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UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF A GOOD WOMAN; THE BIG INTERVIEW: GARY OLDMAN.

As Gary Oldman faces up to 40, he says he has left his hellraising days behind and settled into family life with wife Donya and son Gulliver

His hairline is thinning, thick furrows run across his forehead and laughter lines frame his eyes. Next month Gary Oldman will be 40, but to many it's a surprise that he's made it this far at all.

For the London-born actor, who first shot to fame playing punk idol Sid Vicious in Alex Cox's cult movie Sid And Nancy, has been as much talked about for his wild alcoholism and turbulent relationships as his controversial film career.

It was his romance with the bottle which cost him two marriages and a broken love affair. But now Gary has turned his back on his days as a Hollywood hellraiser and he is enjoying life as a new man, finding personal stability in marriage and family life.

Two years ago, Gary finally realised how much his drinking had got out of hand. His then partner, the actress Isabella Rossellini, persuaded him to enroll in Alcoholics Anonymous with the ultimatum, "Quit drinking or we're through!" He did - and they were.

The experience proved revelatory. Not only is Gary now sober, but at his first meeting he met his third wife, Donya Fiorentino, 30.

"I couldn't take my eyes off her," he admits. "Obviously, I was attracted by her beauty but she's also one of the most intelligent women I've ever met."

The unlikely starting point sparked a whirlwind romance. The fast developing mutual love between Gary and Donya, until then best known for her former romance with Wham! star Andrew Ridgeley, helped them exorcise their demons together.

Almost from the beginning, marriage was inevitable. And, when they walked down the aisle at a Beverly Hills ceremony last year, Donya was already two months pregnant.

Today, sitting in the swish offices of his Hollywood production company, Oldman is the image of the contented family man.

That he has managed the transition from his hellraising past, he credits to Donya and his baby son Gulliver.

"I have a terrific marriage and a beautiful kid. I've always had terrific friends around me who love me, but I couldn't always see that. Now I'm just trying to be the best dad I can," Oldman says.

"For me, it has obviously had a lot to do with recovery and putting down the drink. Everything I have at the moment is because of that. I'm just living the day and having a bit of grace and gratitude."

In embracing sobriety and fatherhood, Gary is also trying to lay to rest the ghosts of his own traumatic childhood.

His parents' marriage failed because his Dad was a chronic heavy drinker, and Gary is the first to admit that before settling down with Donya there was a great danger of him following in his father's drunken footsteps. Gary has been married twice before. First to British actress Lesley Manville - with whom he has a nine-year-old son, Alfie - and then to actress Uma Thurman.

Both relationships faltered because of Oldman's alcoholism.

He began drinking heavily in his early days as an actor, lured by some romantic notion of following in the theatrical tradition of venerable stars such as Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole and John Barrymore as "they all romanticised booze".

It wasn't long before Gary had his own reputation for hitting the sauce, and for a while he enjoyed the notoriety. "Looking back at the stuff I did it was like I was walking in my father's shoes," he admits. "Here's someone who hadn't really influenced me - we spoke on the phone a couple of times when I was a teenager - yet it was like I had a blueprint that I was following."

Gary would go on 24-hour benders with his friend the actor Kiefer Sutherland. One of these drinking sprees in 1991 ended up in Oldman being arrested for drunk driving. He thought long and hard about his life at that time...and gave up driving!

"I'd had a wake-up call that drinking and driving was a stupid thing to do," says Gary with a laugh. "But I couldn't face giving up drinking, so I stopped driving." At that time the actor - who has starred in JFK, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, Leon, State Of Grace and Immortal Beloved - only interrupted his alcoholic lifestyle while applying himself to his film career. Today, sobriety has also brought him a greater maturity in his personal relationships.

"I am learning that you can disagree with your partner without running for the divorce court every time," he says. "I now realise that it's perfectly okay to say or do something and then have your wife say, `I don't like that'.

"I've been in situations where I found myself rehearsing the break-up while the relationship was still going on. I used to play all the scenes before they happened.

"But things are different now."

In Donya, Oldman believes he has found a woman who accepts him for what he is and, as she attends AA meetings with him, she understands only too well the hell he's been through.

Gary's fear of history repeating itself is something which he tackles in the acclaimed semi-autobiographical film Nil By Mouth, which marked his debut as screenwriter and director.

Set in the working-class area of Deptford, south-east London, where Gary grew up, the film is a wrenching drama of a dysfunctional family beset by addiction, petty crime and domestic violence.

Much of the action is a harrowing replay of Oldman's youth when his father would spend more time in the pub at the end of the street than at home.

"I was an afterthought," reflects Gary, whose two sisters are much older than him. "One night my mother maybe had one too many sherries.

"My uncle says he saw me shortly after I was born and I stank of booze - maybe he was standing too close to my daddy."

When he was seven years old, Gary's father left home for a much younger woman. He eventually drank himself to death, dying of liver failure in 1986, aged 62.

Though the two did have some contact during Gary's teenage years, much of his childhood was spent with no father figure and in poverty. To support the family, his mother, Kathleen, was forced to take two jobs, one, ironically, as a pub singer.

Nil By Mouth was Gary's way of finally confronting his past and opening old wounds to allow them to heal. The project was so important to him that he put up half of the film's pounds 3 million budget himself.

"I put my money where my mouth is," he explains, "so I wouldn't have the suits asking me to make the ending more upbeat. Because if it felt like just another movie to me I'd destroy it."

The film's central character Raymond, played by Ray Winstone, is an abusive alcoholic. And there are many scenes that come straight from Gary's own personal memories.

"I recall my mother took dinner into the pub once," says Gary. "And my father said, `What's this?' And she said, `You live here, you might as well eat here'." Another line in the film reflects his own inner feelings about his father: "You ask, `If you loved me, how could you leave me?' You think, `It's my fault', and you carry that and you're resentful. That festers and becomes anger, which then becomes rage."

One nightmare memory was just too painful for Oldman to commit to celluloid - the time his dad beat his mum with a steel toe-capped boot before trying to drown her. Though he is at pains to point out that the character Raymond is like his real life father only in his alcoholism, not the violent abusive side.

Incredibly, at the film's end, Oldman pays tribute to his dad with the simple line: "For My Father". But the hard-hitting film, full of four- letter words and shot mainly in gritty close-up has been a cathartic experience for Oldman, helping him let go of all the pain and anger and even find some forgiveness.

"I wouldn't have even made this film if my Dad was still alive. It's a love letter. Whatever issues I had with him are resolved, whatever happened I forgive him. I miss him."

With his own son Gulliver, Gary plans to be the type of parent his father never was. "It's fitting that I had a son," he says. "It's like I can put an emotional Band-Aid on someone else. I can right some of the wrongs."

He's an affectionate father, hugging and kissing his son at every opportunity. "He's certainly living up to his name," enthuses Gary, who named the tot after the main character in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which was Gary's favourite book at school. "He's a giant of a baby!"

These days, Gary's lifestyle is far removed from his working-class childhood in London.

He has moved to Los Angeles, so that Donya can be near the daughter Felix she had when she was married to Seven director David Fincher.

And Gary recently flew his mother out to America and bought her a house nearby so that she can be near her grandchild. He is making every effort to ensure that Gulliver has a happy childhood to look back on.

Gary does have some fond memories of his youth, such as his crush on actress Susan George.

Although he excelled at sports, he made a poor student and left school at 16. After he failed an audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Gary entered the Rose Bruford College Of Drama. Some TV drama parts followed and then Gary was cast as heroin addict Sid Vicious, for which he had to shed 30 pounds.

And though he never became the leading man many critics predicted, he has carved a successful niche for himself as the perennial villain-for- hire in such films as The Fifth Element, Air Force One, and JFK playing Lee Harvey Oswald. He's the first to admit that such baddie action roles as Air Force One may not rank alongside Hamlet, but at least they pay for him to fund projects such as Nil By Mouth.

Gary is back on screen later this year - again as another baddie - playing Dr Smith in the movie version of the hit TV show Lost In Space.

But to Gulliver and Donya he'll always play the good guy.

"It's far more fun than being a bad boy," he laughs.

As a reminder of his wild past, a poster of director John Cassavetes' film A Woman Under The Influence hangs on the wall behind his desk. But it's clear that Oldman's only drug of choice these days is love.

When Gulliver is sleeping, Gary says he loves to listen to his collection of classic Frank Sinatra songs or play his grand piano. He also dabbles in modern art. He's even turned down parts that will keep him away from home for weeks at a time.

And though those furrows and wrinkles that line his face are proof of his lifelong battle with the booze, Gary Oldman swears he's on the wagon for good. With almost religious zeal he puts his salvation down to Alcoholics Anonymous.

"I believe that AA is the greatest spiritual movement of the 20th century," he declares without a hint of irony. "It's a programme of vigorous self- honesty, because, you see, you are only as sick as your secrets.

"Without my recovery I would be dead - so we wouldn't even be having this conversation."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:O'Sullivan, Kevin
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 21, 1998
Words:1936
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