A version of this story about Gary Oldman and “Slow Horses” was first published in the drama edition of TheWrap awards magazine.
This is how the world met Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb, distinguished British spy: he’s asleep on the sofa in his office, a wrecked room littered with half-drunk bottles of booze, overflowing ashtrays, and the remains of various fasts. Food for take away. The camera stops, rests for a moment on his feet in holey socks, and then: Farts so loud it shakes him out of his sleep.
This is not the suave world of British spies epitomized by James Bond’s George Smiley and John le Carré (who Oldman played in 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). It’s “Slow Horses,” Apple TV+’s viciously funny spy thriller about MI5 agents sent to a purgatory outpost called Slough House, where they pay penance for making a real mistake on the job. Adapted from Mick Herron’s book series, “Slow Horses” it hinges on Oldman’s gloriously laid-back performance as Lamb, an acid-tongued drifter past his Cold War prime but still brilliant in his own unorthodox way. He is careless, emits bad odors and is as contemptuous of his team of “joes” (spies) as protective of them. As Lamb himself says: “They’re all a bunch of fucking losers. But they are my losers.
“Weirdly, it’s very liberating to play a character who is openly hostile and publicly puts people down,” Oldman said during a recent Zoom interview from his Palm Springs home, leaving no trace of Lamb’s scruffy appearance. “But deep down, he has a very strong moral sense. I think that’s why you might ultimately like Lamb even though he’s not PC.”
The juicy “Slow Horses” The role is the latest highlight in a 40-plus-year career that hasn’t fallen short. From Sid Vicious to Sirius Black, to Lee Harvey Oswald, Commissioner Gordon, and Herman Mankiewicz, not to mention stage work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Oldman has amassed a body of work that is almost unmatched in its versatility and depth. It’s earned him plenty of accolades, including a Best Actor Oscar for his disappearing act in Winston Churchill in 2017’s “Darkest Hour.” And let’s not forget his 2001 Emmy nomination as a guest star on “Friends.” as a pretentious actor who co-stars with Joey in a World War II movie.
When “Slow Horses” It came the Oldman’s way, its blend of white-knuckle suspense and “dark, lawless humor” hitting the spot. “I was looking for something to do long form,” he said. “And he walked in and it was just a gem.” Praising Herron and showrunner/head writer Will Smith (not that one), Oldman added: “Lamb’s creation was almost all on the page. All I had to do was give it some voice and a little imagination, bring in my own little thing.”
Over two stylized six-episode seasons, Lamb and his crew of proverbial lazy equines uncover dirty doings at MI5 (in their lingo, “useless Mif-ing”) and connect the murder of an ex-Joe to a cell of Russian sleeper agents. Some of the most delicious scenes are between Lamb and Diana Taverner, the elegant and polished MI5 second-in-command played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Oldman’s “Darkest Hour” co-star). Polar opposites in manners but equals intellectually, they fight like a couple of comedians of intellectual insults. “You’re only as good as the person you’re in the scene with and we can really hit the ball back and forth,” Oldman said. “And we tease each other off camera a bit. She’s Dame Kristen, so she’s Lady Di to Lamb and Dame KST to us.”
In the season 2 finale, when Lamb is about to clash with the master of the Russian spy ring (Rade Serbedzija), Oldman injected some of his “little thingy.” The scene required his character to sit nonchalantly with her feet up on his desk, anticipating the arrival of his opponent. “I just went to the director, Jeremy Lovering, and said, ‘While I’m waiting, why don’t I have a bag of chips?’” Oldman said. “Because Lamb is a eater. He is a smoker, a drinker, has flatulence. That’s the fun of the show. You never see James Bond eating a bag of chips, you don’t see Moneypenny go into the laundry.