Gary Oldman watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when it aired as a BBC miniseries in 1979, but he purposely avoided a second viewing before signing up to play George Smiley in a new film adaptation of John le Carre's classic 1974 novel.
"I really thought that I would be contaminated by it," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And I didn't want to do an impersonation."
In the original Tinker, Tailor, acclaimed British actor Alec Guinness played Smiley, a mild-mannered, middle-aged spy chief ousted from MI6 after a botched operation in Eastern Europe. But once it becomes clear that there's probably a mole within the intelligence agency, Smiley is brought back on board to catch the double agent.
In the new version, Oldman joins an ensemble cast of British actors including Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik and John Hurt. But the story mainly revolves around the laconic Smiley — a man Oldman says leads from a passive position.
"He listens, he sees everything, and he hears everything, but there's action in the listening, in a way," says Oldman. "It's not just with the ears. It's a complete physical thing with Smiley. He's very, very restrained emotionally. He has been, over his career, a wonderful interrogator, and this is what makes him dangerous."
Oldman notes that his character has been described as the "anti-James Bond" because he rarely if ever loses his calm, collected manner.
"Here is a man who doesn't wear a tiepin. He doesn't wear cuff links," he says. "He wears a drab gray mackintosh. He disappears into the crowd. And, of course, that's what makes him dangerous. He is not the man who is wearing a white tuxedo, jumping out of an Aston Martin."
Playing such a subdued character, says Oldman, was good for his blood pressure, among other things.
"I was leading a quiet life, an anonymous life outside of the set," he says. "He's one of the few characters that I missed when the movie ended. I miss George. I liked being in his company."
A Character Actor Playing Many Characters
George Smiley is, of course, radically different from Oldman's other iconic roles. He has portrayed everyone from Sid Vicious to Harry Potter's godfather to Dracula, in the 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. For that role, he wore heavy robes, an enormous wig and old-fashioned glass contact lenses that covered his entire eyeball.
"They're rather uncomfortable to wear, and after about a half-hour, the muscles around the eye socket start to reject it and they start to cramp," he says. "Now of course [lenses] are plastic; it's all soft. But it was quite a test."
Not that he was complaining, he says.
"It was quite something. It's so camp and so funny now," he says. "I tried to lower my voice almost an octave for that role. They found a girl, who actually ended up being one of the brides in the movie — she was from Transylvania. And I listened to her and various tapes and made it my own. And occasionally, I would put in a little homage to Bela Lugosi."
Oldman explains that he's always trying to stretch his acting chops, though there are some roles he has been hesitant to play.
"There are things that are not in my wheelhouse. You have to know your limitations," he says. "Put it this way: A film I did 10 years ago with Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges [called] The Contender -- I play the congressman. I'm happy in the skin of [the congressman], but I don't know if I could play the president. That needs, I feel, something else. I wouldn't want to wear those shoes."
Instead, Oldman often wears the shoes of a film's villain. He's been the antagonist in films like True Romance, The Fifth Element and Leon. And in two of his movies — Air Force One and JFK — he has even played a presidential assassin.
It was therefore a relief, he says, to play Harry Potter's noble godfather, Sirius Black, in the Harry Potter films.
"It was a lovely switch of gears," he says. "It was such an incredible project to be involved with. ... There was nothing like it before, and I doubt if there will be after."
"Sometimes they can be quite heartless. I was at a Q&A a couple of months ago, and a woman had sat through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then afterwards came up to me and said, 'I love your socks. ... I liked the film, but I love your socks.' [I thought] 'Well, I'm glad you like my socks.'
"But people are, on the whole, very kind and they have favorites. There are the Sid and Nancy fans, who — for them, you have done nothing over the last 25 years. Basically, 'We like you as an actor, but oh my God, we love you in Sid and Nancy.' They love The Professional. But I can move around with a certain degree of anonymity. That's the good thing about being a character actor. I do live a very normal life."
On playing George Smiley
"I was apprehensive because Alec Guinness was really the face of Smiley and made him so iconic. [Guinness] was a very much-beloved actor and part of the British establishment of acting. So it gave me pause for thought. I thought, 'Awfully big shoes to walk in.' I was a little apprehensive, a little fearful, even though I obviously knew it was wonderful source material. ... It's not every day that Smiley comes through the letterbox."
On meeting John le Carre, who was a spy in British intelligence before becoming an author
"In terms of when actors talk about research, it was one-stop shopping. ... He was 80 last year. It was like hanging out with a 25-year-old. He has a memory, a mind like a steel trap. He's rather like a jukebox, really. I was a little apprehensive about meeting him because he is the great author, the great master. And this is one of his great books. And you'd ask him a question, and it was like pushing the buttons on a jukebox. You put the coin in, and away he would go.
On Smiley's glasses
"The glasses to me were the Aston Martin — they had to be as iconic as the martini, shaken not stirred. I saw him as an old wise owl who could see everything and hear everything. And I wanted a certain type of look. And they couldn't be earlier than 1969 or later than 1973. So my window to find them was rather narrow. ... I tried on about 200 pairs, driving the director crazy. But eventually I found them in Pasadena, of all places."
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