Gary Oldman Tries to Blend into the Woodwork in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

For a guy who’s famous for playing outsized characters like Count Dracula, Sid Vicious, and renegade wizard Sirius Black, Gary Oldman’s latest role as SIS agent George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s cool, masterful movie “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is something of a departure. Like all good spies, Smiley is gray and rather bland — someone you’d walk past in a crowd without giving him a second look. It’s a particularly tricky role for an actor; you have to be dull yet charismatic enough to carry the film. Sir Alec Guinness memorably played aging spy in the 1979 BBC adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel as if he were a stern, yet world-weary headmaster. Oldman’s take is far colder and more unsympathetic; he’s someone you’d have no trouble believing would, in the right situation, kill you.

I sat down with Gary Oldman recently in a Beverly Hills hotel. He was decked out in a shiny purple-and-blue suit. Definitely not an outfit Smiley would favor. In spite of this, his demeanor was quiet and thoughtful, as if we were still channeling the master spy, yet still he radiated the same charisma that has made him one of the most watchable stars working today.

We talked about his character, the movie, and just a bit about his next flick, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Jonathan Crow: I understand that you were initially kind of hesitant to take on this role because of the comparison with Alec Guinness’s performance. How did you make Smiley different?

Gary Oldman: Well, I don’t think I consciously wanted to make him different. I didn’t go back and look at the TV series. I didn’t want to be contaminated by it.

At the end of the day, I treated this as sort of classical role, if you play Hamlet you will be measured against all the other wonderful Hamlets that came before you. The dragon that I had to slay was the ghost of Guinness’s iconic interpretation of this character. But, ultimately, the opportunity to play and be involved with the film outweighed that.

And then I just came to the role. I just opened the book and tried to find the little clues — all the things that you do with any role — and then I started piecing them together. But I was lucky here because I had this great source material. Everything you want to know about playing George is there.

See Showtimes for ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ >>

JC: Smiley is, by design, a very low-key, bland person. He blends into the woodwork. Yet at the same time, he’s the center of the movie. Was that a challenge?

GO: Yeah, he is an unusual hero in a way — even in the novels.

Tomas does a lot of the work. The way he presents Smiley. I don’t speak for the first 16 minutes of the movie — that’s interesting! You watch because you’re asking yourself, “When is this guy actually going to open his mouth and say something?” I imagined him like an owl, a wise old owl.

JC: An owl?

GO: Hmm, these big eyes that see everything, hears everything.

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JC: How did you approach this character?

GO: In the book, he is described as a little pudgy and a little shorter than me. Le Carré described him as an example of the meek who will not inherit the earth. And he comes from great moral certainty. It’s queen and country that he believes in.

In the book, his wife, Ann, describes George as a swift, a creature that can regulate his body temperature to that of the surroundings that he is in. So he does, in a sense, as you say — he blends in and disappears into the woodwork. That’s what has made him, I think, so successful.

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JC: Did you watch any — I mean, you didn’t watch the TV series, but did you watch any other spy movies or are you a fan of spy films?

GO: Le Carré sort of redefined the spy genre. Movies like ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” It was more realistic, I think. You could really believe that this was how things went down. I think the Bond movies moved away, farther and farther and farther away from [Bond author Ian] Fleming’s idea of him. That’s until Daniel Craig, who is a complex, dark individual — a son of a bitch who would kill you like that. That’s probably what Ian Fleming had more in mind.

JC: I’m interviewing you about playing a spy, but I realize that you know the Hollywood equivalent of nuclear codes. You know how the new “Dark Knight” movie ends.

GO: Yeah, yeah. The secret of “The Dark Knight Rises” is — yes, if I were to tell you, I’d have to eliminate you.

See the trailer to ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’:

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December 2011

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