Still waters run deep. That’s the secret behind John LeCarre’s master British spy George Smiley as played by Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The role marks a sharp turn from wild and crazy character actor (“Dracula,” “The Professional,” “Air Force One,” “Immortal Beloved,” “Sid & Nancy” “True Romance”) to heroic leading man. “It’s a lovely change of pace,” Oldman says. When he arrived at the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” set he’d ask, “Am I sitting down in this scene?”
Christopher Nolan was part of the move away from villains, casting Oldman as loyal Gotham Inspector Gordon in “The Dark Knight.” (“The Dark Knight Rises “will be his last time playing that role.) As deliberately directed by Swedish Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” presented several hurdles for the actor.
One, he had to get past the memory of beloved Sir Alec Guinness’s Smiley in the famed 70s BBC mini-series. That involved treating the spy as a Shakespeare character capable of reinterpretation. Two, Oldman had not only to contend with delivering a subtle performance as a spy whose job it is to hide his feelings behind a poker face—but do it in just one or two takes! Alfredson puts Clint Eastwood to shame in the shooting fast department. Alfredson also told me something else about Oldman. He asks each actor to channel an animal in their performance, he said. Oldman was a turtle. Makes perfect sense.
UPDATE: Oldman made it into the Oscar derby (SAG did not come through, but BAFTA did) because his performance is one of the year’s best. Yes, this is a thin-lipped, brainy exercise in British precision (written by Oscar-nominated Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor). But there is subterranean emotion in Oldman’s Smiley. And when he explodes, watch the audience jump. “It’s like winding up a rubber band,” he says, “and the tension is there when you let it go.”
See the video below (if you have not read the book or seen the TV series or movie, beware of spoilers in video three).