Now playing in limited release is director Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) great new movie, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Based on the 1974 British novel by John le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first novel of the “Karla Trilogy” and the first film installment that may spawn a franchise. The spy thriller features Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch, just to name a few. Set during the Cold War era, the story follows former spy George Smiley (Oldman) through his investigation of a possible double agent within MI-6. It’s a hell of a movie and one you should definitely see.
Anyway, when I was at the New York City press junket I interviewed Gary Oldman twice. The first time was a video interview where we talked about how he found Smiley’s glasses (it was a very important part of discovering the character) and working with the IMAX cameras on The Dark Knight Rises. However, I also participated in a roundtable interview with the extraordinary actor where he talked about how he got involved in the project, working with the rest of the cast, if he used John le Carré as a source and if le Carré told him anything that he could share, and a lot more. Hit the jump to read what he had to say.
Gary Oldman: It came to me. 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. It was a constant director. 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?” Then I think from that day on….directors can sometimes become obsessed with a casting idea and the story is that was it was once she suggested me. So I came in fighting for that role and when you are on that list…sometimes the lists are ridiculous. Sometimes they are looking at me, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Harrison Ford and we are all up for the same part. [laughs]
Did you see yourself in the role immediately when they came to you? Was it a no brainer to do?
Oldman: I am old enough to remember the series when it was first shown. Obviously, [Alec] 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’ 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. I said, “God, how do you pull that off?” because he was so beloved and so much part of the British establishment as an icon. 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. It is a role that has been played by someone else…especially in the U.K. because the inevitable comparisons were going to be there and they have reacted very flagrantly and there have been a few that have said, “There will only ever be one Smiley.” It is like we are in some kind of competition, you know? But I didn’t jump at it. I had to consider it.
Oldman: Do you mean in comparison to some of the other stuff that I have done? [laughs]
Like Romeo is Bleeding, just to throw that out there.
Oldman: Well, I’ve played quiet before. I wouldn’t say Beethoven was over the top or Lee Harvey Oswald. I just felt that it was…I’ve been 30 years for someone to offer me a part like this. 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. Occasionally we would do a take and Tomas would say to me “Can you glance to the tape recorder or when you look can you…?” and I was would say “Well, I did” and he would say “Well, can you make it a little bigger because we couldn’t catch it.” So you can actually go the other way. 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 and that 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. 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.
You share a lot of scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch. How did you feel your dynamic was with him behind the scenes. He didn’t live through that era, but you did. So did you offer him any advice on how to change his mannerisms?
Oldman: No. We all had this great book. So in terms of one’s homework it was one stop shopping because there was the book and we had access to John le Carré if we needed it as there is a resource. I know that Benedict spoke with him. But he is intuitive. He is a wonderful actor, isn’t he? I always think it is exciting to see these people come up. But it is the linage. It is like we are links in a chain. Now it is people like…you look at a different generation and at people like Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, and Michael Fassbender, who are great young actors that are coming through. But Benedict is intuitive.
Did you use John le Carré as a source and did he tell you anything that you could share?
Oldman: I wanted to know a little bit more about George in the earlier days before we meet and the movie begins because John was a spy and he lived through that time. 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 like kind of 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. I am at the end of the telephone if you need me.” He sort of plays that a little but once you meet him and you get him 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. [laughs]
Oldman: In the book it is a flashback. I think Tomas didn’t want to do another flashback so he reinterpreted it and reshaped the scene for it to become almost a story that I tell to Guillam. I think it is Smiley working out something in the moment even as he is telling it. He creates Karla in a way. I think he feels responsible that he was the one that got away and he couldn’t turn in so he subsequently becomes Karla. It must be a very odd profession. 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.
Oldman: There are whispers that we may do another one.
Are you ready for it?
Oldman: I would love to do it. I’ll love to play him again. I kind of miss him.
Did you have any Cold War experience? Did you travel during these days to Eastern Europe or Eastern Germany?