Although the last name of Gary Oldman’s character in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is Smiley, the acclaimed actor admits he had more of a look of dread on his face than a smile when he signed on to do the new espionage thriller.
After all, it’s not every day that an actor takes on a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness, who played the iconic character George Smiley — an MI6 intelligence officer — in the landmark 1979 BBC miniseries of the same name.
“Forgive me, but I’m afraid of the man who played it 32 years ago,” Oldman told me in a recent interview. “The ghost of Guinness looms very large, and while other people have played Smiley, he, for many, had given the definitive performance and had been the face for the character until now.”
Set in the bleak days of the Cold War in early 1970s, “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” finds Smiley — previously forced into retirement from the Circus (the code name for British Secret Intelligence) — summoned back to agency to investigate a claim that one of its senior officials is doubling as a mole for the Russians.
Even though the material was readily available for him to review, Oldman said he purposefully avoided the “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” miniseries — based on one in a series of best-selling spy novels by legendary author John le Carre. Quite simply, Oldman said, he didn’t want to be influenced by the previous interpretation of the character in any way. He wanted to make the portrayal his own, because ultimately, he knew he’d be compared to Guinness.
“I looked at it like an actor would with any classic role, like Hamlet, where you’d be measured against all of the other great actors who have played Hamlet,” Oldman said. “Comparisons in this business are inevitable. It’s an occupational hazard. Even so, I felt that I couldn’t give up the chance to play a wonderful part. He’s arguably one of the best characters I’ve ever had the fortune of playing.”
Feature: Top 10 movies (and worst movies) of 2011
If there’s anything that separates “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” from most of the other films in the espionage genre, it doesn’t over-glorify the role of the British secret agent. While you won’t find any gadgets or whirligigs on the good guys, it doesn’t make the characters any less interesting.
“It’s amazing what you can achieve without an Aston Martin,” Oldman said with a laugh, in a tip of the hat to James Bond. “I was much relieved when I sat down to read the script the first time around, because I thought they would succumb to, or be tempted to jump on that sort of Jason Bourne bandwagon. Now, I enjoy the ‘Bourne’ movies immensely and I like Matt Damon, but this is something else. I was happy that the filmmakers didn’t try to kick it up a notch or pander to that sort of audience. This is a quieter, thinking man’s thriller.”
Oldman pointed out maintaining that sort of integrity not only was done for the sake of being true to the source material, but also signaled a certain respect for the film’s audience members.
“It’s sort of refreshing, honestly, to do a film that isn’t underestimating the intelligence of the audience,” Oldman observed.
“Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” boasts an impressive cast, including last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Colin Firth, as well as Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, David Dencik and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Also starring in “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” is Tom Hardy, who will be featured once again opposite Oldman as the strongman villain Bane in the hotly anticipated superhero sequel “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“We did ‘Tinker’ first, and actually, I have a great deal to do with him in the Batman film,” Oldman said. “I’m also with him in (the upcoming crime drama) ‘Wettest County,’ although we don’t have any scenes together. It’s sort of the year of Oldman and Hardy. I think he’s an enormously talented young actor.”
Oldman, of course, will be back in full force as Commissioner Jim Gordon in “The Dark Knight Rises,” which writer-director Christopher Nolan promises will be the last of his three Batman films. Oldman is completely confident that fans are in for another great experience, if not for any other reason than Nolan’s commitment to deliver them the best possible film he can come up with.
“I think Nolan is too talented and too smart, really, to make a third Batman film just for the sake of making it, even though he probably had pressure from the studio to do so,” Oldman said. “I think it was important for him to get the story right. He’s a storyteller, and with this, I think he’s concluded the trilogy in a very impressive way. The story is great. I think that’s what will really impress people. It’s epic.”
“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” directed by Tomas Alfredson, is playing in select theaters and opens wide Jan. 6.
More Interviews By Tim Lammers
-Jeremy Irvine, “War Horse”
-Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
-Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo”
-Jamie Bell, “The Adventures of Tintin”
-Steven Zaillian, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”