Take away his instantly recognizable roles in blockbuster franchises like ‘Harry Potter‘ and Christopher Nolan‘s Batman, and Gary Oldman would still be treasured as a bona fide cinematic icon. Frankly, how could the 53-year-old British actor not be, considering how many iconic characters—from Sid Vicious to Beethoven, Pontius Pilate to Count Dracula—that he has distinctively co-opted and burned into our memories?
In “Let the Right One In” director Tomas Alfredson‘s elegantly thrilling, period adaptation of espionage master John le Carré’s Cold War-era novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Oldman again takes charge of a beloved persona that had long been associated with Sir Alec Guinness in a 1979 TV miniseries of the same name. Featuring a who’s who of British talent including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt and Tom Hardy, the new film stars Oldman as retired spymaster George Smiley, a mild-mannered man of few words, fewer tells and cunning observational skills, who has been called back into service to suss out a traitor within his former foreign-intelligence agency.
The Playlist sat down with Oldman to discuss the film, while also addressing reports of appearing in upcoming “Arthur & Lancelot” and “Akira” projects (“Rumors. There’s nothing set.”), his thoughts on Warner Bros. rebooting Batman after “The Dark Knight Rises” (“I’ve never heard of that… Keep the goose alive that lays the golden egg, but it won’t be with Chris Nolan.”), and casting his co-star Firth in his long-awaited directorial follow-up to “Nil by Mouth” (“That’s another rumor. I’m not directing him.”).
The Playlist: George Smiley is a much-loved character through le Carré’s novels and the miniseries. Did anything carry over from those previous incarnations to your take on the character?
Gary Oldman: Well, of course, the book is the Holy Grail. Whenever we were in doubt, one always went back to the book. It’s not like it’s an okay book, or someone’s beefed up a screenplay. It’s literature, and it’s great, great stuff. I remember the series, but I didn’t re-watch it because I didn’t want to be contaminated by it. But Alec Guinness and I now are mining the same material, so there will be things that we both arrive at.
The reason I ask specifically is because Smiley has such an internalized personality…
Great watcher, great listener.
As a character who’s practically an actor himself, how do you try to externalize that in this medium?
Fortunately, you’ve got a camera that can get here, first of all…[motioning to a close-up of his face]…and can pick up on a thought process. If it’s close enough, you can see that hopefully, the mind working. The clues, the secret to him. It’s interesting to be the motor of a scene, but from a very restrained, almost passive place. Some of the work is done for you by the other characters.
There was a passage in the book that was the key, to me, to unlocking the door. It was a description of [Smiley’s wife] Ann, who described him as a swift. She said that Smiley could regulate his body temperature to the room of a situation he was in. Almost like a reptile, just lowering the heartbeat. That was a real jewel. You know when you hit gold, because it informed the way I spoke, the stillness of the character came from that. Then you’re looking for other things. He’s a bit of a sadist, George. He can be quite cruel, but that’s him doing his job. I used to call it “the tickle.” You know, he’s just giving someone the tickle. He’s very aware of the filth, the ugly side to the job and what it entails.
Beyond the source material, do you research for a film like this since it takes place in such a specific environment and point in time, some of which is purportedly inspired by true events?
Yeah. I’m told it’s the most autobiographic of his books, that it’s a very personal story. I know for a fact that it was John le Carré’s first wife who killed the owl. Now, he’s put it in a classroom. An owl got trapped in the fireplace and caught on fire, but it was the wife who took care of it. That’s a detail just from his life. I didn’t work much outside of the book and I had access to le Carré, who was a spy and lived through that time. It was one-stop shopping.
Espionage has changed so much, and the way people do it, because of the Internet and Google and all that. The way we swap information. This is a very analog world on the cusp of becoming technological, but it’s still a file in a cabinet, and knocking on walls. That was the world that John knew, so I basically wanted to ask him questions. Like I say, everything you want to know about Smiley, you don’t have to work much outside the book, really. But I wanted to find out a little more about him in the field as an agent, and recruiting prior to when you meet him. That’s where John was useful. Various missions and assignments that he had worked on, he spoke specifically about the level of paranoia. It was so intense having your cover blown, waiting to hear the footsteps on the stairs.
Because of digital footprints and other consequences of technology, that paranoia must be amped up even higher. Do you think today’s espionage agents do more harm than good as they now spy on and interrogate themselves?
They serve a purpose. I think we still need them. Certainly recently with the capture of Saddam or Osama bin Laden, that was all covert. We’re never going to get to the bottom of that. We know torture goes on. Is it necessary? These [North Korean] girls were certainly worked over in this period, but they didn’t have a comrade or someone with them who was going to take a picture of them on an iPhone and then send it to the government. I don’t even know, you would have to be so incredibly undercover. I go to the store and there’s a picture of me in Us Magazine. I never saw anyone, you know?
How you would even get about in this day and age [as a spy], I’m sure it’s all changed. But we connect with the world because ultimately it’s a story about friendship, love lost, betrayal, loyalty and all of those things that we as people connect to. The Cold War is a backdrop to these very lonely, fractured people. I’m sure it’s the same in the corporate world. It really works much the same.
As the film shows, loyalty can get you killed. This may sound glib, but is it an overrated virtue?
Loyalty? In that world, perhaps. No, I happen to believe it is one of the fundamental things. I’m not a fan of disloyalty, infidelity, secrets and lies. I don’t think I’d make a very good spy. I’ve got too much of a conscience. I’d feel too guilty. I can’t do that.
You’ve collaborated with so many gifted filmmakers, to which we can add Tomas Alfedson. Did you glean anything about his process that stands apart from others you’ve worked with?
The lovely thing is he’s very confident. I like his decisiveness. I’ll give you a for-instance. When we were shooting the private house where [two associates] meet, there’s a scene where I listen to them arriving, where [Alfredson] just plays it in on me and they’re coming up the stairs. I take the mint. When he said he was going to shoot that just on me, I thought, “What do you mean?” He says, “I’m going to do a close-up on you, and then I’ll put sounds in and have you reacting to it.” Now, another director, they would’ve cut to the hand on the doorbell, the feet going up the stairs, the close-up of the briefcase, the cars coming in, and maybe even shot an alternate. In editing maybe, if it didn’t work… Tomas knew it was going to work. He didn’t shoot other stuff. I really admired that. That’s what separates the men from the boys. That’s working with a real artist. He’s very confident in his taste and choices.
Last but not least, you’re known for your musicality. Have you had time in recent years to make any music?
No, I used to have a bunch of guys I played with, but I haven’t really done that lately. I play at home. I’m really into the ukulele at the moment. It’s easy to travel with, and you can do a lot. And my kids are getting into music now. My son plays trumpet. But I haven’t had a minute, really.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” opens on Friday, December 9th.