So I was invited to sit down with Gary Oldman last week here in Seattle for a chat about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – a film that has critics buzzing over Oldman’s performance as George Smiley.
If you’re an old-school Gary Oldman fanatic, you know that he’s always great — no matter what film he finds himself in. I was surprised by how open – and thorough – the actor is. It was also refreshing how human (I know, a strange word to use, but believe me most movie stars and filmmakers are salesmen first and foremost with little humanity filtering through in any discussion) Mr. Oldman was.
As an actor he’s unparallelled. As an interview…? The guy’s an absolute dreamboat.
This is how it all went down as we talked about Smiley, Jim Gordon, cheating girlfriends, Melancholia, and the problems making Air Force One..
Jason Roestel: The character you play, George Smiley, has appeared in several books and films, as well as a TV series in the late 70′s in which Alec Guinness starred in the role. Can you tell me what you did to prepare for the George Smiley portrayal?
Gary Oldman: Well, I didn’t work much outside of the book, because really, everything you want to know about him is there. You look for the clues of how to play him in the 500 pages or so of the book. I was lucky to have access to le Carré himself, if there were any questions I wanted to ask. He had been MI6, a spy himself, so I just sort of wanted to know a bit of history of Smiley; What he was like out there as a younger man, out there in the field, working – before we kind of meet him (in the movie). The initial silhouette of him was a photograph that Tomas Alfredson, the director, had sent me, which was a picture of Graham Greene in a macintosh – a sort of trench-coat; And that was the initial sort of shape of it. But you find things as an actor. John le Carré is a fussier individual, more than Smiley, and he sort of tends to play with his clothes a bit. The way Smiley sits, which is just sort of off the 90 degree angle when he sits in a chair, and he sits back a little, is John; And I sort of stole that from him. And the way Smiley speaks as well. John has a certain musicality, a cadence to his voice that I thought was – well, he’s the DNA of the whole thing, why not go to the man if you are going to steal something?
JR: So you went right to the source material, and didn’t see or watch an Alec Guinness performance?
Gary Oldman: I didn’t re-watch the series, which I had seen in the 70′s – my second year of drama school I think – when it came out. So I am playing the same role, and I didn’t want to be contaminated by rewatching it. So I sort of try to stay away from any of the Alec Guinness stuff because he loomed large. This is so small, so understated that it makes Lee Harvey Oswald look busy. I think people remember Stansfield, don’t they? From the movie The Professional?
JR: I just re-watched that a few weeks ago.
Gary Oldman: Did you? He’s pretty subtle and serious isn’t he?
JR: He is.
Gary Oldman: But as far as Smiley is concerned… there’s a passage in the book where Anne, his wife, is describing him, and says that he can sort of regulate his body temperature like a reptile. That Smiley can sort of regulate to the temperature of the room that he is in. That doesn’t give you the impression that he’s not like maniacal, frenetically, fussy… that there’s a sort of stillness. I really took that, and it suggested that it’s sort of someone who is quiet and wants to disappear – someone who is quite still. You find the similarities sometimes as an actor and sometimes they are harder. If you are playing some psychopathic killer, there isn’t much reference to your own life. But with George, he carries around that relationship, that nowadays he’d be on a therapist’s couch. I’d say: you are in a very inappropriate relationship, and you need to get out of it. But he loves her and seems to love being a bit of a masochist there; and he keeps taking her back. That sense of personal betrayal and the loss of love, then found and lost, we’ve all experienced it. I’ve had girlfriends throughout the years. I’ve had them cheat on me, and we all kind of know what that feels like. So you bring that to what you are playing.
JR: That was one of my favorite things about the movie, is how it showed the juxtaposition between the men’s intents and how their personal lives are kind of… eaten alive.
Gary Oldman: We actually screened this movie for MI6 and of course the thing that they responded to, what got the biggest reaction, was when Rickie Tarr (Tom Hardy) – actually it’s the scene and the only time when Smiley lies; about Irina, When he says (Rickie), “Can you get her out?”, Smiley says, “I’ll do my best.” And of course you know she’s dead. He was just using him, and he wants him for the information – for what he can get. And Ricki says, “Once this is over, I want out, I don’t want to end up like your lot, I want a f***ing life, I want a family.” I think there is enormous sacrifice that these people make. There was a guy there, whose family thinks he’s a chauffeur for dignitaries, and he’s a spy. So you have this anonymity of them even amongst themselves. There’s no obvious rank within the intelligence service. Where you don’t really talk about what you are up too. There was one guy that John le Carré told a story about one guy, who had been a hero for Queen and Country, and was awarded a medal like the Purple Heart, by the Queen, and he was only able to wear it for five minutes and then he had to put it away in a box. So he couldn’t even wear the medal, because it’s so covert.
JR: Speaking of covert… Gary you seem to disappear in every role you’re in, do you get recognized much when you’re walking around – do people know who you are when they run into you out on the street?
Gary Oldman: Not really, no.
JR: I mean that as a compliment.
Gary Oldman: I finished Batman about four weeks ago, and I had a mustache and glasses, so I will get recognized as Jim Gordon because I sort of look like him in the supermarket. But once I shaved off the mustache I don’t get noticed. I live a very normal life. I don’t have publicists, minders, and all that. I’m not saying people don’t need it, I can see that they do, an entourage of people, but I go everywhere – Walgreens and CVS, and you name it. I just move around like a normal person. I go everywhere. I can’t imagine what it would be like to, to be a Brad Pitt or like Leonardo… where you can’t even walk down the street. Like Tom Cruise – who’s so recognizable – I can’t imagine what that would be like. I guess that’s why they get paid the big money I guess.
JR: You’ve played a wide range of characters. Good guys like Gordon and Smiley and then CRAZY – bad guys – when you look at your whole career, which do you prefer and why?
Gary Oldman: I don’t know. There’s a great deal of it. I don’t re-watch old work. My kids sometimes say “Can we watch one of your movies?”, and I go, “I don’t have the DVD darling.” I don’t have them or watch them. So I sort of see it as old work and I kind of move on. There’s a few that I’m a little embarrassed about. Some of it I would just burn! Some of it I would just stomp it into the ground, and some of it’s very good.
JR: But isn’t that sometimes just how it goes when you are daring and you want to try new things?
Gary Oldman: Yes, you are going to have hits and your are going to have misses. There’s a lot that I’ve enjoyed playing. Funny enough, the good guys can be more of a challenge. Technically, the Potters, the Batmans, are in a way harder than Smiley; Because you are carrying exposition, and you have to make the plot character, otherwise you are just going to sound like a lump of wood just standing there. It’s very challenging and you have to find, and live, as a person when you forsake a great deal of character for story. I mean, I’ll give you an example… a movie like Air Force One. When I first read that script it was really f***ing smart. It felt like a real guy. We knew it was a Harrison Ford vehicle, and a summer movie; You know it’s a popcorn summer movie – and my argument was that he wouldn’t have ever gotten on the plane. But he does, and there you are – on the plane. The movie I wanted to make was not the movie that was made… along the way, it went through a rewrite, and… It was dumbed down, sadly. Even Christopher Plummer, who I recently met, was saying the hardest thing that he had to ever play was the Baron from The Sound of Music. He said because he’s such a drip, and kind of one dimensional. It was murderously hard.
JR: Smiley isn’t one dimensional, he’s deep.
Gary Oldman: Yes, and you are supported by this great novel. And even though we had to reduce a great deal of it, and you don’t have the seven hours like the mini-series. You always felt like you [as his character] had a life, that you could carry around with you in a book. You didn’t have to work hard, in a sense… building a character and doing your homework; But once you were at work, the text supported you. If you are breaking a sweat, then you are working too hard.
JR: Last question… have you personally seen anything good this year?
Gary Oldman: I think television is really giving the movies a run for its money.
JR: Agreed. Writing’s back on TV.
Gary Oldman: I can’t say I’ve seen anything – or that I’ve seen everything – with the exception of Melancholia, which is so from that guy’s head.
JR: Did you like Melancholia?
Gary Oldman: I did. I really got into it. I thought it was so unique and interesting. I also liked Beginners. I liked the voice of it. It reminded me a little of early, early Woody Allen.
(at this point – with the interview in the can, and Gary getting primped for a television interview – it’s all I can do not to jump in his lap and tell the man that I loved him in The Book of Eli… and Dracula... and The Fifth Element… and Hannibal… and True Romance… and JFK… and...)