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Darkest Hour director Joe Wright speaks with Radio Times

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At least 50 actors have portrayed Sir Winston Churchill: from CM Hallard in the 1935 film Royal Cavalcade, via John Lithgow in Netflix's The Crown, to Brian Cox in the recent movie Churchill. But few have seemed such surprising casting for the part of the jowly, growly politician as Gary Oldman, who takes the role in Darkest Hour, after a career featuring lean, mean roles including Commissioner Gordon in the Dark Knight trilogy, Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy and Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films.

"Gary was always the obvious casting choice for me," insists Joe Wright, the film's director. "You have a choice: you can either cast for the essence of a character, or the physicality. The physique is easy to fake – with prosthetics and so on – but the essence isn't. When I watched footage of Churchill, instead of this big, lumbering, slow-moving guy you often think of, I was struck by his energy, both physical and mental. So I needed an actor who would think and move fast, and Gary absolutely brings that."

Wright accepted, though, that the familiar Churchill silhouette – hat and cigar topping mounds of chin and belly flesh – was going to be a stretch for Oldman. "So we then spent five months developing the prosthetics and gradually built up Churchill. One of the first notes I gave Gary was: ‘How does he breathe?' And he started doing this slightly wheezy, cigar-smoker sound."

Darkest Hour (in cinemas from Friday 12 January) started from the screenwriter Anthony McCarten noticing that, in just four weeks during 1940, Churchill gave three speeches now regarded among the greatest political orations, known in shorthand by their most memorable lines "Blood, toil, tears and sweat", "We shall fight on the beaches" and "This was their finest hour". Cumulatively, these words, all written or improvised by Churchill himself, persuaded parliament and the public to reject the view, led by foreign secretary Lord Halifax, that Britain should negotiate peace with Hitler.

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