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Gary Oldman, 'The Swiss Army Knife of Acting,' Talks 'Tinker' at Palm Springs

Photo of Steve Greene By Steve Greene | Indiewire January 17, 2012 at 12:10PM

When Gary Oldman (who was nominated for a BAFTA today) spoke before an audience at the Palm Springs Film Festival this past weekend, he was not sporting a bushy beard, a jet-black Van Dyke, a nest of dreadlocks, or a conspicuous gold tooth.
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Gary Oldman, speaking before an audience at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
Gary Oldman, speaking before an audience at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
When Gary Oldman (who was nominated for a BAFTA today) spoke before an audience at the Palm Springs Film Festival this past weekend, he was not sporting a bushy beard, a jet-black Van Dyke, a nest of dreadlocks, or a conspicuous gold tooth.

While many of his performances which have notably featured those aesthetic enhancements have been regarded as iconic, his most recent role will surely be considered alongside them even though it has none of those flashy add-ons. Oldman’s work as George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is perhaps the most transcendent of his roles that comes closest to his public persona.

Before a full house at the Annenberg Auditorium in Palm Springs, Oldman was as composed as the character for which he is most recently known. He doesn’t move at the calm, glacial pace that Smiley sometimes does in "Tinker Tailor," but in a panel/forum environment, the verbal control that comes from being a classically trained actor is readily apparent.

For a glimpse into the elements of his portrayal of George Smiley, he answered questions from Variety editor-in-chief Timothy Gray and the assembled enthusiasts in the crowd.

We’ve collected some of the panel’s most curious tidbits below:

Fans of Smiley, rejoice! A sequel is likely on the way. “I think they will make ‘Smiley’s People.’ I am very honored and proud to now be, for another generation, associated with George Smiley. There’s another one coming.”

“Tinker Tailor” lends itself to some interesting similes. “It has a pace that I once described was like watching a lava lamp and I meant it as a compliment. Compared to other stuff you see, it’s like snow falling...I imagined Smiley rather like a wise old owl that sees everything and hears everything. You know how a cat will jump from the floor up to a surface and only uses the energy it needs? It doesn’t get up and it’s out of breath. Smiley’s a little like that.”

What could possibly make Gary Oldman nervous? Well, John Hurt, for one. “One of my career ambitions was fulfilled working with John. I’ve loved John Hurt’s work long before I ever had the idea of being an actor, so I was nervous to meet him. I was like a fanboy around him. I was like that annoying character from Saturday Night Live. I’m sitting there, ‘Do you remember when you were in ‘Midnight Express?’ Remember that scene you were in?’ And he doesn’t disappoint.”

There was something about all the actors being in one place and they couldn’t....quite....ah yes, of course. “Once you get all those actors around a table, it’s Six Degrees of Harry Potter. Poor Mark Strong is the only living actor in England who’s never been in a Harry Potter movie!”

Having the author of the source novel, John le Carré, on set meant a wealth of anecdotes, one of them involving a paranoid Alec Guinness. “They went to lunch with the guy who was the real ‘Control’ and that’s where Alec got the idea for the suede, orange-brown suede shoes as Smiley. This chap had cufflinks and a tie-pin and all that stuff. Alec Guinness thought that these things squirted cyanide and that the buttonhole was a microphone. This chap left them and walked up the street with his umbrella. Evidently Guinness turned to le Carré and said, ‘Is that a real umbrella?’ thinking it was shooting darts or something. John le Carré, who as you know is a man of many words and can wax lyrical with the purple prose said, ‘Of course it fucking is.’”

British actors are far more obedient than their counterparts from other countries. Oldman discussed with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” director Tomas Alfredson how his previous actors had been different. “With Swedish actors, it’s up for discussion. It’s this debate that you have. You say to a Swedish actor, ‘You come through the door, take the water, pour the water, then you sit there and then you look at your notes.’ A Swedish actor says, ‘Well, maybe I come in from over there, maybe I won’t want the water. English actors just do as they’re told. [Alfredson] said, ‘The only problem in the world is that if you have a really shitty idea, you see the best actors in the world doing it.’”

When shooting “Tinker Tailor,” finding the right amount of takes was a tricky equilibrium. “This movie is basically one or two takes, sometimes three. We didn’t have a large, leisurely shooting schedule. Tomas doesn’t like doing a lot of takes. I’m a five-take guy. I’ll do more, but I would have to fight with and ask, ‘Can I do one more?’ I would say, ‘Well, we’re here aren’t we? I’ve come all this way.’”

Given his acting range, people like to call him a chameleon. But he’s got other nicknames from people in the business. “Mel Gibson called me Mr. Potato Head. It was a compliment I’m sure. He could have said it a lot worse. Tomas Alfredson very sweetly called me The Swiss Army Knife of Acting, which I thought was kind of cute.”

He doesn’t like to give advice to younger actors, but it’s not because he’s a curmudgeon. “I wouldn’t be so presumptious to sit down with a young actor and open my chest and say, ‘Listen, son.’ I wouldn’t do that. It’s the parent example. I’m prepared, I do the work at home and I come in ready and I’m on time. That, in a way, is saying to these kids, ‘Come ready.’ I’ve fought with a few who haven’t, but they’ll get it.”

He was responsible for much of his own content for Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK.” When discussing some of his favorite roles, Oldman talked about a special assignment given to him by Oliver Stone. “What made it so special is that there was very little on the page. Oliver Stone gave me a bunch of plane tickets and some contact names and said, ‘Go to New Orleans. Go to Dallas. Meet these people and investigate and find out who Oswald was.’ I met the daughter and the wife. I became a detective. You don’t often get a chance to put a character together like that.”

When he’s back behind the camera, it won’t be in the world of fantasy. “I’ve just finished writing something which is based on real events. I won’t be in it, but I’ll tell it.”

This article is related to: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson, Palm Springs International Film Festival