The Owl Who Roared
Gary Oldman on Tackling George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Gary Oldman is George Smiley; it’s apparent the moment you walk into a room and are introduced to him. Impeccably dressed, immaculately groomed, soft-spoken and measured, the man responsible for some of the more volcanic (and iconic) villainous cinematic portraits of the past couple of decades is every bit the gentleman, and you get the feeling portraying author John le Carré’s Cold War spy was a welcome change for the esteemed British thespian.
Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy © Focus Features
“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a stick, isn’t it?” laughs Oldman. “Getting the opportunity to play someone like Smiley, how can you turn such an offer down?”
The man most known for turns in films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, True Romance and The Professional, as well as for portraying the boy wizard’s loving uncle Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series, is only half joking when he makes this statement. The truth of the matter is that taking on the role of George Smiley would be an easy offer to decline, the ghost of legendary Alec Guiness and his landmark 1979 BBC miniseries portrayal of the character still hovering over the material three-plus decades after the fact.
“It makes as much energy to make a bad movie as it does a great one,” states Oldman without pretense. “Everyone goes into something with then hopes it will be original and different and, most important, good. With Smiley, I didn’t know how I was going to play [him] when I finally said yes to it, but I looked at it as if it were an actor playing Hamlet. When you play classical roles you’re always going to be measured against [those] who played the character before; there’s always someone playing Hamlet.”
“And that’s how it was with Smiley. You walk through the fire and the demons and the monsters in your head as that’s where they are, aren’t they? You have to slay them. Guiness is obviously the major one; he’s been the face of Smiley for all these decades and for many is the interpretation they’ll always know. But he was nearly 70 when he played him and he’s rather bookish, sort of school masterly, and my Smiley is younger and I like to think he’s little more virile.”
Anyone who has watched Guiness’ portrayal of the character will notice the differences between his interpretation and Oldman’s immediately. While one cannot say with any certainty which actor’s is better, per se, it is apparent that the latter’s take is almost avian at times, the actor channeling the character’s seasoned grasp of the international spy game and turning it into an observational sport where he is the bird on high observing the machinations of the smaller, more rodent-like animals scurrying through the urban political forests below.
“He’s a wise old owl,” proclaims Oldman with a grin, “I’m glad you caught on to that. Those big glasses, those owl-like eyes, the way he listens; he’s such a great listener and a magnificent watcher. He’s a bird sitting on a branch taking it all in. You find the inspiration for things in the smallest details. When you build a character you like for the similarities, you look for the emotional similarities to the world and the emotions you know. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all fallen out of love. We’ve all felt the sting of betrayal. Those qualities, those characteristics, I’ve experienced them just as most people have.”
“But while you look for that, look for those similarities, there’s also a bit of imagination thrown in. The book is a great source of inspiration, of course, and that was the real ground zero for discovering the subtext. But I also had access John le Carré and when I met him I was able to steal a few things I felt would benefit the character, help the performance. That sort of stillness when Smiley sits and he just slightly tilts back a sort of 90-degrees, that’s the sort of thing John does when you’re talking to him and he hears something interesting.”
Suddenly Oldman shifts gears, an almost imperceptible shudder going through his body as if he were at the early stages of some sort of ethereal transformation into an entirely different form. He talks more about finding inspiration, more about how certain little things can lead him to embrace facets of a given character in a way he’d never imagined beforehand. Suddenly, no longer was it the quietly refined British gentleman sitting in front of me, it was instead the disfigured grotesquerie known as Mason Verger, the relentless billionaire seeking vengeance against Hannibal Lecter in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.
“I met author Thomas Harris briefly for about five minutes,” he recollects calmly, his whole figure shifting and metamorphosing without warning the actor inching closer and closer to me before continuing, “and I knew instantly the sound in his voice, the way he cocked his head, the way he twitched his fingers, that was it for me, that was Mason Verger. Bam! That’s the guy. This is man who is going to get – whether he does or not isn’t important because he certainly thinks he will – Hannibal Lecter. This is the voice, more than the disfigured face, people are going to remember; this was the image I could use to unsettle the audience.”
Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
© Focus Features
Oldman smiles, and for a moment I feel a chill run up my spine as if the actor were dancing a jig over the top of a my grave from the other side of the room. But just as quickly as he became this demonic presence, without any sort of pretense or showiness he is suddenly the quiet, refined professional I had met a precious few minutes earlier. It the type of transformation, the type of sudden shift in tone and of perception that Smiley himself is dealing with inside the story, and it is a facet of the performance and of le Carré’s story not lost on either of us.
“It is something of a love story, isn’t it?” asks Oldman with a grin. “Smiley has to examine his own, which is probably something he doesn’t usually do, or at least something he hasn’t wanted to do before, making him something of a masochist in a way because it’s clear many of the others in the Circus have been doing it to him for ages. If he were to sit on a therapist’s couch now, in this day and age, they would probably say to him what are the things you think of when you think of love he’d say stuff like loyalty, fidelity, warmth, caring, understanding; all of these things that come under the umbrella of love. He’s not getting any of these things, he’s in an inappropriate relationship, and yet he’s asked to put these people under a microscope and give them just the sort of minute going over that’s he’s never been able to do inside the context of his own life. It’s a weird kind of love, a weird kind of living; maybe that’s sort of what he things he deserves.”
There is a certain sequence in the film I’m eager to talk about but loathe to spoil, and I can see Oldman’s eyes light up as he knows exactly where I am going. It is a scene where the actor is forced to take center stage in a way unlike any other the movie has presented up until that point, giving him a gigantic monologue pivotal to deciphering the mysteries to come but also could have stalled the picture out in a way it never could have recovered from. It all rides on Oldman, on his delivery, and had he not been capable of pulling the scene off it is doubtful he’d have Oscar buzz swirling around him or that we’d even be talking about the project now.
“You’re right,” he agrees without hesitation, “the success or failure does ride on your shoulders. But I don’t think you think of it like that as it would be kind of obscene if you did when you were coming to do it [the film]. But it is unusual, to be something like 40-something minutes into the movie, especially in this type of genre, and have a scene like this one. If someone were to have like an eight or nine minute monologue is something like say, Beginners, you would kind of accept it, it would just feel like part of the milieu already created by the filmmakers. But to do it in this movie, to do it in this genre, I wasn’t sure how it would work.”
“But [director Tomas Alfredson] was insistent that it would work, that this was how he wanted to do it, that he didn’t want to go to another flashback. But it was almost like a set piece, like a piece of theatre, just me talking to someone sitting in an empty chair and I wasn’t sure it was going to work. You have to trust your director, though, and you have to trust your own talents, and I think in the end the scene does work. It gives you a real clue into who Smiley is. I think Tomas pulled that sequence off brilliantly and, more importantly, it sets into motion everything that is going to happen next. It’s sort of like jazz, you build to the solo, and it is a lovely role and a lovely film in that way.”
As he’d brought him up, I can’t help but turn the focus of our conversation towards the Swedish director and Oldman’s thoughts as to what it was like working for him. Most known for his chilly vampire thriller Let the Right One In, Alfredson wasn’t the most likely choice for helming a le Carré thriller, and yet after the actor met with him he knew instantaneously he was the perfect fellow for the job.
“He’s very warm,” explains Oldman. “I loved him at first sight; I just adored him. I thought I could easily spend three months with this guy. He runs a very quiet set, but he’s got a great sense of humor and he’s a delightful man. How does he compare to some of the others I’ve worked with? He’s up there with some of the great directors I’ve worked with, he’s on their level for certain, but he’s got a quiet confidence about him that when we were doing certain sequences helped me immeasurably.”
“When we were doing a scene towards the end of the movie when I am sort of zeroing in on the moll, there’s a sequence where I listen to everyone arriving and he directed me much like he would a silent movie actor; now the car is pulling up, now you hear the door open, now they’re coming up the stairs, that sort of thing. But I always imagined that he would shoot, as most directors would have, all of those things happening; the car pulling up outside, the key going into the lock, the footsteps coming up the stairs. But he said no. He said he’d just shoot a close-up of me, that he’d only use the sound effects. He was insistent, that he would just shoot me, and it’s flattering and inspiring that he thought I could hold the screen like. He instills confidence in an actor, in everyone he works with, and that’s the mark of a great director in my opinion.”
John Hurt, director Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman on the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy © Focus Features
And where does Oldman go from here? Does he see more George Smiley in his future?
“We’re making Smiley’s People,” he says with a proud smile. “It looks like it’s just about confirmed. It’s the third book and it’s a great story, and I hopefully will return as Mr. Smiley. As characters go, playing this one has been a joy, and with Tomas onboard returning to inhabit him again isn’t a difficult decision at all.”
As we’re walking to the door, this talk about favorite characters gets me thinking. Is Oldman surprised at all as to which of his characters have entered the public lexicon, which ones have people quote at him as he’s walking down the street?
“Certainly,” he grins. “All the time. The Professional is the one that seems to be more popular, people throw quotes from Stansfield at me all the time. But Drexel, the pimp from True Romance, I can’t believe how popular he remains e, the applause he gets whenever they do clip reels showcasing some of my past performances. People just love him for some reason.”
As we shake hands and say good bye, I chuckle, mentioning how a few friends had wanted me to ask Oldman if it were ‘White Boy Day,’ wanted me to check that with him as if it were the most important question I could possibly ask.
Oldman laughs for a moment and then suddenly, just like before, no longer is it an introspective Brit standing in front of me, no longer am I speaking to George Smiley. It’s Drexel with all his fury, all his range and all his perversity. “You bet it is!” he stammers withy ferocity. “It’s White Boy Day. You tell them that from me!” And, with that, Oldman, shrinks back to himself, gives me a sly little grin and tells me to have a pleasant afternoon.
- Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle