Gary Oldman is what’s called an “actor’s actor” — someone who is highly regarded by not only peers who are also considered the best in their field but also by numerous up-and-coming actors. His role in the feature film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” further cements his reputation as an actor who can skillfully play about any character. As cunning spy George Smiley in the movie (which is based on the John le Carré novel of the same title), Oldman says he took on a role that he found so intimidating that he initially refused to do the role. He admits that part of the fear had to do with the fact that the George Smiley character is considered particularly iconic by British actors, and it is a role that has been done by such Oscar-winning heavyweights as Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins.
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (which is set in 1973) is the story of how Smiley goes from being fired from Great Britain’s governmental espionage organization the Secret Intelligence Service to being secretly re-hired by the SIS to find a traitor double agent in the organization. With the help of a younger agent named Peter Guilliam (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley investigates a list of possible suspects and finds that no one — even himself — is exempt from suspicion. When I sat down with Oldman at the New York City press junket for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” he opened up about what convinced him to take on the George Smiley role after being initially afraid to do it and why he finds the quiet tone of the film to be refreshing. Oldman also talked a little bit about returning to the role of Commissioner Jim Gordon in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
How intimidating was it for you to play George Smiley in this version of “Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy,” knowing that other actors (most notably Alec Guinness) had previously played this character?
Terrifying, in a word, because he [Alec Guinness] became the face of George, for generations. Guinness is very much a part of the establishment and the British thespian world. And his shadow that he cast is large. The ghost of that performance was always there.
So I initially did not say [yes to the role]. It wasn’t like it’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and I said, “Yes, I’ll do it!” I kind of had to think about it, because those inevitable comparisons are there.
I played a trick with my head. What I did was I approached rather like an actor would a classical part. There’s room for re-interpretation. There are other Romeos, other Hamlets, other King Lears. With Hamlet, you’ll be compared to [Richard] Burton, [John] Barrymore and all those other people who played it before.
So I just thought, “It’s time for a re-interpretation.” And now they’ve put me on the cover of the [“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”] book. So I’m the face of George now.
How is your interpretation of George Smiley different, from a psychological point of view?
Well, James Mason has played him. Denholm Elliott played him. Anthony Hopkins has played him. There’s been a few Smileys. I think what I got from the book was that there was a little bit of a sadist to George.
If anything, Guinness’ [portrayal of George Smiley] was a little more huggable than mine. [George Smiley] can be quite mean. He can be quite cruel. He has to tickle people.
But there was a passage into the book that was the key into him that unlocked the door for me. Ann, the wife [of George Smiley], describes George as like … a creature that can regulate his own body temperature to that of the room and the situation that he’s in, almost like a chameleon, where you’re in the room and you just blend into the furniture or you blend into the walls. And that’s why he’s considered to be the master spy.
We even discussed things like, “Would he wear cuff links? Would he wear a tie pin?” And we decided, “No, because those are the things you would remember someone by and that a spy would remember — any of that stuff that could make him visible.” And that passage to me was where the stillness comes from.
So many movies about spies have the spies relying on fancy, high-tech gadgets of the time period in which the movie takes place. So what did you think about being a spy that relied more on his intelligence than on technology?
It’s an interesting period [the 1970s]. It’s right on the cusp of [digital] technology, but it’s still an analog world. It’s still files. The Internet and [mobile] phones and [digital] cameras have completely changed the face of espionage. It’s changed the way they do things.
I admire Tomas [Alfredson, the director of 2011’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”] for taking this and not feeling the need to compete with “The Bourne Identity” or the [James] Bond movies. When I saw the movie … the pace of the movie is like snow falling. And I really admire that. You notice sounds. It’s not particularly because it’s over-acted up. It’s because they have so much silence around them that when you hear them, you notice them.
Movies assault you now. There are too many movies that cuts such a quick … The sound is pumped up. I’m talking about a lot of movies that you and see, even a comedy like “The Hangover.”
I think it’s nice to see a quiet thriller. I think it’s refreshing. I think people are getting a little tired of all of that [noise in movies]. You see a lot of movies. I mean, what the fuck is 3-D all about? “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is for grown-ups. You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to focus and concentrate a little.
A lot of your acting in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was in your eyes and your body language. Was any of that suggested by the script or the director? How did you come up with those mannerisms?
You have the Holy Grail: You have the book and everything you really want to know about how to play George is in the book. The comment by Ann in the book, that was a beginning for me. But you have Tomas [Alfredson], who is the barometer of what you’re doing.
And there were times when I was doing too little. So you have to trust the director. He would say, “You need a little more there, because we’re not quite getting it.”
I’ve waited 30 years to play this part. You’re at the mercy of not only the roles that are available [but also] all those variables. Sometimes there are roles you would like to play that they give to other people, but you’ve got to have a holiday with the kids. There’s all those things that come in, and it’s not convenient. And you don’t get offered everything.
You’re also at the mercy of the imagination of the people who are casting you. Early on in my career, I was fortunate enough that it just so happened that I played Sid Vicious [in the 1986 movie “Sid and Nancy”] and then I played Joe Orton [in the 1987 movie “Prick Up Your Ears”], and I played them back-to-back. I didn’t engineer it. It just kind of happened like that.
I’ve got to admire someone like Chris Nolan [director of the most recent Batman movies]. Instead of giving me the role of the villain, he gave me the role of [police commissioner Jim Gordon]. And then I worked with [filmmaker] Luc Busson [by playing a corrupt DEA agent on 1994’s “Léon: The Professional”]. And those are two comic-book characters.
[Lee Harvey] Oswald [whom I played in the 1991 movie “JFK”] is subtle. Oswald is a quiet character. If you think of cousins to Smiley, in that sense, there have been a few. Directors see you do one thing, and they want you to keep doing it. We all do.
So how do you feel about your transition form playing less villains or “crazy” guys at this stage in your career, compared to the beginning of your career?
That’s the fun of acting. When I grew up, I remember watching all those old Ealing comedies — not the first time they came around, but they were certainly reruns on TV in the ‘60s. And you saw Peter Sellers and the Goons and all of those.
[Alec] Guinness wasn’t always a subtle actor. Guinness has played his fair share. He’s worn some funny noses and wigs over the years. He was Fagin. He was in Ealing comedies, like “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”
The way I see it, we’re all in a chain. It’s like links in a chain and it passes through. Benedict Cumberbatch in this [“Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy”], he’s a fabulous actor. You’ve got Tom Hardy. You’ve got people like Michael Fassbender. You’ve got these younger actors from a different generation. We’re all sort of part of it.
A lot of actors look up to you and admire you. Is that something that you expected to happen?
It’s a wonderful, unexpected thing. I met Michael Fassbender for the first time the other night. And he said to me, “You’re why I’m doing it.” I don’t walk around on air, but those are nice things to hear, especially from people whom one admires, whom I look at and think, “He’s wonderful.”
So it’s always very flattering. It’s all been a little bit of talent and a bit of luck. Careers are funny.
Now that you’ve had the experience of playing the spy George Smiley, what do you think about how spies are generally portrayed in movies?
[James] Bond was always a weird guy to me because he announces who he is wherever he goes. “Mr. Bond is over there. Kill him!” “How do you know it’s Bond?” “Because he just told me!” That’s weird to me.
Who’s the handsome-looking guy in a tuxedo who’s pulled up in an Aston Martin? It’s the spy! I enjoy [the James Bond series] but I can’t get my head around it. It’s not realistic. In “Tinker, Tailor,” you see the casualties of the job.
You’re more famous now because of you’ve been in Chris Nolan’s Batman movies. How do you feel about this kind of fame?
I can hide less, in that sense. And it’s just started to happen, oddly enough. I’ve just noticed it. I go everywhere. And to this day, I don’t have a publicist.
But I go to the supermarket. I go out with my kids. I go everywhere. I go to the doctor, and I wait in the waiting room. I don’t have a side door that lets me in. I think people are quite surprised that they see me in [supermarket] Gelson’s, shopping.
I used to be able to hide more. So it might be time that I get myself … What does Leonardo [DiCaprio] wear? A baseball cap?
What do you think will surprise people the most about “The Dark Knight Rises”? And how was it working with your “Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy” co-star Tom Hardy, who plays the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”?
I actually had very little to do with Tom on [“The Dark Knight Rises”]. The story, [Christopher Nolan] has brought the whole trilogy perfectly … not to a close. Who knows? I don’t think Chris will make another [Batman movie]. Maybe.
Whether they make four or five [in the series], well, [Warner Bros. Pictures] doesn’t have “Harry Potter” [movies] anymore. But [“The Dark Knight Rises”] story is great. And it’s epic. And he’s smart enough and classy enough not to make a third [Batman movie] just for the sake of making it. I think he was really concerned with giving you a great story. So I think that’s what I’m excited about.
If someone had never seen any of your movies, which of your movies would you recommend seeing?
“State of Grace,” [which is about Irish gang] the Westies. But a piece of work I’m particularly proud of that no one has ever really seen, because it went straight to DVD, was a little film called “Nobody’s Baby.” And it’s a comedy.
For more info: “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” website
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