Director Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour takes a look at Winston Churchill’s defining first months as England’s prime minister just as the country was entering WWII.

Churchill had many detractors in the British Parliament, and when he first took office, he vowed that England would not bow down to Hitler but would fight the oppression. Others in the government wanted to negotiate a peace deal with the fascist leader, but Churchill was dead set against it. He vacillated, however, when most of the British army found themselves stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, sitting ducks for the Germans to annihilate, with no real military means to evacuate them safely. Should they surrender?

Ultimately, he sticks with his principals, organizing a home-front operation, using civilian boats to rescue the men and delivers an historic speech to Parliament that sets a tone for the whole world.

Gary Oldman turns in his most astounding work to date as Churchill – virtually unrecognizable as the rotund prime minister and an absolute shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar come this February. Other standout performances include Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Churchill, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax (one of Churchill’s main opponents) – and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, who was also at the beginning of his reign when Hitler came to power and pursued his campaign of world domination.

Mendelsohn does an admirable job embodying the king in his younger years, carefully incorporating George’s (whose real name was Albert) speech affectations, while forming what was to be a long-lasting friendship with Churchill.

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ScreenPicks spoke exclusively with Mendelsohn about playing King George and working with the amazing Gary Oldman.

I’m absolutely fascinated with the royal family, particularly Queen Elizabeth’s background and her father, King George VI. I loved The King’s Speech, and I’m obsessed with The Crown. I’m sure you’ve heard that a lot today.

Ben Mendelsohn: I avoided, particularly, The Crown. The King’s Speech I’d already seen, but I was pretty afraid because, you know, Jared Harris [who plays the king in his later years in The Crown], I think is just a brilliant, brilliant actor, and I was already intimidated. But also just by taking on the role. You know, I’m an Australian, et cetera, et cetera, there’s a lot of work to be done to get to that place. And I didn’t want to freak myself out any more than I was capable of doing.

You did a great job. How did you approach it? King George is a tough person to play because of all of the expectations that fell on him that he wasn’t ready for and then, of course, the speech impediment that he had.

Mendelsohn: I think that the physical mechanics of how you speak that way and how an impediment might work its way through someone is a very particular thing. That is a challenge. But there are long shadows cast. Colin [Firth]’s portrayal [in The King’s Speech] is a long shadow. But context is everything and [screenwriter] Anthony [McCarten’s] script was dealing with very different matters. [The King’s Speech] was a few years down the track. My final thought was, look if you think you can maybe do it, then you probably should try. And also the chance to work with Gary and with Joe.

You do look an awful lot like King George at the time this movie takes place.

Mendelsohn: I hadn’t done a lot of looking at King George. But I can see how from this angle… and I’ve got the coin of him. There is enough there.

What was your first reaction when you saw him in the full Churchill regalia?

Mendelsohn: There’s a kind of a speechlessness to it. The thing about Gary’s portrayal is in a lot the same way that Churchill carried the country with him, Gary kind of carried me with him, certainly, because his achievement was so great and yet so effortless and so gracious. He never made any mention of the hours and hours and hours that he sat in that chair. He never did any of that. And he was so at ease and so relaxed that we all sort of got carried along by that.

How did you and Gary explored the beginnings of the friendship between George and Winston?

Ben Mendelsohn: I think we’re really guided by the excellent script that Anthony wrote, our road map. Anthony’s work had such a lovely ring to it that it didn’t feel like a lot of work to find that between Gary and I. It felt like it was a great deal of work to find how George might feel and talk, but the actual mechanics between us it felt like we had a lovely wide avenue that we could drive down and off we went. I think that Gary hears every change in you and then he responds to it. As well as being someone who can technically achieve what he achieves, he’s also completely alive with you in whatever moment you’re going through.

Darkest Hour is a must-see this awards season. Check it out when it opens November 22.

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