Colin Firth has followed up his Oscar-winning role in the hit film “The King’s Speech” with another critically acclaimed movie about Brits: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” which is the 2011 feature-film version of John le Carré’s novel about the search for a traitor among a group of spies. A Secret Intelligence Service operative named George Smiley (played by Gary Oldman) has been tasked to lead the covert investigation.
In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (which is set in 1973), Firth plays Bill Haydon, a suave, womanizing espionage agent who is among the group of suspects. I caught up with Firth at the New York City press junket for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and he talked about why would have been happy to have played any character in the film (although he admits his first choice would have been George Smiley); how the film’s 1970s setting affected his performance; and why he has resisted being part of the Hollywood trend of doing big-budget, live-action 3-D movies.
What do think your friend fashion designer/filmmaker Tom Ford would say about your wardrobe in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”?
I don’t think he’s seen me in it. “Huntsman,” I think it’s called.
How did wearing those clothes help you get into character?
It does become part of the discussion. And I did make a decision that [Bill Haydon] has his own affectation. There are a lot of protocols you follow, working for that organization. Quite clearly, you do show up for work in a suit and tie. It’s the military.
But I think Haydon has his little kind of rakish things that he wants to assert — and hence, the red socks. I’m afraid they were my decision. Just to say [as Bill Haydon], “I’m a little bohemian. I get to break with convention because I’m confident and charismatic.” That’s where he stands on himself.
I thought, “Let’s not make him a city business guy.” So you give him the three-piece and the tweed, which makes him freer, more of a man of the country. I thought soft shoes as well, just to give him the pretense of “I’m free of convention.”
What convinced you to do this version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”?
I was actually the first of the current cast involved. So when I was talking to [“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” director] Tomas Alfredson, none of these actors were involved at that time. I would have played any part in this [movie], partly because the project as a whole appeals to me, and the whole aura appeals to me, because Tomas Alfredson appeals to me.
It’s also partly because the characters themselves all are interesting enough, even if we had to kind of nibble at them, if you like, but they’re all interesting enough to have their own story told. If you could follow them on screen, you could go into a world where there’s a film to be made about each of them, really. And so I would have very, very happily taken any of them on, really.
Can you talk about how “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” being set in the 1970s affected your performance?
I don’t know. You always find someone who is a bit of an anachronism. I’m not saying that anything he would have done would have been impossible in another time. His ideology is hard to imagine now, because East and West weren’t polarized in the way they were.
Communism and capitalism were not as polarized in the way that they were. Communism has obviously been discredited and I think capitalism has been fairly convincingly discredited now. So I don’t think people live in the world of idealizing those things.
In terms of mannerisms and things, I was very aware of him being a man of a certain era. He’s very committed to his cup of tea. And even that paradox of being devoutly Oxford-educated and an artistic type.
I think you just look at the world, look at the clothes you’re wearing, look at the environment around and the language you’re given to speak. It plays itself. You don’t have to impose decisions on that. They just occur to you.
You don’t have scenes with most of the actors in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” so what surprised you the most when you saw the final cut of the movie?
I suppose I was surprised that it was so well-achieve, but I knew that Tomas Alfredson was not going to lean on excess of dialogue and information. One of the frightening things about taking on an adaptation of this book is that it’s dense. A lot of information is conveyed through complex dialogue and a lot of detail.
And the challenge was to pare that down. They already had to pare it down to do a six-hour television [series] in the ‘70s. So they had to pare it down to two hours. And not only do that but to not cram that dialogue into the two hours but to actually pare it down even more so that you get two hours of very little dialogue. And it was amazing to me how well that worked. It kind of blew me away a little bit because I knew the book well.
And I also knew the struggles they went through in the cutting room when they were all still at a three-and-a-half-hour cut [of the movie]. And they said, “We can’t make it any shorter. We won’t have anything left. All the information is critical.” And yet, they got it down to two hours.
You have a scene where Control [played by John Hurt] gets fired — and then there’s about 10 minutes of no talking! I thought, “Wow! You’ve worried about how much time you had to tell the story, and you’ve spent 10 minutes of Gary Oldman walking down a street!” And I actually loved it because tit showed such confidence.
And the music was incredible. It looks moody and so sad and melancholic, this man with his raincoat and getting his new glasses put on. That told me much more, that I was into something that was going to commit me to be interested in this person, that it was an emotional story. There was something personal going on.
If you’re going to confuse people — and this movie will confuse people, I think, in a good way, because people like to be a little bit stretched; otherwise, you wouldn’t be Sudoku and crosswords — they like to have a puzzle. And I think everybody comes out [after seeing this movie] feeling like they haven’t quite grasped everything. But mostly, it’s in a way that makes people want to go back, rather than say, “I was just annoyed.”
And you do that by drawing people in. And you can do that if you magnetize people. And I think it does that. Gary [Oldman] is such a magnetic actor anyway. I think those shots and that sense of melancholy, that sense of stately pace and silence are far better currency in the film than just a lot of information.
So you were the first actor to sign on for this version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and you say that you would have played any role in the movie. Did the filmmakers ask you which role you wanted to play?
No. It was Haydon [that they wanted me to play]. I would have said Smiley [if I had a choice].
You haven’t been in any high-tech, live-action 3-D movies, which is a big trend nowadays. Where do you stand, in terms of modern technology in today’s moviemaking?
I don’t stand anywhere on it. If it’s good, it’s good. I don’t think technology has to be the enemy. I think you can do extraordinary things with it, as long as you don’t drown your story.
It’s very interesting, the debate about “Avatar.” I happened to really like [“Avatar”]. I liked what it was saying, quite aside from being dazzled by all the stuff that was swirling around me. I think people can have a prejudice about something because it’s so technologically highly achieved that they won’t see any heart in the thing. That wasn’t the case with [“Avatar.”] I thought it was a well-acted and thoughtful story. So it’s legitimate.
On the other hand, it can simply be a very practical impediment. If you have devices that solve all your problems, you have to then work out what kind of conflict you’ve got. We’ve got an unassailable enemy. Press a button. Story is over.
I’ve had this struggle of the business of mobile phones in storytelling, because so much can get dealt with now in a phone call that you could take a whole movie to deal with if there wasn’t a mobile phone. And I’ve just done a script with a character called Arthur Newman about a guy who ha s a journey across America and who sort of disappeared from his old life. It was written originally 20 years ago, the script.
And without reason, mobile phones don’t really appear in it. And I’m very happy for them not to have them appear. But if you’ve got to decide this guy’s got a phone in his pocket, there would be a whole bunch of stuff around the fact that he’s got a phone. If anyone is looking for him, they’d say, “Well, we haven’t found his cell phone. We’re tracking him. He’s there.”
And then you’re in product-placement hell.
[He laughs.] That too. You could have had a story about a guy who has to travel 3,000 miles in order to relay something. And that could be over in a phone call. And amazing things could happen along the way.
Now I’m being slightly arch about it. There are ways around these things. And there are films that use them brilliantly, but I just think the fact that you’ve got things that solve problems for us can sometime conflict with drama.
The interesting thing abut espionage (the little I know about it), although I think it’s wonderful to look at aesthetically, I think there’s a big appetite for us to look at a lot of low-tech stuff. A lot of people said, “It’s great to see reel-to-reel tape recorders … and actual typewriters that clack and elevators where you see the pulleys.”
Everything is encased in black and silver now. There’s that, but on the other hand, things can’t be solved with a microchip and a satellite, the image is thrown back on human ingenuity and therefore human motivation and human emotion.
How do you think being a spy in the early 1970s compares to being a spy now?
I don’t think it makes any difference. From what I understand, spies don’t rely that much on the technological stuff because it’s unreliable. I’m not talking about the drones [in espionage]. I’m talking about the kind of stuff that these guys [in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”] are doing. You don’t carry a cell phone around where you can be found, because it’s traceable. From what I understand, they use paper still. And so do the Mafia.
This guy [Bernardo Provencano] they arrested [in 2006] in Sicily who’s been on the run probably since the year I was born in 1960. He wasn’t caught [for decades], largely because he never had a computer, never had a cell phone, never had anything that would be traceable or hackable or recordable or reproducible. He wrote his instructions down on miniscule pieces of paper, basically like lint in his pocket. He trusted only his family and lived most of his life in a tree, from what I understand. Whatever the point is of being a Mafia boss if you live life in a tree, I don’t know.
Have you ever thought about what kind of spy you would be in real life?
I would be a terrible spy because subterfuge and duplicity and guessing other people’s motives are part of your job. And you’d have to be fairly unflinching in the facing the barrel of a gun. And I think most actors are not.
Even with blanks as ammunition?
How have your experiences as a theater actor enriched your experiences as a film actor?
Gosh, I don’t know. I think everything, if you let it, will enrich everything else. I’ll tell you what it is, really. There are probably all sorts of ways one could answer that question, but the thing that comes to mind is that it’s only in the theater that you get to experience what a rehearsal can be.
Films don’t really have them. You can have some very valuable moments of trying to explore, but it’s quick. You can’t do it exhaustively the way you can in the theater, where you hopefully can have at least four weeks.
I heard at the Moscow Art Theater, they were rehearsing for a year. So these people so know what they are and what they’re doing. But that business of actually trying something out and having this extraordinary first instinct, which might be a good one, your first read-through, and then putting it through to the test, and getting it on its feet, and getting gradually off the script and learning the whole play from beginning to end.
And then realizing that your whole inspiration is kind if dying on you around the second week, and you can’t find it, and you don’t know what’s happening. And there’s no energy, and you’re never going to get there. And then actually starting to re-discover things, because you just plow on and on and on, and you make mistakes, and you try other things because you gave up one route and you picked up another. And there will be a dead zone if you do that. And you will hopefully come out of it.
With film, you are very dependent on that “first instinct” thing, because you don’t have much rehearsal, so you have to think on your feet and hope the camera is there to catch it. If you rehearse a bit, you’re likely to get in the dead zone and get stuck there. That’s the trouble, because you can’t have a brilliant first impulse all the time. It doesn’t stay with you. You can’t just keep lightning in the bottle like that. So unless you have time to see it through, too much rehearsal in a film is dangerous.
What did you learn from working with Laurence Olivier in the 1986 miniseries “Lost Empires”?
He’s very practical in his approach to work. He was utterly fearless. He didn’t care how things sounded or what he did. He just tried and tried and tried things. He did something called “hang your hat on it.”
There was a word he was struggling with, and instead of looking over it, when he came to the word, he yelled it. It was weird. It actually sounded so idiosyncratic that it couldn’t possibly have been acting. It sounded like a real person talking.
He had a little moment of dialogue where we all expected him to be melodramatic because he’s a great Shakespearean theater actor. And I had a scene with him, sitting on a train. He’s playing a comedian who thinks everyone is after him and the reason he’s failing on stage is because there’s a conspiracy. And he’s decided that he’s going to get the person responsible.
And he’s telling me about this, and he’s got a case next to him. And he says, “If I find out who does it, I’ll tell you what they’re going to get.” And the stage direction says: “’They’re going to get this!’ And he swings the case opens and there’s a gun and he flourishes it, and the train whistles, and they go into a tunnel.”
And I thought, “I can’t wait to see him do all that.” And he said, “You know what they’re going to get? They’re going to get this.” And he looks away and just tipped the suitcase open with his left hand, and the tip of the gun was showing.
And it was the opposite [of what I expected]. It was so tiny. It was actually really shocking … It was far more dramatic than if he had just waved [the gun] about. And so it was just this instinct to say “OK, here’s what they’re telling me to do. I’m going to subvert it completely and go absolutely the other way.”
How has your career changed since you won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech”?
Where do you keep or Oscar?
I find it in different places.
What’s next for you?
A film called “The Railway Man.” Jonathan Teplitzky is directing a Frank Cottrell Boyce script. It’s about the life of man who’s on the Burmese railway on the River Kwai and how he was tortured.
For more info: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” website
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