‘Clemmie was a true first lady... I had to bring life to a person who really was public property’
Darkest Hour tells the story of Winston Churchill in the early days of the war. Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James, who play his wife and secretary, talk to Laura Harding about the importance of the females in his life
Few figures loom as large in the UK's public consciousness as Sir Winston Churchill. His image is as easy to conjure up in our minds - cigar in hand, rotund in stature - as members of our own family. To many, a picture of him is a picture of British defiance and strength.
It is harder - perhaps impossible - to visualise the women who helped him through some of the greatest challenges he faced during his first weeks in office as prime minister in 1940, during the early days of the Second World War.
It is that period, as he faced pressure from within his party to pursue peace with Hitler at any cost, that is the focus of Darkest Hour, the new film by Atonement director Joe Wright.
Gary Oldman is almost unrecognisable in the part of Churchill, thanks to a face mould and foam bodysuit that took four hours to get in place, while Kristin Scott Thomas plays his stoic and chic wife, Clementine.
An icy blonde in the role, she is now resplendent in her brunette crop as she sits, perfectly composed, in a London hotel room.
"These parts have been played so many times by brilliant people, like Harriet Walter in The Crown, there is a great weight to it because you've got to be as good as everyone else," she says.
"Then there is the thing that struck me when I decided to take this on - I'm trying to portray somebody who is a national treasure.
"Clementine is less well known today than Winston, but at the time, I think she was really important.
"She was a proper first lady and how do you bring life into something that belongs to everybody? That is public property?
"I think that was very much her situation as well, because her husband was public property, her husband was the prime minister in a very, very tense and worrying time, a terrifying time."
Clementine Churchill would not be the first woman in history to see her role downplayed, if not airbrushed, out of history. So does this film, which makes clear their bond and her influence, redress that injustice?
"In a very small way," she replies. "It's not a film about Clementine. The day will come when there will be a film about Clementine and then we can talk about redressing.
"But it is very difficult to create a space for her because he is such an overwhelmingly fabulous character, in all senses of the word. Not only was he brilliant and saved us, but he was also wildly entertaining and kind of eccentric."
Be that as it may, Scott Thomas is anxious that the role Clementine played is not underestimated. "I don't think she does get as much credit as she should.
"She was a great support to him, she provoked him, she consoled him, she kicked him when he needed a boot, and they had a very stormy relationship, a very passionate relationship, which lasted for many, many years.
"I think she was absolutely part of the engine, she was at the heart of it all."
Also part of the engine was Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Layton, played in the film by Downton Abbey alumnus Lily James.
The 28-year-old, who is playing her first real-life character, also felt the burden of history on her shoulders.
"You have a responsibility, collectively, to have understood and learned as much as you possibly could," she says.
"When you are portraying a real person, you want to portray them in a light that is reflective of who they were and what they stood for and therefore how they affected our history."
Giving some voice, and some credit, to the countless women whose names are not taught in schools seems to be particularly important to her.
"There were a lot of women during the war that feel like they have been forgotten and they are the unsung heroes.
"I could see a whole film about Clemmie and I could imagine a whole film about Elizabeth Layton - her book is just mind-blowing and detailed and moving - and if you saw that world all through the eyes of someone like Elizabeth, you would get such an interesting perspective.
"Joe really captures that in this film and I think there was this army of women down in those war rooms that were there dedicating their lives.
"They worked round the clock religiously, not able to tell their families what they were doing in order to keep the cogs of the war in motion.
"And so I think it's really important that we remember those people."
But sitting at the centre of the film, in the performance of his career, is Oldman as Churchill.
To James, he is one of the greatest living actors and she says he was utterly transformed in the role.
"The moment I first saw Gary - actually I will rephrase that, the moment I first saw Churchill - is caught on camera and I was completely gobsmacked and taken aback and shocked," she says.
"It was as incredible in the flesh as it looks on screen and you can't for one second tell it was make-up or prosthetic, he just looked like Winston Churchill, coming back from the dead to inspire us all."
Scott Thomas admits she felt something similar. "It was such a shock, it was an audible gasp in the room when he entered dressed as Churchill for rehearsals," she says.
"I think it was a very clever move on his part to arrive as this character in the full get-up, the full make-up, the full costume, because suddenly we realised where we had to aim, what was at stake, how much he had invested and how dedicated he was to doing it, to getting it right, and I think that upped everybody's game."
It's surprising that an actor of Oldman's stature has never won an Oscar, even more surprising that he has only been nominated once - for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, losing to Jean Dujardin for The Artist in 2012.
But James hopes that will all change now.
"It's hard when you start talking about awards because it's all such an elusive thing, where sometimes there can be no rhyme or reason for it.
"But I've watched Gary as an actor my whole life and been in awe of him and his abilities.
"There is no one really like him.
"His ability to transform and just exist as different human beings is unparalleled and he's never won an Oscar before, which is really stupid if you ask me."
Darkest Hour is in cinemas on Friday, January 12