Spinning Platters Interview: Gary Oldman on “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

by Jason LeRoy on December 14, 2011

Gary Oldman stars as "George Smiley" in Focus Features' release of Tomas Alfredson's TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Credit: Jack English

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when it seemed like maybe we’d already seen the best of Gary Oldman. After establishing himself as a fearlessly intense and committed film actor with Alex Cox’s seminal British indie, Sid and Nancy (1986), he spent the next decade delivering unforgettable performances in roles ranging from Lee Harvey Oswald to Dracula to Beethoven, pivoting nimbly from blockbusters like Air Force One and The Fifth Element to cult favorites like The Professional and Romeo is Bleeding. But after the disastrous Lost in Space (1998), he seemed to vanish into an infrequent series of TV appearances and little-seen films.

Then in 2004, that most dependable employer of underused British thespians – the Harry Potter films – tapped Oldman to play the pivotal role of Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The next year, he appeared as Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. After nearly a decade of relative obscurity, Oldman now found himself a key player in two of the biggest and most acclaimed franchises in history. And just like that, the great Gary Oldman was back in action.

While Harry Potter and the Batman films have played large roles in the revitalization of his career, it is his work as George Smiley in director Tomas Alfredson’s ice-cold adaptation of the legendary John le Carré spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that has earned Oldman, 53, his finest reviews in nearly 20 years – and buzz that he may finally earn what would shockingly be his first Oscar nomination. Below, Oldman chats with Spinning Platters about how spy thrillers are like the corporate world, tormenting Alfredson with pictures of himself in hotel rooms, and what he really thinks about his breakout film, Sid and Nancy.

You give such a distinctive performance as this well-known character. How did you prepare for the role? Did you read the book or watch the Alec Guinness miniseries?

I’m old enough to remember the series. [laughs] I didn’t go back and revisit it because I didn’t want to be contaminated with it, and I probably remember it better than I think I do. [Guinness] took an iconic literary character and gave it a face. Even though James Mason and Anthony Hopkins and Denholm Elliott have all played Smiley, Guinness has always been the face. So I was around for that, and I’ve read a couple of the books since then.

It’s not every day you get a phone call saying you’re not even up for a role with five other people. It’s the rarest of occasions that people call and say, “We’re doing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and you are the only person we want for Smiley.” That’s rare in itself. So I knew the material and I knew the role, but the shadow of Guinness is so huge that I didn’t accept immediately. I had to think about it and talk myself into it, because comparisons are going to be made. In the end, I approached it like a classical part. There are the Hamlets, there are the Romeos, there are the King Lears. It’s a reinterpretation of a great part. And why should he be the only one who gets to speak those lines?

Why do you think audiences have always been so drawn to spy espionage thrillers?

I think certainly in the corporate world, it’s the same. [laughs] Personally, I think that this book has enjoyed the longevity it has because it’s in your face right at the forefront: this is the politics, this is the Cold War as a backdrop. It’s about emotion, it’s about love won and lost, it’s about betrayal. It’s about all the things we can connect with. It’s about all these lonely broken people. Forget the spy stuff – that’s why it’s such a good piece of writing. The other end of this extreme is Bond and casinos and Aston Martins and all of that. But I think it’s the closest thing to the corporate world of backstabbing and double-crossing. So we can connect with it; we can get it and understand it, even though we’re not spies. That’s how I’ve always seen it: the corporate world, but with guns. [laughs]

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Sid and Nancy. What are your reflections on that character, the experience of making that film, and the role it played in your film career?

[sticks out his tongue, laughs] It was… Well, I was lucky in the beginning, because I played in Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears back to back. That was just how it worked out. I played this bigger-than-life heroin-addict punk rocker [Sid Vicious], and then this homosexual playwright [Joe Orton]. So I always think of it as in twos in a way. Those two are connected, because that’s what launched the ship in the beginning of the career. But I look back on it with fondness. I mean, I don’t watch old work. I don’t revisit it. And I’ve got some fond memories. Not so good. It is what it is. It’s still a “classic,” yeah? Other generations are still watching it?

Yeah, absolutely! Every generation seems to discover Sid and Nancy at some point. It just got its stateside Blu-ray release. It definitely seems to endure.

Wow. That amazes me. [laughs] I must be looking at something else, I don’t know! I mean, I don’t mind being associated with Harry Potter by the younger fans, because they’re so sweet and genuine when they’re seven years old and come up to me and say, “Are you Sirius Black?” It’s harder to take when someone says, “I saw you in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it was great – but I loved you in Sid and Nancy!” I don’t know why, it’s hard to hear. It was a long time ago. I’ve been waiting 30 years for a part like this, and it’s nice to be able to express oneself in a more passive way than shooting up and razor-blading my chest. [laughs]

Smiley’s glasses are such a crucial part of his look. How important was the choice of which glasses for him to wear?

Well, they were a fucker to find. I drove Tomas mad. The glasses for Smiley – they are the Aston Martin. They are the “martini shaken but not stirred.” And of course you’re looking at the window of 1969-74, so they had to be glasses from that period.

Were they re-created?

No, I found them. I found a vintage pair from that period, and then we had a company in England that crafted the copies. Obviously you need a pair where you’ll see reflections, and then you need a pair that has that non-reflective thing, and then you need a copy of each in case they get stolen or broken. It’s always got to be five or six pairs of the same thing. So we sent off the original, which was vintage and from that period, to be copied. And when they came back, the copies were ever so slightly a different color – and it was even more perfect than the original. That was a lucky accident.

But I tried on about 200 pairs [during my search]. He talks about the glasses in the book, and they’re such a part of him. Not to get too deep about it, but he’s seeing all of this unfold [through them]; he sees the world through these glasses, so they’ve got to be right. You know when they’re not right very quickly. You put them on and you look and go, “No.” And you know equally as fast when they’re right. Once I put this pair on, I went, “Yeah. They’re the ones.” But Tomas will tell you, I drove him fucking crazy! I used to take pictures of myself in the hotel room and then email them to him saying, “What about these? These are the 1969 ones. And what about these? They’re from 1970.” I drove him nuts. [laughs]

Speaking of Tomas, how would you characterize your collaboration with him and what you look for in a successful collaboration with a director?

It’ll be a short time, but when you’re working together so closely and so intensely, 10 or 12 weeks can feel like a year. And you’re together in each other’s company, especially on a movie like this where you’re almost in every scene, so you’re working every day with someone. You’ve got to like them, first of all. And when I met Tomas, I just adored him. I mean, he’s an original. He’s an original piece. Someone asked him today at Lucasfilm, in an audience full of young filmmakers, “What about the look of the movie? How did you achieve it?” And he said, “Well, I was with my cameraman, and we were trying to capture the smell of damp tweed.” [laughs] Now, they’re not going to hear many directors up there who talk like that. He’s unusual. Who would have “La Mer” as the closing of a spy movie, sung by Julio Iglesias? I don’t know of any other director who could come up with that. He’s a totally original piece.

Had you seen his other films?

I saw Let the Right One In, but I have yet to catch up with his other Swedish films. So I liked him and thought his take on the material was very original, and we just hit it off. He’s very quiet, very focused. He can be very funny, great sense of humor. And it’s not always like that. It can be hard work sometimes. But you can’t get on with everyone. You can initially meet someone and think everything is great, but then you start working… [laughs] We’ve all experienced it. We all know what that is.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens in San Francisco on Friday, December 16.

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