A conversation with Gary Oldman

  • Wed Dec 21st, 2011 5:02pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Gary Oldman has been touted as a top-line actor since his sensational breakthrough in 1986’s “Sid and Nancy,” with a career that has ping-ponged from leading roles to many (perhaps too many) delicious villains.

In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Oldman gets a renewed professional validation, playing the role of George Smiley, the reserved, fastidious Cold Warrior of John le Carre’s world (a role made famous by Alec Guinness in a 1979 TV version of the novel).

Oldman came to the area last week to promote the film, and I interviewed the casual-yet-dapper actor in his hotel room.

Q: I was looking at a note I took during the film, which says, “Gary Oldman eats his Wimpy’s burger with a knife and fork.” There’s no close-up of it, but it’s one of those little character-definers that tells you about Smiley’s life.

A: You’re the first person who has ever mentioned that. Yes, that’s who he is. Very much that school of a certain upbringing, a certain class. Indeed, between bites he would rest the knife, like so, against the plate.

Tomas [Alfredson] is the first director who was there at a props meeting, and went through all the props with me. That’s never happened to me. I’ve been an actor for 33 years, and I’ve never experienced that. We discussed the briefcase, and the watch, and the lighter. All the little notebooks and pens I would have — would Smiley have a tie-pin, would he have cufflinks? Would he have cocktail cuffs? And we decided that he wouldn’t because someone might remember that, and it could give him away.

Q: Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Alfredson would be the kind of director who would go to a props meeting, because the movie’s about the importance of thinking every detail out.

A: It’s all worked out. Certain colors that he wanted in the movie, too. He never referenced other films. He likes Herge, he likes the cartoons of Tintin. He talks in colors, and smells, and he says, “I want the color to capture the smell of damp tweed. If that smell were a color, what would it be?” He’s an original piece, Tomas is. There’s no one quite like him. But you see that [in the film], don’t you? Colin [Firth] saw that. I remember Colin seeing it at an early screening, and he called up, and he said, “It’s a classic. It’s going to become a classic. There’s nothing like it.”

I love the silences. It’s rare that you get that. Movies, they assault you with sound and imagery now. I go home and a pull out the DVD of “The Conversation” [the 1974 Coppola film], and look at how they used to make movies.

Q: The film is considerably condensed from the novel.

A: Tomas says it’s the fillet of the animal. He felt that it was about betrayal, loyalty and emotion. He felt it was an emotional film, not necessarily a political movie.

Q: Did your own performance evolve, from the book to the shooting?

A: Yes, it was a slow evolution. They called and asked me to do it, and I met Tomas, and adored him, and it was love at first sight, really. And I knew the role — everyone knows who Smiley is, it’s like being asked to play Hamlet. And then I dithered for a month, because of the ghost of [Alec] Guinness. Fear, real fear.

I thought, “God, how do you do that? How do you fill those shoes?” And plus, there’s such reverence in the U.K. for Guinness and for le Carre. One can’t forget that I was the one who left — I’ve lived in America for 20 years. And they’ve never quite forgot it, you know. “So you’re that actor that lives in Hollywood and you’re going to come back to play George Smiley?”

You know, all these demons, these dragons — you’ve got to slay these dragons in your head. So I dithered around for a month, writing reviews for myself, projecting how they were going to cut me down. But in the end, you know, if you’re going to play Hamlet, you’re going to be measured against all the other Hamlets that came before, you’re always going to be compared to whoever it is, whether it’s to Burton, or Ken Branagh, or Olivier. So I sort of got my act together and said yes. Fear! It keeps you on your toes, you know, I guess it made it all the more challenging.

Q: What about the voice? You have a very specific voice as Smiley.

A: John le Carre.

Q: Really?

A: I met him. He has this thing of slightly leaning back when he sits, he’s got ever just slightly off the 90 degrees. And there’s a melody to his voice, and when I met him, I began to think, that’s a good voice for Smiley. Guinness had a bit more Eeyore in his voice [Oldman then imitates Alec Guinness sounding like Eeyore], though he may have pinched a bit of le Carre for himself.

I think I started with an impersonation — his granddaughter worked on the movie, and when she saw it she came up to me and said, “there’s little things where you’re doing Grandpa,” and it was our little conspiracy — and then you move away from that and make it your own.