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The character of George Smiley is an iconic one — longtime spy, mild, podgy, middle-aged. He blends into the fog and the old gray streets of London.
Author John le Carre put Smiley in the center of eight spy novels in the 1960s and '70s, and Alec Guinness portrayed him indelibly in the 1979 TV series made from le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Forced to resign after an operation in Eastern Europe goes wrong, Smiley is quietly called back to MI6, the British foreign-intelligence agency, when the spymasters there discover they may have a mole — a traitor in the heart of the organization.
A new take on le Carre's Cold War classic, opening in theaters Dec. 9, features an ensemble cast of top-drawer British actors, including Colin Firth, John Hurt and Ciaran Hinds. But it's still Smiley's story — and this time, he's portrayed by an actor who's played everyone from Sid Vicious to Pontius Pilate, with stops along the way for Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula and Harry Potter's godfather.
Gary Oldman says the offer to play Smiley came in over the transom, unsolicited — but he didn't necessarily jump at the chance.
"I did not say yes immediately, because the ghost of Guinness loomed," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "He was a phenomenal actor, part of the establishment, very much beloved — and was the face of Smiley."
But the opportunity was ultimately just too good to pass up.
"I think I played a sort of trick with my mind, and thought, 'Well, look, treat it as a classical part,'" Oldman says. "There've been many Hamlets, many Romeos, many King Lears. ... You are constantly walking in the shadow of all the people that played the part before you."
Viewing the movie as a reinterpretation of the story, Oldman says, allowed him to move past Guinness' version. His portrayal doesn't have the older actor's world-weary headmaster style.
"I think it's partly to do with the fact that Guinness was nearly 70 when he played the role," Oldman says. "I'm 53. It's a sizable gap. ... There's a little bit of a sadist in [my] George; [he's] a little more harder-edged, a little more prickly."
'The Level Of Paranoia ... Would Take Years Off You'
Smiley carries ghosts with him as he searches for the MI6 mole, Oldman notes: He's haunted in a personal way by the betrayal of a friend (Colin Firth's Bill Haydon), by an unfaithful wife, professionally by the specter of a Soviet spy he's never able to reel in.
"It must have been a very strange world to live in," Oldman says. "In law enforcement, you'll chase a bad guy, capture him. He'll go through the process and go to prison. There's a consequence."
Spies, on the other hand, often have to "turn" their targets, once they run them to ground. "He may have killed people, but you want him on your side."
The actor talked to his character's creator — himself a former spy who put in time at both MI5 and MI6 — to "find out a little more of what George was like actually in the trenches."
"From his own experience, he described the level of paranoia, where you would always wait for the footsteps on the stairs, [signaling] that your cover was blown," Oldman says. "It would take years off you."
'Casualties' Of A Life Lived In The Shadows
Tinker, Tailor director Tomas Alfredson, a Scandinavian, brought an outsider's sensibility to what Oldman says is a "quintessentially British" story.
"It could have been more nostalgic," the actor says. "But he wanted to make this movie about these lonely, fractured people, these casualties of this life that they've chosen, or has chosen them."
He misses George Smiley already.
"He was good for my blood pressure," Oldman says. "It's always nice to be the smartest man in the room. I don't often get to play that."
He may have another chance.
"There's whispers we may do Smiley's People," he confides.