Interview – Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In the new film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, opening in Seattle this Friday, Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired spy called back to try to discover a mole within his old organization. When Oldman was in Seattle recently, he had a chance to talk to me, along with Allie Hanley of Culture Mob and Jason Roestel of The Examiner. As expected, he was a delight. Below is the transcript of that interview. Warning: some spoilers ahead (but not about who the mole is).

Allie Hanley: I know that you spent a fair amount of time getting into character for [Smiley]. Could you elaborate a little bit on what you went through to do that?

Gary Oldman: Well, I didn’t work much outside of the book, because really everything you want to know about him, if you look for the clues of how to play him, it’s there, really, in that, whatever it is, 500 pages or whatever that book is. And then we had—we were lucky to have—access to le Carré himself, so if there were any questions I wanted to ask him…I mean he had been in MI-6, had been a spy himself. So I sort of wanted to know a little bit of history, of Smiley or what he may have been like as a younger man sort of out there in the field working, before we meet him. The initial silhouette of him was a photograph that Tomas Alfredson, the director, had sent me, which was a picture of Graham Greene in a mackintosh, in a sort of trench coat, and that was the initial sort of shape of him.

But you find things, as an actor. John le Carré is a fussier individual than Smiley, and he sort of tends to play with his clothes a bit. But that sort of way Smiley sits, which is just sort of off the 90-degree angle, when he sits in a chair, and he sits back a little, is John. And I sort of stole that from him, and the way Smiley speaks as well. John has a certain musicality, a cadence to his voice, that I thought was—well, you know, he’s the DNA of the whole thing. I thought “why not go to the man, if I’m gonna steal anything?”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

AH: So you went right to the source material.

GO: Right. And then, of course, I didn’t watch—or re-watch—the series, which I’d seen originally in the ’70s. I was at my second year of drama school, I think, when it came out. Because I didn’t really want to be…you’re playing the same role. And you don’t want to be, sort of, contaminated by being so present and re-watching it. So I tried to stay away from any of the Guinness stuff. He loomed large, Mr. Guinness. A ghost.

AH: You loom very large. Even when you’re being understated in your movie.

Brandi Sperry: I feel like this part requires a lot of the emotion and thought process playing out under the surface a little bit. How was that a different challenge than some of the other roles you’re known for, that are sort of “bigger” characters?

GO: They’re not as many as you think. You know, they’re not as—someone said this to me the other day, was saying “[Smiley] is so small, it’s so understated, that it would make Lee Harvey Oswald [the character Oldman played in JFK] look busy. But I think people remember, they remember Stansfield, don’t they, from The Professional?

AH: I just re-watched that.

BS: I remember Sirius Black.

GO: Well he’s pretty subtle, isn’t he, Sirius?

BS: A lot of the time, yeah…

GO: Yeah. This one, you know, you don’t get the impression that he’s—there’s a passage in the book where Anne, the wife, is describing him, and says that he can sort of regulate his body temperature, like a reptile. To the temperature of the room he’s in. And it doesn’t give you the impression that he’s manic or frenetic or fussy, and so the sort of stillness really came from that. I took that as—that suggests someone who wants to disappear, and is quite still.

And you find the similarities; you try to find the similarities, sometimes, as an actor. And sometimes they’re harder. If you’re playing some psychopath who’s a killer, you know, there’s not much reference to your own life, that you can take.

BS: Hopefully not.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

GO: Hopefully not. But with George, you know he carries around that relationship, that rather—I mean nowadays, George would be on a therapist’s couch, wouldn’t he? And they would say “you’re in a very inappropriate relationship. You should really get out of this relationship.” But he loves her. And seems to love being a bit of a masochist, there, and keeps taking her back. So that sense of personal betrayal, and the loss of, you know—love-found-love-lost. I mean, we’ve all experienced it. I mean I’ve had girlfriends who, over the years, have cheated on me. We all kind of know what that feels like. So you bring…it’s a bit like driving a car. You forget about—until that little thing comes up and flashes—you’re not thinking about the fuel.

AH: Your subconscious is doing it.

GO: Yeah, so it’s almost like you’re carrying around the—you’re working on trying to find the mole, and you’re playing the motivations and the actions of the scene, but the underlying thing, which is the fuel in the tank, is Anne. And it gives him a great—he’s a sort of a disillusioned romantic that’s been beaten up.

BS: That was one of my favorite things about the movie, is the way it showed the juxtaposition between the men’s intense activity at the Circus, and then how their personal lives are kind of eaten alive by this spy lifestyle.

GO: We screened this movie for MI-6. And of course the thing that they responded to, the thing that got the loudest sort of reaction, was when Ricki Tarr—actually, it’s the scene, it’s the only time Smiley lies, about Irina. [MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN] And he says “can you get her out?” and Smiley says “I’ll do my utmost.” And he knows she’s dead. And he was just using him. He wants him for the information, for what he can get. But it’s that scene, and Ricki Tarr says “Once this over, I’m out. I don’t want to end up like you lot. I want a fucking life. And a family.” [SPOILERS END]

You know, I think there’s enormous sacrifice that these people make. There was one guy there whose family thinks he’s a chauffeur for dignitaries. And that’s what he does, for them. And he’s a spy. The anonymity of them, as well, even amongst themselves…there’s no obvious rank within the intelligence service. You don’t really talk about what you’re up to. There was one guy, that le Carré told a story about, that had been a hero for Queen & country, and he was awarded the special—rather like a Purple Heart—by the Queen, and he was only allowed to wear it for five minutes, the medal. And then they took it off him and put it away in a cupboard. So he couldn’t even wear the medal. Because it’s all covert.

BS: Yeah, this is a very different type of spy movie.

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Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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