By Richard von Busack
Gary Oldman was in town to promote his lead role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (showtimes here) as John le Carre’s smaller than life mole-hunter George Smiley. Oldman is tightly focused, shrewd and emotionally dark, giving a rich performance that spins off of the tense and touching work he’s done in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as the troubled Jim Gordon, or as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series. It’s hard for a man looking at Smiley not to want his intentness. At the same time you’d dread being in his gaze. He's the model of the indomitable inquisitor.
As Oldman has assayed numerous evil characters—Dracula, the mutilated Mason Verger in Hannibal, even Satan—you’d expect an edge on him. And as he’d made an extremely brutal autobiographical film about a London childhood—1997’s Nil By Mouth—you’d expect an urban impatience in the actor. Oldman came from a bruising neighborhood, New Cross, which could count in its history the worst V-2 strike in England during WWII, and‘70s riots against the fascist National Front.
Once again came the surprise of the difference between persona and man beneath. I didn’t expect the kind of almost contemplative meekness I saw in the Nob Hill hotel room. He’s the kind of gentleman who puts “Begin the Beguine” on the ringtone of his mobile phone.
METRO: I was looking over your credits, and it’s astonishing to consider the number of the roles you’ve done
OLDMAN: They’re very kindly honoring me at the Gotham Awards. I was just going over the list of films with the editor: two minutes can’t put it all in. But it was interesting, because I’ve maybe seen the films once or twice since I made them. I don’t revisit them.
METRO: Not even when they show up as you’re changing channels on TV?
OLDMAN: Occasionally, I see myself, yes, but I don’t watch old work. But seeing these clips reminded me of all the different incarnations, watcing it in ten minutes…
METRO: What kind of doubts did you have about playing in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?
OLDMAN: The biggest one was the shadow of Alec Guinness. For lots of people, he’s the only Smiley, from those two BBC series, even though Anthony Hopkins, and James Mason and Denholm Elliott all played the part. Guinness was such a loved actor, he had been away from acting for a while—he was doing it less and less, and he was nearly 70. And then you know it was the first thing he’d ever done on TV, so he was terrified of the close-ups on the small screen. But he became the face of Smiley: you couldn’t think of Smiley without thinking of Alec Guinness. I was concerned the comparison would be overwhelming, that people would wonder who the cheeky fucking sod was who could fill his shoes.
In the end I came around the idea of thinking that we reinterpret classics many times: Romeo, King Lear...I approached it as a reinterpretation of this character.
METRO: I didn’t think of Guinness much, watching you. Maybe Edward Fox. I was a slave to the original series, watching it on installments on KQED, and I thought the new angle on Tinker Tailor was exciting: instead of middle-aged men cutting each other down to size with their tongues, more of a focus on the results of their games: the blood and the pain they cause.
OLDMAN: I’ll have to revisit the original. It’ll probably turn out that I thought I remember it better than I do. I remember it as a cozy show, British and nostalgic. Ours is a little crueler.
METRO: Can you describe the England in which this takes place?
OLDMAN: What we see is the very crumbling of the Empire: the England of old tweed suits, Brylcreem in the hair, and nicotine stains. It's the very beginnings of tech, still an analog world. And Tomas was under no temptation to compete with Bond or the Bourne Identity. It’s still very much the beginning for the new school coming in: “The Circus” was MI-5, it is now MI-6, a whole new school of thinking coming in. George Smiley is the chief deputy to Control, the head of the British Secret Service. Smiley is also a suspect to Control, of course he respects him, that’s the way he works…
And the way of thinking for both men is that the way you proceed is that you go to your source, revisit the source…again, revisit the source. And they’re faced with this new source of Soviet information, code named “Witchcraft” which is so against how they would work.
METRO: Do you remember that time well?
OLDMAN: I was less aware of that sort of Cold War and the Soviet threat. I was the age where the chemicals in my body were all rearranging, and for me it was all about soccer, David Bowie and girls.
METRO: You ended up playing the most famous of the punk rockers in Sid and Nancy. Did you have a favorite punk rock band?
OLDMAN: I ended up playing Sid Vicious, and I got a new appreciation for the Sex Pistols. But at the time, I was Motown fan, James Brown, and Bowie. I was into a bit of the glam rock.
METRO: So were you conscious of the sets on Tinker Tailor or did it feel a bit like a bit of time transport?
OLDMAN: (Softly) It felt like flashbacks, once you were on those locations with the great job Maria Djurkovic has done on the design. Actors normally appear in what are called “period pieces”. And you’re either in the future doing some sci-fi thing, or in a period piece wearing a suit of armor. But it was a very strange thing to be in a period piece of a time you remember, and you’d pick up a prop: a pack of cigarettes or a chocolate bar, or a train ticket to Oxford, and think, god damn, that’s what those things used to look like! So it was strange. Once you had been there working for an hour, it was like a time machine, it just felt like you were back. Here I was with different clothes and certainly a different body, but…I was in 1973. Funny feeling.
METRO: Really good production design can give you a turn. Watching Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm for example, where you can look into the frame for what seems like three blocks and see nothing that doesn’t look like the mid-1970s. With all of the work you’ve done, I wondered if there was any that you felt was particularly neglected.
(Oldman, quite unrecognizable in 2001's Nobody's Baby )
OLDMAN: Oh, the David Seltzer film Nobody’s Baby—it didn’t get a release and it went straight to DVD, I’m fond of it. I think my work was good in Scarlet Letter. There’s some films you hope people never see.
METRO: And yet with the amount of work you’ve done, you must have to feel the odds are with you that’ll be good.
OLDMAN: Well, I don’t revisit the work much.
METRO: You’ve excelled at playing demonic characters, or rather people with demons in them. What tips would you give an actor trying to play such parts?
OLDMAN: I think you always have to find—eh, you have to like who you’re playing, and if you’re playing some grotesque, deplorable character, you can’t judge them. You can’t bring your morality to it and you have to find something that’s redeeming. I’ve played outsiders, and that’s what makes great drama. Lear is an outsider, that’s where the drama is.
METRO: Last question: since you’ve been acting for some years, has your opinion of the work of some actors changed? You’ve mentioned Malcolm McDowell as a favorite. Who else, now that you’re older?
OLDMAN: There’s certainly a lot more people on the list now than there were. You do get obsessed with actors. When I was starting out it was Tom Courtney, Albert Finney and Alan Bates, Malcolm was closer to my generation. McDowell meant a lot to me as a young man because of that delicious mix of menace and vulnerability. I think he did all that tremendous work in If… and A Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man! and then directors just didn’t know what to do with him.
Today, I have an odd mix of favorites, it’s quite eclectic. I love James Stewart and Cary Grant, I’m a huge fan of Robert Redford and I’m obsessed with Chaplin. Post my drama school years, it was Hackman, De Niro, Pacino… the years went on and I caught up with enough film that my appreciation of John Wayne has changed—of what he does and how he does it. When you’re a practioner, you get a sense of how bloody hard it is. I wouldn’t call acting hard work, but you get a real appreciation of what those guys did.