Interview: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Star Gary Oldman

by | Dec 16th, 2011 | 2:48PM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

One of my favorite films of 2011 is director Tomas Alfredson’s smart, complex new adaptation of John le Carre’s classic 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley (a role made famous by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries)–a quietly purposeful retired British spymaster who keeps everything (including his smarts and his strengths) tightly under wraps.

In addition to the brilliant Oldman, Tinker Tailor boasts strong performances from Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, and more.

Oldman’s Smiley is not just a tremendous, understated performance, but one that stands in wonderful contrast to the angry, bellowing roles that made the acclaimed British actor a star. Gary Oldman first grabbed moviegoers’ attention in 1986 as infamous punk icon Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, and went on to build a stellar career, often playing the bad guy in films like JFK (as Lee Harvey Oswald), Dracula, True Romance, The Professional, The Fifth Element, Air Force One, and Hannibal.

But in recent years, the actor’s also played his share of good guys, most notably Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman/Dark Knight trilogy. (Though he still found time for some maniacal villainy in The Book of Eli, Red Riding Hood, and Kung Fu Panda 2.)

Last month I and several other Chicago film writers, including Brian Tallerico of HollywoodChicago, Nick Allen of The Scorecard Review and Peter Sobczynski of eFilmCritic, sat down with the charming, and politely soft-spoken Oldman to talk about this newest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his long, impressive career.



We tried to get Tomas to give us a good question to pester you with, but no luck.

Gary Oldman: Not much gets under my skin these days.

With a character like Smiley who’s so ingrained in people’s minds, both through the book and then through the Alec Guinness TV series, does it change how you play the character?

Oldman: The challenge is how can you overcome the memory, for those who remember Guinness? You kind of have to kill the earlier performance–I don’t mean like an assassin, but the shadow looms large. That was a challenge because you are on the same road, playing the same role, saying a lot of the time the same words, and there are things that Guinness found that are inherent in the role, so he’s done some of the work for you. You can’t just do something different for the sake of it.

If you’re playing a role that’s been played before, like Sid Vicious or Commissioner Gordon or Dracula, do you avoid watching other versions of that character?

Oldman: Well if you playing someone famous like Sid or Oswald, you have to get as much material as you can, and you kind of start with an impersonation. For Tinker Tailor, at the end of the day I had access to John le Carre, and he is the bones and the marrow and the DNA, the sinews and the muscles of all of this. He has a very interesting sort of way of talking, a kind of music to the way he spoke–so in looking for a voice for Smiley, I stole his. Then as you own it you move away from that impersonation, but initially that’s where I started.

You’ve played these dangerously emotional people in your career, so what’s it like now to play someone like Smiley who keeps everything so restrained and unemotional?

Oldman: A relief. I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I now look at Tom Hardy and I go, “Rather you than me.”

When I was younger I used to do a Mick Jagger impersonation, but as I got older I did Charlie Watts.

Oldman: Exactly, it’s a sitting down role. You still drive the scene, but you’re doing it from a very passive place rather than all that jumping around. The stillness of Smiley just spoke to me. That’s how it came off the page to me, that he was very contained. It was such joy to come into work and get on the set and Tomas would say, “Gary, you’re sitting there.” And I would sit down in my chair and say, “I just sit here for the scene?” “Yeah.” How wonderful!

But you would get very hot on the set. I would really work up a sweat underneath. I mean I had on a Macintosh and jacket and scarf, but because you’re focusing everything, everything is inner. It’s just such a wonderful character, like a wonderful wine, it’s fully matured.

You have a reputation for being a chameleon on screen. Is that something you seek out in parts?

Oldman: They’re going to very kindly honor me at the Gotham Awards–I’m getting the lifetime achievement award. And I was involved very peripherally with putting together the tribute reel—I’d say, “a little less of this and a little more of that.” It’s only two minutes long.

But I just recently watched it, all those roles popping up, and I thought A) I overact, and B) I’m Mr. Potato Head. You know, just a potato head that you stick the ears and the hats on and change the face.

But that big style is perfect in films like The Professional and The Fifth Element—those aren’t characters where you want to be restrained.

Oldman: They are cartoons, so that’s really where it started–they are larger-than-life characters and one gets a little typecast, you do. I don’t mean this with any disrespect, he’s the greatest living American actor, but I remember when Al Pacino used to talk like that [in a quiet, Godfather-era Pacino voice] and then ALL OF A SUDDEN [loud Scent of a Woman Pacino voice] WHOO –AHH!

Then for a while Pacino was a bit bigger, you know like he couldn’t quiet shake it off. And I think I went through a period like that where I couldn’t shake it off, and people wanted me to sort of be that thing. And even though you went, “Oh, no I’m not a villain,” you sort of reluctantly went, “Oh, all right.” Then Chris Nolan came along with Batman Begins and switched it up for me. Maybe now I’m going through my next phase as I go into my 60s, where I play characters who don’t move very much.

When you’re working on a film like this with a huge cast and huge potential, do you have a sense that it’s going to be big?

Oldman: I think that we all felt we were working on something really special, and if audiences come along and they’re like-minded, then that’s great. We were all gathered having a dinner on a Thursday evening before this movie opened on a Friday and we didn’t know if audiences would like it–that was totally unknown. We didn’t know that night whether it was going to make a dollar or a hundred dollars. And in England the audiences came.

I’ve got a feeling that people want something else. We’re a little tired of 3D and explosions, aren’t we? So I think it’s refreshing. To me, watching Tinker Tailor is like watching a ‘70s lava lamp. It has a pace to it like snow falling. I go to movies with my kids and when I come home I feel a bit like “God, I need a Tylenol and nap after that.” So I run to the DVD and put in Coppola’s The Conversation–that’s the sort of kind of movie I want to watch. So I’m glad that people have responded to Tinker Tailor in a positive way.

Read my interview with the film’s director Tomas Alfredson.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is playing in select theaters across the country and will be expanding to more in coming weeks.


More Gary Oldman at Redbox:

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