British aor Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight,” “The Fifth Element,” “Immortal Beloved,” “Harry Potter”) has long been admired for his vast body of work, but he’s never been nominated for an Academy Award. Buzz has been building that his time may finally have come for an Oscar nod, honoring his powerful portrait of the wily spymaster George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,”ctSwedish director Tomas Alfredson’s British film adaptation of John le Carré’s classic Cold War espionage novel (also see “A Thinker’s Thriller” film review in the January 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat). At the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, Oldman talked to The Washington Diplomat about playing the brainy, anti-Bond British spy.
He said the role pretty much came to him. “It was a rare occasion to me where it was an offer, and one wasn’t in the lining up with the usual suspects where you are one in five people that they are looking at. So it just came in. I know that Tomas [Alfredson] wanted to cast Smiley before they cast anyone else. The story that he tells me is that they were going through the lists, and after five months of this they were almost giving up. Then the casting director said, ‘What about Gary?’…. So I came in fighting for that role.”
He also had some big shoes to fill, with his performance sure to be compared to the exceptionally well-received 1979 British miniseries adaptation, in which Sir Alec Guinness set the bar with his legendary portrayal of Smiley.
“Obviously, Guinness made such a mark playing it and carrying the face of Smiley. He was nearly 70 when he played, and my first thought was, ‘Well, I am a bit young.’ But it was Tomas’s idea to cast it younger across the board. But the ghost of Guinness was large. You could honestly say that it was almost a definitive portrayal of Smiley,” Oldman admitted.
“In the end, I sort of played a trick with my head. I sort of thought, ‘Well, there have been other Romeos, Hamlets and King Lears, and it is just another reinterpretation.’ So I sort of approached it rather how you would approach a classical part.”
But inhabiting the persona of the taciturn, middle-age spy had its distinct challenges. “Well, I’ve played quiet before,” Oldman said of his low-key portrayal. “The challenges are that when you play a character that is so emotionally closed, there are times when you ask yourself if you are doing enough, and if it’s reading. That is where you have a director who is the barometer of what you are doing,” he explained.
“The trick is that one likes to think that you have a certain charisma because we are in a profession where you have to a certain extent believe that you are interesting and that people want to watch you [but] you are playing a character that actually wants to disappear. He is beige and he just becomes part of the room, which makes him forgettable. So that was an interesting challenge — you have to dial everything down. But the roles that you play in are what is required of you.”
He added: “I think you can get a bit typecast. I think people remember movies like ‘Leon: The Professional’ and certainly the two movies I did with Luc Besson. They are very big, but they are cartoonish characters. So it was great to work on a piece of material where you can really play subtext.”
Oldman said he based his interpretation in part on Smiley’s creator, John le Carré, who in real life worked for the British MI5 and MI6 and whom Oldman got to know during filming. “He was a great inspiration, and I modeled George on John initially as a sort of springboard. You put a character like this, and he had a certain musicality in his voice and a certain wonderful quality about him. So I kind of started and stole some little mannerisms from him. You begin almost with an impersonation, and the more that you do the work, the further that you get away from it. But he is sort of the DNA of the whole thing.
“He is 80 this year, and it is kind of like hanging out with a 30 year old. He has a prolific memory, and he is a great actor, impersonator and a wonderful raconteur. He says, ‘I’m there if you need me,'” Oldman recalled, laughing that once you get the famed author talking, “it is like putting a coin in the juke box. You just put the coin in and then the record plays. It is fantastic. You can’t shut him up!”
But the actor still finds the espionage profession to be an odd one. “We showed the movie to people in MI6 who loved it and thought that it was very accurate. There was a guy there whose family believes that he is a chauffeur for diplomats and that that is what he does for a living, but he is a spy. It is a strange profession in as much that if you are part of law enforcement and you go off after a bad guy and you are lucky enough to catch him, he goes through the process of the justice system and is imprisoned. With a spy, you find a guy, you get him, and you try to turn him. He may have killed people, but there are no consequences in that respect. You want him now to come over to you.”
But Oldman’s impressive depiction of John le Carré’s iconic Cold Warrior has already generated buzz that it won’t be the last time we see Oldman in the role. The actor muses on reprising Smiley for a sequel: “There are whispers that we may do another one. I would love to do it. I’ll love to play him again. I kind of miss him.”
About the Author
Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.