actress Uma Thurman - and been in and out of rehab, battling drink and drug problems.
These days, however, the actor has mellowed and is determined that his children will come first. He has three sons, Alfie, 15, by his first marriage to actress Lesley Manville, and Gulliver, six, and Charlie, five, by his third wife, Donya Fiorentino.
It is because of his boys that Oldman, based in Los Angeles, says he has chosen not to work in the past couple of years.
"I don’t want to travel. I don’t want to be in a hotel room away from my family. I want to do a sitcom in Burbank. I want to do Friends," he says, laughing.
"It’s ten minutes away and I can be home for tea. I’m 45 now, I don’t want to go to Morocco with Oliver Stone. Certain things come along and ten years ago I would have done them, but now I’d rather let someone else do it.
"Harry Potter was the first time I’ve been away from home in years, and it was a long commitment. I was glad to get home. My project for the past few years has been being at home with my kids."
It is understandable that Oldman wants the best for his children, since his own childhood was less than idyllic.
Born to a working-class family on a troubled New Cross estate in south London - which he depicted in his harrowing semi-autobiographical film, Nil By Mouth - his father, a welder, walked out when he was seven, leaving him in a household of women, including his older sister, Laila Morse, who now stars as Mo Slater in EastEnders.
His acting career began when he won a scholarship to the Rose Bruford Drama College, and he has since barely put a foot wrong, with a string of acclaimed TV, theatre and movie roles.
But it is Harry Potter that should win him over to a new generation of filmgoers, and the actor hints that fans won’t be disappointed by the third instalment.
"I think maybe this will be the best so far in the series, because [director] Alfonso Cuaron’s heart is in the movie," he says. "He had a lot of good ideas when I turned up, and we tried all different variations of the prison uniform.
"Alfonso’s image of the new characters - Peter Pettigrew, Professor Lupin, Sirius Black and James Potter - of those guys as friends, as Hogwarts, is a bit like the Beatles, Sirius being a bit like John Lennon, who is the slightly maverick one, a stinging wit and a bit outspoken.
"But, then again, I might not be people’s idea of who Sirius Black is. I met a kid recently who came to the set who was looking me up and down and said, ‘I thought you’d look a bit paler, your hair is a bit long.’ I was obviously a huge disappointment," he adds with a grin.
Disappointment or not, Oldman has signed up for the fourth Harry Potter movie, but warns fans not to get too attached to the character.
"After the fourth book, it’s not good for me. I thought, ‘Ooh, five, six, seven - I could earn a few quid here’, so I was actually quite sad that day when I found out what happens to him."
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